Xtine Hanson has never seen the Simpsons episode in which Bart strolls through a mall as every store becomes a Starbucks, but she can relate. In the summer of 2004, visiting New York for an art exhibit, she and a friend walked around the city's Soho district, hoping to sip some joe in one of its legendary hipster coffeehouses. They never found one. Everywhere they looked, there was a Starbucks.
The trip annoyed Hanson. She's a Long Beach resident and loves that her city hosts indie coffee shops on seemingly every other street (one of her favorites is Portfolio Cafe, off Fourth Street and Cherry Avenue). So when she returned to California, Hanson set out to create an art piece that would attack the Seattle-based corporation's Borg-like presence. She enlisted the help of a student at the Art Institute of Orange County in Santa Ana, where she's a professor, and spent the next six months designing a website that would allow people to find independent coffee shops. That site, Delocator.net, debuted in April 2005 and quickly became an Internet phenomenon, receiving more than 2 million visits in the first two months and positive write-ups in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Agence France-Presse and the popular BoingBoing blog.
Part of Delocator's popularity is attributable to its simplicity: type in a ZIP code, and the Delocator spits out a list of independent coffeehouses within five miles. Like Wikipedia, the list is produced by the site's visitors. As a playful reminder of Starbucks' omnipresence, Delocator also provides a parallel column of Starbucks locations in the same region.
Though Hanson herself is lighthearted, the site's tone is doctrinaire. “By comparison of numeric quantity and site-specific detail,” it reads, “the viewer/searcher will see evidence of the unchecked aggression and power that corporate businesses have in our communities.”
Hanson isn't surprised by Delocator's popularity. “Starbucks is a very polarizing cultural entity,” she says. “A lot of people love to love it, or love to hate it.” Hanson chuckles about the time she received an e-mail from a lawyer who claimed to represent Starbucks. The Seattle-based company was angry that Hanson's website included a logo that parodied Starbucks' iconic green goddess of caffeine.
“They didn't want me to sell items with a likeness to their logo,” Hanson says. “I'm not looking to make money off the site. But are you kidding me? You have copyright to a circle?!”
Hanson is planning for Delocator's second phase with the help of UC Irvine arts professor Beatriz Da Costa. By the end of February, they hope to include a cell-phone version with options for independent bookstores and movie theaters. Hanson and Da Costa will make the code for the new sites public, in the hope that people around the world will create their own indie-seeking search engines.
Hanson calls Delocator “a cultural critique, a practical tool and a semantic joke.” She's worried about the decline of mom-and-pop shops as corporations expand and created the verb “delocate” to describe her efforts.
But is it art—or a new dot-com business plan with Google-like possibilities?
“My mother is the most practical person I know,” says Hanson, who was raised in upstate New York. “To her, nothing matters if it doesn't do something for you. I adopted that influence. That's important for me as an artist, to engage with people who aren't going to be in a gallery.”
She does allow that Starbucks isn't necessarily sheer evil. “The case has been made that because of Starbucks, there's a wider avenue or platform for the independent coffeehouses to stand on,” says Hanson, who once worked at a Berkeley Starbucks for six weeks. “And for a lot of people, Starbucks represents high culture. It represents the city, a cosmopolitan way of life. It represents that even for people who live in the city. They offer stability to society at large.
“But it's a seduction game,” Hanson adds. “There are people who like something mechanical. I personally want a human cup of coffee.”
And for the record: Hanson gets most of her Orange County coffee from the staff room at the Art Institute because “it's free.”