Gabrielle Rajerison conducted a phone interview with the co-director of the restaurant Conflict Kitchen’s Jon Rubin.
Gabrielle Rajerison: It feels obvious to emphasize but Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant. Pittsburgh denizens support and contribute to the project by paying for the food, which means they have to like it; it has to taste good. (I recall in a previous interview, you said that “95% of [your] annual revenue is purely from the public via food sales.”) I’m curious about the actual meal-selecting, recipe-perfecting, food-preparing aspect, which seems both “big picture” and “day-to-day.”
Jon Rubin: There are so many variations and nuances. “Authenticity” when it’s put into a recipe and then interpreted is already deconstructed. For example, when you copy someone else’s recipe, it’s both a cookie and a copy. That’s a nice metaphor for what we do. Food is a really interesting mechanism for cultural anthropology. It’s the code we all understand. It’s open source. It’s the most original kind of open source: sharing cultural information.
GR: So my question, first, is whether my assessment of Conflict Kitchen as optimistic is correct; and, second, as to what kind of long-term future you might imagine for the project. It feels like it could go on forever, given the U.S.’s present and historical choices within the international community, but it also feels like, in an ideal future, it wouldn’t have to exist anymore. Is this just completely naive/unimaginable? Does it ever come up for you behind the scenes, whether seriously or not? Are you finding that the list of places we’re in conflict with keeps getting longer, is slowly shrinking, or has mainly stayed the same? I’m thinking specifically of our changing relations with Cuba here, and wondering when a conflict “ends”?
JR: Like you said, it starts with a pretty deep criticism of U.S. foreign policy and the combination of foreign policy and the homeland pitch that’s made. So, what we’re told and what happened. We’re watching the ramifications of a lot of that play off vast cultural ignorance. You can make a strong case to the American public and now we have ISIS. Just a lack of thinking about people and culture and life and histories. So, I think the optimism—if there is any—is certainly not toward our own country. And I can’t say I’m getting any more optimistic about our own country and its involvement overseas and its capacity to be transparent. I think the machine—the PR machine—that’s placed on all of our actions permeates all of our society. It’s kind of the malaise we’re put in. Simplifying things to a good/bad polarity to the lack of a real critical press. So, anyway, there’s that, which I’m not any more optimistic about. For those of us involved in the project, it’s the most productive way to deal with our frustration. It’s the best way for us, in our own small town, our own footprint in the city, to make a crack at empathy or a little more complexity. And in that way it’s better than just complaining. So perhaps that’s shit or just cathartic. It’s so hard to measure whether we’ve had any impact at all. But I’m talking to you, and you’re teaching students about what we’re doing, and that’s inspiring to me. I think a lot of Conflict Kitchen is residual. Things we do that others can do because we did something.
GR: I’m suspicious of whether or not the state–however defined–will ever be able to put the needs of its citizens and its global community members over its own interests but I also recognize that that very divestment from violence, from dehumanization, IS the end goal, and that it can’t just happen interpersonally. … Do you see Conflict Kitchen falling into or participating within this tension between the individual, the state, and social movements?
JR: We definitely don’t function as an NGO or even a lobbying group or, you know, a conventional activist group. I think there’s small elements of what we do that overlap with all of those things but we don’t strongly fall within any of them. Part of the question for what we’re doing is, “Are we creating change in any way?” And I think there is a much larger field I which people are trying to create real structural changes from everything from labor issues to issues of race to issues of public policy, etc. And I think they’re all great; I applaud all those efforts. I think one way we fit into art is we’re still trying to create a sense of connection and wonder in the world. That sense that we’re part of something large. Which maybe—I can only speak for myself—I see as part of my art practice, which is just to create stories in the world that are true but also have elements of fiction and pulling them into a world you might not permanently inhabit. I think that’s valuable in society, period. Beside its economic value or its measurable political value.
Jon Rubin is a Pittsburgh-based artist and Carnegie Mellon University professor whose public and participatory work aims to connect local audiences with international imaginations. One of Rubin’s current projects is Conflict Kitchen, a takeout restaurant that opened in 2010, which designs dishes from countries with which the United States in in conflict.