1.2 / Nomads and Residents

HOME 1996-2008

By Megan Wilson November 5, 2009

This article appears in Talking Cure Fall 2009.

Home 1996 – 2008 was a site-specific installation/environ-ment that utilized the interior space of my home to explore and challenge notions of comfort and protection, private and public, and the boundaries between art/life/architecture/ design. The title is a bit of misnomer because I actually started working on the project in 2004 (the dates reflect the years that I lived at the residence).

In November 2008, I officially opened Home to the public for 4 weeks. The installation was open 1:00-5:00pm Wed-Fri each week. The month also included a series of events and digital projections: 1) Eliza Barrios curated a series of video works that were projected nightly onto a window scrim that was best viewed from across the street; 2) I hosted 2 dinner salons that engaged participants in discussions of home, environment, global forces that have reshaped how interior space is viewed, and contemporary trends in exhibiting and experiencing art; and 3) I invited 3 artists - Gordon Winiemko, Lise Swenson, and Maw Shein Win - to each host an evening of work related to the context of the project.

Development of Home 1996-2008

When I first began the Home project in 2004 I had just finished a 2-year international exchange project that had exhausted me physically, mentally, emotionally, and creatively. There was also a considerable degree of anxiety in the air because of the Iraq war and the crimes of the Bush administration. I was having a difficult time mustering up the energy to make art or to even leave my apartment if I didn’t have to; yet I also knew I couldn’t continue to lie on my couch watching bad network TV. I decided I would use my discomfort as an opportunity and make work that spoke to this experience and to my interest in the boundaries between art, life, architecture, and design by turning my apartment into a living artwork that could evolve organically.

As I continued to work, it became clearer to me that I was creating a world that would attempt to redefine my reality.

I began experimenting with vintage curtains I had bought at a second hand store, cutting out the flower designs of the textiles and pinning them on the bathroom walls. While I wasn’t sure what the meaning of this was, I liked it, and more importantly, I was okay with not knowing and allowing my process to be loose and intuitive. This followed with selecting a color palette and painting the walls and the ceilings of the bathroom, kitchen, and hallway. Over time I expanded into almost every room, using a variety of materials and processes to transform the space. As I continued to work, it became clearer to me that I was creating a world that would attempt to redefine my reality. I used the aesthetics of my childhood in an effort to create a warm and safe environment that contrasted how I’d actually experienced my home growing up. I used traditional craft-based materials to adorn the space and approached the process as conceptual fine art, knowing that it would likely be dismissed as simply home décor. I wanted to present the project publicly and create a place for conversations about the meanings and interpretations of “home” and “art.”

Additionally, I began to contextualize the project in a larger framework and acknowledge artists who had inspired me: Home 1996 – 2008 referenced and borrowed ideas from artists such as Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, who erected the Merzbau, a real-life expressionistic interior, in his studio in Hanover, Germany; feminists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, who spearheaded Womanhouse - a series of fantasy environments exploring the various personal meanings and gender construction of domestic space; and conceptualist David Ireland, whose work “has a visual presence that makes it seem like part of a usual, everyday situation;” architects and designers such as Verner Panton, who created floor-to-ceiling and back-down-the-walls-to-the-floor, psychedelic interiors in the sixties and seventies, César Manrique, who designed Star Trek-like party spaces; and communities of West Africa, where each year after harvest, women gather to restore and paint their mud dwellings which are washed away by rain every year.

Megan Wilson. Home 1996 – 2008 (details); Courtesy of the Artist.

Unexpected Events Along the Way

In December of 2006 my landlord served all the tenants of the building with an eviction notice. It was extremely stressful to anticipate having to move after almost 11 years, as well as having to abandon my installation. Luckily I had two years to leave. One of the questions that I often get from people about the installation is: “What did your landlord think?” While he’s known for his harassment tactics and not keeping the habitability of the building up, he actually made a point to tell me “you keep a very nice home.” Additionally, all of the changes I made to the apartment for the installation were cosmetic and didn’t create any permanent damage. The eviction was an interesting twist to the project, emphasizing the fragility of home and the despair that can be felt when faced with losing it.

Life experiences are core to the work

In addition to the eviction, I was soon faced with another painful challenge. In March of 2007 my father was diagnosed with stage four-pancreatic cancer, with a less than hopeful prognosis. I was devastated by the news, but did everything I could to be supportive, including several month-long trips to Montana to spend time with him. Ultimately, the cancer progressed and by winter of 2008 he wasn’t doing well. However, he did make a point to come to San Francisco for a week in March of 2008 to visit. We had a wonderful time, including a large dinner in the installation for him to meet many of the wonderful people in my life. Sadly, he died two weeks later.

I mention these events in the context of the Home project because such life experiences are core to the work, impacting it directly, as well indirectly through the emotional toll they take and the inspiration they provide. At times I was consumed with grief and done with the project; a week later I’d find comfort in the meditation of solely focusing on the installation and see it as a life-affirming extension of these experiences.

Open Home 1996-2008: Theater of the Unexpected

I opened Home 1996-2008 to the public on November 1, 2008. The first week of open hours drew about 10 people/day. However, that all changed the second week when Jesse Hamlin contacted me to do a feature on the project in the San Francisco Chronicle. After the article came out, I had 50-60 visitors a day from all different backgrounds – people who love crafts, people with disabilities (the article mentioned that I have MS), people in the neighborhood, families, students, artists, interior designers, and people from across the country. Some of the most memorable visitors included:

From the Interesting:

  • An older woman named Linda who said she’d been in many of George and Mike Kuchar’s films – naked - since the early seventies. She came twice – one day alone and the next with her friend Granger – staying both times for several hours, reminiscing about the good old days of performance in SF.
  • A high school student from San Francisco’s School Of The Arts, who came with his dad and was interested in installation work and wanted to interview me. He also later sent me images of his work.
  •  A group of folks came on their lunch break from a hospital in the neighborhood and one of the women realized when she arrived that the building had once been owned by her aunt, who had sold it to my landlord.

To the wacky:

  • A woman who showed up with her large dog and started walking down the hallway to my bedroom – when Eliza told her that I had a cat, she said “that’s okay, Fido likes cats.”
  • A psychotherapist who showed up to do “crisis intervention” because he’d read about my eviction and was worried it might be needed. He left me his book and still sends me his weekly online newsletter - unsolicited.
  • A lawyer showed up curious about the eviction with the landlord – only in SF would there be the ambulance-chaser type lawyer, but looking for evictions instead …

To the serendipitous:

  • A group of 3 veterinarians came from San Jose to see the installation. Earlier that morning I had an anxiety attack about having move my cat to a friends house to stay until I settled in to a new home (which wouldn’t be for almost a whole year). They were able to provide me with lots of information.

The online response to the Chronicle piece was also over-the-top with more than 150 direct posts to the article, the majority highly negative. Here’s a good sampling:

  • "That apartment is HIDEOUS. Like a "Cost Plus World Imports" threw up on itself -- can she be evicted for having poor taste?"
  • "I went home with a chick like this once after some drinks. After a few minutes of looking around, I said I had to go back to my car because I forgot my protection. I got back to the car, opened the glove compartment, and breathed out in relief. It was there! Clutching my lucky juju charm for dear life, I drove away!"
  • "Here we are presented with Megan Wilson, a Maude Kirk of the next generation. A lady who chose art and leisure activities over earning and saving money. Taxpayers support her by way of SSI/Disability, art grants and Rent Control. BTW a 1 bed Nob Hill apt. was going for about $600 back in 96 - don't feel sorry for her one bit. Wilson may be going to Idaho or Indonesia for now, but she will return to SF and continue to suckle the enriching nectar of California taxpayer charity for as long as we'll allow it. Hippie "artists" will still flock here to line their pockets with SF handouts and their noses with drugs, as long as SF residents and our representatives vote to continually subsidize it. When you can't find an apartment for under $2000/month, half-handicapped leeches like Kirk and Hamlin are to blame. Good riddance!"
  • "All you whining art critics should take another Thorazine before your collective berets catch fire on your pointy little heads. You can use your flabby, tatooed legs to push the pedals of your fixies directly into the Bay - that would be an art installation I'd pay to see. Harrumph."
  • "I think some people have been ingesting a little to much hateraide. Landlord nightmare my *ss...they're going to get so much money for that place. It's right on the top of nob hill. It's probably going to be torn down or at the very least gutted, so she isn't doing any harm. This apartment rules and it does remind me of apt's in the 80's, when SF was still cool...now the city is being overrun by transient yups and fake hipsters, now that's boring. hmm, maybe I've been drinking too much hateraid."

I found this panalog to be one of the most satisfying outcomes of the project because it demonstrated that the work had hit a nerve in people and impacted them enough to respond. I appreciated all of the comments, whether they hated my work, loved it, or were speaking in my defense. Many of the haters I found to be very amusing, especially when someone would create their own story about who I am – based solely on their projection of what having a disability means or what having rent control or being evicted means; like the example above where the poster went off on a tangent about me receiving SSI and not working or saving money (all are completely false). However, I also found myself projecting stories about who the posters were – folks whose only contact with anyone else is through these online formats – people lying on their couches in their cluttered apartments, collecting SSI for having a disability …

Digital Projections

When I first started thinking about the public component in 2005, I planned on presenting weekly screenings of movies that somehow related to the project. However, when the time came for planning the actual events, I wanted to incorporate more work by other artists, as well as reach a larger audience. I worked with artist Eliza Barrios to develop an alternative plan. She decided to digitally project videos from inside the apartment onto a scrim on one of the front windows that could be prominently seen from the street. Eliza curated the full month of nightly screenings that included: 1) Works by Carolyn Castaño, Domingo Nuño, Adriana Varella, and Richard ‘Axle' Pirkle; 2) Two site-specific slideshow videos created by Eliza for the installation – documentation of the Home 1996-2008 progression over five years and a piece in support of the Obama campaign that screened on November 3rd and 4th; and 3) Three films that provided a strong visual and visceral impact in that context – The Color of Pomegranates, Yo Soy Cuba!; and In The Mood For Love.

The response was a mix of delight for the unexpected, confusion, appreciation, and concern.

The location of my apartment was directly across the street from Le Beau Nob Hill Market, one of the most frequented and respected family-run businesses in the neighborhood. Le Beau has tables set up in front of the market, providing the perfect venue for viewing the projections. The response was a mix of delight for the unexpected, confusion, appreciation, and concern. The latter was best expressed through a call to the police to report a child being abused.

Adrianna Varella’s video featured a 3-year old boy wearing shorts (nothing else) lying inside a cardboard box, moving around and scribbling on the sides of the box. The video was shot tightly as a close-up and viewing it from the street, the boy in the box fit perfectly in the full window. Varella’s piece just happened to be scheduled on the night that I was hosting the Dinner Salon Home and Stuff: Design, Production, Consumption, & Disposal. My ten guests and I had just sat down to dinner and discussion in the living room when I heard someone coming up the stairs. I opened the door to two cops coming up. They had received a call that there was a boy being abused at the address. They were relieved that all was fine; they were also very curious to hear more about the project. So I offered them a full tour. I was impressed by their interest and appreciation, as well as their distress that my landlord was evicting me and the work would be destroyed.

Dinner Salons

The two Dinner Salons I hosted were The Influence and Use of Craft in Contemporary Art and Home and Stuff: Design, Production, Consumption, & Disposal. For each of the salons I invited guests I believed would be interesting contributors to the discussion and asked each of them to invite an additional participant who they believed would also add to the topic/salon. Prior to the dinner, I emailed a few questions/thoughts to each of the participants that we could use as guide points if needed. Participants were also invited to bring documentation to share. The dinners/discussions were recorded and video documented by Eliza Barrios and will be posted on my Website in the future.

The Influence and Use of Craft in Contemporary Art guests included: Michael Arcega, artist, MFA candidate at Stanford University, Amy Berk, artist, writer, faculty at San Francisco Art Institute, Kate Eilertsen, curator, former director of San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art and Interim Director of Visual Arts, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; Mung Lar Lam, artist, and Jennifer McCabe, Director, San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art.

Home and Stuff: Design, Production, Consumption, & Disposal guests include: Eliza Barrios, Artist; Carolyn Castaño, Artist; Kevin Chen, Artist, Curator, Writer, Program Director of Visual Arts, Literary & Jazz at Intersection for the Arts; Gary Dauphin, Writer, Editor; Glen Helfand, Writer, Curator; Deborah Munk, Director, Artist In Residence Program at the San Francisco Dump; Zachary Royer Scholz, Artist, Writer; Felisa Royer Scholz, MPP candidate, Goldman School of Public Policy, Berkeley; James Sellier. Artist; and Imin Yeh, Artist, MFA candidate, California College of Arts.

Megan Wilson. Bedroom from Home 1996 – 2008; Courtesy of the Artist.

Curated Events

One of the intentions of Home 1996-2008 was to create an environment that would provide an unexpected, alternative space for people to come together and share. As part of this goal I invited three artists – Lise Swenson, Gordon Winiemko, and Maw Shein Win - to each create a site-specific work for the project.

Home 1996-2008 inspired media installation artist and filmmaker Lise Swenson to write, and shoot on site of the installation, a short experimental film, Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show about an elderly woman recluse awash in her own reconstruction of a media-saturated world. Lise presented the final work on November 13, 2008 to an audience of 25 friends and supporters in the installation. The effect of viewing Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show within the installation was an extraordinary physiological and visceral experience.

Gordon Winiemko used the opportunity to expand on his and Jeff Foye’s Focus Group project. In summer 2008, Jeff and Gordon were approached by a progressive arts organization to participate in a series about "participation in the political process." Their response was to emulate one of the most ubiquitous forums for participation our society has to offer -- the focus group. They staged performative question and answer sessions first with the staff of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, then with friends and colleagues of the artist Kim Abeles, and finally with friends and colleagues of their sponsor org. On November 7, 2008 just three days after a victory of progressive, grass roots politics, Jeff and Gordon regaled invited guests with their findings as part of Home 1996-2008.

Maw Shein Win hosted synecdoche at home, an intimate evening of friends, food, and fun that felt like the epitome of a 1960s San Francisco happening. Guests were adorned with flowers as they entered an altered state of synesthesia. The event included readings by Lael Gold, Carolyn Miller, Jenny Bitner and Maw Shein Win with musical performances by Nathaniel Parsons and Matt Wolka.

Home Investment

I often get asked about the costs and funds to do Home 1996-2008. One of the advantages of creating work over a period of years is that it also allows for years to secure funding. The costs were covered by my personal income – in total I spent about $1,000/year and a $5,000 grant from the San Francisco Art Commission. In total the installation cost me approximately $10,000. The greatest resource for the project was my time, which varied based on how much I was working, other exhibition commitments, and personal challenges, such as my dad’s illness and death. At times I’d spend 50 or more hours a week, in all I estimate that I spent several thousand hours.

 I cried often during the final two weeks

 Another question I was asked in relation to the resources I’d invested in the project, was: “How could you invest so much time, energy, and money in this knowing that you would have to leave it at some point?” A good question since it does seem like such a waste. However, there was much I gained from the process (and am still gaining)--including the reminders: nothing is permanent, everything changes, and value is how one decides to interpret it. Admittedly, these are easier said than practiced. The de-install and packing everything up was like a very painful breakup and I cried often during the final two weeks; all the emotions--disbelief, sadness, anger, feeling numb--that apply to losing a loved one, were/are there. I’m still struggling with letting go of my home, especially since I don’t have a new one, even though it’s been almost 8 months, which makes me realize just how important this transition has been for me. Difficult as it is, I’m grateful for the lesson.

The amount of stuff I had to pack up was also overwhelming and almost suffocating to me. Unfortunately too, I didn’t have enough time to get rid of more than I did. Instead about two-thirds of my things got packed up and put it into storage. However, as I’m now faced with moving out of storage soon, I wish that I’d been able to cut that down to less than one-third. This phase of the project has actually had the greatest impact on me. I’m now hypersensitive to every little thing in my possession and am constantly evaluating and reevaluating whether I need something or not – almost always, not.

Homeless 2009

Since I moved out in mid-December, I’ve been traveling with my girlfriend and living out of several suitcases, including four months in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines. By the end of our travels in Southeast Asia we realized that even our 2 suitcases were far too much and we could easily have gotten by with one medium-sized pack each.

Through these travels it was also interesting to observe homes in each culture. Not surprising, Americans live far more excessively. However, in every country we visited the great symbol of consumerism -- the mall – was alive and thriving with the promise that future Southeast Asian homes (and landfills and oceans) will be packed with stuff. Hopefully the silver lining to the current global recession/depression is that it will help to slow this progression.

My current project, Homeless 2009 explores contemporary Minimalism as I considerably downsize my possessions by selling or donating them. I’ve also vowed that any new objects will be created with materials I already have.

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