From March 2009 to February 2010, at least 300,000 U.S. homes fell into foreclosure every month. Even the administration’s renewed focus to assist homeowners is too late for families who have received eviction notices. Many discussions focus on the impact the moribund real-estate market has had on the country’s finances, but we hear less often about the social toll empty homes have had on neighborhoods.
One artist and activist seeks to explore the relationship between vacant homes and the community. John Hulsey, an artist who works with a Boston community organization called City Life/Vida Urbana, films scenes of the foreclosure process re-enacted by displaced residents and projects them inside empty houses, so that viewers see a silhouetted film. TAP spoke with Hulsey about his project, 72 Hours, and his art’s role in activism and public awareness.
Who do you consider to be your audience, and what do you hope they take from this?
In the best case, projecting these images into vacant foreclosed houses is meant to activate a new public sphere out of the street. It’s meant to take what’s normally private and closed and make it public, to fold it into public debate. So the audience is made up of members of the neighborhood, activists, people who have undergone foreclosure, as well as people who haven’t, people like city officials, sympathizers, visitors, or just passers-by, so the audience is really conceived of as being plural. And maybe in putting these videos into the windows of a house, it sets into motion a new kind of dialogue. Not just within a community but across communities, across people.
Regardless of our position, whether we live next door or whether we come from all the way across town, we both do and do not have access to the private struggles and grievances of a person or family who has undergone foreclosure. No amount of artistic work is ever going to be able to represent the fullness and amplitude of that situation. The goal, I think for me, is not to bridge any unbridgeable gaps, but to work with those gaps to see them as productive and to create confrontations that might not have otherwise happened.
What can non-artists learn from looking at the crisis through art?
On a basic level I think that art can be mobilizing. Just being there during [a recent] event, seeing how the people who had performed in the videos responded to them, it was a way of creating a kind of solidarity in the community, but it was also a way of communicating to people in other communities, in other groups.
Do you get resistance from families you're working with?
We’re working with families who have been involved with City Life/Vida Urbana. So all of the people I’ve been working with are people who feel very strongly that there is a need to make public these otherwise private and domestic stories. The families that I’m working with have been working both to help other people in the organization and create a movement of resistance against what the banks are doing in some of these neighborhoods [while] also trying to resolve their own situations.
So these are people who from the get-go are ready to find new and creative strategies for raising public awareness, finding new creative tactics for trying to get certain properties back from the bank.
What are your biggest artistic influences, and are they a bigger influence on the topics you tackle or your artistic style?
There is a long tradition of this kind of collaborative artistic project. Artists have found the skills and found new tactics to address the issues in the places they’re living. [Artists] like John Malpede who organizes people on skid row in Los Angeles through the Los Angeles Poverty Department. Paul Chan who went into the 9th Ward in New Orleans and set up a community-based-theater play of Waiting for Godot.
I’m really interested in the conjuncture between art-making and activism and what happens in that meeting space. What happens when artists and activists come together to tackle a social problem and what are the different tactics that can be employed?
72 Hours continues your tradition of examining socioeconomics through art. Do you think it does more to include the artistic community in the national discussion or to make the national discussion more dynamic by including art in it?
I see the project as very much the second of those two, as the latter. I’m not working from within the traditional artistic framework. I don’t see myself as an artist working in that way. I’m much more interested in using and mobilizing the techniques and skills of art to address issues that are of importance, like socioeconomic and racial inequality in America than to do something that is internal to the art world. I’m not part of the “art world,” and that’s not the framework I’m coming from.
There is this trend in the work that I’ve done in the past about trying to talk about people’s experiences through socioeconomic and social concerns. There is also a collaborative question that I think is important, and I’m coming from a filmmaking background and making documentary films, but I think in some of the best cases, documentary film is about the moment of collaboration between the recordist and his or her subject. And I became increasingly interested in expanding that question and particularly interested in that moment of recording as the moment of collaboration, of negotiation between two or more people. This project that we’ve got going on right now is a piece of that, in the sense that it’s an attempt to really use the skills that I have as a filmmaker and artist but also to collaborate fairly attentively with people who really don’t consider themselves artists but who have powerful and important stories to share.