Walker Art Center

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Artists and Architects Think Inside the Big Box

By Matt Peiken

What happens when good malls go bad? You don’t have to look far for answers. Hundreds of so-called “dead malls”—shuttered strip malls, derelict shopping centers, and abandoned big boxes litter our landscape. Among those leading the efforts to reimagine, resuscitate, and reincarnate these husks are artists and architects in the Walker exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes. In turn, enterprising entrepreneurs and imaginative architects are converting what might otherwise stand as suburban blight into small business outlets, community centers, recreation centers, schools, and houses of worship.

“I’ve always framed my project in the context of hope,” says Julia Christensen, an artist in Ohio investigating ways that communities across the country transform empty Wal-Mart, Kmart, and other big box buildings. Describing their abandonment as happening in “the blind spot of our attention,” she adds, “I’ve seen so many ways in which communities operate and have creative responses to this.” What began as artistic explorations through photography and multimedia installations has grown into a practice for Christensen that includes lectures to community groups and developers about the reuse of big boxes. She also exhibits installations featuring field recordings collected throughout her travels.

Artists and architects featured in the show make work that casts a spotlight on the aesthetic, social, environmental, and economic impact of suburban life and culture. In Worlds Away, that light shines brightly on the retail developments most associated with suburban development. Whether striving for awareness or action, pointing out a problem or solving it, these artists and architects dedicate much of their curiosity and vision to tackling what many regard as suburbia’s most pressing issues.

Paho Mann, a photographer from Texas, grew fascinated with the second life of defunct Circle K convenience stores after noticing the same building put to different uses along his commute. Utilizing old phone books to discover former Circle K locations, Mann has photographed scores of new businesses—check-cashing outlets, tattoo parlors, dry cleaners, clothing stores, travel agencies, diners, and, most common, mini-marts—operating under the ubiquitous extended awning that distinguishes every Circle K. Stefanie Nagorka of New York walks into Home Depot stores and creates elaborate sculptures with bricks, pavers, and stones pulled from the store’s garden center. She then photographs her work before the materials are returned to the places she found them. Brian Ulrich of Chicago goes undercover to make witty, stark, and surprising photographs inside big boxes and thrift shops.

To varying degrees, these artists are reluctant to attach overt social or civic missions to their work. Rather, they say, artists can create, focus, and amplify attention on certain issues. “The work doesn’t have a specific activist agenda. It isn’t meant to necessarily change anything, but more to recognize and highlight the effects of this,” Mann says. “From that comes change, I guess. Hopefully, art can play a large role in understanding these changes and the developments where we live.”

“To examine this stuff, you have to look at your own role in this,” Ulrich suggests. That self-examination can hit close to home in his photographs of shoppers and the well-stocked shelves they’re rummaging, and of the stock rooms seemingly accessible only to employees—all taken without anyone’s knowledge from a hidden camera worn at belt-level. Individually, the images range from funny to frightening. As a collection, they compel you to find a similarity to your own experiences. “That’s what makes the picture a little hard to face. To me, that’s when the work completes itself,” Ulrich says. “It’s a form of activism, and all I can do is add to the dialogue.”

Unlike most artists in this exhibition, Nagorka finds an immediate audience for her work—other Home Depot shoppers. Initially, she found that having to create temporary sculpture was a small price to pay for being able to operate in the large, fully stocked studio awaiting her in any garden center-a bounty she could never afford on her own. The artist came to appreciate and embrace not only the finite and site-specific nature of the work, but also the people who inevitably approach her while she’s building her sculptures in the aisles. Nagorka is amused, surprised, and gratified when people say they want to replicate her work in their own gardens. “I was very cynical when I started. Somehow, over time, I found myself connecting more with individuals, and that informed my experience, and somehow I transcended the neutral shopping environment,” says Nagorka, who has improvised a sculpture inside a Home Depot in every state but Hawaii. “I started to want to help people see that the homogenization of the American landscape is happening through the stores, but the individual nature and creative nature of people is unique from place to place.”

A more recent trend in suburban retail is the decline of the regional shopping center in favor of power centers—a collection of freestanding big boxes in the same development. Lateral Architecture of Toronto has proposed new strategies for dealing with the spaces between big box stores from large, looping offramps with parking along the edges of a park to “pixels” of green space within the expansive parking lots that dominate the frontage of typical big boxes. Interboro Partners of Brooklyn kept a supposedly dead mall alive in suburban New York while the owner tried to sell it through a controversial real estate strategy called “landbanking.” Rather than seeing a dead mall, Interboro found existing life—a weekend flea market in the parking lot, an active bus stop, and a dry cleaner that had functioned at the mall since it opened, among other strands. Intensive research inspired Interboro to create several proposals that could work either together or independently of one another—among them a “hotbox” to provide services for several fledgling businesses under one roof and a day-care center to serve the 1,000 employees of a postal distribution center that had replaced one of the mall’s anchor tenants.

“Most architects design the building and they’re done. For us, what’s interesting is how people interact and actually practice using the building,” says Georgeen Theodore, who founded Interboro with fellow Harvard graduates Tobias Armborst and Daniel D’Oca. “Even though people call it the suburbs, we see some kind of urbanity there, that there’s some kind of life, and we try to intensify that and highlight that. What we don’t do is spend any time at all thinking of an overall vision, which is completely the opposite of master planning. It’s almost like planting all these seeds to see what takes hold.”

—Matt Peiken, Walker managing editor

Brian Ulrich, Chicago, IL from the series Copia/Retail, 2003

40 x 50 in.

Courtesy the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago