In York, Alabama, a derelict house has been dismantled and rebuilt into a charming pink structure that unfolds – much like origami – into a 100-seat outdoor theatre.
Called ‘Open House’, the compact home is the brainchild of artist Matthew Mazzotta. It features parts reused from the old building that can be folded and unfolded by four people in just two hours.
The result of the transformation is a theatre that provides York’s 3,000 residents with much-needed public space.
According to Shana Berger, co-director of the Coleman Center for the Arts, the project’s aim was “to transform a blighted property—a private space that is negatively impacting public space—into a public space that would serve as common ground, a space for creative exploration and expression that would bond citizens together and forge a common identity.”
Mazzotta got the idea for ‘Open House’ after hearing residents complain about the city’s disappearing social spaces. So looking to solve this problem – as well as other issues like economic decline, poverty, and racism – he came up with the idea of a place where everyone could get together and experience real community life.
We recently had the chance to talk to Mazzotta and found out more about him and his work.
Tell us about yourself. What path led you to become an artist, and to do what you’re doing today?
“I am a public artist who works at the intersection of art, activism, architecture, design, and urban planning as well as ethnography, community building, and local government.
“In my public art and design-build projects, I focus on the power of the built environment to shape our relationships and experiences. My community-specific public projects integrate new forms of civic participation and social engagement into their planning processes and reveal how the spaces we travel through and live within have the potential to become distinct sites for intimate, radical, and meaningful exchanges.
“I launch projects with temporary public spaces for listening or Outdoor Living Rooms as a way to capture voices from local residents. Stemming from this approach are participatory places that involve people from a range of backgrounds coming together to create new models of living that contribute to local culture beyond the economic realm.
“These efforts have resulted in over a dozen community-specific public art and projects in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I have received my Bachelor in Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and my Master of Science in Visual Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s program in Art, Culture and Technology.
“Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet writes: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there’. I like this idea of going to a new place, like Rumi’s ‘field’, where ideas have not been judged and swamped in words and attitudes. A place where there is actually time to think and act human again towards each other.”
Take us through your creative process. Where do you find inspiration? What’s your design philosophy?
“How the skateboard brought me to public art: As a kid watching movies in the ‘80s, the wildest people in society were skateboarders. From their colorful DIY fashion to their pack mentality, it was like watching dolphins come into a city being chased by cops as they rolled so gracefully through sliding, grinding and jumping over everything they came in contact with.
“In real-time, they were completely re-envisioning how the materials, shapes, and spaces of the built environment were being used.
“Growing up in a small town in northern New York State near the edge of the Canadian border there was no access to underground culture except for the graffiti on the trains that would plow through our downtown and what could be shown on MTV. I remember being drawn to the subversiveness that skateboarders symbolized and I subconsciously knew that skateboarding was a way to participate in something bigger than my small town was offering.
“Every public space is designed for a specific use and imbued with certain etiquette, but skateboarding for me was able to break these constraints and allow for an opening up of the potential of what the space can be used for.
“The skateboard allowed me to turn the ordinary everyday banal park benches, street curbs, flower boxes, sets of stairs, parking lots, and neglected spaces of my small town into sites to face my fears and get creative as we ‘sessioned’ them for hours. The skateboard was a prosthetic that enabled me to directly reinterpret the build environment and transformed how I related to world around me.
“When I first began skateboarding as a kid, it was nothing like the huge media-soaked industry it is now; it was very homespun and individual. When I started I would skateboard by myself, but eventually I found other kids from the surrounding small towns that had also found skateboarding like me, which made for instant bonds of friendship.
“We supported one another, and this is where I learned how communities can crop up and how it can hold people together so that ideas and peoples experiences can blossom and grow.
“Through the eyes of the skateboarder, public spaces are constantly being seen for the unintended potential they hold. This process of being able to see public spaces as endless possibilities beyond what they were first designed for has translated directly into the public artwork I create now.
“As a kid, my skateboarding experience was about coming together as a skate gang and using the public spaces for whatever purposes we dreamed up in a guerrilla-style way as we avoided the authorities. That experience has now turned into a lifestyle where mayors and city governments across the US, Europe, and Asia have invited me to transform their public spaces into works of art that raise critical questions and build community life.”
How has the community changed since ‘Open House’ was launched?
“’Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there’
Rumi – 13th century mystic poet.”
“I remember being immediately attracted to the concept of going to Rumi’s ‘field’, where ideas have not been judged and swamped in words and attitudes. A place where there is time to think and act human again towards each other.
“In my work, I aim to create spaces like the one Rumi writes about, a space devoid of overt political themes, a type of ‘third space’ for dialogue, making sure the invitation into a space surrounding an issue is not polarizing, but becomes engaging from as many different points of view as possible.
“It is important that the space does not provoke anger, cause people to be fearful and instinctively protective of their cultural and personal histories, but rather, a place where people enter into it out of curiosity and childlike interest on their own terms.
“For me, public space is political. Understanding the power of the built environment to shape our relationships and experiences, we can see that when the only spaces a community has to meet each other are the transitional spaces of the streetscape or commercial institutions, only certain types of dialogues are produced within that community.
“When looking at the project we produced in York, Alabama – Open House – and consider the possibility of change, it all comes down to the basic fact that ‘if people can sit together, they can dream together’. Open House is about generating an opportunity for people to come together and view their situation from a new perspective while having time and space to talk and exchange.
“It is about dissolving social hierarchies inherent in so much of our world and allowing people who might not feel comfortable at meetings and official events, or only being able to have short conversations in the checkout line, be able to be together and have a collective exchange of ideas, which in turn, eventually, resonates throughout the social fabric.
“From the work I have been privileged to be part of, I have developed the belief that inherent in every moment is the potential to ignite profound change, and as a catalyst, art affords us a compelling perspective to act upon this possibility. I often feel that I am an ‘activist using artistic sensibilities’ to bring real world issues and ideas into social discourse and lead public imagining.
“I love working with people and the public spaces they live in to try to figure out how to make interventions that engage directly with their local situations, while at the same time having a universal appeal to provoke conversations in cities and towns around the world that may be able to relate or see themselves in a similar situation.”
What’s next for you?
“I am currently a 2018 Loeb Fellow and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. I am starting 6 new projects in the US and the Middle East.”
You can find out more about Matthew Mazzotta and his work here.