Over a seven-year period starting in 2010, residents of Pittsburgh could enjoy all of these delicacies at a take-out restaurant known as Conflict Kitchen. The premise was stunningly simple: Seven days a week, the proprietors served traditional dishes from nation-states in conflict with the United States. From Palestine to Cuba to Afghanistan, they rotated menus based on current events. For most of the proffered cuisines, Conflict Kitchen was the only option within driving distance.
Although Conflict Kitchen is no longer open – and Pittsburgh is no longer a prime destination for chivo al coco – remnants of the artist-run restaurant are now on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The Cooper Hewitt has chosen the restaurant to illustrate contemporary engagement of artists and designers with the geopolitical challenge of finding common ground. One of many examples included in Designing Peace, it stands out for its appetizing directness.
Given the theme of designing peace, the peace sign might be the first image brought to mind. Conceived by the artist Gerald Holtom in 1958, the emblem originated as a logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, taking inspiration from the semaphore flag positions for the letters N and D. Because nuclear disarmament dominated the peace movement in the ‘60s, and most peaceniks didn’t know semaphore, the symbol circulated far and wide, attaining universal recognizability while becoming increasingly nebulous in meaning.
Today the symbol is ubiquitous, and stylistic permutations abound, including a new one included in the Cooper Hewitt exhibition. However the impact is less profound than advertised. It’s generic enough for people with radically different worldviews to wear it on a t-shirt or to stick it on a bumper. In that respect it’s unifying. But the sense of fraternity is superficial. Unless people confront differences of opinion and work them out intentionally, the root causes of conflict fester, ready to bring grief in moments of stress when cooperation is most needed.
One of the most interesting projects to be considered by the Cooper Hewitt originated a decade after Holtom drew the first peace sign, when the anthropologist Margaret Mead joined forces with the graphic designer Rudolf Modley to create a “system of visual signs with universally recognizable referents”. Like Holtom, Mead was motivated by nuclear proliferation and the threat of annihilation, which she believed to be exacerbated by “social and economic fragmentation” deriving from fractured lines of communication. After appealing to the United Nations for a “new shared culture”, she enlisted Modley to help create the means for cultural exchange with a novel set of glyphs.
The challenge swiftly became apparent. Mead was convinced that “there are no universal symbols” and that the system would have to be invented with close attention paid to cultural assumptions. (A crossed fork and knife would not do as a global symbol of food in a world where billions of people use chopsticks.) What began as a pragmatic effort to help people communicate using images became an inward-looking investigation of semiotics. Even a satisfactory glyph for radioactivity couldn’t be identified (though many candidates were found wanting). The intentionality with which Mead and Modley worked was the opposite of the arbitrary path by which the peace sign attained universality, yet the effect was equivalent: Neither resulted in the kind of communication required for a new shared culture. Nuclear proliferation is still an existential risk. We’re still talking past one another.
Designers and architects have found greater success by designing experiences. For instance, the Cooper Hewitt includes Teeter-Totter Wall, an ingenious intervention along the border between the United States and Mexico conceived by the architecture studio Rael San Fratello. On July 28, 2019, the firm collaborated with Colective Chopeke to set beams between the steel bars of the wall separating New Mexico and Chihuahua, resulting in an improvised row of oversized see-saws. Children on both sides immediately started to play with one another while the world looked on, courtesy of global media coverage. The kids had no need for glyphs. Onlookers had no need for a common language.
The wall did not come down that day. Animosity between the two nations remains, exacerbated by racial prejudice and nativist demagoguery. US immigration policy remains punitive and cruel, essentially the same as under the previous administration. Yet the unforgettable imagery upsets right-wing rhetoric about “bad hombres” trafficking in drugs and violence, instead inspiring dialogue about the future as shared territory.
Like play, and unlike glyphs, eating is universal, a common experience of all people. The concept of Conflict Kitchen works in some of the same ways as Teeter-Totter Wall, but there are also significant differences. Beyond the fact that Conflict Kitchen operated over a longer span of time, involving a larger number of people, the restaurant also drew universality into a complex relationship with diversity.
In the current atmosphere of xenophobia, it’s good to be reminded that everyone has the same basic needs including food and shelter, regardless of whether they’re American, Iranian, or North Korean. This is one of the foundations of respect, a necessary condition for peaceable coexistence. Equally essential, though, is appreciation of other cultures, and support for them to thrive on their own terms.
Even if the flavors and textures of khoresht-e hulu are not all there is to Persian heritage, a traditional dish is a synecdoche for the culture. Ingredients reflect the regional landscape and climate. Tastes are a common tongue. The way a food is served and the gestures called upon to eat it are important elements of social interaction. A traditional dish is not only a synecdoche, but also a gestalt.
Most people from Pittsburgh were not conscious of all the levels with which a native of Tehran would experience khoresht-e hulu. Many people from Tehran might be unaware of some layers of meaning on their own food. The subtleties are not as important as the overall impression, the experience, and the receptiveness to it. Within each appetizing dish, Conflict Kitchen served the ingredients of peaceful co-existence.