Entering the room, I’m met with the sensation that I’ve either interrupted or am now included within a performance art piece, which, I suppose, I am. Amongst mist and a real turf floor, several guests sit at wooden tables and chairs. A man writes in his journal. A teenager meditates. Two women speak so quietly over glass cups of tea that I’m convinced they’re only pretending.
I take a seat, and try to absorb what exactly is going on. Wistful piano chords play from the speakers. I’m in a low ceilinged, surprisingly spacious room. Despite the wide, glass shopfront, I feel like I’m in a scaled-up rabbit warren. The sweet, damp smell of grass is evocative in a way that leaves me spouting clichés: It’s like kicking up cut grass at dusk.
Lampshades hang from a metal grid on the ceiling. They periodically drip water into jam jars set out around the tables and chairs. No-one seems to bat an eyelid as water splashes over the glass’ edges. To one side of the room, metal shelves support retro televisions screening shots of clouds against a blue sky. Stuffed birds cling to blossom cuttings in bell jars.
Behind a counter, a tall bearded man in an apron brews tea. Behind him, a green neon sign glares: THE WEATHER CAFÉ. Mist temporarily obscures him. He spots me, then comes over to my table to give me a pair of headphones, a booklet, and a menu of the curated teas. Each tea has a fey name and a whimsical, weather-related description. I pick one that promises to revive me.
I put on the headphones and hear brief audio recordings of several voices. It soon becomes apparent that these are the experiences of the marginalised. I hear tales of ageing and discrimination and thoughts ranging from the trivial to the existential. A stroke-victim stutters. An elderly woman expresses her distrust of hospitals.
Whilst I listen, I look at the booklet and find a piece of card inset, labelled ‘Observations.’ I’m instructed to mark on the chart what best defines my current situation. With Y-axis categories ranging from ‘falling’ to ‘rising’, and the X-axis spanning from ‘memories’ to ‘on your horizon’, it’s safe to say the task is open to interpretation. My chart ends up a mess as I struggle to pinpoint where I’m at, emotionally-speaking. I’m sure something can be read into that.
‘Today feels…’ enquires a coy box at the bottom of the card. Before I have time to think, a fan behind me blasts lukewarm air through the room and the light yellows as if in response. It is, I decide, hard to decide how ‘today feels’ when you’re in such a manipulative environment. It’s astonishing how quickly my mood has lifted through the simulation of balminess. God knows how I’ll feel when it starts to rain again.
My loose-leaf tea arrives. It’s a gentle green tea, refreshing and without sourness.
Prior to now, I’ve been too scared to take my phone out. I’m overwhelmed with the sense that something might happen if I do so. The blend of the retro-industrial with the earthiness of the place seems to suggest something ominous about nature reclaiming technology. Of course, I’m being neurotic. Slowly, the café starts to fill, and the newcomers waste no time in snapping some photos. I tentatively join in. That neon light reflected on the window will lend itself very nicely to an Instagram post.
Before long, the tea servings become gin servings, and artisan nibbles are placed upon the tables. The volume of chat that had built up, lulls. The waiter who served my tea comes forward and introduces himself to the crowd as David Shearing. He explains how The Weather Café is not only a barometer of weather, but also a barometer of city life in Leeds. The accounts playing in the headphones were made by over 100 Leeds locals, including recordings made by Leeds Young Authors, the Emmaus homeless charity, and community arts organisation, Artlink.
The space, Shearing says, is free and meant to be stumbled upon by anyone. It’s a place for reflection, and where better to do so than over a cup of tea. Whilst we never really know the stories of those who sit next to us, listening to the headphones offers an insight into the lives of the people all around us. The Weather Cafe asks whether we can build a deeper sense of compassion in the process.
The Weather Café can be found 131-141, The Headrow (opposite Leeds Art Gallery), Leeds City Centre.
It is open 1 March – 20 March 2016.
Weather-proof clothing not required.