December 4, 2007


Last month I wrote about those artists who lived in the Providence Place Mall and Monday night I had a chance to hear Michael Townsend speak at Brown. He was the one who masterminded the whole thing, the "ringleader" if you will. And now he's on the lecture circuit. He and his wife gave a meandering talk on many aspects of the "project" as they described it. I had been expecting a tour de force of art school intellectualism, but I came away with the impression that they had set up their apartment in more of a "wouldn't it be cool if we did this" attitude.

They didn't have a preplanned outline for the talk, they just brought a laptop and showed pictures, while running through a half-dozen subjects. One of the amusing things was the paranoia they felt living there. They didn't have any misapprehensions about whether what they were doing was trespassing and went so far as to wall up an open area below the 'apartment' with mall-style cinder blocks and a cheap, lockable door. He supposedly felt bad enough about stealing electricity that he'd slip a $20 under the managers door every few months (veracity dubious).

I'd been expecting to count words like "consumerism" but instead, all of the observations made were of the variety you would expect from an alien dropped into Providence with no pre-existing knowledge of American culture and the sole mission to understand every aspect of the mall. He and his wife were strangely perplexed by the ubiquity of advertising, and the way it tries to make people feel defined by possessions. This is a new thing? On the other hand, he did seem to have a lifelong obsession with the difference between public and private areas, so it wasn't as though he was making it up when it became convenient. In the 90's he found some neglected tunnel in downtown Providence, put a lock on the gate, cleaned it up and stuck a bunch of art in it. So that was weird. The mall is private property, yet it was subsidized massively by our tax money, something people forget.

Probably the most interesting revelation he made was that he never thought of living in "the netherlands" of the mall, as he called it, as performance art until they were caught living there with a couch, dining table, TV, playstation, lamps, and china hutch. So that was honest...especially because they seemed to be trying to pass it off as artistic expression right after they got busted.

The ProJo was there as well and wrote it up, newspaper-style.