Promoting cross-cultural understanding through food and art
Afghan takeout window Bolani Pazi is the second public art display by 'Conflict Kitchen,' a group that only serves food from countries the United States is in conflict with.
It's midday in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood and a group of local office workers wait at a takeout window for lunch. The facade is an eye-catching panel of Afghan patterns in purples and reds, fixed to a storefront. Large graphic letters spell out "Bolani Pazi" in Dari, just above the window. Each customer orders a bolani, a common Afghan savory turnover. They cost $4, and each is filled either with pumpkin, red lentils, spinach, or potatoes and leeks.Skip to next paragraph
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Opened in late November, Bolani Pazi is the second manifestation of "Conflict Kitchen," an establishment that only serves food from countries the United States is in conflict with. The first was "Kubideh Kitchen," which served the Iranian sandwich of spiced meat.
To the average Pittsburgher who walks by Bolani Pazi's distinct storefront, it could pass as a hip takeout window. But it's actually a work of art, conceptualized by local artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski. Their artistic goal is to engage the Pittsburgh public – from noticing the facade and wondering what it is to eating a bolani to conversing with the student staff and fellow customers to reading the provocative quotes on the bolani wrapper. This interaction with the public is the art medium.
Mr. Rubin and Ms. Weleski work in this socially engaging genre, a hybridization and outgrowth of conceptual, performance, and public art with firm roots dating back to Dadaism. Artworks of contextual practice alter public space and context, and viewers often become unwitting participants.
"I'm interested in how you can engage someone in a work [of art], when they don't even know it's a work," says the easygoing Rubin, who sports glasses and a well-kept goatee. Rubin is an associate professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and has been creating art specifically geared toward engaging the general public for 16 years. In addition to Conflict Kitchen, his projects include The Waffle Shop, an adjacent space that serves waffles and creates an impromptu talk show; Solitary City Walks, where for a 24-hour period participants walk around Denver with a police escort; and a project in development involving homing pigeons.
"Art is not something sterile that hangs on the wall," says Tom Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. "This genre is a variation of the comedian who puts a silly hat on an audience member, making them part of the show. But with Conflict Kitchen, food brings them into a comfort zone first, and then into an art space," he says, stipulating that the food can't taste horrible or the "art part" doesn't work.
Although Conflict Kitchen looks, smells, and ultimately tastes like a true takeout venue, Rubin and Weleski are committed to the idea that Conflict Kitchen is a work of art, although they are disinclined to make a big fuss about it. "Often, to present something as 'art' becomes a problem as an entry to an idea, as opposed to [an] ...opportunity to engage," Rubin says. He adds that he considers customers to be producers.
"You could even cast them in some loose way as performers," he says, "What they bring as discussion, dialogue, and interaction is what drives the engine of the project."
There is a history of artists using food in public-art projects, such as the one staged in the early 1990s by Rirkrit Tiravanija, who started cooking meals in gallery spaces. But most similar is the Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz's work "Enemy Kitchen," with recipes from his Iraqi-Jewish mother. He makes and eats Iraqi meals with groups of people, from schoolchildren to war vets, all of them donning aprons with the Iraqi flag on the front and "Enemy Kitchen" written underneath.