Houseguest – an artist residency in an urban park

WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space. Portland, Oregon, US

Houseguest is a public art intervention at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, Oregon, USA. It is ‘an experiment in site-specificity, collaboration, and participatory public art in a city where space is an asset’.

Programmed by curators Sarah Turner, Justen Harn and Randy Cragg, the project came about as a different kind of event in the hard-scaped city centre park. Pioneer Courthouse Square is a city-owned park (by Portland Parks and Recreation) but run by a non-profit organisation, much as a venue would be – anyone can rent it. It’s a ‘free speech’ plaza, a flexible space, with its own kind of ecosystem of public interaction.

The Board of Trustees saw there were mostly commercial endeavors in the square, and were interested in other kinds of events and activities taking place – the possibility of creating a meaningful event that addressed important topics and themes, and supported artists sharing and making public art. Houseguest was partly conceived as a response to the lack of affordable space for artists, and the gentrification of the city.

Funded by the Oregon Community Foundation, Creative Heights, Miller Family Foundation as well as an endowment from the square itself, the Houseguest residency programme was launched in April, with 4 residencies over the year in June, September, November and May. Any artist can apply, and part of the focus is in helping artists to grow their work through this opportunity; the scale of the residency is significant in relation to the location, fees and public engagement. Each Houseguest works on-site at the Square for a long weekend, facilitating relationship-based, socially-engaged interventions with the objective to inspire and catalyze interaction among the diverse visiting and transient public.

I met up with Sarah Turner, one of the curators of the project:

“We’re very interested in the site-specificity of the place – it’s surrounded by commercial outlets, by expensive homes, it’s in the heart of the Downtown, with Nordstrom on one side of the square and the Courthouse opposite. We’re interested in artists working with the physical architecture and the space of the square.

Pioneer Courthouse Square is used to more traditional events – such as markets – where the ways of controlling the public, the aesthetics, are more predictable and known. Houseguest is a different kind of event for the park to host. Our role as programmers and curators in running Houseguest has been more about negotiating between the artist and the PCS office!”

The first Houseguest resident in June, Parallel Studio (Ethan Rose and Jesse Mejia), was Exchange a contemporary, interactive sound and light experience.

“There was a free standing play structure which  invited passersby to create their own sonic performance through movement that triggered the structure’s sensors. It was open for 3 days and nights (until midnight), and it was very popular, especially at night – it transformed the space and was very welcoming.

One of the artists was in attendance at all times it was open, and this is so important – the artists get to see how the public interact with their work. And you have to respond to what is happening. There can be challenges and difficulties in public space. At one point during Exchange, there was a man shouting, screaming in the square. The focus of the people relating to the installation and playing with the sound and light helped diffuse the situation. It’s a dynamic city centre space negotiating different tensions. The ‘ecology’ of the space became really interesting – who interacted – cyclists, dogs, skateboarders … it encouraged interaction between strangers.”

Exchange at Pioneer Courthouse Square

“The second residency in June, was with Libby Werbel who built a DIY museum – Portland Museum of Modern Art (PMOMA), a weekend-long, build-it-ourselves outdoor modern art museum, gatheed around a stage, co-presented by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the Time-Based Art Festival. 

The residency placed an exhibition in the heart of the city – it was an amplification of the kinds of projects and people that Libby works with – an impressive range of visual and performance artists showed work there.”

Portland Musuem of Modern Art

The third residency is taking place in November with artists Ralph Pugay and Ariana Jacob. They are collaborating on S.A.D. Park – the world’s first park created for people with seasonal affective disorder to relieve their suffering and publicly recognize their common struggles. In the heart of the notoriously grey and rainy Pacific Northwest, S.A.D Park is designed to ease one of the most prevalent mood disorders in society, running over the weekend of 18th to 20th November.

“This is a socially engaged work on a very topical issue. It’s a public art work that is accessible to all. The work will look at the social and civic function that a public space can play in relation to exploring an issue that is generally treated privately.”

S.A.D. Park features healing levels of bright lighting, botanical landscape design, sculptural features, sound-scapes and aromatherapy to address and alleviate S.A.D. symptoms. The park also offers group classes and activities to support people to learn about ways to live with and overcome their mood disorders, and even a play session with Puplandia – a visiting group of puppies. Both artists are interested in how SAD Park might be an experiential model for how to reorient our culture away from privatized suffering and towards public, collective solutions.

SAD Park Residency

I met up with one of the artists Ralph Pugay to ask more about the inspiration S.A.D. Park:

“I’m interested in somatics – the body in relation to space, history and culture. I’m also researching chronic pain, the condition Fibromyalgia, and not being in control of your body, in the vulnerability of the body. I teach studio practice at PSU –  I’m interested in ideas, in the classroom as a lab – and I set a task to the students to build a ‘SAD’ lamp out of recyclable materials as part of the course. I’m interested in solving unsustainable processes – these are huge issues to resolve. Why do people feel cynical about this? How do we talk about concepts of sustainability as a psychological, emotional and somatic benefit too, not just to do with environmental resourcing – it’s to do with our well being.”

Ralph was also inspired by visiting a friend who grew Marijuana in his basement under lamps – “it was so bright, so therapeutic. This thing that was vilified before is now reusable for other benefits!”

“With S.A.D. Park we are asking: why don’t we have environments that can deal with seasonal affective disorder? Why aren’t we talking about depression? One way to mitigate S.A.D. is through exercise but even if a park is there, it’s too dark, too cold. Parks need to have models of adaptation: what’s within our reach? what would it be like to create a park that gets you in touch with your own natural way of being outside these chemical imbalances? 

I do studio practice – I paint. Ariana does social practice – public projects. Ariana has been researching depression as a public feeling and asking ‘What’s wrong with people being depressed?’

Our concept is to make it feel like Hawaii in our environment! And to see how it makes people respond. There will be park benches, aromatherapy, resources, and Park Rangers! – professional resourcers as opposed to a security guard – actual licensed social workers that can help park-goers if they are having a difficult time. It’s a park that’s about psychological and emotional equanimity.

I’m really interested in who will come – the full spectrum! I’m more used to art audiences, but I’m interested in the interactions and in ‘what does it mean to be a public participator?’ And after S.A.D. Park, how can we extend this idea, where does it go from here”

– Read more about S.A.D. Park in Portland Monthly online magazine.

– Read about the residency on Oregon Live.

Watch the film documenting S.A.D. Park:

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