As jaded as New Yorkers might be about, well, almost everything, it’s not hard to lure them to an event when clever cocktails are involved, as curators at The Museum of Modern Art learned recently. When the museum started publicizing an event called “Psychological Cocktail Services – Theory and Practice,” facilitated by the Spanish artist Paco Cao, the class, which was priced at $100 for museum members and $150 for non-members, sold out within two days. That was in February. Since then, two additional sessions of the class have been added, both for April — one tonight, and one on April 24th, and again, both are sold out.

Cao says people can call it performance art if they want (the museum doesn’t; it’s listed in MoMA’s schedule of classes), but he considers Psychological Cocktail Services a logical evolution of his body of work, which, he says, consists of “prolonged projects of time and space and interaction–often intense–with the spectator.”

Cao isn’t a mixologist, exactly, and the cocktails he’s serving at MoMA aren’t necessarily avant-garde in terms of ingredients; he has a fairly basic bar set-up with standard liquors like rum, vodka, and gin. But it’s the concept and the experience that lead up to the stirring, shaking, and serving of the cocktails that make the class so intriguing for those who sign up to take it.

We met at MoMA a few weeks before his first class to talk about the development of Psychological Cocktail Services, the intersections of alcohol and art, his own drinking habits, and his fascination with food. Here are some excerpts from our hour-long conversation over rosé and sparkling water.

Find out what Paco Cao likes to drink, next…


TLK:Let’s start with the concept of “Psychological Cocktail Services.” Is this an artwork or is this a service?

Cao: Well, the answer isn’t a simple one…. Many of my projects position the spectator as a client. So [Psychological Cocktail Services] is a service, but from an artistic point of view. In its structure and its model it is a service. Ultimately, it is a combination of the two. But to be faithful to the project, it has to be presented not as a work of art, but as what it is: a service. I like to call things what they are. But the problem is when you’re an artist providing a service [like this], it gets pegged as “performance.” I don’t use the word “performance” because it’s very abstract: it can be everything and nothing at the same time. Psychological Cocktail Services is not abstract. You [the participant] are served a cocktail that’s based on a questionnaire that’s rooted in psychology.

TLK:Do you have any training as a mixologist or bartender?

Cao:No. When I start a project, I take it very seriously. I don’t pass myself off as something I am not or say that I have training that I don’t have. But that’s not to say that you don’t learn as you go along.

TLK:So what is the experience like?

Cao:The service here at MoMA will consist of three parts. First, there’s a tour of some of the museum’s works, specifically, the galleries that are dedicated to vanguardists of the first three decades of the 20th century. In that tour, my job is to provide context, not only about the works, but also about the environments in which they were made and the elements that influenced them, in particular the role of bars and cabarets as meeting places for artists and [alcoholic] drinks as a form of [creative] stimulation. Then, there’s the questionnaire. And then, the cocktails.

TLK: And what are the ingredients in the cocktails you serve?

Cao:It depends on the client. The ingredients are determined based on the results of a questionnaire they take [after the gallery tour]. I don’t speak with the client about what their drink preferences are; the drink is based solely on the questionnaire. The experience is very intense. I have to review the results of each participant’s questionnaire, decide on a drink, and then give instructions to the bartender [Cao works in collaboration with at least one bartender at each event and usually has up to five other people assisting with service].

Next, find out what Paco Cao keeps in his bar…


TLK:What’s in your bar?

Cao:The basics. Vodka, rum, gin, whiskey. The usual mixers any bar has on hand for classic cocktails: Angostura, orange juice. I ask beforehand for the ingredients that the bar [or site] has already, and if I think there’s something that needs to be added, I request it.

TLK:Do you like cooking?

Cao:The truth is, I like everything. I have a general curiosity about everything in the world and about human relationships. And in the case of food, it’s one of the most important ways people relate to one another. I have an enormous interest in the kitchen and in food. I am super conscious about what I eat and I value culinary culture tremendously…. Actually, I have another service: “La Cocina Psicológica,” which is even more intense than Psychological Cocktail Services. I offer a questionnaire to those who are going to have the meal, and I design the menu based on their answers. Cocina Psicológica is still in the development phase; it’s not something I’m promoting like Psychological Cocktail services. The experience is even more structured and requires more planning than the cocktails, but the concept is the same.

TLK:What are your thoughts about the elevation of so many chefs today to “star” status?

Cao: Well, chefs of exceptional skill have always been renowned- think back to the days of the French court. But what I’d really like to see is a chef of that level making food that’s bueno, bonito, y barato. That, to me, seems like a challenge no one has really taken on yet.

TLK: Do bars still seem like important places for artists today?

Cao:Definitely. In this city, in particular, they’re fundamental. Think about the artists of the Pop Art period; there’s always a bar or nightclub mentioned as a point of reference for the key artists of a given movement or period.

TLK:And do you have a favorite bar here in New York? [Cao, who is from Spain, has lived in New York for 19 years.]

Cao: No. I go through phases and stages. Sometimes I’m really into bars where there’s dancing and sometimes I’m into much more exclusive, Manhattan bars with amazing views. Right now I’m between the two. I’m more into the bar as an anthropological experience — not with respect to the people who are there, necessarily, but about the bar itself. Maybe it’s because of the Psychological Cocktail Services, but I’m looking at the business of the bar: how it serves its drinks, what kind of drinks it serves, that sort of thing.

TLK: Do you have a bar in your home?

Cao: No. I might invite friends and make cocktails, but I don’t have a bar. I think it’s too dangerous. Look: working with paint isn’t the same as working with alcohol. If I had a bar at home, I’d have to experiment. But if I did have a bar, I’d want it to be a cart-style bar designed by Alvar Aalto [a Finnish designer] in the ’30s. Then I’d buy all the glasses. And the very last things would be the liquor.

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