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Vacancy as a Canvas

9 September 2011 One Comment

This is becoming a series–a series about abandonment–and what people do with it. The first part discussed ways to get rid of it, be it through demolition or arson or just plain leaving. The second part discussed ways to recreate post-industrial landscapes as places of play.  This third piece will highlight another more recent phenomenon: vacancy as canvas.

Generally, architecture is art, and the lived-in, tidy house could be considered a finished piece; that is, framed, constructed, and imbued with a sense of meaning that is channeled into some schemata that breeds instant recognition, form.  Conversely, the vacated, absent version spilling at the seams eliminates such preconceptions, evoking senses of insecurity via disorganization. Vacancy, in effect, serves as symbols of what as a society we aspire not to be.

To that end the swaths of the Rust Belt returning to earth are the effects of what’s societally broke.  But if one goes past this convention—and the loss, rubble, and the rats—one can see something else, or a canvas from which new systems can be hinted at (this is Ruin Porn,  its other manifestations are just that).  Art has always done this: used image to push passed just-reason to ignite a paradigm switch. And vacancy art is perfect in this regard because it exists as both the actual effect of a broken system as well as the medium used to confront the illusion that the said system isn’t broke.

Living in Cleveland, and seeing the remnants of the 20th century landscape that gave meat to the American Dream—and then seeing parts of it lying about just as fleshy albeit torn to pieces—well, there is definitely a dream quality to it. And while sad in a conventional sense, there is a bit of an air growing in the industrial heartland that is like the release you can feel when you are taking things apart. Below are examples of artists who have put the disassembling of our landscapes back together in a new way.

In Detroit a group of architecture students bought a house at city auction for 500 hundred bucks. They used the vacant house to build ideas full scale as opposed to building tiny models in a classroom. One project is called Table and Chairs and “intends to provide the house with its missing staircase. The bleacher-like quality of the stair makes it a space to move through but also a place to linger.” The movement of ascension is no doubt being re-explored here, with less of an emphasis on order than chopping one’s way up. Detroit for sure.

In Baltimore there is Axis Alley which transforms vacant backyards and their disused accompaniment: the alley. Why alleys? Because they “possess a certain toxic beauty and provide a fascinating possibility of urban intervention and creative gesture.” This is community development, done indirectly, and through the back door.

In Cleveland folks turned a house condemned due to a vacant house explosion into a place of urban art therapy. On a micro-level the project helped neighbors process the losses and fears related not only to the explosion, but to the landscape of vacancy in general. On a macro-level the project was an attempt to inject emotion into the field of urban planning, as it is a field that has paid more heed to parceling and erecting as opposed to attending to the human effect of being parceled and erected upon—not to mention hollowed out.

Lastly there is New Orleans: the Rust Belt sister city. There, the KK Projects—now the Life is Arts Foundation—was founded after Katrina in the St. Roch neighborhood in six abandoned structures. Abandonment in the artist mission was seen not as what left. Convention that is. Instead, “through constant conversation with unwelcome forces, we find deeper appreciation for nature, expanding our understanding of beauty. Art thus becomes how we see”.

Art becomes how we see. Artists, then, fleeing to the Rust Belt. For in many ways it is easier to look around at the beauty of what might become when so much is broke. As the constraints of not yet appearing to be broken keep away the urgency of needing to look again.

–Richey Piiparinen