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Hiding in plain sight

Aping luxury makeovers at Providence Place
By GREG COOK  |  October 10, 2007
Going underground: The hidden quality of the providence art scene is a big part of what sets it apart." By Greg Cook.
The amazing tale of the eight Providence artists who turned a forgotten room in the Providence Place garage into a secret furnished studio apartment caught people’s fancy because it suggested magic behind every door and tapped into people’s love-hate relationship with malls and consumer culture in general. But at its heart it is part of a body of local art examining and critiquing Providence’s development boom.
Artist Michael Townsend watched as the Eagle Square mill housing the punky artist collaborative Fort Thunder was leveled in 2002 to build a shopping center anchored by a supermarket, which recently vacated the space. He was living in that neighborhood then, he says, and spent two years trying to focus community attention on what was happening and to preserve as much as he could of the surrounding complex.
“The Eagle Square fiasco, by theory, is an extension, a byproduct, of the mall,” the 36-year-old says. “Which is to say, with the mall in our neighborhood, there started to be in Providence a culture of trying to make sure that every square foot was being utilized to the best of its abilities.”
So in October 2003, Townsend says, he, Adriana Yoto, his wife and collaborator, and two friends decided to get to know their neighbor better — by spending a week without leaving the mall. Each had $20, though one guy quickly lost his bill. They dressed up to fit in. They spent hours examining every object in stores. They say some slept in a column in the garage and some slept in a forgotten room, which Townsend had spotted while the shopping center, which opened in 1999, was being erected.
“Going into the fourth day, we had a meeting at Borders,” Townsend says. “We said, ‘You know what, we could be here forever.’ ”
“And nobody would care,” Yoto adds.
“The word ‘micro-development’ came up,” Townsend says. “We said, ‘You know what? We have a responsibility to come back and micro-develop that space and make a home.’ ”
“Because,” Yoto says, “it was grossly underutilized space in a very prime real estate location downtown.”
Townsend says, “That Christmas, they blew our minds with a Christmas ad that played on the radio. This female voice saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to live at Providence Place?’ ”
The first thing moved in by the eight collaborators was a sectional couch, which, they decided, was the key object that makes a place a home.
They built a wall and door at the end. They bought in chairs, tables, bureaus and an eight-foot-tall china hutch. They say they hung out, played video games, talked, cleaned, and opened their mail.
They remade the space and imagined remaking themselves. Underpinning it all was a sharp, smart examination and satire of the luxury lifestyle and home-makeover trend, which they saw epitomized in the mall, both as a redevelopment project and through the products it sold.
“We wanted the mall [apartment] to be so good, so livable, that we could maybe entice a catalogue photographer to come and do photo shows of their products there,” Townsend says, half-serious, half-joking. “Nothing would make me happier than to go to Crate & Barrel and . . . see a bamboo wooden bowl shot on a dining room table that is our dining room table in the mall. That’s where we were headed. It’s a total tragedy that we didn’t get that far.”
The four-year project in mall-style living ended when Townsend was stopped by mall security as he left the apartment with a guest on September 26.
“They were dressed pretty sharply,” Townsend says. “They had managed to achieve what I was trying achieve. It was a very frustrating moment. I got busted in shorts and a T-shirt, which is the very thing I was trying not to be busted in.
“So that actual act of busting was a declaration of how poorly I had managed to manifest the whole. Because, if things had gone really well, I would have been busted in a button-down [shirt] and nice pants. They would have been busting a mirror of themselves, but that’s just not what happened.”
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Adriana Yoto
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