This Must Be the Place

by Mark Hahn

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House – Benton Harbor MI, Photo by Mark Hahn, 1982

My ten year old son recently told me that he had a dream where I was living in a hole behind the local supermarket. He said he had to bring me food everyday. He knows that I like to walk around behind stores and shoot photos in alleys. I like the aloneness, the stillness and the sense of being outside — sometimes it’s nice to feel you are outside of everything.

When Santa Monica first offered city bicycle lockers to its citizens, they were snatched up by the homeless who used them as alternative dwellings — a place to store things, a place to sleep and a place to come back to — essentially a home. It made me think about what we really need to live? What are our minimum requirements to feel human?

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Bike Locker Diagram – National Urban Transit Institute

I grew up on a roller coaster that took me from one side of the country to the other. Other than moving us around throughout my childhood, my father was an alcoholic. I never knew when his unconditional love would explode into uncontrollable rage. I had no sense of permanence and lost the concept of a home at an early age. It felt that whenever I found a space of stability that the rug would be pulled out from under me. I continued this pattern as an adult.

On one of my solo moves, I spent time designing a simple set of minimalist furniture for the perpetual transient. The sole purpose was to be able to break it down and fit it all inside a mid size automobile. I figured, no one ever knows when they have to pack up everything they own in the middle of the night, leave town and drive into the unknown. I always wanted to drive into a new dream — find a place where things were better. When you wind up in a new city, it would be nice if you could set up the basics of a home in minutes.

I never built the furniture. I often lived in places that were nearly empty. Who wants to be tied down by furniture anyway? Who wants to be tied down to anything when there is nothing holding you down. Doors are for places that you intend to pass through, not for places where you want to be trapped.

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Low Riders – Mad Housers

In 1991 I was in Chicago and visited the Randolph Street Gallery. They were holding their Counter Proposals: Adaptive Approaches to a Built Environment workshop and had some models of alternative housing on display. The Mad Housers offered humble concept “huts,” but more aesthetically evolved and functional options were provided by the two architects, Donald McDonald and Scott Kester.

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City Sleeper – Donald McDonald Architects

I immediately related to the work. When I was alienated from school and my parents in eighth grade, I thought about running away. It seemed I’ve always wanted to run away. In my mind, there was always the dream of finding an alternative place to live — someplace small and simple. A place I could be happy.

Once, my friend and I helped his dad build a steel shed in his backyard to store his ride-on lawnmower. When we got the shed together, I sized it up. It seemed like a perfect place for me. There was a small window that let in light and a sliding door that could be locked. All I had to do was find a secluded place in the woods to put it up and I could live there undisturbed. I kept the newspaper ads for Sears Roebuck steel sheds in my dresser drawer.

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Steel Utility Shed – Sears Roebuck

In the mid-nineties I acquired my first PC. It was one of the ancient green-screen Compaq “luggables.” With this computer came some basic programs on five and a half inch floppy disks. One was a primitive CAD package. I was immediately drawn to the idea of creating something inside the electronic nothingness of this device.

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Compaq Portable

With my non-technical background in the arts, creating the rudiments of a house using nothing but coordinates in space was a bit of a challenge, but I managed to represent a simple model. Issuing transformation commands, I was able see different views of this house. I transferred the views and transformation rules into a painting. The house was nothing but a minimal imaginary structure.

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Location Is Everything, Oil on Panel, 48×48″, Mark Hahn, 1989

In my real life, I resisted buying a house until the late 1990’s. This purchase was driven at the time by the fact that stocks were crashing and home prices soaring. It was simply an investment decision. I never bought into the American fantasy of home ownership.

Buying a house is nothing more than a leveraged investment which carries risks like every other investment. Historically, stock prices always go up faster than home prices, but no one is surprised when they lose money in the stock market. People seem to think that it is an American right to expect that home prices will always appreciate in value — an expectation promoted by our government and supported by tax incentives and first time buyer assistance programs. Government and banking unite to impose fiscal control over our lives. Our nesting instincts make us jump blindly into this social-financial noose.

It is widely accepted that humankind’s oldest known ancestor in a small Jurassic period rat. Perhaps our need for feeling we own a private home stems from some residual genetic sequences dating back to this time. Perhaps when we are shopping at Crate and Barrel or Home Depot we are no different than packrats out searching for shiny coins and keys — both of which are ultimately useless to the packrat.

Part of me questions whether the perceived value in traditional physical art and printed books comes from our instinct to collect stuff. Is this just the cultural equivalent of lining our nests? But the materiality of stuff feels good. Being able to hold onto something and perceive its fragility is comforting, but what is the real value in it? What is the relevance of physicality in the digital age?

There is a guy who lives in a classic VW Camper in my town. Occasionally he parks on a dirt patch off the highway near my house. At night he pulls the curtains and I can see him sitting up and working on his computer. I don’t know what he is doing, but I think about the freedom that has come with wireless internet and laptops. You could live a pretty creative life with nothing but a digital camera and a computer. You could live anywhere.

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Volkswagen Camper

If you’re connected to a social network and able to participate in cultural events and exercise your own creative expression, why do you need to maintain a studio and horde art work to prove you exist? Why does your work need to be physically realized to have meaning? Can any of us really escape our genetics?

When my children were born, I had to make hard choices in life in order to support and provide a home for them. One sacrifice I made was giving up a studio and my painting. I shifted back to writing and photography — two of my original passions. These two activities lend themselves to a nomadic lifestyle. With small portable devices you can write wherever you are and whenever it is convenient. I wrote two novels while at the playground watching my kids.

Similarly, photography lends itself to being done wherever you are. Photography is about seeing something new in what is around you. You don’t have to travel halfway around the world. You can find beauty in your backyard and in what is familiar. This can be much more meaningful than shooting another well executed photo of the Taj Mahal.

Whenever i see that man in the camper I fantasize about a life of freedom, a life not bound to a physical house with all the financial responsibilities that goes with it. Another part of me still wants the solitude and comfort to work for hours in a grounded studio once again. I can’t escape my instinct to build my own small world around me, no matter how tenuous the reality maybe. It is hard to let go of everything completely.

* * *

When I left Chicago, I drove out of town at dawn with a U-Haul full of my belongings. The drunks were still stumbling home. A crazed man sat in the middle of a busy intersection on an old kitchen chair he had placed inside a box. Cars drove by him and honked. He didn’t seem to notice. In his mind, he seemed to think he had carved out a space of his own inside this broken cardboard box. He looked to be at peace in himself. The world sped by. His place inside this big city was the space bounded by the box — this was momentarily his place. At some point he was either going to be dragged out of the street by the cops or run over by a truck, but until then, he wasn’t worried about anything.

* * *

So in the end I asked my son, “Was it a good dream?”

He laughed, “How could that be a good dream?”

“Anything is possible in a dream,” I told him.

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