The Builders Association's Marianne Weems deconstructs the housing crisis in Brooklyn
Inspired by Steinbeck and cutting-edge architecture, the multimedia director reassesses property values.
By Helen Shaw|
Marianne Weems's East Village apartment doesn't give any hint that her company—the tech-savvy Builders Association—has set the bar for media-infused performance. The walls sport vintage posters; orangey ceramic pots sit on a table. There are no wires. But Weems and her cohorts are, in fact, about to open another of their cyber-textured pieces: House/Divided, a collage of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and a stock-market frenzy playing, at the BAM Harvey Theater through Saturday. You get the sense that this apartment, serenely untechnological as it is, may be Weems's refuge from the flickering projections that encase all her recent work; their electric aura, though, still hangs in the air. Time Out New York: How did House/Divided come about? Marianne Weems: The exciting news is that company is about to be 20 years old. In 2014, we'll have our 20th anniversary, and I consider it an accomplishment just to have survived! And so I wanted to go back to our very first show, Master Builder—which was based on the Ibsen play but set in a three-story house in a 70,000-square-foot warehouse space at the top of what is now the Chelsea Market. We rented for $1,000 a month. Those were definitely the days! It was a spectacular breeding ground for this piece, which basically created us—the company formed around the project.
Over six months, we created a house—designed by architect John Cleater—that was based on a collage by Gordon Matta-Clark. Matta-Clark is central to all of our work; he created a movement called Anarchitecture—which was about taking buildings apart rather than putting them together. It was about looking at the interstitial spaces in meaning and also in physical space, and it was also about the American family, because he would take out actual walls and place them in galleries. You would see the different layers of wallpaper and lath and Sheetrock and sorrow that connects any American home.
So Master Builder was seminal in that [company members] Ben Rubin created the sound and video and Jennifer Tipton came in and lit it, and it was a shot out of the cannon in terms of creating the company. I was dreaming of doing it again, but when we started talking about doing the piece, it became clear that the meaning of a home had changed, obviously, in the last 18 years, and that the “house,” an idea of a central anchoring of the middle class, had changed profoundly. Time Out New York: So that's how you started thinking about foreclosure? Marianne Weems: I, of course, had been reading about it like everyone else—there's a million amazing stories. For instance, there's a high-rise in South Florida where only one couple remains. They say the only voices they hear are the elevator saying, “Going up...” And there were hundreds of stories we were hearing and trying to retell.
So this is how we wound up repurposing that Master Builder notion of the house. And then we were fortunate enough to find a foreclosed house to actually make the set out of—in a nod to Matta-Clark, we cut up this real house, and its moving sections become the set. We then improvise media work around the structure—Cleater, for instance, has created augmented-reality projections, which audiences will only be able to see through their smartphones. The entire theater will be full of images.
Time Out New York: So now instead of Master Builder, you're using The Grapes of Wrath as a central text. How did Steinbeck enter the water system? Marianne Weems: I wanted to do something about the loss of a house, the American mother-story of being on the road, what happens when you lose your home. So one of the things we did on our brainstorming retreat was watch The Grapes of Wrath, something I do every few years. Even if people haven't read the book, people know that story—the Joads, the dispossessed, the Dust Bowl, the dream of California. And if you read it, right away Steinbeck starts talking about the banks repossessing the farms, and if you replace the word farm with the word house, it's exactly our current situation.
Then the Joads are juxtaposed with traders who are trading in mortgage-backed securities. Much of the text is taken directly from these quarterly calls from places like Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers—conference calls they make to their investors. Hundreds of people call in to hear what the CEO has to say. Much of it is incredibly dry, but then there are these moments that are very telling, such as when Lehman's CEO sweats bullets on the phone and is saying “Morale is strong!” just days before it all collapsed.
Time Out New York: So when you use the electronic wall, glowing Builders projections around this actual home, are you making a valedictory gesture? Is the home over as a concept? Is there a new kind of home? Marianne Weems: It does seem weirdly nostalgic to go back to an actual fucking physical house—just dragging a 40-foot container around on tour seemed crazy! But when we talked to people who had been foreclosed on, they said—to a person—that the house had become an albatross. Rather than being an anchor, as it had been for the previous generation, now it's a millstone. I can tell you that this is the last time we ever use a physical set like this too. For us too, it became a millstone! Time Out New York: Apart from the electric glow we associate with Builders, what do you consider your aesthetic? Marianne Weems: I would say matrixed acting is built into this work. I don't want to see some guy who looks like Tom Joad playing Tom Joad. It's like a hat on a hat. Realism is just painful! Instead, in casting Moe Angelos, as Ma, and Jess Barbagallo, as Tom, you get a certain distance that allows us to invest in the story—there's a space between Jess and “Tom” that can be filled with one's own mental projections. There's nothing more nauseating than watching an actor pretend to be someone, since no matter how good they are, we're watching the re-creation of a facsimile. So when we work, we know there will be distances, and the media is part of that. You can see us setting up the frames, the equipment.
And really, our work isn't elegiac, it's reflective of how things are. Baudrillard's “death of the real” is the pushing of the live world into the virtual. We flatten the space, and the hyperreal is now our real world. That is happening every day, people are walking around staring into their PDAs, tripping over each other—but this piece also show how the virtual, like mortage-backed securities, pushes back.
Time Out New York: So where does House/Divided take us? Marianne Weems: It would be great to end on a utopian exclamation point, but the great message at the end of The Grapes of Wrath is that wherever people are banded together—Fear turns to Wrath. And that's Occupy! That's our current moment! We should not be afraid; we should act. It's not fashionable for experimental work to have a sociopolitical message. But dammit, I want to rehabilitate that.