Rooms To Let: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Value in Slavic Village
Artist David King was responsible for the work, titled “45,” or “The Biggest Explosion, the Best Explosion, Nobody Knows More About Explosions than I Do,” which he created with help from Sarah Curry, Lauren King, and Tony Hernandez. All around the empty suit on the floor and surrounding walls were the ashes of the volcanic tweet blast, the cooled remains of the president’s speech, cited quotations—some betraying disregard for humanity, some showing his perspective on the economy, twisted by privilege and self-serving schemes. Says one, with special resonance in this neighborhood–epicenter of the foreclosure crisis–“I’m the king of debt. I understand debt better than anyone else. I know how to deal with debt so well. I love debt.” And another, stenciled on the floor, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work. Torture works. Half these guys say torture doesn’t work Believe me, it works.”
For those who didn’t get there, or who don’t know about Rooms to Let, this is the annual, weekend festival of art installations in abandoned Slavic Village homes that are destined for demolition. The installations –some making direct commentary on housing, neighborhood and family history, or predatory lending, some more subtle, some simply using the walls and spaces as canvas—all gain from the neighborhood history, and especially the generations that lived in the homes before the economy was pulled from beneath their foundations. The fleeting nature of Rooms To Let resonates with the fleeting nature, even the disposability of everything—of houses, of ownership, of value, even of life. The exhibit lasts just one weekend.
I toured Rooms to Let Saturday afternoon with visiting Cuban writer / Creative Fusion resident Laura Ruiz Montes. As problematic as Cuba’s government-controlled, communist economy is, the island nation was sheltered from this particular kind of volatility and predation, and Laura knew nothing of it. So I found myself explaining to her the nature of the relationships and schemes that led to over-inflated housing prices, predatory lending, the sale of pools of toxic mortgages by banks essentially placing wagers on the likelihood of repayment—and of course all those human lives hanging in the balance.
The extreme wealth in the US, contrasted with this kind of poverty, is one thing for a Cuban to see. For her, a bottle of cooking oil or an hour of dial-up internet costs a day-and-a-half’s wage. But the idea of real estate value as a matter of faith, and as a tool to build one person’s wealth at the expense of another’s equity must have seemed to her truly bizarre. As we walked from room to room, my Cuban friend shook her head, and repeated several times, “this is very important for me to see.”
In what would have been the living room of the Hosmer House, Meg Matko was dismantling the plaster and lath, chip by broken chip, with her bare hands: the slow, deliberate destruction of value, leaving behind a pile of broken bits. It was as if one person were carrying out the physical act which lenders and flippers had carried out via paperwork with the neighborhood and the economy.
Grace Summanen has used throwaway collateral of consumer society as a raw material for sculpture and bas relief paintings for years, and in what might have been the dining room found space to take the idea large. She installed columns of empty cardboard toilet paper tubes, plastic shopping bags, and bedding, penetrating holes through the floors and ceiling from one level to the next, like HVAC ducts: accumulated waste of daily life, through every level of the home.
Ron Copeland had covered another room with fragments of hand-painted signage—snatches of graphic hucksterism, all selling to build value and dreams. Perhaps 80 or 90 percent of the walls and ceiling were covered in signage, an ocean surrounding patches where plaster had cracked away, leaving the bare bones of the home exposed.
There were many more rooms and installations upstairs and down.
The Hosmer House offered a couple opportunities for respite: a labyrinth in the grass lot next door (where another house once stood before its demolition) offered a heart-shaped rubric, perhaps for meditation on all you had just seen, thanks to the Broadway School of Music and Art. And we found curator Dana Depew in a little garden nook, offering traditionally whisked green tea in a deliberate ceremony, your moment of Zen.
Rooms To Let has grown each year, this time involving no less than 99 artists (if my count from the website is accurate) and more than 100 installations in three houses. In addition to Depew, the 2017 curators are Omid Tavakoli, Dott Von Schneider, and Loren Naji. And in my estimation, in its 4 year history, the artists involved have steadily stepped up their conceptual game: they’ve become comfortable with the freedom of using a disposable house as a medium, and have developed more complex ideas about what these homes mean to the neighborhood and the impact the lending industry had on lives, as well as more eloquent ways to express that and keep it current.
With a new streetscape along Fleet, and with new entrepreneurs occupying some of the space—like the Magelan, which hosted a Rooms To Let afterparty Saturday night, it feels like the neighborhood is on the upswing. Here’s hoping that this fleeting festival of installation helps residents find lasting value. I’m already looking forward to next year.