Published in Viennese Story, curated by Jérôme Sans
Vienna: Wiener Secession, 1993
The irony of converting a building whose function remains articulated in its very design into an entirely different use can have a certain appeal. There is a degree of enjoyable challenge in trying to remember when such and such a building served this or that function. But the constant flux of the city causes a strange fooling, it is a feeling of living in limbo, of always being in a state between remembering and not remembering, of being familiar and unfamiliar.
As confusing as all this can be when one takes a walk through the heart of a city, the affects of disruptions in commercial spaces seems nothing more than a series of distractions when considered beside the dynamics of the home. After all, a home can be created out of just about anything. A home can be staked out anywhere. Home can mean a shack built from refuse. Home can be the space under a viaduct or bridge. Home can be a back alley loading bay. So it is true what has been said that home is what you make of it. Perhaps that is why people resist “eviction,” even from under a bridge. It is their home.
I once read a story about so-called “mole” people living in the soot and darkness of an abandoned New York City subway station. Apparently, several dozen people lived here, including children. In one printed picture, the camera flash revealed a little library and I wondered how it was possible to read in such darkness. In another image children’s toys were strewn about on the obviously derelict subway platform. Beside the bookstand there was furniture, two sofas, an end table, and even a small coffee table, all arranged in a perfect “L” as one would arrange a living room to invite guests in for tea. I marvelled at this improbable attempt to carve out a “normal” living room environment under such harsh conditions.
Spaces are interchangeable, particularly living spaces. Because of poverty and all kinds of reasons, people live anywhere and everywhere by converting whatever spaces seen reasonable enough to become a home. But the strange feelings I spoke about earlier concerning the changing functions of commercial and civic buildings are not felt here in the case of “home” conversions. As I walk through the city, I see potential homes in every lurking space. Businesses come and go, that is the nature of businesses. Bank buildings may turn into hair salons or a restaurant can turn into another restaurant but, always, they can become homes.
Looking at the picture of the furniture in the abandoned subway tunnel seems anything but strange. Perhaps, it is the misery of the living conditions that renders the strangeness into something else. Perhaps, I start to think about my own advantages, too self-absorbed to think anything strange about living deep underground. I do not fully know. Whatever the reasons, the feeling I have is not one of strangeness but of familiarity. When I saw that picture, I remembered that a home is a home is a home, no matter that it is a miserable and hellish dark place. There really is no place like home. Home is for private thoughts. This is my home, my space, please don’t trespass. Would you like to come in for tea? What are you coming home?
I now think that I have been understanding a basic problem of modern life completely backward. It is not the strangeness or the defamiliarization or the not quite remembering what is the problem. (Well, it is a problem, but it is a different kind of problem to my deeper concern here.) The real problem is not the feeling of strangeness; that is not it at all. No, the real problem has more to do with the feeling of familiarity, especially the kind which has become innate and inbred. This problem has something to do with our idea of home. Or perhaps I should say that the problem is not even so much about the idea of home as it is about the ideal of home, which is rooted in an ideology of the home. I think that is what I try to talk about with my furniture sculptures.