Empire Coffee Roasters was my thesis project for the MFA Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts program at Columbia College Chicago.
Empire Coffee Roasters is a tactical media project that demonstrates how media distorts the economic and social realities of coffee production. The project comprises a functional roasting company that sells coffee and branded merchandise, advertises online and in print, and operates a certification program to acknowledge real world coffee companies who share Empire’s values. These values are a pointedly exaggerated version of the specialty coffee industry’s fixation on transparency, and Empire’s absurd and offensive media shows how far from transparency these practices truly are.
Yet, as a carefully studied exaggeration of everyday advertising practices, Empire’s media reveals to viewers how the specialty coffee industry is rife with commodity racism and questionable advertising practices. Empire Coffee Roasters demonstrates how today’s coffee trade is indelibly marked by colonialism and slavery, and likewise that advertising practices and media representation have advanced little since the days of European imperialism.
The project offers viewers multiple opportunities for participation, from buying coffee to nominating companies for a certification. These mundane tasks are manipulated so that any participation prompts critical thinking: the coffee blends reflect which empire colonized and introduced coffee to each origin, and the certification praises companies whose media betray imperialist attitudes. These twists not only further the project’s message of social and economic inequity, but promote healthy skepticism in viewers’ future interactions with real companies and their media.