Finnish artist Jani Leinonen remembers when the first new Burger King opened up in Helsinki. "For weeks and weeks, people were queuing outside to get the first burgers, and they were tweeting from the queue happily. It was this weird queue of pride," he said. But he also remembers another queue, not so far away, at a homeless shelter. Unable to shake the juxtaposition, Leinonen's launched a new project in an art gallery in Hungary: A fast food joint called "Hunger King" that keeps the rich and poor segregated in two different lines.
The statement reflects economic mechanisms that keep the rich rich and the poor powerless all over the world. But in Hungary, the issue's more painfully specific. Hungary's homeless population faces some of the most severe anti-vagrancy laws in Europe. Last fall, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law that criminalized living on the street, throwing the already-destitute into a cycle of fines, and even jail time, for being unable to pay their penalties.
"This illegalizing policy—it pushes the homeless somewhere else," Leinonen said. "The natural reaction if [politicians] want to keep the power is to try and hide [the homeless]. The problems of the strong, free markets that have been spreading all over the world—they want to hide them right now."
At Hunger King, the rich can line up to buy an ersatz burger for the equivalent of $2,678, while the poor line up to receive the minimum wage—roughly $15, packaged in a Hunger King takeout burger box. So far, no one's bought the fake food, but the poor line has increased from 20 customers a day to 50 after the show launched last week.
There's also an online component to the exhibit. On the Hunger King website, you can click through to tweet directly at Hungarian politicians. And they've been paying attention, according to the Finnish Institute in Hungary (Finnagora), the foundation that invited Leinonen to Hungary in the first place. Finnagora shares a roof (but no formal relationship) with the Finnish embassy, which the institution says has been fielding inquiries from the Hungarian government.
At least one of the early subjects of the Hunger King tweets—deputy state secretary for international communications of the Hungarian government, Ferenc Kumin—has reached out to the embassy to ask what's been going on, according to Leena Pasanen, director of Finnagora.
"There have been inquiries from the Prime Minister's Office, because Kumin is the gentleman receiving these tweets. He was asking what we were doing, and why," Pasanen explained. "He didn't contact me directly. He actually contacted the ambassador. But I've been explaining to him so he could respond."
Kumin did not respond to a request for comment.
"I think he saw it more as a political act than artistic work," Pasanen added.
Leinonen anticipated some prickliness from certain political corners, but he was also worried about what those standing in the "poor" line would think of the project. He hopes that media organizations interviewing the homeless in line at Hunger King will draw attention to their perspectives.
"It's kind of instrumentalizing them, putting them in the queue," Leinonen said. "You easily feel like an imperialist when you go to a strange country. So it's good to hear and see that it actually works, and these people actually get to say stuff. We probably had like 20, 30 different media organizations in the opening and they were interviewing people in the queue. And maybe that was the point."