Perspectives by Jon Rubin (as told to Chelsea Haines), Part Two of Two

Chelsea Haines: Tell me a little bit about how the Waffle Shop originated.

Jon Rubin: When I first got to Pittsburgh I took on this position at Carnegie Mellon University, in an area which was called “Art and Context” at the time. It was a kind of unique idea—they had it for almost 20 years before I arrived, and the focus was to look at art in the public realm in one way or another, and over the years it had its ebbs and flows. When I arrived it pretty much consisted of just one mandatory class offered for the undergrads and another one for the grads called “Community Affiliation,” which just made me, and the grad students, cringe. My very first semester I recognized that the undergrads didn’t want to take the Art-in-Context class because they just thought of it as forced community service, which seemed to me like such an incredibly narrow definition. So, I proposed that we offer a host of possible classes that they could take, each as different as the next, taught by any faculty member who had an interest. The only requirement was that the classes in some way immersed the students in the study and production of projects that responded to or created specific public contexts and audiences. We also decided to change the name to “Contextual Practice” and, with an expanded curriculum, add it as an area of study within the art school. After my arrival, fresh off the freedom of the ISA, I was really reticent to just house my teaching in the basement of a campus building, so I started looking for alternatives within the city, which is how I started the Storefront Project which led to the Waffle Shop.

Pittsburgh is made up of a collection of little pocket neighborhoods and even before the recession there were vacant storefront properties everywhere. After I found out how insanely cheap the rents were, I decided to just start teaching my classes in these neighborhoods via different storefronts. This functioned both as way for me to get to know the city and as a strategy, much like the ISA, to get the students to directly engage with the sticky realities of life as a context for their practice. My plan was that each semester I would move to a different storefront in a different neighborhood, and for a while this worked well. I started off kind of without a syllabus. The syllabus was where we were. And we’d gather and spend the first parts of the semester just researching the social, economic, historical and political context we were in. Then the only prompt was,  “How do we reveal or catalyze culture given the interests within the class and dynamics within the neighborhood?” I stressed the need to honor both of these things – the peculiar thoughts of the group and the specific conditions of the neighborhood equally. My feeling is that often when something goes wrong or boring in socially engaged practice it’s because this ratio gets way out of balance one way or the other, such as when an artist is ignorantly self-serving, or obsequiously serving the presumed needs of others.

One of the challenges of moving the storefront each semester was that every time we created an identity and relationship to the neighborhood we were gone. The other challenge was getting people to just cross the threshold, which is kind of the fundamental issue about art in the public sphere. What is that threshold, what defines it, and how is it bridged? So, when I found this current space, for where I run the Waffle Shop, I was really compelled by its positioning in relationship to multiple audiences that we could engage. It’s in a really interesting cross-racial neighborhood, very visible to traffic, that happens to be adjacent to two busy music clubs that bring in different types of audiences all the time. So it was both a space that could define itself within the socio-economic and historical context of our neighborhood as well as in relationship to this constant flow of energy that changes late a night depending on what the music venue’s next door are presenting.

The first thing I decided we needed to do was to work with the late night crowd that is brought in from the clubs, because this was almost a guaranteed set of audience/participants; this is where the idea to sell waffles came from. Justin Strong, who runs the clubs next door, used to make waffles for his customers back in the day when he was using his space to throw late night parties without a permit. He would have people drinking and dancing until five in the morning and needed a way to feed them so they wouldn’t leave the party. He stopped making waffles years ago, but there was still nowhere for his customers to eat late at night, so he gave us his two broken waffle irons and encouraged us to run a food operation as it would help him and, he thought, help us. Then this notion of a reality show came up through group discussion in my class. So, we thought we’d be a waffle shop/reality show and to be honest it was a bit of a mess. It was kind of obnoxious and not very well thought through to start, but there was some potential there.

CH: So when you say “reality show,” you mean you were just documenting everything?

JR: Yeah, we documented everything and everyone but it was just too unstructured. We ended up with hours of uninteresting footage, and more importantly it was off-putting to people walking in the door to have cameras and mics shoved in their faces. I’m also just not interested in reality TV. I’m interested in it sociologically but I’m not interested in terms of my own practice. It’s not the type of constructed non-fiction that I am compelled by. We probably ran it this way for a month and then the semester ended. There were a few things that I recognized had the possibility of working: people, did really want a place to eat at 2am in the morning and were starting to come in, and I knew from past experience that, given the right format, everyone wants to talk about themselves. I was also really excited about the mix of folks who were hanging out at night on our street. So, I had the decision to move or keep this going and I recognized that something quite valuable could be developed here.

So I kept the space, brought in friend and design faculty Brett Yasko to co-teach the class with me, and reformatted the reality show into a talk show, which was directly inspired by this Seinfeld episode in which Kramer finds the old Merv Griffin talk show set in the trash. He sets it up in his house and when anyone comes over they’re on his show. He doesn’t have any cameras, yet when Elaine comes over he introduces her to an invisible audience and after an awkward moment she just goes into complaining about her life—basically just re-contextualizing what she would do anyway. I’ve often used the same basic methodology of restaging people’s daily labors, ideas, and fantasies in unexpected public forums so I thought that could be an interesting strategy to use in the Waffle Shop.

The Waffle Shop

Since it’s a restaurant and people are already sitting around a table—they’re talking, they’re engaging in conversation—there’s this sort of comfort that’s developed. All we had to do was just to shift that a step over to our stage. So, the fourth wall is entirely tenuous but still for some reason had some type of efficacy in people’s minds. We tried it out and I was just struck how such a simple premise was so incredibly effective. Our basic structure is we provide a host and anyone who walks in the restaurant can be a guest. We are also constantly approached by members of the public who want to do their own talk show with us—which is great to me that they would even think of that as a possibility—so we are always working with a variety of folks to develop and present these shows during our open hours. It’s all streamed live through our website.The restaurant helps us coax in people who would sometimes never participate or even attend theater, performance, or art spaces. The vernacular of a talk show, which everyone seems to intuitively know how to behave on, gets complete strangers to play with their public identities. These random members of the public offer an ongoing and uncontrollable variable to the mix as they take on roles of audience members, customer/funders, and participants.

The project has become an interesting hybridization of identities—a mash-up of pedagogy, public art, business, design, economic development, and cultural production. And the types of people that are coming in and interacting are really interesting and strange and diverse. A lot of the shows or interviews are quite banal—it’s not like we’re making magical moments on stage all the time—but it’s not about the specifics of any one show or interview; it’s about the aggregate, the constantly available, confusing, and complicated democratic nature of the thing.

By the second semester with the Waffle Shop, I decided to fully invest myself in it as part of my practice and my teaching – very similar to what I was doing with the ISA, but in this case I was able to use the leverage and resources of the university to make this semi-autonomous zone in the city. It’s a bit crazy how large the whole thing has become. At this point we receive support from the local community development corporation, area foundations, private donors, the university, and we still make about 40% of our gross revenue from food sales. I’ve been able to hire a fulltime assistant director and restaurant manger for the project and we’ve also become the largest workstudy employer at the university, with students from every single department in the school working as producers, talkshow hosts, cooks, waiters, video editors, web programmers, and marketing assistants. This is on top off our non-student employees. As a byproduct of sticking around so long (now three years), we’ve become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Although, we continue to be a bit strange to people, which I think is a good thing.

CH: Can you talk a little more about the community reaction to the Waffle Shop, or the people who are participating in the talk show? Do you have regulars, like people who do it every Saturday? What’s the process of people who just show up at the Waffle Shop and ask what is this and how do I become a part of it?

JR: Our participants are anyone who walks in the door.  At first it was people from the music clubs next door, then it was people from the neighborhood, now we have people who will make specific trips to come to the shop. Our late night crowd tends to be younger, drunker, rowdier than our daytime weekend crowd, which tends to be families, people coming from church, people looking for brunch, a total mix, and that’s nice. Many people come in and think we are a normal restaurant, and it’s a bit of a surprise for them. It’s pretty open-ended and often chaotic, anyone who wants to be on the show is welcome and we tell the folks that are presenting their own talkshows that they must be open to incorporating this random element into their show. At this point, it’s become like an ongoing, stream-of-consciousness documentary that never seems to end.

CH: And then you decided to start Conflict Kitchen. Tell me more about that.

JR: Well, the Waffle Shop’s kitchen has its own storefront and door that we always kept papered up and closed. We had thought for some time to use it as a take-out window, but it never made sense to sell waffles out of it because it would undercut the main thing that brings in people for the talk show. One night, Justin Strong, who owns the clubs next to us, had a guy selling hotdogs outside our kitchen door who was cutting down on the traffic coming into our shop. Justin, who is a good friend, said that the guy gives him a piece of the profits and that if we were going to act like a real business than we needed to compete. So Dawn Weleski, who was my assistant director for the shop at the time, and I thought instead of doing a waffle takeout, let’s just create a business that competes with our own business as well as the hot dog seller.

Coming from the Bay Area for the past 15 years, and then going to Pittsburgh where an ethnic festival is either a Polish, Irish, or Italian festival, I found myself dying for a little more diversity. So, we started to name cuisines not available in Pittsburgh and recognized that ironically, many of the foods we were naming came from countries the U.S. happened to be in conflict with, so we thought, great we’ll just turn this into a conflict kitchen. We decided that by focusing on these countries we could not only add some culinary and cultural diversity to the city, but more importantly we could create a public platform for a more empathic and hopefully nuanced discussion about the places and cultures that many people are not familiar with outside of the relatively narrow and polarizing lens of the mainstream media. We felt a constant rotation model would infuse as much culture as possible into the city, and there certainly are no shortages of countries we are in conflict with.

Conflict Kitchen

Really, it’s an awful business model if you think about it: we were only going to sell food that did not exist or have a proven market in the city; just as soon as people got used to one cuisine we would completely close down and open as another restaurant they have never seen; and we’re going to ask people to talk about the culture and politics of countries we are at odds with, in the public, with strangers. It’s a real loser on paper, but so was the idea of putting a talk show in a breakfast joint, and that was going pretty well. So, we started with Iran. There is actually a small but very strong Iranian community here in Pittsburgh, and I have friends in Iran, so we had a strong group of people to work with as consultants throughout this first version.

Another starting point was that several years before I had organized a project with Andrea Grover called Never Been to Tehran. For the project we invited artists from all over the world to take photos in their own hometowns of what they imagined Tehran to look like. New images were uploaded each day to an online photosharing site and projected live as an evolving slideshow. We exhibited in Tehran as well as six other cities. For all involved, the task was to confess to what you could never know about a place you have never been to and to still look for a common ground between what you think is familiar and unfamiliar. And as governments and media outlets are continually constructing a polarized and xenophobic image of Iran, this empathy becomes a continually necessary act.

At this point we have been operating seven days a week for a year-and-a-half and have opened also as Afghan and Venezuelan takeout restaurants. The strategy we use is very similar to the Waffle Shop, kind of a bait-and-switch that’s built around catalyzing public conversation that might not ordinarily occur. I think because we are a visual and conceptual anomaly within the daily life of the city, people tend to approach us with questions in mind. Psychologically, this opens up a space where talking about politics in the public with strangers is not so difficult.

CH: What exactly is happening in that type of conversation or interaction?

We usually talk about the food as a starting point. It’s really important that we are there seven days a week, performing this very utilitarian function of providing good food first. When we first open a new iteration, people want to compare and contrast the new food to the previous versions and this is always an easy way to slip into talking about the culture of the region and then into the different nature of the conflict we might be involved in. This has been especially beneficial as we moved from Iran to its neighbor Afghanistan, where the internal issues and conflicts with the U.S. are very different, yet both countries share vital political, ethnic, and historical links. Our current Venezuelan version will be followed by a Cuban version for much the same reason. We feel that our customers will come back to the Cuban version with a perspective on the region and politics that they did not have before our Venezuelan version, and it becomes a great jumping off point or conversation starter to talk about the two countries geopolitically, and culturally in relationship to each other and the U.S.

Pittsburgh is a small city, so many people have heard about us and are kind of ready to engage when they walk up to the takeout window. But we still get new folks daily who don’t know what we are or what we serve, and surprisingly these folks are almost easier to talk with as they are usually filled with questions to begin with. We only hire staff for the project who are passionate about both geopolitics and conversation. We really want them to read and engage with people in whatever manner is comfortable to them. We also want them to take a conversation anywhere a customer wants to go and not to present themselves as the ultimate authority, but as a curious conversationalist who happens to be well versed in the topic of discussion. Its a fun job really because you come across all sorts of people in our neighborhood who approach the project from a lot of different perspectives.

The food all comes in a custom-designed wrapper that has interviews we do with citizens of the country. As is to be expected, the thoughts and opinions that come through the interviews are often contradictory and complicated by people’s personal lives and histories. We feel it’s important to present these contradictions within the text as it serves to further instigate questioning and conversation with our customers. The other interesting thing about the wrapper is that people actually read it, which has proved a revelation for us. We are now thinking about ourselves a bit more like a publishing and distribution venue for specifically contextualized texts, and we are looking to expand upon this format with more diverse wrapper-based offerings in the future.

The other thing we do to get people in the city further involved is a variety of events. Many of these are live via Skype between Pittsburgh and Tehran, Kabul, or Caracas. We recently worked with two local Persian organizations to put on Pittsburgh’s first-ever Persian cultural festival, which was really well attended by our customer base.

CH: When we first met last year you mentioned that other institutions and other bodies where interested in thinking about Conflict Kitchen’s elsewhere. I’m wondering how tied to the site this project is, and if you think it would work with a different audience and a different context. Or if you would have to conceptually re-think the entire project if it moved or expanded to another locality?

JR: We’ve talked to a lot of different individuals and organizations about adapting Conflict Kitchen to new contexts. I’m happy with where it is and how it functions right now, but there are possibilities. We are actually looking at possibilities here locally first, including opening up in the downtown business district. Several arts institutions have approached us and nothing has felt right. We’re don’t want the primary introduction to this to be as an artwork, since we feel it’s more available to the general public when it functions as a space within the natural flow of culture and commerce in the city. I like the fact, going back to our original starting point, that we need to compete to survive, constantly convincing the public of our value and service.  We were invited to this festival in Friburg, Switzerland, which was interesting and funny because Switzerland is a neutral country. We were able to get the festival to bring our remote Skype event collaborators, Iranian curator Sohrab Kashani, and Afghan filmmaker Hamed Alizideh, in for a joint presentation. In addition to meeting in person for the first time, all four of us presented the conditions under which we work locally and what we have done together globally in conjunction with a huge Pittsburgh/Terhan/Kabul meal.

We were approached by a local business that does all the onsite food service for a bunch of universities about working with them to put the project in some campuses. They are family run and locally source most of their food and they seem to really get what our interest is. We think it’s an interesting possibility because of the resources and access that they have, and the business part of this project is quite difficult. I think a college campus could be a compelling spot if done right on the right campus. We’re still kind of feeling it out and we’ll probably just experiment, see if it works, and if it doesn’t we’re always good where we are.

We were also invited to present the project at the Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which is a wonderful opportunity but didn’t make sense for us since the project really is in response to the political conditions here at home, and we didn’t want to just make it the food station for the biennial. At the time we were in the middle of a ton of discussions about Hugo Chavez for our Venezuelan version of the kitchen and were struck by the passion in which people both adored and hated him. It was very similar to how people feel about Obama, although amongst Venezuelans Chavez is even more polarizing. Obama and Chavez function as these charismatic personas upon which the public projects so many irrational hopes and fears. We thought it would be great to use this opportunity in Brazil, a country that socially and economically has been looking both to the U.S. and Venezuela, to explore these two personas as they are perceived and misperceived by ordinary Brazilians.

So, in the end, we did not present Conflict Kitchen but another project we developed called The Speech of the Swans. Each Sunday for one month, at the lake in the city’s central park, actors portraying Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama gave free rides in swan-shaped boats to the public. As they traveled with members of the public, the actors recorded the public’s opinions of the world leaders they were portraying. In the afternoon, both presidents delivered speeches taken verbatim from the opinions they had gathered. The speeches were really quite bizarre—filled with a lot of doubt and contradiction. And each week they got longer and longer. They started to sound like crazy people up there, constantly shifting their identity. In some ways they were functioning like the subjective viewpoints we present on the wrapper, except the only topic here was themselves.

The Speech of the Swans


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