Fact: every 2.8 seconds, a new pizzeria springs forth from the fertile pavements of New York City. Or so it seems. But don't expect to find the city's latest offspring, a "dystopian pizza parlor" that mashes 90s nostalgia with violent arcade games, in the next Zagat.
“Babyharvester”, an immersive exhibition that opens tomorrow at Clocktower Gallery, came out of a collaboration between video game curators Babycastles (a collective founded by Syed Salahuddin and Kunal Gupta), pizza fanatic the Slice Harvester (Colin Hagendorf), and illustrator Yusuke Okada. Since the gallery happens to be hidden in the same building at New York City's Criminal Court, this might be the only pizzeria in the world you'll have to go through a metal detector for.
Colin Hagendorf, aka the Slice Harvester, took to the role of pizza guy like a second skin. Photo credit: Samuel Huber.
Once you're past the steely gaze of the security guys out front, not much keeps the pizza parlor—which they've named "Duke Reuben's Pizza Kingdom"—from looking and feeling exactly like a corner spot anywhere in Brooklyn. On the wall, portraits of the imaginary owner posing with celebrities and a prominently displayed Sopranos poster poke fun at typical pizzeria clichés.
Not much distinguishes the pizzeria from a Brooklyn hangout. Photo credit: Samuel Huber.
When I walked in during a preview party last week, cute chicks huddled around worn-in high-tops sourced from an old furniture lot in Gowanus, while Jock Jams blared from a stereo behind the counter—where Hagendorf (who's become somewhat of a local legend after spending two and a half years reviewing every pizzeria in Manhattan) was aggressively doling out pizza.
Every arcade game had a distinct, DIY look. Photo credit: Samuel Huber.
By the entrance, curious players surround a row of indie computer games, rigged in DIY arcade booths that were originally part of the legendary (and now defunct) Babycastles arcade in Queens. "This was our first time only curating violent games," Salahuddin told me, which was a decision prompted by memories of childhood trips to pizzeria arcades with their families. He explains, "there was this game called Narc, where you played a DEA agent, and bad guys on PCP would throw cars at you. It was total Reagan bullshit, but we didn't realize we were being manipulated into participating into heinous shit."
Colin Hagendorf (left) and Syed Salahuddin (right) dish out pizza to visitors. Photo credit: Samuel Huber
This retroactive realization prompted the group to imagine the parlor as a "grotesque reimagining of our childhoods," where an idyllic haven is underscored by more sinister tones of social conditioning and manipulation.
PeaceMaker, by Tim Sweeney, Eric Brown and Asi Burak, simulates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Photo credit: Michelle Lhooq.
The first, a turn-based, strategy war game called PeaceMaker, simulates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "It's the least arcade-like game, and a lot of people are stepping back from this one saying it's too intense," Syed says. The only times I see people give up, though, is after getting tired of reading the lengthy text narratives.
Harpooned, by Conor O'Kane, Kevin Ross, Alex Parker and May O'Kane, is a "socially-conscious shoot-em-up." Photo credit: Michelle Lhooq
The second, a vertical shooter called Harpooned, takes a tongue-in-cheek jab at the whaling industry, by putting the player in charge of a Japanese whaling boat that turns blubber into cat food. And the third, called I Was in the War, is an abstract action game where a pixelated player jumps over soldiers, tanks, and helicopters.
Salahuddin draws a connection between video games and pizza, calling both of them dominant cultural forces in America that are cloaked with the rosy glow of veneration—but need to be examined with a critical eye. The idea behind this exhibition was therefore to examine both as ubiquitous but sinister forces by building this "fucked up pizza parlor."
Guests didn't seem to mind the dystopia, so long as they got free pizza. Photo credit: Samuel Huber.
Gazing around the room, I'm not sure if the people slouching all over their pies feel particularly uncomfortable. The room feels so much like a cozy, wintertime retreat of carbs and cheese, it's hard to notice this dystopian angle—or remember that somewhere else in the building, judges are sentencing fines and jail time to some miserable people.
Hagendorf proudly hangs up his last slice of pizza on the wall. Photo credit: Michelle Lhooq.
When I return to the counter for a second slice, Hagendorf admits to me he doesn't know anything about art. "I just think it's fun and cool to put a pizza parlor in an art gallery," he says, before gleefully nailing a slice to the wall, like a proud owner displaying his first dollar bill.
“Babyharvester” runs through December 31, 2012 at Clocktower Gallery. It will host an event every week until closing, including a party with a child magician, a private dinner for ESL students, and a role-playing game.