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Failure Is an Option 

click to enlarge Carnegie Mellon art professor Bob Bingham enjoys a 6-cent cup of coffee while his wife, Kathryn Sitter types up her own personal failures for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Failure. The Carnegie Mellon University Art Project operates under the guidance of professor Jon Rubin, right. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Carnegie Mellon art professor Bob Bingham enjoys a 6-cent cup of coffee while his wife, Kathryn Sitter types up her own personal failures for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Failure. The Carnegie Mellon University Art Project operates under the guidance of professor Jon Rubin, right.

The Museum of Modern Failure looks like an old-fashioned malt shop: There's a simple bar, a row of narrow stools, dusty wooden floors and a couple of tables. The prices are almost turn-of-the-century: Six cents for a cup of coffee, plus some pennies for cream and sugar.

As you hunch over your Fair Trade java, you can also peruse the "museum": a black wall with graphics and chalk-written "failures." The curators have a broad definition of failure, from technological disasters (the Hindenburg, the Titanic) to unpopular inventions (Segway, Firestone tires, Comanche helicopters, the DeLorean) to cultural flops (Milli Vanilli, Ebonics, the mullet).

The Museum is a class project. The class is Art 301, "Art in Context," at Carnegie Mellon University. The contributors are undergraduate students.

If building an at-cost café seems a little more ambitious than a term paper, consider the museum's longevity: The idea was brewed up in early September, and the museum will expire with the semester, in late December.

"The basic structure of the class," says the instructor, Jon Rubin, "is that each semester, we find a different storefront in a different neighborhood of Pittsburgh and create a project, starting from scratch, that is based on the context of the place." The context could be the storefront, neighborhood demographics or culture -- whatever the group decides.

In this case, the concept came from Rachael Brown, a 22-year-old creative-writing major. She noticed that the store, located at 2628 E. Carson St., had a "history of failure" -- thanks in part to SouthSideWorks, the chain-retail mecca located directly across the street. The most recent failure was Bookends, a used computer store operated by the adjacent Goodwill, where old Epsons and educational CD-ROMs had failed to keep the business afloat.

"I just find it really humorous that blunders aren't what we celebrate in museums, just big successes," Brown explains.

What about the Holocaust Museum?

"The Holocaust Museum is more of a tragedy, not a failure."

This answer just opens up more questions. What's the difference between tragedy and failure? Is the Iraq invasion a failure? Who decides what failure is? What ends up written on that black wall? What fails to fail?

"These are the kinds of discussions we have here," Rubin says.

Rubin, 44, is originally from Philadelphia and a long-time San Franciscan. He moved to Pittsburgh a year ago to teach at CMU, where he founded Tent Show, a "roving institution" that builds creative installations around town. More involved than a typical college group project, Tent Show has taken on a creative life of its own -- Art in Context is more than just an elective. And Rubin has deftly learned how to manage funding: CMU pays the museum's rent. Meanwhile, Rubin's students volunteer as baristas (the café part is known as Break Even Coffee), earning only tips (what is 15 percent of six cents?). The coffee pots and filters are all donated, and the mugs and spoons will be resold in December. The café was the dream of 20-year-old Brittanie Wine, whose proposal won a class vote.

"It's all a giant collaboration," Wine says modestly. "Originally it was my proposal, but after it got moving, I don't take any more responsibility for it than anybody else."

Indeed, the students brim with enthusiasm, contributing their diverse skills: Mark Cullen, a 20-year-old guitarist, will compose songs based on local failures -- all anonymously written by Break Even customers. (The model failure on display came from a teacher, whose student claimed in writing to be a "perfectoinist"). The failures are being kept a secret until Cullen performs the songs this Friday night (Nov. 9).

True to their inspiration, the songs "don't have to rhyme," Cullen says.

The museum's short lifespan means low commitment and a fresh start in January -- an entirely new project, created by an entirely new class. But will they miss the museum?

"Oh, yeah," Rubin exclaims. "This has been great."

You might even call it a big success.

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