Transient lives fixed in photographs

Nomadic tendencies
By MARGERY NIBLOCK  |  October 10, 2007
PAINTED CHARIOT: Abby Banks's stencil truck.

That graffiti-mobile driving by is Abby Banks’s “stencil truck.” And the 29-year-old artist/photographer from Vermont is America's punk-house maven.

Punk houses are places inhabited by “musicians, artist, writers, anarchists, squatters,” Banks says, “where people with alternative lifestyles can live together cheaply and pursue their interests. It’s this generation’s rebels; people are questioning society and the status quo.” In addition to ideology, she says, there are “pragmatic reasons for many of the punk houses, such as bands living together.”

Visiting a friend living in a San Pedro, California, punk house became the impetus for a three-and-a-half-month cross-country odyssey in 2004 to document these dwellings and make a book of the photos, documenting this transient existence. Like their inhabitants, punk houses are ephemeral. Banks says: “90 percent of the houses in the book are gone.”

A connection with Thurston Moore, frontman of alt-rock legend Sonic Youth, led to a collaboration and a publishing contract with photo-book publisher Harry N. Abrams for Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy, just released and available through Longfellow Books. Moore wrote an introduction; before the photos comes an essay by musician, writer, and videographer Timothy Findlen, who accompanied Banks.

The truck’s stencils were added to along the way, as artists they met offered to add to the collection. The haunting one of Anne Frank was done by a teenager from a Vermont art collective Banks is part of. The teen is a fan of the indie-rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, whose founder Jeff Magnum was emotionally overwhelmed after reading The Diary of Anne Frank, dedicating the album “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” to Frank.

Among the places Banks visited was her favorite, Villa Kula, in Seattle, where she spent a week - once she found the place. “There was lots of stuff in the yard with plants growing around everything,” says Banks. She also visited the nearby Seattle Institute for Applied Piracy, where “a group of kids bought land and built cabins, some of which were in trees.”

The creepiest of the 65 houses she visited was a converted Denver warehouse: “There were no windows; lots of dogs; tough people. I felt unsafe.” They didn’t stay long. But “usually houses were friendly and we were led from one to another.”

It may be that way for her book tour; the publisher isn’t paying for one, so Banks leaves October 18 on a six-week jaunt along the East Coast, across to New Orleans, and up through the Midwest.

Portlanders will have to wait for the end of the tour before getting a glimpes of the bookstore performance: a film, a slideshow, a discussion, and a puppet show (accompanied by experimental-folk musician Pat the Bunny). Banks plans to make arrangements here after returning from this trip, around Thanksgiving. So stay tuned, and see what stencils are added next.

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