Shedding the carapace we have been building so assiduously on the surface, we must by definition give up exactly what we thought was necessary to protect us from further harm. The outlaw is the radical, the one close to the roots of existence. The one who refuses to forget their humanity and in remembering, helps everyone else remember too.
To die inside, is to rob our outside life of any sense of arrival from that interior. Our work is to make ourselves visible in the world. This is the soul's individual journey, and the soul would much rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else's. — David Whyte¹
We are habitual creatures, fond of our processes, procedures and patterns. Humans are distinguished from the other animals of the world in our need to catalog and unravel our environment as much as inhabit it. Even at its most mundane we are bound to our need to uncover the enigmas present in our daily lives. How does that toaster work? What makes the sky blue? What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? It is the asking of questions that allows us to inhabit a greater range of terrain than any other animal on Earth. We ask, we conceptualize, we create and then inhabit. Habituation leads to habitation. This process which evolved physically as prodigious grey matter is a paradox. Our ability to perceptually inhabit a conceptual space as well as a physical one has led us to seek out virtual habitations with as much fervor as real ones. Our 21st century existence is filled with conceptual experiences that have little grounding in the physical or natural spaces of our everyday lives. Satellites hover the globe bouncing petabytes of information every second enabling cellular and television data transmission, while cables at the bottom of the ocean effectuate the internet. Ironically, despite the enormous physical requirements of our virtual world, we are distancing ourselves from conscious habitation of our physical environments.
Visual artists have long held the label of outsider, outcast — iconoclast. The associative thinking that is encouraged in childhood and quelled in adulthood is nurtured throughout an artists life. This persisting of associative thinking and constant questioning appears rebellious, rather than cohesive within a society that considers conformity the foundation of civilization. Artists themselves often encourage society’s perception of artist as derelict, and indeed there is a legacy of the drug addled, vituperative, egomaniacal artist born in the narratives of Van Gogh, Picasso, Caravaggio and Pollock. For those who are practicing professionals, the enigmatic characature of an artist cast in cinema and legend is a far cry from the day to day realities of art making. The sculpture John Chamberlain said ‘artists are never asked on talk shows because less than one percent of the population would have any clue what they were talking about’.² The reclusive tendencies of artists, hidden away in their warehouse studios only adds to the myth. Even giants in the art world, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol Lewitt, Anselm Kiefer (and the list goes on) never achieved direct influence on a broader population. How is it art can claim significant importance and a deep relevancy within a culture it does not directly interact with? A new project, Habitat for Artists is hoping to have a say in changing all that.
Habitat for Artists (HFA) was founded by Simon Draper in 2008 after working for years with ideas related to space and found materials in his art practice. He relates a story about a woman contacted by the local authorities to remove her ice house before the spring thaw took hold. She protested the ice fishing shed was not her own. Later after examining the shed she discovered its owner had used her previously discarded paintings to cover part of the shed, allowing the police to confuse it for her own. It was out of this idea of repurposing artwork as a form of community interaction that the habitats were born. Draper lives in the Hudson Valley of New York, a long time weekender haven for city dwellers in New York City. In recent years weekenders have become full time inhabitants as real estate prices in the city have exploded, re-sculpting quaint Hudson Valley villages into shabby chic outposts within commuting distance of NYC, driving up real estate prices there too. Most artists require a dedicated studio space outside of their own dwelling, and therefore look for areas where space is cheap. Draper being both witness to, and casualty of this persistent ex-urban trend combined his meditations on the 'shed' and honed it into an artist’s studio, a Habitat for Artists.
HFA has grown considerably in a year’s time, both in scope and conceptually. The term “habitat” is construed in this case to mean a place where something is commonly found. HFA’s importance is not just cheap work space for artists, but the collaboration between artist and community the habitat idea can foster. Habitats look back into time when art served as the center of community and artists were sought for their interpretations of the world, not shunned for their eccentricities. This finds its grounding in the artisan traditions of Europe and the sociological concept of Gemeinschaft coined by the famous German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. This “unity of will”³ relates to our basic human need to create communities of cooperation out of our collective needs. Draper sees the HFA concept as way to reinvigorate this idea through the use of creative stimulation and interaction. Unveiling the mysteries of the artist’s practice allows everyone within the community to re-assimilate with the power of associative thinking and imagination. Draper’s idea lays bare the extant interaction necessary in art making, and for that matter civilization, and exchanges and suggests exposure to process is just as valuable as exposure to end product, visa vie, a work of art. HFA suggests society is starved for meaningful interaction and sits in opposition to cultural interpreters unwilling to participate in the very civilization they are supposed to illuminate. HFA could change that dynamic by placing artists studios (habitats) within the community, making it an interactive focal point. Making the ‘studio’ transparent to the public both demystifies the practice of art-making and places the artist squarely at the center of community.
The sheds that form the backbone of HFA are conceptual representations of human habituation. Like the sheds that occupy suburban American backyards that serve as repositories for tools, habitats are repositories for the tools of our collective experiences. They are containers for creative expression and sign posts for our cultural zeitgeist. They are also physical locations where the non-artist can be imaginatively reinvigorated by engaging with a diverse community outside of their own which can form the locus for dialogue in a time when physical interaction has largely been abrogated and substituted with simulation.
The HFA habitats challenge conventional thinking on levels beyond our basic understanding of art making and community involvement in the arts. They challenge artists to create within limits. In this overcrowded world, space is becoming an increasingly precious commodity. We are also, for the first time in our historical record, seeing the absolute limits of our footprint on mother Earth in the form of global warming and the deleterious effects of resource depletion and environmental degradation. HFA looks beyond the hierarchical model of the past, where art practice mirrored corporate ladder climbing, with ever larger studio spaces relating to an artists’ success. If art is a form of knowledge, then it will need to present new ideas and solutions to the previous course of civilization. Creating studios with small footprints (6’ x 6’) is a healthy restraint to art practice, that challenges how art is made, and challenges our individual need for space and its requisite environmental impact. Additionally, the HFA sheds are made of as much recycled building materials as can be found and funded by the community which they attend to. In some cases the habitats are constructed with recycled art, in exactly the same spirit as Draper’s story of the ice fishing shed.
All important art movements resonate with a larger audience outside the insular art world. They also operate on many different levels, able to bring new visual ideas to the fore while mirroring the current state of affairs. Habitat for Artists has all the necessary components to become an important art movement. It quietly touches upon issues enormously important to the healthy growth of our society, and issues that could illuminate pathways to our survival as a species. Nicolas Bourriaud’s metaphor of disc jockeying as a metaphor for contemporary art practice is relevant here. The artist in this case, wether poet, painter or musician is the DJ coordinating and stimulating the collective experience of community. In fact, Draper often uses the metaphor of the ‘jam’, when referring to the HFA experience. If we are to shed our protective carapace, as David Whyte suggests, jamming is a good place to start.
¹ Excerpted from Crossing the Unknown Sea, 2002, Riverhead Trade Publishing (Penguin), NY, NY. ² Julian Schnabel is an exception to Chamberlain's quote due to his cinematic proclivities and hob-nobbing with the Hollywood elite. ³ From Ferdinand Tönnies seminal work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, Leipzig: Fues's Verlag, 2nd ed. 1912, 8th edition, Leipzig: Buske, 1935