The project in which Michael Townsend and seven collaborators created a secret apartment at Providence Place began as an adventure in which four friends tried to live in the mall for a week. Townsend, 36, says he’d stay three to four weeks at a time in the makeshift squat they created in neglected storage space in the shopping center’s parking garage.
EXHIBITIONISTS: Gallery directors [left to right] Bert, Shapiro, Purkey, Walsh, Connor, and Smith
provide outlets for Rhode Island’s fertile creative scene.
The escapade came to an abrupt end when mall security stopped Townsend as he was leaving the living space on September 26. Yet it quickly became clear that the mall apartment was one of the most audacious and awesome underground art projects Rhode Island has seen — part MacGyver, part Robin Hood, part Bugs Bunny, part juvenile delinquent, and part genius philosophical joke.
After watching developers remake Providence in recent years, Townsend and his wife, Adriana Yoto, had imbibed real estate lingo and they saw the forgotten mall room as valuable property that shouldn’t lay fallow. During their initial week in the mall, the group decided, “We have a responsibility to come back and micro-develop that space.”
In a brilliant act of humorous intellectual jujitsu, they turned the weight of Providence Place, a major symbol of consumerism and redevelopment, back on itself to reconsider the place of malls and real-estate development in our communities. At the same time, the secret apartment clubhouse was a thrilling reminder of how Providence remains an inventive and surprising magical artistic place.
Rhode Island’s capital has a national reputation as an incubator of cool art — from designer Shepard “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” Fairey and Barnaby Evans’s WaterFire to the bygone monstery punk cooperative Fort Thunder and the feminist art gang that makes its home at the Dirt Palace. The art collective Paper Rad, which moved to Providence from western Massachusetts in the past year after hovering around the city for years, was listed in Vanity Fair’s “Art Issue” last December as one of the stars in its map of the international art universe. And now we have the nationally publicized The Apartment At the Mall, as seen on CBS, Fox TV, and elsewhere.
Providence’s reputation and the national prominence of the Rhode Island School of Design remain magnets for artists. But even as new art spaces like Firehouse 13, the Stairwell Gallery, and 5 Traverse emerge, much locally made art seems perennially hidden in the mysterious and alluring underground, distanced from conventional galleries.
Seen in this respect, The Apartment At the Mall is typical of the local art scene and how artists here sometimes work in unexpected places, hiding on occasion in almost plain sight. To some, Providence’s gallery landscape may seem underdeveloped, particularly in comparison to the city’s zesty creative reputation. Seen another way, though, the partially hidden quality of local art is part and parcel of what helps to make it happen.
The anti-materialist imperative
Many of the leading lights of Providence underground art over the past decade — Fort Thunder; the feminist collective the Hive Archive; and its spin-off, the Dirt Palace — are distinguished by their penchant for screen-printing, reflecting Providence’s do-it-yourself ethos and a populist desire to produce art in numbers that keep it cheap and accessible.
These artists often first exhibit their prints on Providence streets. Townsend is known for temporary public tape art murals and a sculptural installation secreted inside a tunnel near College Hill that featured caskets suspended over water and flying and standing figures.
Making this kind of free or cheap art is a reflection of how many of these emerging artists are wary and critical of the elitism and pretension of the commercial art market. And this was part of how they end up underground.
“People have pretty complicated ideas of how their art fits into consumer society,” says Xander Marro, a 32-year-old artist and co-founder of the Hive, who is now based at the Dirt Palace in Olneyville Square. She also serves on the board of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts.
Providence’s underground is devoted to making art and music, which frequently only gets shared in private shows, both large and small. The work is often aimed at a small audience. Commercial success isn’t a primary aim, which can make things difficult for galleries aiming to sell the work.
Not that it prevents artists from showing or selling their work. “It’s an act of love,” says Neal Walsh, a 37-year-old Providence painter and gallery director of the downtown arts space AS220. “It’s just that art, that doing it, that energy, the passion that’s behind it, it’s not commercial.” Local artists often teach each other techniques, offer assistance, and share inspiration.
“It’s more about the whole activity and not the exhibition,” says Judith Tannenbaum, the contemporary art curator at the RISD Museum, who organized the “Wunderground” exhibit, the museum’s survey of the city’s underground poster scene last fall.
Many artists choose to live in Providence to evade the art world’s money and hype. But the anti-commercial ethic has also sparked tensions at times in the Provi¬dence underground, as individuals have sought or attracted attention. There have been charges of “selling out,” and jealousies and hurt feelings about who has received more fame, exhibitions, and sales.
“It’s a healthy thing that it’s not all about commerce,” says Bert Crenca, 56, co-founder and artistic director of AS220, and an artist as well. “What we’re creating is a community that values expression, and that expression is helping to shape the community . . . In a world that is so goddamn desperate and needs creative solutions, we need to create, to build infrastructure to support that kind of creative activity.”
Townsend says, “None of the work I do, literally none of it, could have been accomplished in another city that didn’t allow me the freedom to live cheaply. I can’t express that enough. The combination of underground art and cheap rent, that mathematical equation is pretty common. I think that the cheap rent allows freedom for really excellent pieces of artwork to be created . . . It’s sort of like Providence has given a grant to every artist that lives there by giving them cheap space, a development grant if you will. And it’s those development grants that allow them to really evolve their stuff.”
The ability to leave cheaply in neglected old mill spaces is part of what enabled the fertile scene at Fort Thunder and elsewhere in Olneyville. And though rising rents and the growing scarcity of mill space have led some artists to move elsewhere, the tight-knit fabric of the local creative community remains intact.