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Waffle shop produces art that's off the grid

When it comes to art appreciation, "People being drunk goes a long way," allows Jon Rubin, an assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University.

Or so it seemed late one Saturday night (or early Sunday morning, but who's counting?) at a former tuxedo shop at the corner of Baum and Highland avenues, in East Liberty. Here, in an emerging cultural nexus formed by the Shadow Lounge and a spate of trendy new restaurants, students from Rubin's Contextual Practice course hosted a combination art happening, waffle house and reality-TV show.

"Waffle Shop: A Reality Show," is truly a working waffle shop, offering plain and chocolate waffles garlanded in whipped cream for $3. But the interior also features a brightly lit photo booth and, at any given time, there might be a discussion being filmed on the week's chosen theme.

"We have specified themes for the week. Last week it was monogamy, this week it's reality TV. People have a lot to say," says senior art major Brenda Battad, in between ferrying plates of hot waffles to the dozen or so customers in the bar-style seating.

The tapings, made by a student with a video camera, take place at a table in the window, whenever enough folks volunteer to sign a release and take part in the discussion. (The filmed discussions are shown during the day on televisions facing the street; eventually, they'll be available online.) Conversation ebbs and flows just as the night does. For folks seeking a takeaway souvenir, there's an old-fashioned photo booth operating out of one of the former shop's dressing rooms.

"Waffle Shop" has been operating a few nights a week for the past three weeks. "Obviously it's an unfamiliar combination -- a waffle shop and reality TV," Rubin says from behind the counter. "Dislocating people's perception is the first thing. The idea is to ultimately confuse people."

As for where this particular idea came from, Rubin says that as with a good waffle, when it comes to art, "We start from scratch. There's no syllabus. We research the area, pay attention to the surrounding culture and what else is going on around us. Students go with ideas -- it's a classroom in the world."

The waffle shop is just the latest version of what Rubin calls the "Tent Show." According to its Web site, www.tentshow.org, it's "a forum for experimental public projects that respond to the social, physical, and cultural dynamics of specific contexts and audiences." Previously, the class has operated a coffee shop, hodgepodge storefront and taco stand.

East Liberty was an appealing place to explore, Rubin says. The Penn Circle area crumbled decades ago due to a combination of bad luck and bad planning. But today it's re-emerging as a tony shopping district. As a result, Rubin says, the waffle shop is located on the site of "two different ecosystems."

And it draws energy from both. Steve Pham and Jennifer Lin of Shadyside still wore the telltale wristbands from just having danced their faces off at the packed Girl Talk show, the evening's earlier and sweatier entertainment at Club Gravity in Cheswick. What brought them in?

"Waffles!" says Pham. "I hadn't had waffles in a while."

"Great, very light!" Lin says of the steaming plateful she'd devoured. "They were the perfect blend of airiness and chocolate."

Such motives are common, Battad suspects. Rather than the art, she says, people come "primarily for the waffles -- and the 'what the hell is it?' factor. A lot of people don't know what it is, but it's Saturday night and they don't care."

click to enlarge PHOTO: HEATHER MULL

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