THE ART OF SQUATTING
Byline: Alison Oneacre
NEW YORK — On the second day of filming “Squat,” his new documentary and accompanying installation that opens on Friday and runs through July 31 at the Secret Gallery in Brooklyn’s Redhook section, fashion photographer/director Carter Smith encountered an unexpected snag.
His four subjects were arrested and thrown in jail.
But their short-lived incarceration is not the Barbara Kopple/Lizzie Grubman moment of “Squat.” Neither Smith nor his cameras were even there — or ever intended to be.
Rather, Smith’s four cameras were safely installed back at the Secret Gallery at 474 Smith Street, where his squatters — chosen from a pool of artistically inclined applicants — had committed to spending the next four weeks of their young lives “reality TV-style” under surveillance. Smith would then edit the footage into four separate seven- to 12-minute videos, each representing one week in the squatter’s lives, to run simultaneously on four TVs at the gallery.
He supplied his motley crew with the white 1,400-square-foot space that contained “not fully plush” basics: a bathtub and connecting garden hose, four futons, pillows, blankets, a microwave, a refrigerator, art supplies and $100 per week for food. The rest — transforming it into their own living space, which would become an art installation when they vacated — was up to them.
“I wanted to play with the idea of having people come in and look through their stuff,” explains Smith over a soy latte at a Lower East Side coffee shop near his apartment one month before the show opens. Even with a shaved head and pierced nose, the baby-faced Smith, 30, doesn’t appear the slightest bit menacing. “As soon as they got there, they went out to look for materials and took wire cutters. The cops caught them when they were trying to steal an abandoned pool table from a lot. The kids tried to explain to the officers that it was for an art project, but they didn’t believe them.”
In all fairness, it would have been easy to peg the squatters, who were carefully selected by casting director and gallery owner Daniel Peddle, for a certain streetwise quality, as troublemakers. (On the third day, they were arrested again for jumping the subway turnstiles while headed to the police station to receive their community service sentences.) Violations aside, that edginess is exactly what Peddle hoped to harness. “We started out by looking at samples of applicants’ work and narrowed it down to real characters that stood out,” says Peddle. The final cast included 2-Tone, a 20-year-old Bronx rapper with the skin disorder vitiligo who had already spent five years on probation; Doug, an anarchist punk from the city; Shelly, a skateboarder from Wisconsin who now lives on the Lower East Side, and Brandon, a religious home builder from Virginia.
Smith says that after the dramatic first week, the foursome settled in and formed the same inner-workings as a family. Brandon took on the role of father figure while Doug was the adolescent delinquent child. “All of them were in love with Shelly,” says Smith deeming her the Mother Earth figure. “The flirtation was innocent and coy but there was a lot of romantic tension there. They were harassing her.”
According to Smith, the entire project took on a “Survivor”-esque quality, but the results are much more authentic and intimate than any orchestrated TV series. Squatter dogma was as follows: to spend five hours a day in the gallery and six nights a week; to abide by the golden rule (that they all agree before doing something), and to record themselves. (They were in control of their own surveillance.)
“I wanted it to be very much about how they represent themselves,” says Smith. “Ultimately, it’s my subjective choice of what to portray in the films. But it wasn’t me telling them, ‘Paint the city on this wall, and paint Bob Marley on this wall and we’ll get it on tape.”‘ Smith, instead, became the absentee director, dropping by intermittently and encouraging certain aspects: spray-painting one bright wall or planting seeds to make an indoor garden. The result? Every wall is completely covered with graffiti, collages and quotes. The interior remains as the squatters left it, their personal journals of their stay on display for viewers to rifle through.
“Because they weren’t being forced, they treated it as an opportunity,” he explains. “They actually stayed on two weeks longer because they didn’t feel like they were finished with it.”
“Squat” grew out of Peddle offering Smith, famous for his fashion magazine shoots and ad campaigns like Tommy Hilfiger, a show at the Secret Gallery. “I didn’t want to do just the average pictures on the wall,” says Smith, who is also directing his first feature film, “Warm,” a love story written by novelist Dennis Cooper. “I always wanted to do something that was about creating a space. This is about the invasion of personal space.”
Peddle, on the other hand, had no reservations about letting Smith invade his space, which he opened a year ago. “My whole intention with the Secret Gallery was to do things that wouldn’t be feasible in other galleries,” says Peddle, who lives above it. “Chelsea galleries are booked up to six years in advance — they don’t have the flexibility we’re offering.”
Peddle moved to Redhook seven years ago and has witnessed an incredible renaissance in the area, which is an under-the-radar hotbed for up-and-coming artists. Largely inaccessible by public transportation, Redhook, with its cheap, raw warehouse space, river views and pockets of projects is the precise atmosphere — like a SoHo or a DUMBO of years past — that fosters struggling artists and catalyzes the formation of an arts community. On May 11, the 10th annual “Pier Show,” hosted by the Brooklyn Working Artists Coalition on the historic Beard Street Piers in Redhook, opens for a six-weekend run with more than 200 artists, many of them local, exhibiting their work. “There’s a lot of cultural collision happening here,” says Peddle, who notes another gallery, Ruby, that has opened on nearby Court Street. “What’s so exciting is showing art to people who wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to it.”
Smith, meanwhile, is preparing to move into one of the few undeveloped areas in Manhattan: South Street Seaport, which he likens to TriBeCa with its cobblestone streets. He recently bought a building across from the fish market that he plans to renovate and make his home and studio.
But for now, he’s occupied readying Redhook’s Secret Gallery for his invitation-only opening on Thursday night. The “Squat” director admits that editing the hundreds of hours of footage of his squatters’ progress was an intense labor of love. “I couldn’t bring myself to fast-forward through one single moment.”