I'm wearing a plastic poncho, lights are flashing, a sweet smell traces the air (is that weed?), and I just saw an albino python in the ladies toilet. I feel like I've stumbled onto a remake for Meat Loaf's "I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)" video.
Actually, I'm in the basement of what used to be a monastery next to Southwark Cathedral on the bank of the River Thames in London for the latest mixology-experience-cum-art-installation by Bompas and Parr, the food art duo known for their jelly-fied famous landmarks and chocolate death masks. That sweet smell is actually vaporised gin and tonic, the lights are to help you see through the humid cloud of alcohol-infused air, the poncho is to stop my clothes being ruined, and the albino python … well, it's there for fun. If that's your definition of fun.
For Sam Bompas, who forms half of the London-based partnership with Harry Parr, it certainly is.
"The main aim of every project is to try and do something that people can have fun with. 'Fun' is a really important word," he tells me, adding that white snake is something he's particularly proud of. "We've made a vitrine for it that looks like the Rapture, so you know, an apocalyptic landscape. Gothic ruins, black sands, sunset in the background, and the albino python."
Known as "Alcoholic Architecture," Bompas and Parr's project uses humidifiers to turn spirits and mixers into a fine cloud. Visitors needn't take a sip of liquid, but simply breathe in (or not—the mist can also enter through the eyeballs) for the alcohol to penetrate the bloodstream, bypassing the liver entirely. Guests are advised to "breathe responsibly" and are allocated one hour slots to avoid over overdosing on, erm, air.
After lots of diligent inhales, I'm not entirely convinced I'm as drunk as I would have been from downing a shot in the conventional way but breathing in rather than swallowing a gin and tonic does seem to enhance the botanical flavours.
Despite the ridiculousness of attempting to ingest a vaporised cocktail through your eyeballs while wearing a Pack-A-Mac, Bompas says that Alcoholic Architecture is rooted in realism.
"Everything we do is real. We don't have Alice in Wonderland people dressed up as rabbits," explains Bompas. "It's cheeky and a disruptive fantasy but it has a lot more to do with the site and with the history than any of the faux-American restaurants opening in London. While it might be cool on someone's Instagram—Oh look, I'm drinking from a skull—hopefully it also makes people think."
Stumbling through a fog of booze so thick I can't see more than a metre in front of me, I'm not sure most punters will think too deeply about the project's inner meaning.
And as the vapour condenses into a puddle on the floor, ready to be mopped up and thrown away at the end of the night, I do wonder if this 80s-style excess is a bit much in today's austerity-obsessed Britain. Bompas sees things differently.
"Our studio philosophy is that of William Blake: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. We like to push everything as far as it can go and then reflect on it and learn from it," he says. "I like creating really fabulous things that you only hear about rock stars doing and creating a scenario where anyone can actually be the rock star for the night."
No one can deny the appeal of democratising the rock star lifestyle, but I can't help but ask: why? Why fill a room with vaporised gin and tonic? Why put a snake in the toilets? Is it purely because they can?
"We create moments for people that they wouldn't otherwise be able to have and allow them to feel like they have stories to tell about extraordinary things," Bompas explains. "Theatre, drama, food, engineering, art—I don't particularly care how it's defined, as long as people are able to say to their friends next time they're in the pub, You'll never believe what I did last week, I went to this thing and drank from a human skull."
Oh yes. There's a human skull behind the bar. As well as taking in alcohol through your eyeball's mucus membranes, Bompas and Parr's mixology experiment allows its patrons to order cocktails made with spirits brewed by monks, one of which is served to you in an actual cranium.
"There was an awkward moment when I was trying it and a bit of skull went down the back of my throat because we'd not resigned it for drinking yet," remembers Bompas. "That was an interesting day at the office."
Bompas and Parr's "office" is actually studio of 14 people working on new ideas both for "fun" and for clients.
"At the moment I'm doing loads of research on ovemancy," adds Bompas. "You get eggs and rub them over somebody's naked body to cure them of their ills."
At the end of the night, as I emerge from the dungeon of gin mists, hair damp from the humidity and skin slightly sticky, it makes perfect sense that the pair who think we should be breathing our cocktails would also be exploring the logistics of wearing eggs.