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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sounds of Life

As a lingering effect of the foreclosure crisis, abandoned homes remain a problem in our neighborhood, creating voids on residential blocks. We have been somewhat fortunate that they have gone under during a rather prolonged period, instead of all at once. Some of the earlier homes have been sold, successfully renovated (despite having their interiors stripped), and reinhabited.  The houses that remain vacant, however, are deteriorating eyesores.

Especially during the depths of Winter, these abandoned homes are clamoring for something to interject some activity, if only the faintest reminder of life. These houses need some sign they are being looked after. One of these abandoned houses, which has a close relationship with the street and affects the many pedestrians who walk by all day long, was targeted for an intervention. The installation is titled Sounds of Life.

The installation aims to simultaneously create a sense of loss for the people who were dispossessed while injecting some activity into the space. Wind chimes are a reminder of inhabitation, yet they also heighten a sense of absence.  During the winter, they accentuate the cold wind, but they also create some cheer.

Little effort was made to musically tune the wind chimes. Part of the motivation was a quick installation, but it also reflected a decision about the desired effect. The wind chimes were deliberately assembled to create a combination of clanking and ringing tones. They are reminiscent of both the Ghost of Jacob Marley and the bells of St. Brendan. In addition, the sound level had to be kept quiet to avoid disturbing a neighbor in a house next door who sleeps during the day.

The use of materials also reflected a combination of practicality and symbolism. Each wind chime was assembled from objects that were discarded in our neighborhood: a broken metal chair, the handles from worn-out mops and brooms, a discarded curtain rod, a lamp, etc. This obviously kept the cost of the project near zero. At the same time, it emphasizes that things (and people) who are abandoned often have unrecognized value and untapped potential. It was important to visually occupy the porch, even while keeping the sound level down, so each individual piece sounds only occasionally, further reinforcing the sense of solitude.

The installation has served well as a conversation starter among neighbors on the street. As people walk down the sidewalk stop to listen and look at the wind chimes, others stop to talk with them about it. They wonder who installed the wind chimes and why, before the conversation inevitably turns to discussion about the house itself. Some recount stories of the people who used to live there, others share concerns about vagrants hanging out in the back yard, and some speculate about the eventual sale of the property. As a result of conversations initiated by the installation, neighbors have worked together to secure the gate on the narrow side yard to discourage trespassing in the back yard before it becomes a more active space for illicit activities as the weather gets warmer.

The conclusion of this installation was a sad, depressing example of the neglect and abuse the banks and their managing agents sometimes inflict on the communities where they have foreclosed on homes. During the week before the installation was planned to conclude, somebody who wanted access to the front door cut it down (the door showed no sign of force) instead of simply moving the chimes aside. The installation was not removed, merely left to hang, limply. What is most offensive about this action is the fact the management company has failed to clear the snow from the sidewalk, just as it has neglected to remove trash that was already collected and tied in garbage bags, and been unwilling to secure the gate. If the vandalism of the art project was done by the managing agent, as rumored, it is the only actual action the community has seen from them. After it was cut down, I promptly removed all the materials from the project, along with some other loose trash.

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