Urban Innovator of the Week: Dawn Weleski

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.

Conflict Kitchendawn_weleski_2 is an experimental art project in Pittsburgh where food is the medium and political conflict a tool of practice.

It evolved out of another performance art-meets-actual functioning restaurant serving the public concept called Waffle Shop: A Reality Show, a project spearheaded by Carnegie Mellon University art professor Jon Rubin and his students with the intent of finding new ways to generate support for performance art within the urban core.

Located in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the waffle restaurant produced a live streaming talk show with its customers, in which the patrons of the, yes, actual waffle restaurant were also the talk show’s guests.

Waffle Shop opened in 2008 and remained open for four years. After the first year, Rubin brought fellow social practice artist and friend Dawn Weleski on board as restaurant manager and assistant director.

After a time, Weleski says, the two artists were thinking more and more about other ways to engage the East Liberty neighborhood, examining its history and thinking about the kind of history they wanted to be a part of. Both of them separately had been thinking more politically in their artistic practices, and wanted to incorporate more of that into a collaborative effort built around food in the neighborhood.

“You don’t find a lot of strangers on the street talking about politics, even among friends and family,” says Weleski. “We wanted to find out, is there a way we can engender that curiosity in people?”

With the waffle shop, anyone who walked in was a potential participant, an audience member, and also a supporter of the art program by purchasing the food. “We were able to get strangers together to break bread but also financially support the project,” says Weleski.

“Almost all of our work as artists happens in public spaces and is participatory in some way. It’s not necessarily exhibiting work but creating a framework where audience members participate. It’s about a reciprocal relationship between the audience and the artists, in which the artist is adjusting the work as it moves through time with the audience members, engendering a sense of curiosity but also making them a little uncomfortable. There is a push and pull.”

For their next project, Weleski and Rubin wanted to use food as a medium through which to discuss sensitive political topics, “trying to tap into something that didn’t exist in Pittsburgh and to fill a niche.”

Weleski says, “Food is the one thing that everyone is creative with on a daily basis. The choice of what to eat is a creative decision that is very much an artistic decision. We’re helping people to understand that food is a methodology for doing that and for creating relationships.”

She says they also wanted to “create the city we wanted to see and create bridges of access to people we knew were in the city.”

Pittsburgh is a city of proud European heritage, with ethnically diverse and distinct neighborhoods that reflects the city’s European immigrant cultural heritage: the Polish of Polish Hill, the Germans of Troy Hill, the Italians of Morningside, the Hungarians of Hazelwood, the Ukrainians of South Side, the Slovakians of Munhall. It’s also a very “black and white city,” as Weleski describes, and one that is very sensitive about its ethnic European history and current immigrant population.

“We wanted to do something to say, ‘Hey Pittsburgh, there’s an immigrant opportunity now coming in and supporting your city. Let’s reframe Pittsburgh and revision it as a city of immigrants and a city of refugees.’ It’s not industrial anymore, but it’s still a down-to-earth, ‘sit down at the bar stool with the old guy next to you’ kind of place. We saw an opportunity to use food to latch on to the sensitivities of Pittsburghers to help them help themselves have conversations they might not otherwise have at the dinner table or at the bus stop.”

As Weleski and Rubin discussed different kinds of cuisine they potentially wanted to serve at this new concept, they knew they wanted to focus on a cultural tradition that didn’t already exist in Pittsburgh’s current culinary scene. They soon realized that the culinary styles they were naming were all from countries with which the United States was in conflict. That realization became the concept for Conflict Kitchen.

“It fulfilled a number of artistic interests Jon and I had to create a space for sensitive topics to be discussed,” says Weleski. “It was also an opportunity to show folks you could self-fund your own art project.”

Conflict Kitchen serves anywhere from 300-600 people per day, seven days a week, out of a small walk-up location in Schenley Plaza, a public park in the city’s Oakland District next to the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. They have 25 staff members, including a director of outreach and education, and a separate catering arm for meetings, events, school groups, and celebrations.

It started out as just a small takeout façade located within the waffle shop in 2010. Today it remains a nonprofit organization that reinvests all of its resources into programming, education, performances, and publications that furthers their mission of engaging with the public about the food, culture, and perspectives of people living in regions with which the United States is in conflict. It is a rotating concept that changes roughly every seven months, focusing on a new country with new culinary traditions with the common thread of conflict.

Past iterations have included Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, and Palestine. The current iteration highlights Iran, and Indigenous Nations of America are next. Future iterations will include the Democratic Republic of Congo, coming up in about a year.

If that sounds like a long lead-time to plan a new concept, then know that the planning actually began a year prior.

It is not at all uncommon – it is in fact de rigueur – for chefs at trendy American restaurants to become enamored of a certain ethnic cuisine and within a matter of weeks incorporate menu items inspired by it onto their menus. The result isn’t so much “authentic” (a problematic word when used to describe non-hegemonic food or cultures regardless) as it is interpretive, a further expansion of the ever growing pan-fusionism of American cuisine. That sort of playing it fast and loose with culinary traditions is fine in the hyper-competitive market of high-rent restaurants and James Beard Awards. But that is not the way of Conflict Kitchen.

With each iteration, they conduct two years of research on the country’s food culture – learning about the climate, agriculture, and geography; food access; street food culture; markets; high-end cuisines; how that culinary tradition is reinvented in different countries throughout the world; whether or not that culture exists in Pittsburgh and if so, if it is being expressed locally through food. Ideally they like to actually travel to the country (though not always possible, especially in high-conflict areas) and conduct interviews with a number of different people, cook with them, eat with them, and have conversations with them while cooking and eating.

“We go to as many homes, restaurants, and street vendors as possible; we eat and cook together. It becomes a learning opportunity and a creative opportunity. It’s relationship building and building trust. We also get a sense of what these people in these countries want to communicate to Americans,” explains Weleski.

Those interviews then become the printed materials that serve as the wrappers for the carry-out food items. The food wrappers have featured interviews with North Korean defectors, Cubans living in Cuba and the United States, Afghans living in Afghanistan and the United States, and Palestinians living in Palestine and Pittsburgh.

The Palestine iteration was a particular challenge, though they anticipated it would be. From the very beginning, Weleski says they knew they wanted to cover Palestine, but they were open for five years – perfecting their strategies and building their audience – before they took it on.

“We knew we didn’t want to tackle it right away,” she says. “We were not surprised when people in Pittsburgh took issue with us doing that.”

She explains that there was a call to present the Israeli perspective in addition to the Palestinian perspective. “But that’s not our mission,” she says. “Our mission is to highlight the voice not typically heard, and in America the Israeli voice is privileged.”

Israel is a major American ally in the Middle East and is a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid. Because of this relationship, mainstream American media has taken a decidedly pro-Israel stance on the decades-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The point of Conflict Kitchen was not to argue whether mainstream media or the pro-Israel stance altogether is right or wrong; the point was to highlight the Palestinian people and allow them an opportunity to tell their stories through their food.

The call to include the Israeli perspective quickly devolved into pressure from lobbying groups and sensationalized media controversy, resulting in a death threat that forced them to close the restaurant for a few days. Weleski points out the hypocrisy that when the Israeli perspective is highlighted and the Palestinian is not, there is no reverse call (and controversy) demanding the Palestinian perspective is represented.

“There is a lot of xenophobia in Pittsburgh around the Muslim population,” she says. “Pittsburgh also has a large orthodox Jewish population and a number of supporters of the Israeli state. There were folks who didn’t even know there were Palestinians in Pittsburgh. They often don’t present themselves as Palestinian; they’ll just say they’re from the Middle East.”

The Palestinian iteration ended up being the most popular iteration yet, and garnered a fierce outpouring of support in the wake of the media-fueled controversy.

“We try to create a space where you don’t just inherit opinions over and over again, but where you’re constantly challenged and come to a larger understanding of the world,” says Weleski. “We want to humanize this conflict that exists between our governments and bring it back through everyday life. The easiest way to do that is through food.”

While food is their primary medium, they also conduct a variety of community events and educational opportunities with each iteration to further build global relationships and promote cultural literacy and understanding. Additional programming and publishing has included film festivals, informal discussions, intercontinental dinner parties, guest Instagrammers, printed books of collected interviews with children living in the conflict countries, dance classes, international Skype cooking lessons with chefs from the conflict countries, and more.

Conflict Kitchen is certainly mission-driven, but at its core it is also a regular restaurant that serves culturally unique, affordable food to hungry Pittsburghers on their lunch breaks.

“On the face it’s a restaurant they go to every day that they don’t know is an art project,” says Weleski. “Ideally we’ve created something that provides multiple levels of interpretation. You don’t have to come to it as an artist, a foodie, or a political connoisseur. This is about the average public coming in because they find something interesting and bringing them into conversation not typically had in public spaces.”

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