Instant Coffee – The Party’s Over by Rosemary Heather

Instant Coffee, Disco Fallout Shelter, 2009, Concept collage
Instant Coffee, Disco Fallout Shelter, 2009, Concept collage

“For both Manet and Baudelaire, can their invention of powerful models of modernist practice be separated from the seductive and nauseating image the capitalist city seemed to be constructing for itself?” [1]

                                                                                                Thomas Crow

At first, I couldn’t understand why Instant Coffee would deep-six itself into a Fallout Shelter. Their motivations for doing this seemed rather obscure to me. Weren’t bomb shelters a thing of the past? The millenialism of the gesture a little late?

A garden today more readily evokes narratives of sustainability. Whatever the state of contemporary geo-politics, there is hardly a nuclear winter on humanity’s horizon.

When I asked IC’s Jenifer Papararo about this she averredthe tale told here was a happy one, it may be “a dark fairytale…but, we are together, even under fallout.”

Ah, survival. So IC sees its future to be much like its past.  Improbably succeeding, setting the agenda. Outwitting and outlasting and the competition. Still here. Ha.

And if the terminus point imagined seems a bit grim, well, artworks are never only about the artists that make them. Implicit to Instant Coffee’s Fallout Shelter project is a larger narrative about the fate of all utopias.


Now clearer that my first impression had been too literal, I remembered that I had always kind of misunderstood what IC was trying to do. And I was not alone in this.

Severed from work done in a specific medium, the zone of representation is a tricky substance from which to hone an art practice. This is especially true if you hardly bother to—or deliberately avoid—differentiating what you do from representation’s more mundane existence as the language of commerce.

Perhaps, too, because of the collective’s proven ability to anticipate the forms of their ongoing relevance which is on pace with wider art world trends, but may be a little in advance of their audience, the Instant Coffee project has always been somewhat misunderstood.

Throwing parties will do that to your reputation; enjoyment, for some reason, is one of the more hypocritical realms of human experience.


The art show as party was the original format of IC-engineered inclusivity. In the collective’s own words, creating event-based exhibitions was a way to “renegotiate…traditional exhibition structures”.  In the process, they jettisoned outmoded medium-specific hierarchies of the more traditional exhibition venues.

Self-reflexive about their own role as facilitators of art experiences, IC recognized the important part that brand identity could play to formalize the collective as a framework of possibility. Cannily adopting the language of globalism, IC staked its territory as a “service-oriented artist collective.”

The claim is funny in itself.   Self-aware and proactive, it lives up to the ideal of truth in advertising, yet partakes of the peculiarly Canadian preoccupation with being nice and non-threatening.


To embrace a plurality of practices means to embrace the plurality of artists responsible for them. And at the point of this connective tissue, we find the core Instant Coffee ethic. Not only were collective members party people, they were people people too.

So, for instance, in early incarnations, Instant Coffee’s parties and their predecessors — Jin’s Banana House and the Money House — used the device of the slide show to provide an easy format of participation for all invited, artists and non-artists alike.

Instant Coffee, Disco Fallout Shelter, Toronto Sculpture Garden, 2009
Instant Coffee, Disco Fallout Shelter, Toronto Sculpture Garden, 2009

A practical approach to curating contemporary art, Instant Coffee’s democratizing strategy was also a way to contend with the difficulty of assigning value to artworks. This is a problem, one of positively diluvial proportions, that follows in the wake of post-minimalism.

Increasingly, when de-skilled and neo-conceptual, the possible in contemporary practice has become difficult to differentiate from the necessary.

IC’s brand-defining rhetoric energetically addressed this predicament. Starting with their name, Instant Coffee (i.e., the ersatz version), the collective declared itself a non-arbiter of value. Taste, they contended, distracted “from the fundamental reasons for ingesting either the real thing or its substitute.”

The above excerpt from IC’s manifesto—which has served as the collective’s credo throughout their career—suggests that artworks are a medium of social interaction, and in some cases a mere pretext for it; an idea which has subsequently played out in the contemporary art world at large.

In Instant Coffee terms, the figure of ‘the party’ was the refuge—and the metaphor, perhaps—for the demotion of the curatorial role. To explain the circumstances they saw themselves operating within, the collective chose an ironic voice…

Instant Coffee. No Better Than You… Instant Coffee: it doesn’t have to be good to be meaningful…

…creating a ground ripe for misapprehension; but that, too, was part of the act. Those observers who took the IC party for the main event were missing the point.

Because inventing an art scene that accommodated and gave validity to the activity of your peers was a kind of utopia – symptomatic, maybe, and expressive of a wider condition — but a utopia nonetheless.


It is possible to characterize ICs commitment to inclusion as a practice of extreme courtesy, an idea that is fully in keeping with the collective’s ethos. Which is why their Toronto Sculpture Garden project is a departure in more ways than one.

With the inception of the Instant Coffee Disco Fallout Shelter, the question arises as to who now is being served? For the outside observer, a look into the sculpture’s video kiosk reveals the collective to be inside the shelter hanging out; business, for them, as usual.

But six people living cramped together in an underground space what kind of paradise is this?

By choosing to sequester only IC’s immediate members, and by making an artwork out of that decision, it is as if the collective has devolved into real personalities.  They have become the artwork.  It is a hard won conclusion to this story—or at least this chapter of it.  The IC Disco Fallout Shelter probably has always been IC’s inevitable destination.


[1] Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture, Yale University Press, New Haven and London (1996) p. 3.

This text was written to accompany Instant Coffee’s commission for the Toronto Sculpture Garden in 2009.

One thought on “Instant Coffee – The Party’s Over by Rosemary Heather

  1. Thank for your post. I agree with the ideas that “inventing an art scene that accommodated and gave validity to the activity of your peers was a kind of utopia – symptomatic, maybe, and expressive of a wider condition — but a utopia nonetheless”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s