Popping out for a cuppa can be full of surprises during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. At least it can down at Hunt and Darton Cafe, the pop-up cafe opened for thr entire month of August by live artist double act, Jenny Hunt and Holly Darton. Last year, the St Martin's College of Art graduates ran the place on St Mary's Street dressed in pineapple decorated outfits with a sense of style and wit that made it the ultimate drop-in centre.
Inside the cafe's vintage environment, our two hostesses and occasional guest waiting staff would serve basic but carefully prepared meals, snacks and drinks with a meticulous sense of customer care. Some days would be themed, with customers being asked to serve each other, or else asked if they would care to choose a record to play on an old Dansette. Each financial transaction would be carefully marked out on the wall in chalk alongside details of the outlay for supplies. At the end of the week, the total profit would also be marked up. In the evening spontaneous happenings would occur, with the entire month-long experience one non-stop performance co-ordinated by Hunt and Darton, with the customers playing key roles in the hands-on interactive experience.
This year, Hunt and Darton cafe has returned to the same empty shop, only with a new menu, new vegetable inspired outfits and an even fresher take on the participatory experience.
“It's evolved a lot since last year,” says Darton. “We've developed a lot of what we do in the cafe, and we have a lot of new things happening, like a health and safety day, and have a point of each day, such as austerity.”
“We'' be wearing brocolli this year as well,” Hunt chips in. “We've got these amazing brocolli print dresses we'll be wearing.”
Another addition to the Hunt and Darton Cafe programme is a set meal for a mere five poinds. These will be served on a silver trolley, after which “things happen,” as Hunt puts it.
The roots of Hunt and Darton Cafe came from a sense of pragmatism rather than pure desire.
“We've always had alternative careers in catering to fund our art,”Hunt explains, while Darton points out that “It developed organically. We were interested in the relationship between food and art, and also in trying to close the gap between audience and performer. When we do stage work there's always a distance, so we're developing trying to close the gap.”
“Every time we work together we understand it so much more, hunt continues, “so now it'ds becoming much more immersive, and much more about embracing the customer experience.”
All of which sounds akin to a twenty-first century equivalent of Gilbert and George's early living sculpture routines, only with bags more sass as well as artistic integrity. This is especially the case given that some of the guest artists who will perform in the cafe in the evenings include refugees from the Glasgow-based Buzzcut live art festival, as well as the likes of Arches and Forest Fringe regular, Richard DeDominici.
What if, however, a casual customer goes into the cafe and just wants a cuppa and a cake without any side order of live art and refuses to join in the fun?
“The majority of them are incredibly positive and do join in,” according to Hunt. “There are people who just want a cup of tea, and it's our job to try and negotiate that. We're not aggressive about it, but we are assertive.”
While in residence in St Mary's Street, Hunt and Darton will also be presenting a more formal show entitled Boredom. As the name suggests, the performance looks at the highs and lows of tedium in all its forms.
“It's the opposite to what we've been doing with the cafe,” says Darton. “We're performing it in a guerilla style, and it's taking us back onto a stage.”
While they won't be working as many hours as last year, Hunt and Darton will need to be 'on' for the entire day, tea-breaks permitting.
“We do fibnd ourselves doing a lot,” Darton admits, “We both really enjoy durational performances, and this year I think we're doing duration for duration's sake.”
Hunt puts it simpler.
“We're aldso workaholics,” she says.
Hunt and Darton Cafe, 17-21 St. Mary's Street (Venue 172), until August 25th, 10am-5pm; Boredom, August 3,6,8, 10, 13, 15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 10.30pm.
The Herald, August 20th 2013