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.
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.
Mr. Rakowitz is slated to set up a food truck serving Iraqi food, manned by vets of the Iraq war, in October 2012 as part of the exhibit "Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art" at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago.
"We're not reinventing the wheel here," concedes Rubin, referring to the obvious parallels between Enemy Kitchen and Conflict Kitchen. What is unusual about Conflict Kitchen is its ongoing availability: a takeout window open seven days a week, rather than a one-off event. Another unique aspect has been the wrapper that each bolani is served in. Its design uses quotes culled from interviews with Afghans here and in Afghanistan on a dozen topics, including the US military presence, women's issues, education, and the Taliban.
Weleski recalls moments of their artistic intentions realized at the takeout window. Once, a Buddhist monk asked if they would be praying over the food, she says. "Then a Muslim gentleman who was behind him in line said, 'Oh, actually, we don't do that,' " Weleski recounts, describing how they continued to chat about Islam and Buddhism. Another time a customer gave an impromptu summary of identity issues and her political outlook, based on her being half Pennsylvania Dutch, half Iranian.
Customers of all backgrounds and ethnicities, including Iranians and Afghans, have had a generally positive reaction to Conflict Kitchen. But some Pittsburghers are not so keen on the idea. Incidents at the takeout window are minimal; the harshest criticism is left in the comment section on Conflict Kitchen's blog. One post maintains that Conflict Kitchen seems more like propaganda and proselytizing than a place that addresses real issues. Another post calls it "unpatriotic," while another calls Rubin and Weleski "open traitors," concluding with, "You people are pathetic."
Aman Mojadidi, a multidisciplinary artist of Afghan heritage who grew up in the US and is currently working in Kabul, says that while he likes the project as a whole, "it does seem a bit naive in that it attempts to give a view of what Afghans think," referring to the wrapper quotes. "Ultimately this is a precarious endeavor since the opinions can, and will, vary widely. And just because it comes from an Afghan, doesn't make it true, such as the romantic notion of wheat self-sufficiency before the wars," he writes in an e-mail.
"The wrapper is only the starting point of the conversation," says Weleski, noting that several Iranians disagreed with parts of the kubideh wrapper. "We say, 'Please, tell us what your story is, add it to the blog.' "
"Reactions have been a lot more interesting with the Afghan food," notes Meg O'Malley, a student server at the takeout window. "Even if people don't have the knowledge about what's happening in Afghanistan, they have the emotions," she says, because of the US troop presence there. Ms. O'Malley herself has a personal connection to the military, since her brother is currently serving in Afghanistan, and a childhood friend was killed there last September.
She recalls one particularly heated argument at the window between two customers, ignited by a man stating, "All the Afghans know how to do is pile rocks." "But he waited for his food and paid for it!" she adds.
"I've learned to interject things," O'Malley acknowledges of her experience, such as commenting that not all Afghans are "monsters," as some of her friends, reeling from the death of their friend, declare at times. O'Malley calls Conflict Kitchen part art, part education, part social responsibility.
But is contextual practice just a passing fad? Jen Delos Reyes, an assistant professor of art and social practice at Portland State University in Oregon, thinks not. "Art that asks the questions of how the work is socially relevant and what is the artist's role in society is at the very core of artmaking. It's not something that goes out of style."