During the pandemic, artist Caledonia Curry — better known as Swoon — went back and read almost 20 years of her journals. “I found that I had a recurring dream about this house and there was a performance happening in it,” she says. “And my friend had written the performance and we were working together.”
This dream became the basis of this project, “The House Our Families Built.” Last January, PBS launched a national storytelling project, American Portrait, inspired by the groundbreaking 1955 MoMA exhibition, “The Family of Man.” The PBS project, done in partnership with RadicalMedia, was designed to offer a platform for people across the country to share their stories and how the past manifests in our present, in first-person narratives. It’s collected over 13,000 stories so far, and they show the commonality of American life, despite our public divisions of late. In that spirit, James Spindler, the creative director at RadicalMedia, asked Kim Hastreiter to curate and chose three artists who proposed works that reflected the highly personal nature of the project.
Curry is one of them. Inspired in part by that recurring dream, she created an installation on a box truck that opens to a fantastical setting in strategic ways, while her friend and collaborator, director Jeff Stark, cast actors to recite portions of different stories featured in the PBS-collected narratives inside the house-like sculpture.
Curry began as a street artist and went on to make installations including the “Swimming Cities of Serenissima,” a series of handmade rafts that made a surprise waterborne appearance during the 2009 Venice Biennale, and the ongoing Konbit shelter project in Haiti in response to the devastation in after the earthquake the following year.
I spoke with Curry as she was putting finishing touches on her truck.
This seems so prescient given what we’ve been going through during this recently ended presidency in general, but especially during its terrible final week. We’re so divided as a country, talking past each other.
If we can make spaces for people to have those hard conversations, that’s one of the goals of the piece for me … One of the themes that is big for me about owning your legacy and choosing what things to let go of, and I have very much been thinking about our nation’s legacy of white supremacy and my own ancestral legacy of white supremacy because my family dates back many, many generations in the South, so I was personally going through the experience of being like: “Oh this is my specific history, this is not some abstract thing, this is something that I need to own in my family and make a decision to evolve past what I inherited.” And then watching what happened at the Capitol, like wow, we all need to be doing this.
What is it made of?
So it’s a box truck and we cut it up in strategic ways so that it would open up and appear house-like, and we added wood, built a staircase, brought in furniture, formed it into this rather fantastical house-like sculpture.
So it opens into rooms?
Almost no rooms I would say. [Laughs.] It opens into many different sides, I was calling them more like ecosystems and the public doesn’t get to go into the house, unfortunately; too dangerous during COVID. One side you’ve got the couch and you’ve got the kitchen and there’s a cutting board, and pans and there’s this painting of a mother and there’s a kid on the couch and there are these things going on and over here there’s a balcony and it’s outdoors and there are these stairs and people are playing chess, but it kind of looks like church windows and is somebody going to preach from here? So it’s kind of like the language of architecture sort of turning itself into these little ecosystems but never fully resolving or undoing. The actors are delivering lines from American Portrait and so it’s not a direct narrative it’s more like a montage, but they are going to be interacting … one of the actors is going to be able to get on the roof. But there is not a one to one relationship between the architecture and the stories.
Where did you get the furnishings?
Some of it we built and some of the furniture we got from secondhand stores … there’s a mix of things, we brought in toys that exist, there’s going to be portraits that are painted during the sculpture day, i.e, the idle day when it’s just a sculpture for a day and then it’s a live performance, so it’s kind of a mix. It’s still fairly a fantastical sculpture but it’s much more focused on the language of home, which sometimes involved going down to Build It Green! and buying moldings, and rocking chairs and things like that.
Was the house designed to evoke any particular vernacular?
I would say that between the cracker house and Victorian house that was the starting place. Another place that had a huge impact on me was the Alhambra in Spain, with the kind of all over patterned walls, so there’s a lot of wallpaper in the house, you’ll see, so I think it’s kind of everything from like Victorian, those huge pattern wallpaper to the all over patterning that is in a lot of those beautiful sacred spaces, because I am really drawn to decoration and to details … so there are a few different languages going on.
How’d you design the wallpaper?
I start with paper cuts so you’ll see a repeating pattern and then lay them out in such a way that they can get translated into wallpaper.
It’s a house but also something out of your subconscious it sounds like …
There’s also precedent in my work for thinking about the house as kind of a metaphor for psyche and getting into relationships and family, so that was sort of a natural reaction, especially once we were into this question of American Portrait, these very intimate images, stories people are telling.
The installation will be at various locations around New York City:
• Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 1, January 30 to 31.
• Prospect Park Willink Plaza, February 6 to 7.
• Flushing Meadows Corona Park, February 13 to 14.
• Union Square 17th Street, February 21.