A room within a room. A girl within a room, within a room. An artist who hired a girl to live within a room, within a room. This sets the stage for Cy Amundson’s experimental exhibition at Rawson Projects, Emily’s Dorm Room, open through January 16, 2014.
Amundson placed an ad online at NYU for a participant to live inside a dorm room he built in a modestly sized gallery on Franklin St in Greenpoint for over one month. He originally hoped to meet an art student but luckily ended up with Emily, a sophomore pursuing a degree in Gender Studies, whose main area of interest is how women are portrayed in the media.
Upon entering the gallery, one is confronted with an exposed structure of drywall and wooden supports, a thin barrier that marks inside and outside, container and contained.
Emily and I made eye contact and smiles were exchanged as I proceeded to look around her room, inspecting the array of personal items: a poster of Nicki Minaj, Ikea furniture, photographs pinned to the wall, a bookshelf complete with The Public and It’s Problems, On Justification, Labyrinths, Feminist Frontiers, The Poetics of Space, as well as a bong, a house plant, and other dorm room staples.
While the construct seemed almost safe in its expected use of props, the dynamic that surfaced between inhabitants became complex. I felt intrusive for making lists of her belongings, judging her by her possessions and curiously wondering what I should and shouldn’t be looking at.
I was reminded of Dawn Kasper at the Whitney (THIS COULD BE SOMETHING IF I LET IT, 2012), Marni Kotak at Microscope Gallery (The Birth of Baby X, 2012), and recent installations by Tino Sehgal where performers were hired to lead conversations with museum visitors. There is a marked difference when the artists themselves step outside of the picture plane—control is shifted, the maker of meaning is loosened.
What became clear was that this situation was also a platform for Emily to observe. Without a script, when people repeatedly asked her, are you the art? she responded with a shrug. Perhaps the idea in question should be, are you the artist? The press release for the exhibition is a conversation between the gallery and Amundson.
In attempt to give Emily’s voice center stage, I asked her the same series of questions:
GP: First let’s discuss the context and scope of this project. Perhaps you can give an idea of what you envisioned when you first agreed to be a part of this work. What do you hope will happen in terms of interactions among Cy, viewers, and yourself?
Emily: NYU is far from a typical “college” experience and the idea of transplanting myself into a constructed dorm room, into a constructed college experience, enticed me. After meeting with Cy I realized the full potential of the project. Maybe it will spark reminiscence, that could be nice. Or maybe it will speak to wider social issues, or perhaps it will just seem peculiar and, well, creepy. The details of each actor’s experience aren’t so important, and I’m using the word actor here purposely, because truly anyone could perform within the space. It is the act of interacting that I hope will happen. Even if I’m not present in the room, my things still are, it’s just another level of interaction that I believe could be just as meaningful.
GP: As you said, the idea of an occupied dorm room in a formal gallery space opens up a lot of issues. The structure is constructed so that the viewer is outside looking inward to someone’s private space. This has the effect of disrupting the viewer’s understanding of public vs. private spaces and the various power dynamics associated with that dichotomy. What do you think is interesting or desirable about this gesture? Why a dorm room in particular?
Emily: The viewers are constantly experiencing the effects of the public and private intersecting, whether they are aware of it or not. Especially in New York City, where there are countless “privately owned public spaces.” However, when the private is so explicit, such as a young girl’s room, it becomes more problematic. The viewer simply doesn’t know what to do with herself, she peers in through the window, confused as to whether she can enter the room or not. It’s amusing for me, because obviously I’m the one with the power to allow her to come into the space, the space that she came to see.
But what I find really interesting is that this notion, of bridging the public and the private, only becomes problematic to the viewer when it embodies itself in a physical construct (e.g. an enclosed room). Once the viewer enters the room, her social conduct changes, she is no longer hesitant to mediate between the public and the private—to visually or verbally access my privacy, or in other words, look at all of my things and ask me a variety of questions. It’s interesting to see what the viewers have found to be private and what to be public, and how access to one, very physical and concrete, private domain seems to grant a totality of access.
A dorm room is a perfect example of a setting that is both public and private. The resident has temporary private access to the room, and as such she will make it into her private domain, filling it with the most intimate objects that construct her existence thus far. However, the so-called private space is also accessible by those that have been granted a higher degree of power than the resident. Then, at the end of the academic year, the resident must gather all of these objects that created her sense of privacy and relocate them, just so another resident can go through these same rituals. Not to mention, there is really no true privacy in a dorm setting, while I don’t have a roommate at Rawson Projects, I do at NYU, so really any sense of privacy is limited.
GP: In addition to this work, you also are working on a degree at NYU. What motivated you to depart from your schoolwork? Do you think there is an overt relationship between this project and your studies, or is this new project meant to exist independently?
Emily: I don’t think of this experience as a deportation from my schoolwork in any way, rather, it has been complimentary to it. I believe this project is very unique to each person that involves herself with it. For me, it is very much a social and cultural experience, one that I am participating in mostly through an academic lens. If I didn’t make this correlation between the two then the project would have been too personal. Then maybe I would have cared if people came into my room while I wasn’t there or peered in on me through the window, but because I am understanding the project through the framework of my studies, these interactions are fascinating to me.
Go visit Emily, peer into her temporary world, and ask what’s on her mind. You will be in for a pleasant surprise—it will be the most enticing conversation you’ve had with an “artist” all year.
Emily’s Dorm Room by Cy Amundson runs through Jan 16, 2014 at Rawson Projects (223 Franklin St).
Check Emily’s blog for upcoming Karaoke nights.