Kitsch Kitchen

Kitsch Kitchen

At the turn of the 1970s and ’80s, within a climate of gnawing impatience in which progressive artists felt uncomfortable with the compromises of the art trade, a creative expression that embraced the aesthetic revolution of environmental and performance art made its way through the streets. The claustrophobic confinement of New York galleries solidified the decline of pop and minimalist art, which was already on the brink of being overshadowed by a lavish diversity that resulted in fresh approaches to art-making. This served as a social and political rebellion against the commodification and idolization of art.

With the escape to the streets, to public spaces beyond any conventional definition of an “exhibition space,” some artists finally unleashed a gushing source of kitsch that, «with the reduction of transcendent nature, with the dissolution of creative effort, with its trivializing and popularizing action»(1) sterilized everything that was once subversive. In short, a camp mechanism was set in motion, fueled by «the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience»(2). If kitsch leads us to «not be ourselves»(3), camp is deliberately kitsch: it is «the love of the exaggerated»(4) which, by virtue of that, «turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment»(5).

In September 1984, on West Broadway between White and Franklin, where today stands an anonymous residential building, the camp had opened a restaurant. The United States had just left behind the turmoil of the Vietnam War and the country being led by a Hollywood actor embodying the unrestrained optimism of the neoliberal project. All the artists had moved to the loft district known as Tribeca, and a “For Rent” sign hung on the door of the old Teddy’s, the Sal Cucinotta’s swanky restaurant.

This combination of events, held together by the partnership of eccentric Catalan artist Antoni Miralda and Spanish chef Montse Guillén, conceived the glittering art-culinary project known as El Internacional Tapas Bar & Restaurant. On the menu was a bizarre combination of politicised environmentalist stance and aestheticised fast food debauchery.

However, there was no room at El Internacional for tranquilizing Po-Mo decorations or cryptic theoretical justifications. A collision was staged between the Italo-Mafia origins of Teddy’s and the Catalan sparkle adorned with formica, aluminum, and polyester tapas, «by using architecture itself as the subject matter for art»(6). In this sense, the entire restaurant presented itself as an objet trouvé, treating all other elements as an exhibition of archaeological reliquaries, a surreal ensemble for excellent culinary performances.

On the black-and-white animalier façade, one could still read the relief of the “Teddy’s” sign of the restaurant (first German and then Italian) whose management the two Spaniards had inherited, as if to complete a gag. «One day I’ll take down the ‘T’ – reflected Miralda, interviewed a few weeks before the opening – and someday perhaps the ‘E’»(7). El Internacional was a bizarre archaeological collage that mixed not only the culture and history of Teddy’s but also that of New York itself. During the restoration of the Statue of Liberty for its centenary celebrations, as The Lady was hidden behind a gigantic scaffolding, Miralda gave birth to the concept of “liberty brochettes”: initially, a small BBQ crown skewering tomatoes and garlic heads was displayed in the window, then a metal reproduction of the Liberty Crown became the crowning glory of the small restaurant that, even though squeezed between two brick buildings, was able to triumph over the whole street.

The “Sol y Sombra Terrace”, paved with crushed aluminum cans, completed an allegorical building clearly inspired by a sparkling Carmen Miranda with glittering shoes, leopard-print dress, and tropical headpiece.

Alongside the scenic inventions, both actual and sculpted food adorned the New York establishment. In Miralda’s poetic vision, food clearly had a plastic, chromatic, and sensory dimension. But, as Marshall Reese aptly put it, by combining sculptor and rituals with culinary experiences and symbolism, Miralda and Montse had become «spiritual mediums who not only resurrected and restored forgotten architectural details but summoned up spirits long departed»(8).

Chorizo bites or grilled calamari or cod beignet served in small ración mingled with “The Archaeological Sandwich”, the mural composed of materials unearthed during the bar’s construction. Crispy country bread smeared with olive oil and fresh tomato juice, glasses of tinto wine and morsels of Spanish prosciutto paraded on the “Columbus Trophy Bar”, where Sindria, with the same lustful passion as a young Loren, served drinks to regulars.

The four themed rooms were a bizarre archaeological museum where a temporary exhibition seemed to unfold, curated by Gaudí himself. In the “Turquoise Dining Room,” there was a wall covered in 1920s tiles unearthed during the renovation work. On the walls of the “Carnation Room,” diners could leave the imprint of their kisses. The “Sentimental Room” displayed images of celebrities who had frequented Teddy’s golden age (including Elizabeth Taylor and Groucho Marx), while in the “Marina Room,” tables were set amidst a floor containing a showcase with four dried codfish and a ceiling decorated with eccentric, sharp stalactites.

The cast of El Internacional was a collection of signs, symbols, icons, music, tableware, furniture, and all sorts of consumer society detritus, collectively treated as actors continuously recycling themselves alongside the icons of the old Teddy’s. The entire restaurant was a sort of «a novel and a film combined with a spaceship and a time machine, serving food and drinks on the same platter with a heaping of ideas, traditions, fashion, and art»(9).

The calendar of performances and events was constantly updated and offered the exuberant atmosphere of 1980s New York along with the veiled gangster vibe of Teddy’s.

In short, the whole restaurant was like a kitschy Catalan disco&mafia performing like a camp machine fuelled by art, food and celebrities: the cast of diners ranged from the Beastie Boys to Pina Bausch, via Joe Dallesandro and a few other Warhol Factory regulars. Arguably, El Internacional was the greatest experiment in edible and visual art ever conceived.

Every privileged customer contributed to Montse and Miralda’s vision, a memory that still survives today. No one who entered El Internacional could simply eat; they always participated in a sort of celebratory pop performance «of art, life, nourishment, friendship, and good will… with lots of jubilant evidence of shared symbolism»(10).

In a famous essay, Andy Warhol argued that he liked «to work on leftovers, doing the leftover things. Things that were discarded, that everybody knew were no good, I always thought had a great potential to be funny. It was like recycling work. I always thought there was a lot of humor in leftovers»(11).

El Internacional seemed to have made this teaching its mission: to experiment with an original form of archaeological kitsch, recycling styles, traditions, foods, and people with art, architecture, avant-gardes, and clichés.


1. Moles A. A., Kitsch, in “Enciclopedia del Novecento III”, 1978 (translation by me).

2. Sontag S., Notes on Camp, in “Against interpretation and other essays”, New York: The Noonday press, 1966, pp. 287.

3. Klaus Koenig G., Qualcosa di Non Autentico, in «Skema», II, n. 13, 1970, pp. 4 (translation by me).

4. Sontag S., Notes on Camp, cit., pp. 279.

5. Sontag S., Notes on Camp, cit., pp. 286.

6. Wines J., Cuisine as context, in “Miralda Madeinusa”, Barcellona: MACBA, 2017, pp. 136.

7. Greene G., The Tapa-Dance Kid, New York Magazine, November 12, 1984, pp. 115.

8. Reese M. in El Internacional (1984–1986): New York’s Archaeological Sandwich, Barcellona: Dilecta/Food Cultura, 2017, pp. 178.

9. Ibidem.

10. Wines J., Cuisine as context, cit., pp. 137.

11. Warhol A., The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), San Diego: Harcourt, 1975, pp. 93.


Ciro Priore is an architect and PhD Candidate at the University of Rome “Sapienza”. His research interests focus on the spatial and biopolitical spillovers of food systems. He has published a book on the so-called Italian “Aree Interne” and several articles on the relationship between domestic space and food production. He is among co-founder of the research group Materia Ordinaria, of the self-construction collective LAPS and co-founder and editor of the audio magazine “Traccia”.