When I was asked to propose a new learning format to MoMA, I suggested a café because I wanted to create a social space where meaning is made in dialogue, where objects can be touched, and where visceral knowledge is honored.
Exchange Café is a social space dedicated to exchange, from unconventional encounters to barter and reciprocal economies. What follows is an explanation of some principles of the café, and the ways in which these principles could be extended toward a more engaging visitor experience at MoMA.
1. Waitstaff as Educators
At MoMA Studio: Exchange Café, visitors are greeted by waitstaff with direct experience working in, with, and for solidarity economies. Educators are waitstaff with lifelong commitments to the topics at hand—Exchange Café waitstaff Lauren Melodia and Tychist Baker are organizers for Milk Not Jails; Kenneth Edusei is an organizer for participatory budgeting in Brooklyn; and Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Forest Purnell, and Carla Aspenberg are artists engaged in practices of reciprocity. Education happens in lived experience, through dialogue that connects artworks to activism and community organizing.
Imagine that every time you walked into MoMA, you could elect to speak to a community organizer about the relationship between real-time organizing and the issues at stake in the artworks on view. Imagine if the interns, fabricators, and artists who made work could be hired as stewards for the work while it was on view, talking to the public about the construction, materials, and dialogue surrounding the work itself.
2. Education through Dialogue
“Because the nature of Dialogue is exploratory, its meaning and its methods continue to unfold. No firm rules can be laid down for conducting a Dialogue because its essence is learning—not as the result of consuming a body of information or doctrine imparted by an authority, nor as a means of examining or criticizing a particular theory or programme, but rather as part of an unfolding process of creative participation between peers.” – David Bohm, “Dialogue: A Proposal”
Exchange Café takes the social format of a café, taking the embodied roles and rules of a café as a space for learning. Greeted by waitstaff with direct experience in the topics at hand, visitors are led to consider artworks that focus on one-to-one agreements, artists who facilitate engagement in short-term encounters or long-term relationships of reciprocity.
On the Exchange Café wall, the Exchange Archive acts as an emergent publication about one-on-one engagement, inviting contributions from the public. From artists who facilitate unconventional dialogue to artists who consider the barter of goods and services (the labor of producing a project) as integral to the meaning of the work, the Exchange Archive makes legible a desire for one-on-one interaction in MoMA’s collection and beyond. For example, Huong Ngo, Or Zubalsky, and George Monteleone’s ongoing project, the Dream Machine, asks anyone to “call the dream machine (1-877-877-5602) and leave a voice recording of your dream. It calls you back in about 15 minutes and plays a random dream from its memory.” Impossible to experience without a contribution, this project represents a network of anonymous reciprocity.
Online, TheExchangeArchive.com (made by the MultiAgency Collective and myself) shows connections between projects, artists, and ideas, revealing the ways in which artworks emerge in dialogue between people, not in solitary isolation. As we state: Artists do not create work in a vacuum. Artists work in a dialogue with other people, so the Exchange Archive supports further artistic dialogue by showing the inspirations that flow between projects. As a research database for projects about exchange, the online archive serves as a footnote system for research-based artists. What if museums made legible the people, ideas, and materials that surround exchange-based work today, highlighting connections between works as the primary focus, rather than individual artists?
3. Food with an Agenda
At Exchange Café, visitors are offered products with political biographies: tea carried across borders, milk distributed by prison abolitionists, and honey gifted by bees. Imagine if museum cafés and food-art projects served products with principles as radical as the propositions in artworks. Rather than providing a social space with anonymous products that do not get biographies—as Martha Rostler did in veiling the staff contributions to Meta-Monumental Garage Sale and e-flux did with the farm contributions to Time/Food—I wanted to bring in groups with edible projects that honor the relationship between art and solidarity economies: dairy from Milk not Jails, tea from the Feral Trade Courier, and honey from BeeSpace. Exchange Café celebrates the power of these products; they are logical extension of the propositions that artists in the café’s Exchange Archive reveal.