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Features / May 7, 2009

Instant Coffee: Gimme Shelter

Instant Coffee Disco Fallout Shelter 2009 Installation view

“Get Social and Get Saved”: That’s the latest cheekily provocative directive from artist collective Instant Coffee, whose Cold War–inspired sculptural environment Disco Fallout Shelter opened this week for a summer run at the Toronto Sculpture Garden.

On the surface, the work comes off as a pop-culture kitsch version of the classic 1950s-era nuclear fallout shelter with its winding yellow-brick path, mirror-lined pink doorway and disco-ball mosaic satellite dish. But the entrance is locked and, as bass beats from party music rumble underfoot, it becomes clear that there’s much more going on with Disco Fallout Shelter than meets the eye.

Instant Coffee is well known for its relational aesthetics approach to art-making, in which loosely defined social scenarios invite an art experience that blurs the boundaries between artist, participant and viewer. With Disco Fallout Shelter, the group has purposely turned the tables on that all-inclusive mode of working. Instead, the locked doors and mysterious subterranean workings are designed to be overtly exclusive. Sounds emanating from below ground suggest that the spartan interior of a bomb shelter has been transformed into a signature Instant Coffee party centre. This time, though, the catch is that only members of the collective are invited to the artful merrymaking. Viewers can “participate” via an above-ground video kiosk showing (pre-recorded) footage of members “playing records, eating spaghetti, dancing, reading, sleeping and just hanging out in the tight confines and under the protective barrier of shelter.”

While that means some of the fun of Instant Coffee’s past interactive experiments is gone, Disco Fallout Shelter may leave a more lasting impression. On one level, its “glitz-up and powder-coated” form defuses any lingering fear of Cold War threats. At the same time, the work digs into deeper issues. By restricting access and controlling participation, Instant Coffee seems to be questioning the existence of their own social practice within the mutually inclusive-exclusive politics of the art world itself. Insider or outsider, perhaps only the socially strong will survive? (115 King St E, Toronto, ON)