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Paco Cao is one of the most in-demand cocktail creators in the world. Except that he doesn’t actually make cocktails — he conceptualizes them. Through a series titled “Psychological Cocktail Services,” Cao has roamed the globe — Spain, Mexico, Italy — facilitating audience-inspired libations at museums and hotels. Cao is far more than a bespoke mixologist. A revered artist, he thrives on interactive projects, taking audience participation, chance, and outside inspiration to conduct quirky and often provocative exhibitions.
Now, he is bringing his bartending production here to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, 212-708-9400), where he will teach two (possibly three) sessions for Big Apple clients. We chatted with Cao about what to expect at MoMA, what inspires his work, and why he chose cocktails as the medium for his latest project.
So how does a Psychological Cocktail Service work?
Clients fill out a questionnaire, and according to their answers, I’ll prepare a specific recipe for every client. This time I will be using some of the works that are on exhibit in the main galleries at MoMA as inspiration. I’ll be mostly focusing on the avant-garde moment in Europe. I will share an introduction with the participants about bars and nightclubs and drinks in that specific period. Cafés were very important for those artists because it was a way to socialize. And then I will talk about how I develop the cocktails and build the questionnaire, and at the end we will have our cocktail service so the participants will better understand the practice.
What is the difference between your project and bespoke cocktails?
There’s a big difference. First, my questionnaire is not just about how you feel, it’s more elaborate. And the second is the process of making the cocktail. After I get the questionnaire I have to make the recipe. To make the service fluid, with good rhythm, I collaborate directly with a bartender who makes the cocktails. When I do this, I’m usually in a public space and I have to be extremely focused. I’m making about 40 cocktails in an hour.
The difference for the customer is subtle. Either way they get a cocktail. But there is an artistic intention behind the process. I’ve been dealing with projects that involve direct interaction and reaction of an audience. For example, years ago I did Rent-a-Body where I was renting myself out. I did a public look-a-like contest based on art that incorporated public interaction and participation.
Each time, I have the intention of connecting directly with the audience, having immediate and direct response with the audience.
Why cocktails? Are you a trained bartender?
I’m a regular client, I like to drink…[laughs] not heavily, recreationally. Cocktail-making is a big thing and professionals take it very seriously and it’s very experimental. Every time you make a cocktail it is experimental. I didn’t go to school for mixology. I didn’t go to school for art either. Experimenting is the best way for me to learn. Every time I work with a mixologist I learn a lot.
Do you know the bartenders beforehand?
Usually no, but we connect. I meet them the day of the session, but we have to be really focused and in direct communication, and we need to go really fast.
How do you develop the questionnaires?
That’s a good question. I don’t have a background in psychology but I’m very curious. I have a formal education in art history. Research. Lots of research. Over the last two years I’ve been exploring and trying to figure out which questions will really tell me the psychological identity of the person who answers the questions and how to really choose the right liquid, or mixtures, or salt or earth or whatever I use. I keep evolving the questions, and I have this tendency to change some questions depending on the country or the town so people can better relate. If I have a question about artists or authors, maybe in Italy they’re famous but in another country no one knows them. The questionnaire’s nature is what I enjoy the most and it’s the most challenging part. And at MoMA I’ll have the chance to explore the nature of the questionnaire in a new way, and most of the questions will be based on the collection. I’ll deal with pop culture and symbolic questions, and I don’t know what kind of audience I will get. Some will have a lot of art knowledge and others won’t. And I’ll have to find a balance.
And one other thing that is interesting here is that in all my previous projects I’ve never previously worked in the area I was exploring. I’ve had no context. What I like about these projects is they allow me to explore these worlds in an unexpected way. When you’re not a professional in those businesses, what you do is different, and that’s what catches people’s attention.
Paco Cao will be teaching two sessions at the Museum of Modern Art in February and April. They are both sold out and a third session is potentially in the works to accommodate a long waiting list. But do not fret — Dr. Cao performs around the world on a regular basis. To follow him and his projects, check out his webpage: pacocao.com.