Dennis Maher: House of Collective Repair

Dennis Maher: House of Collective Repair

Last month the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, opened an exhibition on the recent work of Dennis Maher, the museum's artist-in-residence. "House of Collective Repair" documents Maher’s latest project: buying a house slated for destruction on Buffalo's Fargo Avenue and using building materials from demolition sites to construct new environments in the rescued home. An artist and longtime resident of Buffalo, former construction worker, and current professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, Maher’s current interests focus on the life-cycle of houses, the changing nature of cities, and how construction materials and everyday objects can be viewed from different perspectives based upon their relation to standing buildings or areas of neglect and decay.

"House of Collective Repair" highlights the ongoing work that Maher has done on his rescued house, including inviting tradespeople to make house model sculptures using the materials of their trade. The exhibition and house project are a fascinating examination of how we view the city, and the potential for community revival through art and making things by hand. I recently asked Maher a few questions about the exhibition, the changing nature of cities, and the regenerative nature of art and handmade objects.

What made you decide to bring in tradespeople to contribute to "House of Collective Repair?" How did the creations change the way you and the tradespeople saw the materials?

For many years, I worked as a laborer on construction and demolition sites. I would often bring art books to our lunch breaks and show the other contractors images of work by artists who explored the idea of the house as a primary theme. One day, one of the carpenters pointed to an image and said "I did that." This was astounding to me because it was very different from a more common response to contemporary art: "I could have done that." It was a statement of achievement - not a skeptical or cynical remark - that challenged the artwork's privileged position. The same physical act was, in one arena, seen as art, but in another it was everyday labor.

I wanted to encourage my collaborators on the "House of Collective Repair" to consider the communicative potential of their medium in unique ways, be they aesthetic, expressive, or conceptual, for example. I think that each came to see his/her materials as part of a malleable language that is capable of many mutations. Each transcended the utilitarian imperatives that often delimit the work of the building trades. For me, the resulting transformations are still intimately connected to the domain of house, but point more toward the relationships that make a house possible - socially, culturally, and materially.  

How do you intend to have people interact with "House of Collective Repair?" What would you like a visitor to take away from his or her experience?

I've wanted to encourage the visitor to make discoveries. Each of the tradespeople's house models is sited within a larger structure of my design, a design that was informed by my interactions with each project participant and with the artifacts that he/she made. I saw this larger structure as a contextual ground for linking the separate house models together, a house-like environment consisting of discreet but connected rooms, niches, portals, passages, and lines of sight. The larger framework would encourage navigation, seeking, and finding, at the same time that it would fragment, obscure, and mask. I sought to use this mega-structure in order to amplify the already existing qualities of the house models. The installation also consists of a plan (or city map) of the project, as well as a video that presents my interactions with the tradespeople over time. The video highlights the ideas that each project participant brought to their individual works. My thought was that within the larger setting, the house models might come to be seen as special monuments, instances of gestation and focus. Each monument is spotlit from an internal lighting source, while the work of my own hands is left in darkness. I don't have a prescriptive message to deliver, but I would like visitors to regard the exhibition as an environment within which the systems, standards, and orders of house making are totally re-codified in order to draw out the creative imaginations of those who work on houses.  

These were asked on the exhibition website, so I will pose the questions to you: What is a city? What is a house?

Well, here's where my response to your last question starts to resonate a bit more. I believe that city and house are perpetually reflecting one another. The German architect and educator O.M. Ungers, in his short text "The City as a Work of Art," discussed the ways that the formal and organizational tendencies of house types are often mirrored by the formal and organizational patterns of the city in which the house type is located. He pointed to the courtyard houses of Prienne as a primary example. I think that such resonances are not only form-based, but are also reflected in terms of physical processes - erasures, aggregations, circulations - and by the psychological effects that such processes produce. The house is the most private retreat, the innermost expression of the individual, while the city is the outermost container of collective life. House and city reverberate against one another, opening up psychological cracks between inside and outside, and creating a space where actions and reactions - not isolated forms - are the primary carriers of meaning.      

The Albright-Knox website also states your belief that people who work with their hands have a special connection to the creative interaction between art and everyday life. Do you think that the current interest in handmade/DIY projects – like independent crafts and the renovation of older houses in urban areas – will lead to a greater appreciation of the arts and creativity in future generations?

People have been writing about the death of craft for hundreds of years. Such arguments usually pit the forces of technology against an ethics of hand labor. I think such arguments are off the mark. The dialectic is not between the manual and the technological, but between globalizing and localizing forces. For me, the current interest in handmade/DIY projects is closely connected to rising affinities for the local. Local specificity invariably leads to a rediscovery of the hands because it forces a connection to the immediacy of one's own surroundings, and by extension, to one's own body. "The lure of the local," as Lucy Lippard has termed it, fosters a heightened awareness of the uniqueness of ordinary places, and of the opportunities that such places provide. As the body and the hands are drawn centrifugally toward the local (away from the center), the hands become a medium for individual and collective engagement. The more we move away from a ubiquitous, static centrality, the more we will discover, appreciate, and contribute to shaping our local environment, and the more we will appreciate creativity. But more importantly, the more we will become creators ourselves, each of us empowered to transform the immediate physical space around us.  

In the urban sphere, where does the public end and the private begin, especially when you open your house to strangers’ observations?

Over the course of the past year, my house has become an oddly semi-public space. At times this has been an invasive process, but here I'm speaking from the point of view of "inhabitant." If I think of myself not as inhabitant, but as a "director of flows," then my opinion changes. I begin to imagine that the house has been steadily transformed in order to move things through it: people, materials, images, and ideas. It is a place where everything is in motion and where fluid currents are directed toward creative synthesis. Static boundaries dissolve, and so too do relationships between public and private. As Andrew Herscher states in his catalog essay for the exhibition, it is precisely the tours and gatherings of people inside that allow the house to construct a new sociality. 

How do subjective interpretations or definitions of materials through time – that is to say, the life of objects – influence your work?

Objects are never still. Most objects are centers of gravitation for other objects. They shift from site of material origin to site of production to site of distribution or consumption to site of re-consumption or re-constitution. They are bartered, broken, left behind or repaired, they are moved from room to room, they get tossed outside, they fall off a truck, they are buried in the earth, they begin to sink downward under the weight of other objects' movements. The places where moving objects congregate - thrift stores, flea markets, antique shops, salvage yards, curb sides - are the coordinate points amid a semi-invisible network of city-wide flows. All of this is interpretative but it is also descriptive. In my house, I reinvent and intensify the circulating routes that objects travel in the outlying world. Amid the house's walls, floors, and ceilings, objects begin to find new relationships to one another, and in so doing, construct other landscapes and cityscapes. Objects have only two lives: the life of their movements, and the life that those movements describe. I want to harness the latent potential of both of these lives, and use them to fashion an animate world.    

If you are in the Buffalo area, be sure to see the "House of Collective Repair" exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery before it closes on May 12. Visit Dennis Maher's website for more information about him and his art projects.