Visual Arts: Hunt & Darton Cafe, 100 Regent Street
Gabrielle Schwarz reflects on this uniquely delicious art installation
by Gabrielle Schwartz
Tuesday 8th May 2012, 14:07 BST
On May 2nd, the ‘Hunt & Darton Cafe’ opened its doors in the previous empty space of 100 Regent Street, Cambridge. But the conventional café exterior belies something extremely different. Hunt & Darton are in fact a ‘live art duo’ participating in an extended series of projects entitled the ‘Live Art Collective East’, and the café, which is only open until the 27th of May, is as much an art installation itself as a culinary enterprise.
It would be impossible to review every detail of the space, in which each mundane object normally found in a restaurant is presented as a work of art (salt and pepper shakers balanced on a transvestite Ken toy doll, receipts bearing personalised messages, specially designed loyalty cards) alongside more explicit specially commissioned art pieces such as the ‘Survival Shelf’, a growing stack of books with titles containing variations of the word ‘survival’. Such interactive installations, which search to push the boundaries of traditional definitions of art spaces, are fun to explore, but nothing particularly new. At the Hayward gallery in London, Jeremy Deller exhibition ‘Joy in People’ featured a piece entitled ‘Valerie’s Snack Bar’ (2009), a replica of a greasy-spoon café in Lancashire, where visitors could order a cup of tea. While the novelty of the piece was enjoyable, its artificiality in the gallery setting felt a bit off. In stark contrast, Hunt & Darton seem to have fully embraced the method school of acting and take their role managing a functioning business seriously.
One artwork entitled ‘Please Wait to be Served’ by Helen Stratford adopts the form of a menu and subverts its contents with a highly witty series of instructions on ‘how to perform a café’, ranging from a warning against offloading too many personal woes onto the waiter, to recommendations on the best way of eavesdropping on another customer’s conversation. From this perspective, the artworks simply become a part of a highly stylised atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of a quaint countryside tearoom combined with witty self-conscious irony.
From this point of view, the venue is well worth a visit. However, for the customer who likes their chocolate crispy cake accompanied with a generous dollop of artistic analysis, there is also plenty of potential to explore the more meaningful side of the project. Much of the project seems to revolve around the idea of commodification and the potential for transparency in business, such as one of the largest pieces, an enormous blackboard on which is chalked every single item in the café’s inventory, a table detailing their profit margins and an on-going tally of the number of ‘covers’ who have walked through their doors. Finally, there is a section with space for ‘complaints’ registered: at the time I visited, there were only two, one questioning the legality of the blackboard and the other requesting that an orange chair be cleaned.
While on most days Hunt & Darton will act as your servers, they have also invited a selection of contributing artists to wait on the tables. When I visited, I was served by Rachel Dobbs- one half of collaborative live art duo ‘Low Profile’. Stuck onto to her stylish red dress was a white label on which was written ‘First-Day Nerves’. I was reminded that the ‘waiters’ are in fact performers playing a role, and that the ‘café’ is in many senses not a café but a stage filled with actors. It’s a performance, and like all performances it must come to an end, so go see it before its run is over.