Café created as installation art

Olivia Bobrowsky

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In the basement of Kresge Hall, down a short hallway strewn with empty file cabinets, collapsed tables and an extra bulletin board, past the bathrooms and the mechanical room, is room K1-430. The handwritten sign on the door reads: “Trade what you’ve got for a cup of coffee. (And then stick around for a while.)”

Rachel Cali, a freshman theatre major, traded a song. On Friday, she stood up in the tiny room and performed “Greensleeves,” an English folk song, for the 15 or so people lounging in the space.

Andrés Carrasquillo, a Weinberg junior, wrote a short story. He asked for three words to base it on. Upon the suggestions of “Russia, a girl and a leather belt,” Carrasquillo wrote about a mail-order Russian bride.

Amy Pooley, a SESP sophomore, recited a poem she wrote in the eighth grade. She titled it “Boys Suck.”

The three stuck around for a while. Cali settled into a folding chair and created some more art for the walls. Carrasquillo sat opposite Cali with his free coffee and worked on his story. He hung up the first two pages. Pooley just socialized. She spent the day mingling with students who relaxed on yellow armchairs, a checkered floor pillow and a few throw rugs.

Among the room’s occupants were Chelsea Bruck, Kyle Tidd, Kristyn Armour and Claire Anderson. The four are students in an art installation class, and the “new student center” is their final project – a cafe that offers coffee in exchange for items or expressions of “whatever you value.”

“You have the option of throwing a dollar in the jar, but it’s really not as meaningful to us as telling us a secret or sharing a fact or a story,” said Tidd, a junior who studies art theory and practice and comparative literature.

The venue, dubbed K1-430, is not so much about the coffee as it is about the community and the feeling of unity and comfort in that 13-by-17-foot space, said Anderson, a Weinberg sophomore. One of their main goals was to create a multipurpose student center in a more relaxed environment than Norris offers, she said.

But the space belongs to the art department and cannot be claimed for the entire year, said Armour, a Weinberg senior. For now, the cafe is open until Dec. 2, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

“We’re just trying to make a statement against the fact that Norris seems to be so money based,” Tidd said. “Norris kind of feels like an airport terminal.”

Sophomore Jordan Stopak-Behr agreed the atmosphere is markedly better than Norris’.

“It’s more casual because the business aspect is taken out,” said Stopak-Behr, a theatre major who traded a “Cadoozle” pencil for his coffee. “I think it’s a sweet idea. We could use a student space that’s totally the students’, with no oversight.”

Armour said she and Tidd have wanted this for months, but it didn’t become a realistic possibility until this fall, thanks to their installation art class. They realized they could rent the space about three weeks ago, joined forces with Bruck and Anderson and proposed the idea to their professor, Michael Rakowitz, last Monday.

“There’s a kind of history of works that I was presenting in class that deal with creating environments where people would convene,” Rakowitz said. “Any work that enlists the public as collaborators in the production of meaning is always really exciting.”

The project was very much self initiated, and Rakowitz acted only as a springboard for their ideas, he said. The students worked out the logistics themselves.

Tidd, an employee of Unicorn Cafe, acquired a donation of discounted coffee from the owner, and Pete Miller’s, Bruck’s employer, donated another 5 pounds. The expenses are minimal. Tidd said he spent $40.80 on the coffee and Armour gave about $20 for coffee mugs and a carafe.

“It sounded like an interesting concept,” said Tracie Dahlke, 28, owner of Unicorn Cafe. “I like how it’s here and then it will be gone, sort of like an etch-a-sketch.”

Still, the students are not discounting the possibility of turning this into a long-term project.

Armour said she was worried that students might go to the cafe once, barter for coffee, feel like they’ve participated and then never come back. But if interest is great enough, and it appears to be, they will look into alternative spaces to house the cafe in the future.

“Once it’s gone, people might actually miss it and still talk about it,” she said. “Its impact could be much longer than we expected.”

Cali said she would support the continuation of the project. “I want to have it all the time,” she said as she taped a drawing to the wall. “I like those little cafes off campus, but I like that this is a student run place for expression. If they extend it I will definitely come back.”

obobrowsky@u.northwestern.edu

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