In a good recipe, it’s all about putting ingredients together in a complementary yet revelatory new way.

Same goes for Spatula&Barcode.

Spatula&Barcode is actually UW-Madison profs Laurie Beth Clark and Michael Peterson, whose legendary Madison food parties and collaborations in the kitchen have led to some deliciously strange and enlightening international encounters. From Europe and Africa to South America, the couple have paired food and ideas, hospitality and adventure, in their own unique flavor of art.

Yes, art. Spatula&Barcode is a performance art collaboration that grew out of the kitchen and big ideas about generosity, human connection and fun. Later this month, Madison will get to sample some of its fare through the 2013 Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

The prestigious Triennial exhibition, which opens at MMOCA on Saturday, will feature works by 35 individual Wisconsin artists and five pairs of artists working in collaboration. Those artists include established names and emerging talents from across the state, working in painting, photography, multimedia, textiles, wood, video and more.

Spatula&Barcode’s only presence at the museum will be a small café table with a sign-up tablet for their artwork, “Café Allongé.” Over the next three months, “Café Allongé” will feature more than 250 intimate table-top encounters at coffee shops throughout Madison, with the goal of making art out of social interaction.

Café Allongé is a French term for an espresso drink made with a slow pull of water through the finely ground coffee.

“So you end up with a larger drink than an espresso,” Clark explained. “The idea of espresso is that you throw it back. The idea of cafe allongé is that you sit down and sip it.”

The public will be invited to participate in “Café Allongé” (pronounced ah-loan-jay) by signing up at the project’s website,, to meet with a performance artist. The only requirements: Show up on time, and buy at least a cup of coffee at the hosting coffee shop.

“In every case, you are meeting one other person for coffee,” said Clark. “That’s always the structure” of “Café Allongé.”

Beyond that, every encounter will be different, with all of “Café Allongé’s” 16 participating artists presenting a unique work to the stranger across the table. Artist Bird Ross, for example, will bring props to create “(Very) Tiny Table Top Theatre” with her coffee companion at The Victory, 2710 Atwood Ave. The artistic team Quan Barry and Michael Velliquette will present a new era of tarot cards in their piece at Electric Earth Cafe, 564 E. Washington Ave.

UW-Madison art professor Doug Rosenberg will host up to three other men age 50 or older for a breakfast titled “For My Father,” at Mickie’s Dairy Bar, 1511 Monroe St.

Rosenberg “is interested in the way his father used to go to breakfast and sit around with ‘the guys’ when he was a kid,” Clark said. “And now he’s his father’s age and wants to sit around with ‘the guys’ and sort of reproduce that experience.”

Spatula&Barcode first presented “Café Allongé” in Montreal in 2011, bringing with them many of the same Madison performers who will be in this year’s show. Clark and Peterson made the contacts with Montreal coffee shops and set up the Web interface to invite the 600 people at the theater conference they were attending, along with the rest of the city.

“Montreal, like Madison, has this amazing coffee shop culture,” Clark said.

Two years later, putting “Cafe Allongé” together in Madison’s varied coffee shops “has been just terrific,” said Peterson.

“I think a lot of the positive response we’ve gotten has been from owners or managers who already think of their cafe as a creative place, and really saw only an upside to being part of this creative thing,” he said.

“I really like the idea of the project filtering out into Madison — that by January, there will be a few hundred people out in Madison who’ve been to a performance art in a cafe and have a mug from us and a story to tell about an odd encounter with an artist.”

MMOCA director Stephen Fleischman said that Spatula&Barcode’s “Café Allongé” fits “seamlessly” into the Wisconsin Triennial, which is filled with work “that is relevant, layered with meaning, and reflective of current, global directions in contemporary art.”

Spatula&Barcode have been examining the boundary between art and life since the collaboration began in 2009. Clark and Peterson started with a manifesto declaring that at least once a year they would do a project “to make fun occasions more serious and serious occasions more fun,” Clark said.

“We gave very elaborate dinner parties for the first 20 years of our relationship,” she said.“We had always questioned what was the border between the artwork we were making and these elaborate parties.”

For the next 20 years of their relationship, they decided, they would explore that question.

Much of their work has been international. In Morocco, Spatula&Barcode connected people from around the globe via an Internet cafe. In Germany, they conducted walking picnics through the forest based on tales by the Brothers Grimm. Back home, after getting a grant from the Mellon Foundation, they hosted a gathering with foods made from 32 kinds of — yes — melons, each located in a different part of their house.

“You had a guide to take you to the different melon locations to have a different melon experience” in each place, Clark said.

In creating Spatula&Barcode the pair picked a “silly” name, Peterson said, with “spatula” referring to something homemade and “barcode” implying “a certain amount of tackiness.” (Let it be known that “Nobody is Spatula and nobody is Barcode,” clarified Clark. “A lot of people ask us that.”)

Clark, 57, grew up around food and cooking (her cousin is New York Times food writer Melissa Clark), but Peterson, 49, only took up the avocation — especially bread-making and home brewing — after he met Clark in 1990. Today the two also keep chickens and raise bushels of vegetables outside their home on Lake Monona.

As Spatula&Barcode, they are able to keep things light-hearted even as they do serious academic work at UW-Madison, Peterson said. Art professor Clark’s ongoing project “Ossuary” was inspired by the repositories of bones left after mass killings. She is also writing a book about visits to trauma memorials such as concentration camps and Ground Zero.

Peterson, a theater professor, is currently studying the portrayal of cruelty, specifically torture, in performance.

“We do this heavy, serious stuff as academics,” he said, “so we feel we just have to give ourselves license to enjoy life with people.

“It’s really important for us to have that kind of outlet, and I think we’ve also come to appreciate the kind of positive social meaning to just having fun. Having coffee with someone is so fun.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.