Perhaps you came across a provocatively titled article in the Guardian recently? It took aim at the ‘homogenisation’ of privileged spaces across the globe, in particular, coffee shops. With their chalkboards, unadorned light fixtures and ‘raw wood’ tables, this aesthetic can apparently be found all over the world and seemingly composes a monolithic cosmopolitan blend of nothingness that generates an offensive form of ‘fetishized austerity’. The aesthetic is termed ‘minimalism’, and article author, Kyle Chayka, has written quite hotly on it for the New York Times and The Verge.
The minimalist scourge is a silicon valley ideology that aims at nothing less than the total destruction of human identity.
I am not writing this in a minimalist coffee shop, although tbh, I wouldn’t complain if I was. What could I possibly have to complain about? Minimalism eliminates aesthetic markers of political struggle by attempting to remove all traces of the aesthetic in itself. It is an oppressive blankness.
But it also contains a liberatory potential. With apparently so little to attach identity to in these places, we are enabled to consider who we are or would like to be with minimal interference. In such spaces, ‘you are not the identity consumed by a unique coffeeshop, you are a unique identity consuming in the coffeeshop’. Here, it is possible not to be persuaded by powerful branding or meticulous quirk because the space is so positively blank, it is a place (or ‘non-place’ in the words of Marc Augé, as quoted in the NYT article) that happens to sell coffee, and does so without having to make a song and dance about who it is to do just that.
However, we can’t escape the reality that these spaces privilege those with the money and time to spend on drinking coffee in them, this much we shouldn’t forget. If our public libraries offered similar services at their usual rates, it would be a much fairer landscape.
Mind you, does hitting the aesthetic reset button really allow for the proliferation of multiple autonomous identities, or does it serve only to reproduce its dominant non-brand of sameness all over again? Well, this probably depends on whether or not you feel a desire to post a picture of your trendy coffee on the internet.
What strikes me though, is that it seems as if the coffeeshop, as described in Chyka’s article, is coming to increasingly resemble the feature-limited interior of a contemporary art gallery. However, rather than having paintings and sculptures filling its space, the art that inhabits it principally consists of the people inside. They form a fluid installation that you could watch from the outside, though it wouldn’t do you much good for looking. The space contains an ever-changing participatory work, and so to fully appreciate its aesthetic requires that you be part of it. This aesthetic lies in accordance with Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of ‘relational aesthetics’, whereby whatever happens inside the space and between the people, (in the relations formed therein), is what constitutes its unique aesthetic.
But this must be taken a step further so that it includes our ‘online’ relations as well, hence why it does not make for the most thrilling of spectator events. This is to correspond with the online performances that many of us find ourselves involved in on a daily basis. We are constantly producing (or reproducing) social relations in ‘real life’ through digital media, and for this, the homogenous coffeeshop provides a suitably blank background, or canvas, on which it can happen. On this basis then, whilst a lot of coffeeshops do look similar, the differences between what happens inside them can be more or less aesthetically complex (and therefore interesting) than others. This could be rephrased as, ‘It’s the people that make the place’.
But anyway, I’m not so sure about whether some of these homogenised spaces are so homogenous after all. We still find marginal points of friction within them: flyers, leaflets and posters for events and organisations clash with one another on a windowsill, and these signify life beyond the space itself. They hint at a future of difference, filled with unique experiences brought into the static, ‘comfortable’ arrangement of a ‘homogenous’ coffee shop. In the Guardian article, which plays up how this phenomenon is driven by ‘hipsters’, these important cultural nuances are eliminated from analysis. The good ‘hipster’ coffee-shop, I would contend then, is a site for the valuable exchange of information on top of its identikit servings of food, drink, wi-fi, and the means of autonomous identity production. This can come in the form of the aforementioned cultural ephemera, but also in the independently produced free-sheets or zines specific to any given city or district, once again beyond the space of the shop. This I will tentatively refer to as the ‘actually existing scene’, which poses a contradiction to the idealised identity-free space of a trendy coffeeshop and creates the kind of conflict that, for my yelp’s worth, makes a venue worth exploring.
Then again, whatever, this is all just probably the fault of hipsters again, isn’t it?
– Words: Lil’ Iterate