Sunday, September 13, 2015

In the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility

Pizza Studio
3201 St. Paul Street
Charles Village

Pizza Studio's product is definitely pizza because Pizza Club “immediately recognized it" as such. We accept the evidence of our senses. But what subliminal machinations underpin this moment of recognition?  Even taste, smell, and cheese are constituted by a field of structural forces. The present is opaque to itself – “each 'now' is the now of a particular recognizability.” The people of Baltimore recently entered the now of infinitely-customizable premium-quality pizza served in under two minutes.

What's more, this pizza asserts its status as a work of art created by you, the consumer. Where the gates of Dante's Hell bear the inscription, “Abandon All Hope,” the gates of fast-casual dining entreat you to “Create Your Masterpiece."

Pizza Studio is a franchise “fast-casual” restaurant from California recently slotted in to the gleaming brick-and-glass arcades of the 3200 block of St. Paul, a block notable for looking and feeling nothing like Baltimore. Undergraduates can be observed through the plate-glass windows of Chipotle, Cold Stone Creamery, and Starbucks, enjoying the remarkable continuity of consumer experience made possible by the extensive geographical coverage of these brands. By substituting “a plurality of copies” for the unique existence of a particular place, they constitute a distributed zone of the familiar that empowers college students, families, tourists, etc. to move uninhibited through an 'urban' environment that would otherwise offer them few recognizable enjoyments.

There are already two pizza places in the Hopkins zone that should meet the needs of undergraduates, but they definitely haven't captured the current market. They don't belong to the particular recognizability of the now: freshness, 'local'-ness, hip design and branding, and the embrace of myriad dietary restrictions. They lack a story, ethos, values, or globally-oriented social commitments. Pizza Studio won't compete with any of the neighborhood pizza places – it's in the ring with Chipotle in a battle for which eight-dollar lunch-food spectacle can assuage the creeping bad consciousness of late capitalism.

Pizza Studio frees you from all limits and constraints as you queue up to order your custom pie. If you find yourself experiencing limitations, it's due to your own weak imagination and ultimately, your failure as an artist -- in which case you can select a pre-fab “Masterpiece” from a menu.

The fresh, all-natural components of a Pizza Studio pie flow rapidly through different stages of matter. As in the studio of a highly-successful contemporary artist, the transformation of raw material into art is carried out by assistants whose labor is not “creative,” and thus, effectively invisible. Since you, the consumer, are also the artist, you pay for the cost of materials, facilities, and cheery technicians to realize your vision under your supervisory gaze.

Also like a highly-successful contemporary artist, you the patron of Pizza Studio are plugging in to the front end of a cultural production apparatus with its back end in military R&D, management psychology, despoliation of the earth, and an endless chain of exploitative labor practices. Delicious all-natural ingredients and seamless customer service did not invent themselves. The employee motto of Pizza Studio is “SNAP” – “Sense of urgency, No excuses, Attention to detail, Pride of ownership.” This motto is inscribed in the frantic, slightly-unhinged slicing pattern of a Pizza Studio pie.

Samit Varma, one of the founders of Pizza Studio, spent eight years as a Navy officer on nuclear submarines before he got his MBA. His partner is a career corporate ladder-climber of successful food franchises like TGI Friday's. The duo billed themselves as “former Baltimore residents” for the opening of the Charles Village Pizza Studio, which means that one grew up in Rockville and the other lived in Owings Mills. Behold the mercenary reproducibility of the 'local' – witness the militarization of the artisanal – in a weapons-grade toaster oven that blasts your personal-sized pizza with 50-mph gusts of scorching wind generated by the beating of Satan's wings in the innermost circle of Hell.

 All of this is yours for seven dollars and change – another attraction in the college market which prizes the illusion of quantity. The actual quantity of food material on your pizza will not increase appreciably even if you select every topping. Pizza Studio is not stupid – economies of scale and scientific optimization underpin each casually-strewn handful of nitrate-free pepperoni. Consumer psychology revolves around a primal delusion of rational decision-making, the appearance of “deals” that give maximum value for money. Whenever you experience this instinct, rest assured, someone with a six-figure salary is laughing and snorting coke off a Pizza Studio to-go box emblazoned with the catchphrase “Your Hot Masterpiece”. 

 Since it is an important function of capitalism to deny us knowledge of our time and place – to produce a fully-realized phantasmagoria that masks the obvious material conditions of life – the presence of Pizza Studio on a Johns-Hopkins-owned block of Charles Village, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A. explains itself. “It's gonna suck when this creative artist space gets driven out by gentrification and Hopkins development,” one Pizza Club member observed.

Pizza Club quickly located the “Starving Artists' Wall,” really half a wall, in the back corner of Pizza Studio. The concept is to have local artists – presumed to be starving because we all know the difference between creativity-branded commodity capitalism and creativity the disease that makes you actually go to art school – hang their work in the restaurant and sell it to customers. This is great synergy because the theme of Pizza Studio is the mind-warping lie of the creative economy. Dwarfing the local art are numerous restaurant industry stock photo canvas prints with pictures of weathered, brown-skinned hands holding vegetables.

I ordered the requisite plain cheese pizza. I felt like a failure because I hadn't expressed myself using the infinity of options available to define my unique pizza identity. However, when the Pizza Club Power Lunch Team took a synchronized bite of our cheese slices, we all experienced the mysterious confluence of sensory cues telling us that this was, indeed, Pizza – a good-tasting cheesy bread object fresh out of a heating device. “I thought the crust was gonna be bullshit,” said one PC'er, “but it's not terrible crust.” We ate a wide variety of pies from the menu and from our own rich imaginations, all of which tasted like pretty good food.

The Pizza Studio banks on a psychic economy of additive flavor, where “flavor” feeds back into the creative expressiveness and perceived value of their product – what we might call a flavor-creativity-value complex. The crust has “no particular flavor” or texture. The unlimited toppings, which Pizza Studio fully expects you to pile on, are the building-blocks of flavor-creativity-value. Then there are “glazes,” bottles of liquid salt and sugar that you spray on top of the pizza to further boost flavor-creativity-value. We hardly noticed the difference in pies with gluten-free crust and vegan cheese because these elements – normally the foundation of a pizza – are purely structural, like the tortilla in a Chipotle burrito.

 All of this is a long-winded recapitulation of Pizza Studio's mission statement. They're going to be the Chipotle of pizza, which for some reason no one thought of being until now. If you like Chipotle, and you like pizza, you'll want to add this to your lunch routine. Like Pizza Club, you might ask, “do I have to acknowledge my guilt for enjoying a corporate franchised business?” To which we say, “Be who you are.” We had an excellent time at Pizza Studio eating fun, creative personal pan pizzas. We sated our appetites and returned to the office to make shadow puppets on the back wall of a dimly-lit cubicle until 5pm, when we went home to watch TV. One can only hope to move through today's phanstasmic creative economy like a Pizza Studio pie through its turbo-charged toaster oven, and emerge out the other side a certified Masterpiece.

5.5/8 slices

Credits: Scott (pizza photos), Graham (photos & research), and Kate (photos)