Art meets science in the human coffee room
Updated: May 18
Artists create worlds most rare and expensive coffee as an ethical affront to civet coffee.
For the past two years, anthrozoologist Jes Hooper (founder of the Civet Project), and art duo Meri Linna and Saija Kassinen (of Harrie Liveart) have been collaborating to form a transdisciplinary exploration of the internationally renowned coffee product kopi luwak (civet coffee).
Comprising of a scientific paper, a video performance, and a series of visual artworks, the 'Human Coffee Room' was a key focus of the art duo's first solo exhibition, held in March 2022 at Forum Box Gallery, Helsinki. The Human Coffee Room's main attraction was the display of 80g of the worlds first human coffee, coffee produced through the digestive systems of the artists.
The human coffee combined methodological praxis of the arts, humanities, and biological sciences, to investigate the ethics of bodily mechanisation and faecal commodification as endured by Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), a small nocturnal mammal from Southeast Asia, from whom the rarest and most expensive coffee in the world is said to originate.
Since Western demand for civet coffee has increased, palm civets have been commodified as they are now kept in cages as livestock. The animal welfare implications of civet coffee farming have been widely scrutinized by animal charities. To best understand the processes and ethics involved in the commodification of the civet digestive tract, the art due have been working closely with the Civet Project whose anthrozoological perspective brought theoretical underpinnings from philosophy, animal ethics, and animal behavioural ecology. The team then recruited the help of biological scientists from the University of Brighton, UK, to assist in the analysis of the human coffee beans via Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) imaging, the latter of which is the focus of the forthcoming scientific paper and several of the exhibition artworks.
Human coffee demonstrates how multiple species are part of complex worldmaking and also points to the ethical problems inherent in civet coffee’s production and the methodological issues associated with its authentication process. In speaking of the motivation and process involved in creating Human Coffee, artist Saija Kassinnen explained:
“We were troubled with the notion that normally faeces that are considered disgusting are suddenly holding the status of a luxury product and people are willing to pay a great amount to get it. We wanted to understand this contradiction, but we did not want to be part of civet exploitation in any way.
As performance artists we are accustomed to using our own bodies as a research platform and by knowing our shared similarities to civets as possessors of mammalian digestive systems, we attempted to understand the world making potential of multi-species bodily entanglement through the human digestive tract. This also gave us a chance to investigate people’s attitudes to a new blend of coffee that is produced through the digestive tract of their own species and what other ethical issues this may bring”.
The authentication process of civet coffee is also subjective, expensive, and time-consuming making civet coffee vulnerable to food fraud. When the SEM imaging results were compared to previous research on civet coffee beans, both human coffee and civet coffee were found to possess structurally altered properties after passing through a digestive tract. Although not the only method used to authenticate civet coffee as unique compared to non-digested varieties, SEM analysis is the most widely cited method of authentication amidst the civet coffee industry.
In addition to it's unique physical properties, civet coffee is also commonly quoted to be the rarest coffee in the world with only 127kg available per year, despite much more than this being sold as 'genuine' on the international coffee market. At a total 80g availability, however, Harrie Liveart's human coffee is now the world’s rarest coffee. It was always a fundamental aim of the experiment for the artists to compete with the exclusive status of civet coffee with the artists creating as much as physically possible before inducing illness from the coffee digesting process.
Following a lecture on the collaborative process and the ethics of civet coffee held by Jes Hooper and the art duo Harrie Liveart at Forum Box on the 21st March, 20g of Human Coffee was entered into an online auction. The quantity for sale at auction (20g of raw human coffee beans) was the equivalent to one cup of brewed coffee for which civet coffee typically reaches prices in the region of $50 USD. The Human Coffee sold for 540 Euro ($566 USD), making it the worlds most expensive coffee which supersedes civet coffee's claims.
In speaking about the research and product significance, anthrozoologist Jes Hooper commented:
“Civet coffee, produced through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet, is a cruel practice. As a nocturnal and solitary mammal, civets suffer greatly from their enrolment in capitalist systems.
Our research into human digested coffee has shown that civets may not be unique in their ability to alter the structural properties of coffee, and so even humans can produce similar results to the civet digestive system. These findings are crucial, not only in undermining the status of civet coffee as a luxury product based on its unique physical structure, but in producing what is now the world’s rarest and expensive cup of coffee, Harrie Liveart have reduced civet coffee’s exclusive status.”
Whilst the exhibition has now come to a close, having received critical acclaim from art critics as "artistic research at it's best", the artists will continue to place the remaining 60g of Human Coffee for sale in 20g portions in the coming months. The transdisciplinary collaboration is also set to continue as the art-science team plan to run further chemical tests on the human coffee for a full analysis and comparison to civet coffee.
More information on the collaboration can be found on the project pages here.