214 Sq. Ft. is an immersive scenic environment created in collaboration with the Project Hope Alliance, a nonprofit organization that serves the homeless population of Orange County, California through the Project Hope School and Family Stability Program (http://www.projecthopeschool.org/). Intended as a reflection on the experience of homelessness among the working poor, many of whom take shelter in the small motels that surround Disneyland in Anaheim, California. For such families a motel room is an impermanent home, made homelike through the personal objects that fill it and the quotidian activities of homelife within its walls.
The environment has traveled throughout Orange County creating transformative encounters at various nontraditional sites of performance such as the Balboa Bay Yacht Club, the University of California, Irvine, Second Harvest Food Bank, and Saddleback Church. Existing on the border between theater practice and anthropology, 214 Sq. Ft. is conceived of a research environment that collects ethnographic data through the activation of an aesthetic experience. Fictional and personal narratives of homelessness in Orange County have been materialized in a staged environment, which in turn serves an ethnographic purpose by raising the barometric pressure by inviting audiences to experience this environment sensorially and offer responses.
The scenic environment is a fullsized replication of motel room inhabited lived in by a fictional family of six who function as the unseen characters in the
drama. The audience entering the front door and exiting through the bathroom traverses the roughly 214 square feet. Furniture typically found in motel rooms (beds, dresser, nightstand, lamps, curtains, bedding) has been rearranged and augmented, showing the creative solutions to the practical problems of poverty and limited living space. Found objects, purchased from auction at the Goodwill of Orange County, represent the personal effects of a composite family, blurring the distinctions between the fictional and real.
Images and narratives of motellife, appropriated from the Alexandra Pelosi documentary “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County,” are embedded in the space through both analog and digital media. Audio and video recordings emanate discretely from objects such as a heat vent, a bedside alarm clock, and other objects, and intimate proximity is required to experience some of these media elements. For instance, only by sitting on the bed closest to the clock can one overhear a child’s story. In addition fragments of narratives are embedded textually in objects such as embroidered bedding, customdesigned wallpaper, and crafted into labels on foodstuffs. The experience is an openended participatory performance in which audience members open drawers, peek into storage bins, and otherwise touch and move objects as they walk through the space.
214 Sq. Ft. exists within the tradition of participatory performance that is focused generating invisible forcefields of experience of varying duration (as opposed to the traditional performance goals of crafting visualcompelling narrative experiences within a specially charged timespace). As Claire Bishop has noted, this work “value[s] what is invisible: a group dynamic, a social situation, a change of energy, a raised consciousness”. The project employed classical strategies from theatrical production, to create a designed space infused with an embedded narrative. Hegel, an anthropologist, functioned as author by other
means, substituting the fictional text of the playwright with a body of ethnographic data typical of the social scientist. Cantarella, whose practice is set design, enacted a traditional design process that ‘read’ the ethnographic data as a play text and from this reading generated a theatrical setting. We describe this practice as materialized performance in which an object or space contains generative potential for performance that is unleashed during productive encounters with between viewer, researcher, audience and performer.
The Exploratory: The Site in Time (as a Resource for Social Relations)
A key component of 214 Sq. Ft. was the unique use of sitespecificity in the context of performance. Typical sitespecific projects use nontraditional performance spaces (warehouses, public squares, living rooms, etc) in order to free the performance from the institutional framework of the theater building and its norms about audience, actor, culture and meaning.
These spaces maintain both the history and record of their use as a shadow that lingers over the body of the performance. The scenography, for instance, is a kind of found object that constructs a miseenscene from existing objects and surfaces that relate to the purpose of the original structure (e.g. peeling paint and battered wood in an old factory space).
Sitespecificity also often employs the charged power of specific places in the world and their attendant historical and social value. Rather than the neutral envelope of the theater auditorium providing a “view from nowhere,” specific sites carry their unique positionality into the performance text. For example, Richard Schechner’s Guerilla Warfare (1967), staged at the Main Recruiting Center in Time Square, used the site’s unique position as the actual place of young American boys committing to the U.S. war effort in Vietnam to contextualize a drama of resistance.
214 Sq. Ft adopts both of these strategies (“found object” scenography and the historical/social meaning of places) but adds a crucial element of time to acquire what Yvonne Rainer would call a “material for performance”. The initial site, the Balboa Bay Yacht Club, not only transposed one of the poorest motel rooms in Orange County into one of the most exclusive hotels, but also occurred during the specific time of a gala benefit. Attendees of the gala encountered the materialized performance within the specific context of a benefit and thus had to synthesize visual, spatial and temporal disjunctures. In this context, the subject of the work became the nature of the charitable act and how it functions to assuage guilt and assert social status while simultaneously creating intimacies across class between patron and benefactor.
A similar process occurred as the piece travelled to different sites throughout Orange County. At the same time, the terms and the subject of the staged encounter shifted. For instance, during the installation at Saddleback Church, a megachurch with a congregation of over 20,000 run by the pastor Rick Warren, the subject became how fundamentalist Christianity resolves its principles of ministering to the poor with its dominant political discourse of libertarianism.
When installed at on the grounds of the University of CaliforniaIrvine School of Social Science, the work revealed how works of advocacy, reliant on emotion, is problematic for social theorist trained to operate within rational, intellectual structures.
The Transformative: Creating an Audience of Experts
Cantarella and Hegel conceive of audience and performer in broad terms thinking of each encounter as a joining of these two constituent bodies. Specific individuals can occupy both roles simultaneously or in sequence. For instance, upon encountering the space a viewer may assume the role of audience while decoding the materialized performance from the objects in the space. This same viewer may be observed by others as they journey through and engage objects in the space, thus becoming a performer. Viewers may enter into dialogue with others present, inadvertently performing a dialogue for yet others about family, immigration, income inequality, charitable acts, morality, and the like.
Brecht suggests in his notes to Threepenny Opera the needs for a theater with an “audience of experts.” 214 Sq. Ft. engages with this idea. However, rather than creating a discrete and distinctive performance that generates audience expertise through connoisseurship (e.g. The Wooster Group, Robert Wilson), it creates discrete and distinctive audiences through specific social encounters. It then utilizes their preexisting zones of expertise as the subject of performance. In certain cases, these experts come from a traditionally identified source such as the academy (sociologists, political scientists, etc.). But in other encounters, the project engages audiences of expert fundamentalists, expert philanthropists or expert socialclimbers.
In fact, the performance experience is construed as extending beyond the time of encounter into process of installation and removal. For each installation, instead of hiring a strictly professional crew, volunteers were solicited from the different partner organizations to help assemble the structure. The process of installation was seen as a crucial time in which dialogues around work’s themes were rehearsed. Volunteers, having participated in the labor of building and restaging the environment, acquired a kind of ownership in it and often became guides for the viewing audiences. This was particularly notably during the performance at the Balboa Bay Club where a member of the Project Hope Board, costumed in black tie, adopted the role of a (perhaps unreliable?) narrator, guiding patrons through the motel room and instructing them in specific ways of seeing and interpreting. As in a traditional narrative performance, a definitive statements about meaning voiced through a figure of authority assert both their truth while inadvertently suggesting their inverse. This duality reflected a central question of the gala site, namely does the charitable act spring from a desire to do “good work” or a need to symbolically suffer to cleanse one’s guilt as a member of the upper class.
The Urgent – The enduring problem of Homelessness
Project Hope Alliance formed 25 years ago with a mission of identifying and serving the functionally homeless population of Orange County, California. Despite its status as one of the nation’s most affluent counties, it is estimated that there are currently 28,000 homeless children living in Orange County and that 1 out of every 6 children live in poverty. Due to the highcost of housing, many families resort to temporary housing situations in the numerous independently operated motels built during the 1950’s and 1960’s that ring Disneyland. With the development of large, upscale resort destinations, these motels have become almost solely the domain of Orange County’s underclass. Motel residents pay shockingly high rents for their subpar living conditions, but are prevented from accessing the normal housing market due to poor credit, lack of full time employment and access to capital for rental deposits and monthly rents.
Municipalities around the county seeking monitor housing conditions have passed ordinances that restricting motel/hotel stays to 28 consecutive days forcing residencies relocate monthly. As families move, their children are forced to switch schools multiple times during the year, disrupting their already tenuous ability to succeed in school. The Project Hope School educates homeless children in the county and provides transportation to and from school no matter where the families are forced to relocate. The school curriculum and structure has been developed specifically to address the needs of the homeless population from providing nutritious meals to addressing the emotional fallout of economic turmoil.
214 Sq. Ft. was developed as an adovcacy tool for Project Hope to help raise awareness and funds for the organization. In addition to generating publicity in local news outlets such as the Orange County Register and the L.A. Times, fundraisers involving 214 Sq. Ft. have raise over a half a million dollars for the organization. Equally important to the fundraising mission has been increasing the conversation about how poverty looks and operates in contemporary society. For example, the conditions depicted 214 Sq. Ft. in terms of occupants per square feet mimic almost identically the living conditions during the early twentieth century on New York’s Lower East Side currently on display as an historical problem in The Tenement Musuem. Like The Tenament Museum, 214 forces audience members to exist within the actual spatial constraints of the motel room and in so doing produces knowledge about poverty today.