Projet de recherche, financement RCDAV 2017–2019
Haute école d’art et de design – Genève
Café Pipe (Blow Job) vs. Café Cunni
In the beginning of 2018, the owner of a brothel in Geneva, not without cynicism, opened the Café Pipe (which essentially translates as “Café Blow Job”), stating that it was a means for a man to associate two major pleasures in life, coffee and fellatio. The initiative created a buzz that transcended Swiss borders. At the same time, the #MeToo phenomenon was unleashing a worldwide wave of positive actions such as the women’s strike of June 14, 2019 in Switzerland. As a result, in March 2018, our team joined together with around twenty students to launch the rumor of the opening of a “Café Cunni” in Geneva.
Caroline Bernard and Damien Guichard, Heder Neves, Aurelien Mabilat, Catherine Brand (Visual Communication Assistant)With the Visual Arts students information/fiction option and the Visual Communication students, February–March 2018.
Under the supervision of Jérôme Baratelli
At the beginning of 2018, the Café Pipe (“Blow Job Café”) opened in Geneva and the transgressive nature of its concept made it an international topic of discussion. The owner of the Café Pipe offered men a chance to bring together coffee and sex. Onsite, the bar was set up so that the “hostesses” could practice fellatio on clients as they drank their coffee. In Switzerland, sex work is legal and relatively structured. The hypothesis of the Café Cunni was born, not of an opposition to sex work, but as a reaction to the cynicism that surrounds it. In the beginning of 2018, it had been a few months since the #MeToo movement had galvanized and reconfigured feminist struggles the world over. Along with a group of visual communication and photography students from the Haute Ecole d’Art et de Design in Geneva, we launched the Café Cunni within a climate of the liberated expression of women. This operation was a response to the buzz around the Café Pipe, created to initiate a dialogue on feminine sexual pleasure. The idea was to announce the imminent opening of a place dedicated to the sexual pleasure of women, offering cunnilingus among other paid services. The idea was to infiltrate social networks and create debate where it had seemed previously to be absent. We sought to transcend cultural, social and political divides, and free ourselves from “filter bubbles.” We worked to establish the credibility of this upcoming opening through the creation of visuals, events and a dedicated website, and set ourselves up clandestinely as a group to increase the spread of rumors. Beyond the humoristic aspects of the experiment, the hypothetical existence of such a place had political and social repercussions. This thematic coalesced the issues surrounding both masculine and feminine sexuality, access to sex working by women, and the position of women in society.
Performed Design: Carving Out One’s Share of the Flow
The creation of visuals, events, and a website with dedicated pages lent plausibility to the existence of the Café Cunni. This graphic design must, even so, be active by playing upon the dynamics of social networks. The expression “performed design” is used here in both senses of the word “performance.” As is the case in the professional world, it alludes to the attainment of excellent results, as well as the achievement of that thanks to a comportmental action that is sometimes more akin to artistic performance than design.
Contrary to traditional media, on social networks, messages are relayed from person to person. Thus, the message must have conversational qualities that prompt the netizen to share it or appropriate it. These viral qualities are extremely specific; often whether a message remains invisible or, on the contrary, goes viral hinges on very little. Unlike our experiments on abstentionism, here we work as a group (made up of our team in tandem with around twenty students), much in the mode of a young startup, with a dynamic similar to that of the launching of a company. To lend credibility to the idea of the upcoming opening of the Café Cunni, we created a website, a Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts, all with a strong visual identity. We then reproduced this visual identity in a series of media, from posters and flyers to candy wrappers, in order to provoke exchanges with the public, both in the street and on social networks.
Café Cunni’s response to the cynicism of the Café Pipe was in counterform. It was in line with an aggressive strategy which they copied and adapted. In fact, the entire aim on a graphic level was to create suggestive and sensual visual communication to counter the brutality of the images of the Café Pipe. Macaroons, fruits with a bite taken out of them: visual codes associated with gourmandize were mixed with allusions and affirmations related to the proposition.
Despite this, this design project was not enough to stimulate virality. We needed to activate these visuals, assemble a group to blitz the social networks and implement artistic strategies adapted to network response or lack thereof. Sometimes, our approaches more resembled performance art than graphic design. We speak of performed design, a design that resembles both connotations of the word performance: performance in the sense of the level of excellence of an expected result and performance in the artistic sense. Thus, in order to obtain visibility and encourage likes and comments, we needed to activate visuals through taking on roles, that of the witness, the person passing along information. In our experiments on abstentionism, the designer places themselves at the heart of the message, incarnates it even, and becomes its standard-bearer. Here it was a matter of working the field: the group activates the circulation of the message and maintains its level of topicality by multiplying the formats in which it is presented (GIFs, contests, posters in the street, the Women’s March). It was imperative to move forward with a certain amount of clandestinity in order to effectively infiltrate social networks. Without that support, any institutional or corporate messages would immediately be scrapped. André Gunthert explains that one of the powers of virality is the way in which it participates in the election of content by elevating it to the level of cultural capital whose value is based upon the collective attention it elicits: “This new culture is based upon an opposition to institutional authority. Logically, it opposes itself against all those who possess a portion of that authority such as teachers, journalists, or political officials.”
He goes on to insist upon the message’s ability to be appropriated: it must be easy to copy and possess certain stylistic qualities such as having “the capacity to generate attention, being easy to imitate or transpose, also be fairly stereotypical, exemplary, comic, and pertinent to current events, […].” According to Gunthert, the conversational qualities of the image enable one to “reinvent the everyday” through the appropriation of visual language. Consequently, the theoretician perceives that these tools of connectivity provide the user with the possibility of appropriating content in order to reinvent their own universe. The reception of our Café Cunni amply attests to this. By remaining the “official” emanator of the message, that is to say by announcing ourselves as the Café Cunni on an official webpage, our viral aura was very limited. We had to distance ourselves from the information and pass it on to second party witnesses for dissemination. Accordingly, each person in the group announced the opening of the Café Cunni as if they had heard the information from a friend, or had seen a poster in the street or a café. So we made headway, not as the Café Cunni group, but rather as a series of individuals who were attesting to a phenomenon. Thanks to these covert techniques, the information began to circulate, relayed by means other than that of the business itself. Within a few days, the rumor spread over the entire region, including by physical word of mouth beyond social networks. The press ended up coming to us: we were contacted by the media outlets Le Journal Indépendant des Genevois and Le Temps. We were trending on an upward curve until, unfortunately, the newsgroup 20 Minutes uncovered the truth, on March 9, 2018.
Fake News: Does the End Justify the Means?
Masking one’s identity, circulating rumors, creating fake news: all this raises ethical questions for the designer. Do the ends justify the means? Do we have other options? The clandestinity in which our team operated gave us the ability to disseminate information more widely. Are false rumors merely a tool like any other?
As designers, an ethical question is raised when one passes along fake news. It is legitimate to launch a fake news campaign in order to elicit debate, even if it is to raise social awareness as a good citizen? The challenges today are well-known: making oneself heard and creating a space for discussion amidst the incessant chatter of information flow and atomized worlds of social networks. During elections, some political parties use groups of trolls to circulate information, concealing the fact that they are directly working on a mandate from the party. This type of campaign is often of an extremely virulent nature. Over the last few years, fake news has become a weapon of mass discredit, notably in countries like the United States.
Here, the issues are obviously less dramatic. Although we acquired enough credibility to receive applications from men who wished to become employees of the Cunni Café, we had no electoral aims. Nevertheless, the hypothesis of the opening of the Café Cunni did not seem like enough to stimulate reactions, and simply posing a direct question such as, “Are you for or against the Café Cunni?” would not have had the same effect. It was only the confrontation with the possibility of the imminent opening of the establishment that elicited debate.
The issues related to such as experiment is not so much one of buzz for the sake of buzz, but rather that of creating a space for discussion, of pushing boundaries, creating a space where it is possible to express new ideas. So, we opened up discussion about equality by publishing the news among communities of women on pages generally dedicated to makeup and relationship advice. This ability to interact with surfers on pages not dedicated to social questions attests to a certain porosity of social networks. A debate can be initiated anywhere, on condition one finds points of leverage. When we began the project, we thought that the success of LOLcats on social networks was a mark of the public’s disillusionment with social causes. The answer is not so Manichean; it is rather a matter of undertaking to recreate a new space for debate amidst a flow of information that is largely regulated by platform algorithms. It is not so much that social causes, but rather traditional forms of debate, that are neglected, be it through the media or institutions. What is more, our exchange with sociologist Thierry Bardini led us to humbly reconsider our position and not be too quick off the mark to declare which causes might be socially conscious ones, and which publics might not.
Apart from the questions of hygiene that often preoccupy surfers, the message created, albeit of clearly commercial content, immediately provoked reactions of a social and political nature. We worried about having to contend with a mostly offended public and were forced to conclude that the discussions centered around questions of the equality of the sexes. One netizen spoke of a mirror, saying, “they will finally understand what that does.” Namely, what it means to be at the heart of the sex worker system, to the point of being taken for a commodity of consumption, and what it means to be unable to discuss feminine sexuality, etc. The project filled a void and provided fodder for the debate on sexuality, which until then had been considered to be unequal. Just like a real startup, we began to wonder if we should not actually open up such a place!
A Speed-Dating Soirée at Café Cunni
The project drew to a close on March 27, 2018, with a soirée themed around questions of sexuality, featuring politically committed women, activists, sex workers, editorialist, sex therapists, etc. The public was given the chance to exchange freely and without taboos on a variety of topics regarding sexuality and women’s pleasure in a non-academic forum based on the premise of speed-dating.
Café Cunni Speed Dating, Café L’Ivresse, 27 March, 2018, 8PMViviane Morey, founder of the Fête du Slip (Underwear) festival, Lausanne, editorialist, PovPaperColine de Senarclens, activist and feminist columnist Vanessa Langer, anthropologist and sex therapistClaudette Plumey, sex worker, Aspasie Association
The evening was a sort of polyphonic performed conference, with a series of short declarations related to hashtags taken from an alphabetized directory created by our team. Thus, the public moved from one table to the next, and at each had ten-minute discussions on various themes with our guests: “A for #Aaah”, N for #Need, O for #Orgasm, S for #SexWorker, etc. Our guests formulated a typology of commitments, both cultural and social, around female sexuality. The speed-dating format resembles the dynamic of social networks, it is borne along by a series of punch lines, within a short temporality. It was logical to conclude the experiment with an exchange with the public that would not be constrained by any form of academicism.
An Atomized A to Z of the Café Cunni
A continuously evolving A to Z was created at the speed-dating session of the Café Cunni on March 27, 2018. It provided an occasion to match new words with definitions, which were often too restrained and narrowly oriented.