Chicago art admin chowhound Jennifer Breckner reminded me to check out the Conflict Kitchen while in Pittsburgh. I had read about this place some time ago and then forgot all about it. Ms. Breckner came through for me.
To offer a super simple description, the Conflict Kitchen is a functioning take-out food counter in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh. The menu offerings, printed matter, and related programming are assembled to highlight a country with which the United States is in conflict, or where the US is currently involved in a military conflict. The project was initiated by Carnegie-Mellon faculty artist Jon Rubin, John Peña, and Dawn Weleski.
The current offering, kubideh sandwiches, are fresh and filling. The seasoned beef wrap is an Iranian favorite. I got there right around noon. They were doing a pretty healthy business, it seemed. The conversations with other customers were, as you might imagine, suffused with the topical content of the project. That is to say, standing around waiting for the orders to be filled created a space for conversation about Iran, what Americans know and don't know about Iran and Iranian society, and what Iranians think of America. And what we know about Iranian food, how kubideh compares to other foods, and so forth.
The food provides the most bodily of sensory experiences but Kubideh Kitchen supplies more than just that. The project is a portal through which information from and about Iran flows, to be received by us Americans in whose name our government takes its position. For example, the kubideh paper wrapper folds out as an infosheet with paragraph-long texts on various topics pertaining to Iranian society, including the headings Nuclear Power, Tea, Fashion, and The Green Movement. The artists use the billboard space above the building to present the words of Iranian and Iranian-American people. And the project organizers joined with Sazmanab Project of Tehran to put together a Skype meal, linking dinner guests in the two cities.
In overcoming distance at the citizen-to-citizen level, corridors connecting Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities with Tehran are what we need, passages through which a sense of common belonging can somehow be cultivated among groups on either end of the corridor. By itself Kubideh Kitchen cannot be that corridor, especially if it remains bound by the temporal constraints of the extended art show, say three months, six months, or even a year. I find it heartening that recently Conflict Kitchen responded to the ramped up rhetoric of aggression from political leaders by re-opening Kubideh Kitchen. Being attuned to the advantages of timely visibility and presence, the project therefore certainly contributes to a city ecology from which such corridors get established for the long term.
On my day there the conversations were helped along by a not terribly efficient service. We were waiting upwards of fifteen minutes for a sandwich and that puts some pressure on the lunch hour. One fellow who was in a hurry got a little agitated by the pace of kubideh production. I guess the man didn't realize that, as happens with art projects masquerading as restaurants (or social welfare services, or universities, or any number of other non-art institutions), the experiential priorities of Kubideh Kitchen are different than your average take-out counter. In contrast to those of us there for the concept, novelty, and conversational exchange, augmented by the filling of a stomach if not entirely completed, he was put off by the made-to-order speed. This is the flip side of Greg Sholette's quip "Art has finally merged with life. The problem is, life sucks." In this case, as an efficient rapid-lunch delivery system, it is the art that sucks, not life. Those who are expecting Kubideh Kitchen to provide the dummy-proof food service we receive in everyday life get their orders delivered with a side of frustration.
But whatever. I was there for the art. Thus my only critical comment on the aesthetic: the meat could have used a little more salt.
I managed to record some video, beginning with some casual chatting with a Kubideh Kitchen patron, Usama, and then some further info from the kitchen workers, Ben and Sam. That's Jon Rubin in the still below, the project's instigators, bringing in a load of coffee.
Food and meals as art are a pretty conventional thing these days. What I love about this project is it brings together food, topical content, public display (take-out only? genius!), striking graphic expressions, and, best of all, the social space of not only lunch time, but bar time: the stand is open from 11 pm to 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights.