East Liberty Waffle Shop merges food, reality video

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In the wee small hours on the weekend, sometimes nothing hits the spot like hot waffles. That alone would make the recently opened waffle shop in East Liberty a welcome addition to the East End landscape, especially for young people in search of urban nightlife.

But patrons get more than a plate of giant, fluffy waffles with strawberries or chocolate: They also get a few minutes of video fame.

Waffle Shop: A Reality Show is a hangout for the late-night club crowd, but it's also an artistic/social experiment. The customers who agree to be videotaped get a chance to star in their own form of reality TV, talking about different topics while they eat waffles or drink coffee.

In the window, a sign invites passers-by to "Come Eat a Waffle!" Next to it, another sign reads "Yum Yum," and draws the eye to a TV monitor, where videos of past patrons cycle during off-hours.

According to its mission statement, Waffle Shop "celebrates the stories and lives of its customers. ... Waffle Shop is an experimental platform for community participation and local media production."

The shop/reality show is the project of an advanced undergraduate art course at Carnegie Mellon University called the Storefront Project. It's taught by Jon Rubin, an assistant professor in the School of Art.

The idea of combining reality video and a waffle emporium came out of brainstorming sessions, where the students decided what the project would be. One of the ideas was to produce a reality TV series, and another was the waffle shop. They decided to combine them and see what happened.

Students spent much of the fall semester renovating the former tuxedo shop at Baum Boulevard and South Highland Avenue. They peeled away layers of carpeting and old flooring to get to the original tile floor. They painted the walls a warm yellow. They used recycled building materials found at Construction Junction: The counters, for example, are made of wooden sliding doors.

After several test nights in October, Waffle Shop has been serving up food and fun for the past three weekends, usually drawing around 50 people a night. It opens Friday and Saturday after 10 p.m., and stays open until around 3 a.m. But because of semester break, it will close down for the holidays and reopen in January, when students hope to add a third night, or some daylight hours.

The 11 students enrolled in the art class staff Waffle Shop. They come from a variety of academic backgrounds -- design, architecture, drama, art, computer science and engineering. Next semester, a new crew of 18 students will take over the project.

The venue has been drawing a lively mix of people, from other students to late-night groups coming from nearby restaurants, clubs and bars, and neighborhood people. Peak crowds usually show up after neighboring music venues, like Shadow Lounge and AVA, close for the night.

Waffle Shop: A Reality Show is the latest in a series of storefront art projects Mr. Rubin's classes have created in the past two years.

"Each semester, we rent a storefront and students create projects that respond to the surrounding context," he said. "We start from scratch and look around at the neighborhood, the history of the storefront, the types of people who are walking by or live in the community." From this, the students develop ideas for what the storefront should be.

Mr. Rubin was driving through the neighborhood and saw a "For Rent" sign on a storefront in the historic Werner Building at South Highland and Baum.

"I thought it was really interesting for this class, because it's on the cusp of a neighborhood that's in transition," he said.

It is in the heart of a revitalized section of East Liberty, bordered on one side by the new Eastside/Whole Foods/Borders development, along with a mix of small independent retailers and nightlife destinations.

"It seemed like an ideal location," Mr. Rubin said. "It was next to the Shadow Lounge and AVA, which are interesting in terms of the diversity of audiences they bring in. From night to night, you get an entirely different population of the city showing up."

The clubs draw an eclectic mix of music fans, from hip-hop to trip-hop, reggae to jazz. The class saw those audiences as intriguing potential stars for their reality show.

"We film our customers every night to get a sense of the personality of people who come to this neighborhood," Mr. Rubin said. "We kind of reflect whatever is going on." Throughout the evening, the students film patrons who agree to appear on camera. One or two nights of filming is edited into two- or three-minute episodes.

Completely unrehearsed and improvised, the video performances have a spontaneous, unpredictable quality. One night the topic was polygamy: another, participants discussed reality TV.

Past episodes are showing on a TV screen in the window, even when the shop is closed.

The reality show videos will have a life beyond the storefront. The class will be posting them on the project Web site and Mr. Rubin is working on getting them aired on local public access station PCTV/Channel 22.

Sukriti Grover, a senior art major, says the experience has been an interesting social experiment.

"It puts your art in a social context. Even when I paint, interactions are important," Ms. Grover said.

Here, the relationship with the public is very different, she said. "It's not a gallery audience."

Ashley Kent, a graduate student in arts management, is using the experience as project manager to learn more about the business of running an arts organization. She spends time developing relationships with other businesses in the neighborhood.

"We're trying to reach out to other businesses. Because we're open at later hours, we're not competing with them," Ms. Kent said.

Mr. Rubin's storefront classes are one of several "contextual practice" courses offered through the university, which pays the rent for the storefronts. The classes are designed to get students making art that is created in response to a particular place, that has a direct relationship to its location and audience, and acts as a catalyst with spectators.

In past semesters, the storefront classes opened temporary businesses in other neighborhoods, including Garfield and South Side. Tres Rios Taqueria, or Three Rivers Taqueria, was a painted facade and taco stand on Penn Avenue in Garfield, where the students sold homemade tacos.

"You try something out and see how people respond," Mr. Rubin said. "The bottom line is that the students get to try their ideas out to a live public, and they have to be responsive to that public's interest.

"There's great potential for what we're doing here."

The project Web site is www.waffleshop.org.

Adrian McCoy can be reached at 412-263-1865 or amccoy@post-gazette.com .


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