Dawn WeleskiMay 7, 2014
The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.
A recent poll of Americans asked a variety of foreign-policy questions regarding the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine. Pollsters also asked respondents to pinpoint Ukraine on a high-resolution world map. Only 16% correctly completed this task—but more interestingly, the researchers found that the more incorrect a person’s guess, the more likely he or she was to want the United States to intervene militarily. And many respondents were very, very far off, suggesting that Ukraine was in Greenland, Florida, Alaska, New Zealand, Madagascar, all over Brazil, and, confusingly, several random locations in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.1
These hawkish voices, guided by ignorance and misinformation, are often the loudest ones, calling for shock and awe when tensions flare around the globe. Dawn Weleski, a recent Stanford University MFA graduate and a 2013–2014 Headlands Center for the Arts Graduate Fellow, aims directly at this destructive connection between ignorance and hostility with her social art project Conflict Kitchen.
Developed with fellow artist Jon Rubin, Conflict Kitchen is a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Pittsburgh that opened in 2010. The restaurant serves food only from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict, militarily or diplomatically. The current menu, focusing on Afghanistan, where the U.S. is waging the longest war in its history, offers slow-cooked lamb, kebabs, potato-leek stuffed turnovers, and a lemon-rosewater basil seed drink. Previous incarnations of the restaurant served food from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. Every several months, the restaurant closes down and then reopens with a new menu, name, and facade.
The food served at Conflict Kitchen is more than just sustenance; it is meant to be a vehicle for conversation about the nation and culture being represented.
The food served at Conflict Kitchen is more than just sustenance; it is meant to be a vehicle for conversation about the nation and culture being represented. Conflict Kitchen staff conduct interviews with expatriates and individuals living in the country, and their words, thoughts, and stories are printed on the food wrappers. Employees are also trained to engage willing customers in conversation about these and other issues.
In a BBC feature on the restaurant, an employee was recorded asking an unsuspecting customer if she knew anything about Afghanistan, or if there was anything she’d like to know. With the determination of a pedestrian avoiding a Greenpeace canvasser, she simply said she was interested in trying the country’s food. But a conversation about women’s rights and the Taliban unfolded, and the customer seemed happy at the end, reporting, “I don’t get this kind of dialogue at McDonald’s.”2
In May 2013, Conflict Kitchen hosted The Two Koreas, a one-night event at the Headlands Center for the Arts. Headlands Head Chef Damon Little and his staff cooked and served a meal of South and North Korean cuisine to the sold-out crowd in the center’s historic mess hall while Weleski facilitated discussion amongst diners. Diners could not choose which meal they received, and the tables—and sometimes groups of friends—were bisected by a culinary border. Rather than restraining the experience, this arbitrary division created an opportunity for diners to share meals and sample the various dishes offered. Like the wrappers in the Pittsburgh restaurant, the placemats at each seat were printed with interviews from several South and North Koreans sharing stories of country, family, and loss, and these placemats were passed around more frequently than the shared kimchi. Following the meal, the several dozen attendees discussed food, politics, and Korean affairs.
The successful Conflict Kitchen, which has been covered everywhere from Al Jazeera to Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, is not Weleski’s first venture at the intersection of art, food, and business. While completing undergraduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University and waiting tables to support herself, Weleski created RV Eatin’ (2007–2008) in collaboration with two other recent graduates, Claire Hoch and Laura Miller. RV Eatin’ offered a simpler concept than Conflict Kitchen: After receiving a reservation, the trio would bring the titular trailer to the customer, cook a meal outdoors with entirely homegrown ingredients, and serve the meal inside over a conversation. The small trailer, purchased by Carnegie Mellon professor and future collaborator Jon Rubin, provided what Weleski described as “forced intimacy” for diners.3
Weleski and Rubin collaborated more closely a few years later when they created The Waffle Shop (2009–2013), a Pittsburgh restaurant that also hosted and produced a live-streaming talk show starring customers and community members. Open for brunch and from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. on weekends, The Waffle Shop drew from bar crowds, churchgoers, and families to people their many talk shows. Weleski says that, similarly to the forced intimacy of RV Eatin’, the goal of The Waffle Shop was to provide a forum for public dialogue that might otherwise not happen; she cites the example of a televised conversation about race between an affluent eighty-year-old Jewish woman and an eighteen-year-old African American male.4 One show, “Salon Chair Ministries,” brought a local salon owner into the restaurant to cut hair and replicate the conversations had between hairstylists and customers. Another, “The Unemployment Show,” paid unemployed and underemployed guests to discuss their experiences on-air. The Waffle Shop’s building was also topped with an old outdoor advertising sign that was used to broadcast messages from neighbors and community members (like “analog Twitter,” according to Weleski).5
In 2010, Weleski reported a $500,000 operating budget for The Waffle Shop, declaring it a sustainable art practice and business.
Though The Waffle Shop received community and foundation support, it was a functioning business with over fifty employees, earning sixty percent of its revenue from the sale of waffles, bacon, and pie.6 In 2010, Weleski reported a $500,000 operating budget for the restaurant, declaring it a sustainable art practice and business.7 Conflict Kitchen also operated out of The Waffle Shop’s side window before recently moving to a new location near the University of Pittsburgh campus, fittingly sandwiched in a public plaza between the business and art-history departments. Both of these projects offer models for art practices that reside outside of the traditional commercial-gallery model while remaining financially feasible.
Skeptics might question whether socially engaged art practices create meaningful dialogue, or whether those dialogues can compete with mass media in shaping people’s perceptions of cultural or political issues. While Conflict Kitchen and The Waffle Shop can reach moderately sized audiences, the quality and depth of the discourse is more potent than the quantity. Conflict Kitchen is particularly suited for dialogues that can be sustained over time, and the restaurant’s continued presence and operation is integral to its activation of the public.
One hopes that there is never a need for a Ukrainian menu at Conflict Kitchen (in an ideal world, the restaurant would close its doors for lack of subject matter), but the sorry state of public knowledge about foreign cultures makes even a brief, thoughtful conversation between cashier and customer a monumental achievement, one certainly unparalleled by CNN or Fox News.