Lightly Illegal: A Letter from the Most Elegant Public Bathroom in Southeast Portland
The following are thoughts written in response to the conversations I had, both public and private, around Suddenly: Where We Live Now, a project by curator Stephanie Snyder and writer Matthew Stadler that exists as an exhibition, a series of texts, and a reader. In addition, the project included meals, screenings, readings, panels, and symposia organized by Snyder and Stadler, all inspired by the writings of German urban planner Thomas Sieverts. The exhibition opened at the Cooley Gallery at Reed College in September 2008, travelled to the Pomona College Museum of Art in January 2009, and will disperse and travel to locations around the world over the next several years. As an artist in the exhibition, I was present at many of the Suddenly events and met most of the participants.
After the Suddenly panel discussion, in Room 315 of Reed College’s Elliot Hall, I wanted to talk to the participants involved, but I needed to get some of the ideas in my head down on paper. I ducked into the first bathroom I saw to make notes. I stood writing at a chest-high marble shelf next to a window overlooking elegant grounds surrounded by forest. The light rain made everything misty and the air smelled clean. I chose the bathroom for privacy, but what I got was something closer in spirit to a cabin at the MacDowell Colony. This formal bathroom—teal walls, oak paneling—was so unfamiliar that I felt out of context, and my senses seemed heightened. It occurred to me that the bathroom was a tiny model of the exhibition Suddenly, which addresses the world as it is and asks us to make sense of it all. Though clear in hindsight, the answer to “what is happening?” is slippery in real time. This disorientation is mirrored throughout the Suddenly exhibition, from the lack of wall labels to the poetic—rather than purely informative—curatorial statement. This sense of uncertainty seems apt, as it is the operating principle by which we live now.
Matthew Stadler invited about fifty guests for dinner and conversation between Thomas Sieverts and architectural historian Aaron Betsky about the new shape of cities in an abandoned parking lot in Beaverton, Oregon. The overgrown, oddly bucolic lot belongs to Goodwill Industries, which gave our group official permission to assemble, eat, and drink on their property that night. During the conversation following the meal, Sieverts pointed out that if the event were held in a German suburb, it would be done without permit or permission, in a manner he defined as “lightly illegal.” Because permits or official sanction are unnecessary in Germany, gatherings like our dinner are legally ambiguous and unlikely to draw the attention of the police.
In hosting the dinner in the abandoned lot, Stadler suspended conventional civic and social rules. The guests at the dinner had to find the unmarked location and then gradually discover the proper way to behave in this unusual social setting. When there are no codes to follow, they must be invented. When at a dinner in an abandoned parking lot, does one follow the rules of a formal meal? If it begins to rain, as it did in Beaverton, should one be angry with the host, commiserate with one’s fellow diners, or leave altogether? Similarly, the viewers to the Suddenly exhibition were confronted with the question of how to behave in an exhibition that is open to the public but still obviously under construction. Should a viewer enter the space and speak to those at work, or ask the guard if the exhibition is even open? I overheard one viewer declare, “Something happened here.” However the visitor chooses to respond, the ambiguous conditions in the Suddenly exhibition break the conventional rules of the museum. The changeable, unclear circumstances we encounter in everyday life are modelled in the exhibition and surrounding events of Suddenly, forming a destabilizing and “lightly illegal” climate.
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About the Author
Molly Dilworth is a painter and curator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her work was recently featured in the exhibition Molly Dilworth: Dispersion at the Feldman Gallery, Portland.