Coffee Talk Inspires New Art

Coffee Talk Inspires New Art

You never know where a conversation might lead you.

Last September to December, Madison artist Angela Richardson staged a performance art series at Café Zoma. She gave thirty one-on-one shows over cups of coffee, gleaning personal stories and jotting down notes on paper.

She’s taken the experience and remixed it into artwork for Charming Interrogation, a new Absolutely Art exhibition at Café Zoma.

Richardson was kind enough to answer a few questions about both shows.

What was SPILL?
My performance piece, SPILL, was one of sixteen works by different artists commissioned by Spatula&Barcode for their Café Allongé series in Madison Museum of Contemporary Art‘s 2013 Wisconsin Triennial. Set in coffee shops all over Madison, these were intimate performances given for audiences of one. Over many cups of coffee and the course of four months, I did SPILL thirty times for thirty people. The piece invited participants to pour their hearts out over a cup of coffee at Cafe Zoma. It played with the push-pull needs of privacy and disclosure. We want to have our stories heard but sharing them makes us vulnerable. To take that risk is often difficult and scary but can also be rewarding and beautiful. SPILL explored all of that.

Here’s the description of my piece from the ‘menu’ for Café Allongé: “Allow yourself to be drawn out as the art of conversation gets literal. A mug in your hand, a pencil in hers, you’ll collaborate with the artist on a portrait of your own mind. Allow her to trace your memories, outline your ideas, and make a quick sketch of the moment. Will your thoughts and words inspire an accurate study? Or might you be … entirely abstract?”

As I had conversations with audience members, I simultaneously made text drawings to document the thoughts and words exchanged.

What were your intentions for that performance series and what was it like carrying it out? Were you surprised by anything that happened during the events?
As I said, I wanted to play with the reveal/conceal seesaw of conversation. I was also interested to investigate how the ubiquity of required disclosure (for example, “Enter your email address for full access to this site’s content”) increases our tolerance for invasions of privacy. To that end, I began by asking participants to answer questions as I filled out a ‘required form.’ The questions began mundanely—name age, birth date, address—but became increasingly probing and absurd in turns. I used bureaucratic procedure in the piece to be playful and make fun but also to question and comment critically upon the inescapable collection of our personal data.

Certainly, I was surprised and heartened by people’s willingness to be so open with me. During the performance, I tried to give of myself in the same way. I was amazed at the depth of intimacy that was generated with strangers (and acquaintances) over the course of just one hour. People shared so many of their stories and thoughts with me—childhood tales, personal challenges, their passions. It ran the gamut. To sit across the table from someone, look into their eyes and share your secrets is such a different and lovely kind of disclosure than that which we are often subjected to in the everyday. We are so much more than any amount of data harvesting will ever reveal.

Zoma was a fantastic host and a perfect setting for this piece. I’ve been a regular there for years and so I have a nice familiarity with the space, staff and patrons. It was fun to perform there again and again. Sometimes I noticed people eavesdropping—which is part of the point of doing it in a café—and other times folks approached me afterward to ask, “What in the world are you doing?!”

How did SPILL inspire Charming Interrogation?
From the beginning, the plan was to collect all sorts of material—information, stories, drawings, et cetera. Creating artwork from that original source material of the conversations was a natural next step. I wondered, ‘What materializes when idiosyncratic language and personal stories become the material for visual art?’

Please tell me about this new show and the artwork you’ve created for it.
For this show, gleanings from those conversations are reshaped into cryptic, cursive text drawings and computer-mediated prints. Strangers’ stories now return to the site where their telling took place! Eventually, the drawings from the thirty conversations will be altered and assembled with the prints to create an editioned artist’s book.

What is it like to take strangers’ stories and turn them into your own work?
It’s a huge privilege to be trusted with people’s stories this way. Of course, I’ve taken every care to maintain participants’ anonymity. The work is also quite abstract. Revisiting the material collected was very moving. All of the wonderful conversations we had came bubbling right back to life for me.

What have you learned from working on both of these projects?
It’s reaffirmed my belief in the power of face-to-face contact and the simple pleasure of intimate conversation. Nothing can replace that. We’re all longing for connection. Given the opportunity, we tend to reach out generously.

It’s also taught me that there’s a limit to how much coffee I can (and should) drink in a single day!

What do you hope viewers get from seeing Charming Interrogation?
Well, I hope that SPILL participants see themselves reflected somewhat in the artwork. Others may or may not recognize the depth of content that the images represent. Every viewer brings his/her own meanings and associations to work and my show is no exception. I hope that the prints can be enjoyed purely as imagery as well.

What’s next for you?
I have work in a group show, a/systemic: intersections, dislocations, and subversions, curated by MMoCA’s Leah Kolb coming up at Mana Contemporary in Chicago. My piece is a letter-writing project called The Office of Transcription, Translation, and Transmutation. I’m also halfway through an MFA degree in the Art Department of UW–Madison, so graduate school keeps me very busy.

Charming Interrogation runs tomorrow through March 2. Visit Café Zoma and Absolutely Art this Friday, 5 to 9 p.m., for an opening reception. For more information, visit

Photos of artwork courtesy of Angela Richardson; photo of Richardson by Elizabeth Prose.