Exploring the limits of the home

by Ryan Rosenberg, Dolma Ombadykow, Malcolm Drenttel & Jonah Max

Illustration by Maria Cano-Flavia

published November 4, 2016


In 2003, artist and RISD graduate Michael Townsend devised a plan to create a luxury apartment in a 750-square-foot space in the parking garage of the Providence Place Mall. The seemingly benign, Mixed-Up Files-esque project spawned after he heard a radio ad featuring someone musing about how great it would be if we could live inside the mall. Townsend undertook the project, along with seven of his friends, partly in protest to the mall’s construction in the late ’90s and partly, according to his blog, “out of a compassion to understand the mall more and life as a shopper.” Constructed over the course of a couple of years, the mall-house was eventually adorned with sofas, a cabinet for china, and a Sony PlayStation. A Salon article, which chronicled the artists’ habits while dwelling in the structure, noted that they accessed the space by shimmying through a two-foot-wide tunnel, which one artist involved described as an “opaque gray oatmeal mixed with the contents of a lint trap.” The project, which in itself represents an idealization of displacement, is further problematized by the rhetoric used by the artists in which they employ a self-congratulatory tone for having endured imperfect conditions. It’s worth noting that Townsend’s blog which documented the mall endeavor was titled “Trummerkind,” translating to “children of the ruins” in German — a gross sensationalization of the self-inflicted project.

The space where the apartment was assembled was originally used as a storage space for Providence Place, and all the materials used to decorate the apartment were purchased from the mall. There’s the sense that Townsend desired to be surveilled or found out by mall employees based on the way he regularly drew attention to the project by documenting it on a blog, uploading images of the apartment and scanning pages of his sketchbooks. But malls are never great at perceiving nuanced habits or feeling the footsteps of each individual that comes into contact with their carpeted bowels. Perhaps this explains why it took four years for the project to be exposed. Eventually, the blog became so popular that it neared the top of Google searches related to Providence Place, potentially leading to Townsend’s discovery by a security guard in October of 2007, whom he greeted by yelling “Surprise!” and pleading no contest. In the months that followed, Townsend was charged with criminal trespassing, sentenced to six months probation, and was banned from ever entering the mall again.

Yet, the shock value in the structure’s existence obscures the privilege inherent to the project, which ultimately promoted an aestheticization of temporary shelters. Townsend and his buddies would only stay in the structure, which he refuses to call an “art piece,” but instead “a home,” for a week or so at a time, and then retreat to their actual homes, equipped with working toilets, electricity, and heating. Posing questions about the how artists survived the project, like how they managed to sleep in the parking lot when it was cold, for example, gives them an unnecessary platform to ostentatiously talk about the self-inflicted hardships, thereby elevating them to heroic mascots and further aestheticizing displacement.

According to the Salon article, “They made a bed of cardboard and insulation tiles where they spent cold nights. They washed up — it was dusty — in mall bathrooms.”  They also disguised themselves in mall-shopping outfits and carried Nordstorm shopping bags, aesthetic gestures foreign to their own, as the article emphasizes that Townsend is exceptionally low-maintenance, someone “who will happily wear the same pair of sneakers until they’re held together with tape.” The artist’s skewed project straddles critiquing the tackiness of the mall and its shoppers, while simultaneously supporting standards of fine living and romanticizing displacement. “Life from within the mall was committed to the pursuit of normalcy,” Townsend wrote of the project, identifying a sentimentalized struggle to achieve a base-level of comfort. Salon’s mythologizing rhetoric in describing a project that aestheticizes homelessness is dually disturbed by the claim that the artists never intended “to make a spectacle of themselves.” 



The Home Becomes a House

This past spring, the exterior of a two-story home in Detroit was stripped away by American artist Ryan Mendoza and shipped off to Europe. In the aftermath, the interior was left exposed on the residential block where the structure had stood for generations. The house, which was foreclosed on in 2012, once stood as the multigenerational home of the Thomas family. Vincent Thomas, the 53-year-old African American man who grew up in the house with his seven siblings and was its final owner, describes the home longingly in a documentary about the project as “a place where fun happened.”

The home’s foundation and its principle supports remained standing near the Eight Mile and Livernois neighborhood of Detroit. The Thomas family home was one of the nearly 60,000 then set for foreclosure in a city that has recently fallen trend to a series of artists and photographers who have profited off the reduction of the city to an image of  “an abandoned and gutted home,” according to the Guardian.

After his intervention, Mendoza shipped the home’s shell to the Netherlands in parts, re-suturing the building in an empty, cement expanse opposite the main structure of the Art Rotterdam. After the end of the museum’s three-day Fair to Discover Young Art, the building was relocated once more to its final, permanent display at the Verbeke Foundation in Antwerp, Belgium this April.

In an interview with Berlin Art Link, Mendoza explained his decision to paint the house’s exterior stark white as an attempt to reify its status as an “art object” and “protect the house from the voyeuristic nature of people.” His goal to ‘protect’ literally whitewashes the building, recasting the structure and doubly displacing the family that previously called it home.

Mendoza, who has lived in Europe since the nineties, explained to Detroit Free Press that in the early stages of the project, he “wasn’t even looking for something in Detroit. [He] just wanted to bring America back to [him].” When a friend recommended the city as a place to acquire cheap structures, Mendoza was struck by this particular building, as it reminded him of his childhood home in Pennsylvania. Inside his re-fabrication of the structure’s façade in Europe, Mendoza projects video footage of his mother, former Miss Pennsylvania, against the inside of the back exterior wall.

In Mendoza’s reconfiguration, it seems, the art object worth ‘protecting’ is the memory of his childhood. To this end, the use of the Detroit home serves Mendoza’s free-market attitude toward cultural consumption. His abstraction and aestheticization of American poverty, it seems, is simple fodder to solicit morbid curiosity from the viewer.

The house has been laid to rest in the gardens of Antwerp’s Verbeke Foundation as a part of its permanent collection. The home has been bolted shut, hermetically sealed, and exported as cultural artifact, taking “a life-size slice of Detroit’s blight back to Europe for display,” as Colleen Kowalewski writes in the Detroit Metro Times.

In a documentary his wife filmed of the installation process, Mendoza explains, unblinkingly and with baited breath: “If you think superficially, then this is exploitation. If you think in a deeper way, then this is connection.”



Casting a Shadow

Rachel Whiteread makes casts of spaces. Under chairs, in closets. Entire rooms, homes. While casts are traditionally used in the reproduction of sculptures, Whiteread inverts the relation, turning negative space into productive space. Her 1994 sculpture House was a concrete cast of the interior of  a Victorian terraced house in East London. 193 Grove Road was a building slated for demolition, in a neighborhood slated for redevelopment. For 11 weeks the structure—which had offered shelter to human-animals for over a hundred years—was reimagined as a concrete block. Where it stood there is now a quiet little park, ever-so-Britishly named Wennington Green.

The result of the casting process is that all those elements of the building’s shape which intrude on the interior, often not originally visible from the exterior, are reproduced surprisingly as exaggerated indentations. This is most visible in the window panes; which seem removed from the house without their muntin bars. Lacking the house’s spatial logic of walls and windows as containers, the windows appear to bulge. They seem to resist their own weightiness, suggesting the light, almost immaterial, push of air against these very same surfaces. In an interview with Lynn Barber, Whiteread mentions “happy places, I suppose, where you went and dreamt. Places of reverie. And where you’d mutilate your dolls, cut their hair and everything.” 

Perhaps Rosalind Krauss had these scenes of mutilation and isolation in mind when she declared that Whiteread’s work “is continually moving through a funerary terrain, a necropolis of abandoned mattresses, mortuary slabs, hospital accoutrements (basins, hot-water bottles), condemned houses.” House offered a brief pause in the wave of progress, bearing witness to a fleeting moment in the development of Homo Urbanus. Concrete, invented by the Romans, evokes the material conditions for both city-building and war-making. Grove Road was where the first V-1 Flying Bomb fell on London in 1944. In only two months, this early cruise missile managed to destroy nearly as many English buildings as were erased by The Blitz, explosively erasing flesh and bone as only an afterthought to the much more demanding concrete. Nearly 60 years later, the neighborhood, still recovering from wartime destruction, was slated by city planners for the redevelopment of concrete-free, green-spaces like Wennington Green. 193 Grove Road was occupied until just before the first concrete was poured for House. The evicted resident, Sidney Gale, could only express shock and disgust toward the project, demanding “How can they get grants for arts projects when we can’t get grants for homes? I could have bought a new home for my family with this money.” In this retelling, House is less a sculpture of a home than an occupation of space in remembrance of the tragic history of urban violence. Perhaps it is no surprise that Whiteread would go on to design a similar Holocaust memorial for city of Vienna.

“The Public,” nonetheless, attempted to prevent the destruction of this ode to destruction. 3,300 signatures were gathered for a petition. While these could be the signatures of House’s truest supporters, it is equally possible, and important to the story, that they could be the voices of gentrifiers who saw the possibility for real estate speculation in the neighborhood’s prominent sculpture (and its sculptress’ close ties with blue chip galleries and global art domination). These voices went unheard, however, and the thin structure of House was demolished within two hours on January 11, 1994. Nothing remains, save a line of maple saplings and two concrete benches.



Hole in the Wall

Between 1974 and ’75 in a condemned townhouse in Paris’s 4th Arrondissement, a circular cut was made through the kitchen’s linoleum-tiled floor. A second cut was made through the kitchen’s wall, and a third, final cut ran through the building’s brick exterior itself. Standing in the gutted kitchen, one could peer into the living room and the hallway of the floor below, as well as onto the street. Viewed from the street, the building’s façade looked as though it had been bored by some fantastical cylinder. These building cuts, titled Conical Intersect and coordinated by the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark (with the aid of assistants and half a dozen freelance construction workers), were one expression of a practice Matta-Clark and others would call anarchitecture—“an ongoing process,” according to his notes, of “making space without building it.”

While “making” and “building” often operate as synonyms, the distinction Matta-Clark was signaling becomes visible when one considers the different sorts of labor and, in turn, compensation implicit in a term like homemaking as opposed to homebuilding. That is, Matta-Clark’s architectural interventions, his anarchitecture, sought to make visible precisely the spaces which capitalism had tucked away—the feminized, valueless, and hidden zones that appear to buttress our economy rather than participate within it.

By operating within these neglected spaces, well outside the walls of any art institution or overt capitalizing force, Matta-Clark believed that his work might evade the sort of fetishism the art economy had long bestowed on its objects. Of course, this was not the case.

One can now trace the rubble, for instance, excavated from Matta-Clark’s sites as it makes its way into gallery spaces and museum halls, assuming astronomical value. A 40-square-inch cut-out Matta-Clark had made of a dilapidated floor, titled Bronx Floors, recently sold at Christie’s for a quarter-million dollars. The paper ephemera (sketches, blueprints, proposals) that his work left behind have similarly garnered exorbitant price tags—a simple drawing of a tree from 1971 fetched almost $10,000 at auction.

This unfortunate irony that the art designed to evade commodification ultimately becomes the most fetishized and highly valued is not unique to Matta-

Clark; Lucy Lippard, in her work Six Years, finds that this trend in many way characterizes nearly all conceptual art experiments in the ’60s and ’70s. And yet, with Matta-Clark it reaches something of a perverse climax.

Over the past five years, Frieze and other art fairs have rebuilt FOOD, a project Matta-Clark designed to feed the homeless and hungry on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at their various venues in Europe and America—now they serve organic carrots to the upper crust of the art economy.