1 room, no view
PROVIDENCE — Eight artists snuck into the depths of Providence Place mall and built a secret studio apartment in which they stayed, on and off, for nearly four years until mall security finally caught their leader last week.
The story of their audacious stunt — they call it performance art — spilled out in District Court, after the leader, Michael J. Townsend, 36, of Providence, was arrested. He pleaded no contest to a criminal charge of trespassing.
Townsend, a self-described "professional public artist," said the clandestine project was born of a wish to explore the phenomenon of the modern American enclosed mall, its social implications, and his own relationship with commerce and the world.
Pointedly acting without approval from anyone, Townsend, his wife, Adriana Yoto, 29, and six others in a tightly knit artist collective produced the project and have documented it with video on Web sites.
The casually furnished, unheated apartment was in a 750-square-foot loft beneath an I-beam and above an unused dusty storage room in the mall parking garage that was accessed through a door in a stairwell, according to Townsend, his fellow artists and the police.
The collective labored mightily to haul in more than two tons of construction materials and furnishings to build out and equip the space, which already had a concrete floor. Some of the material was brought in through an 11-inch-wide aperture on the west side of the mall that allowed access to the garage interior. Larger items were brought into the garage by car and carried up fire exit stairwells, the artists said.
In order to section off and disguise the space, the artists cemented together 90 30-pound cinderblocks to make a wall and then installed a generic, beige-colored industrial door. Anyone who came into the storage room would see a steep metal ladder leading to the locked door.
Mall spokesman Dante Bellini Jr. yesterday pooh-poohed police detectives' and the artists' portrayal of the space as an apartment.
"It was an area with stuff in it," he said. Mall employees were seen removing some of the contents yesterday.
"It was wrong on a number of levels," Bellini added. "It was certainly wrong in its irresponsibility. And it was illegal. It was like a person breaking into your basement or your car at night and sleeping there... [We] certainly feel violated."
Mall security and the police say that the artists got into the storage room by manipulating the latch on the locking mechanism on the door. But Townsend insists that nobody broke in.
"I'm no lock-picker," he said. The artists got into the storage room because the door was left unlocked and often even ajar, he said.
Police Maj. Stephen Campbell acknowledged that he and other police detectives were so intrigued by word of the apartment that they went over to see it for themselves.
"I was surprised at what he was able to accomplish," the major said of Townsend. "But what he did was clearly criminal. That mall is private property."
In a feat of derring-do likely to be savored for years by the Providence-area underground-art community, the artists illegally ate, drank, slept, read, held meetings, watched TV and enjoyed games on a Sony Playstation2 in a palace of American commercialism.
The apartment, which was relatively soundproof, contained a sectional sofa, a love seat, a coffee table, a breakfast table with four chairs, lamps, a throw rug, a hutch and paintings on the walls. Although the group had bold improvement plans, the apartment lacked running water, a refrigerator and a toilet.
Townsend acknowledged that the lack of certain creature comforts, after a while, tended to sap the thrill of being there and to curtail each stint inside.
The artists lugged in gallon jugs of water to drink, and to answer nature's call, they would sneak out to use mall bathrooms. They did have a waffle iron, Yoto said, so meals tended to run toward breakfast food. They obtained electricity by running an extension cord to an outlet in the storage room.
In a bit of irony, the artists were startled last spring when their illicit apartment was burglarized. A thief forced in the door at the top of the ladder and stole the Playstation and a decorative collage called a shadow box.
"Maybe a home is a home once you get burglarized," Townsend quipped.
The collective members stayed there for as long as three weeks at a time, and Townsend said that he and another member moved in three weeks ago, intending to stay for at least a year. He said that he had been sleeping in the apartment and then walking to work daily at a condominium in a nearby refurbished mill that he shares as an office with other artists.
Yoto said she, her husband, and a number of other artists have been tirelessly wandering the mall and documenting their findings — everything from the correlation of advertising billboards to the surveillance cameras within the mall to the sewer lines that serve it — for a project of hers, called Malllife.
The apartment project was an extension of that obsession with the mall and its effect on the cityscape, she explained.
Townsend, who is preoccupied with the study of buildings, said he noticed the existence of the void that became the apartment during construction of the mall from 1997 through 1999, and that he later found a way to slip inside undetected. The collective first spent two cold nights in the loft in October 2003, then launched the project that December. The wall and door were installed by early 2005, allowing extended stays.
The collective's ambition to, as Townsend put it, make the apartment "super-sweet" with laminated wood flooring and other embellishments was terminated Wednesday. He and a visiting artist from Hong Kong walked into the storage room and were confronted and handcuffed by three mall security men wearing dress shirts and ties.
Bellini said the mall discovered the intrusion in April and "secured" the storage room door. In a routine check, a guard found the door ajar and Townsend was snared.
"The only regret I have is that I didn’t get to continue," Townsend remarked yesterday. "I'm really sad about it."
Mall security turned over Townsend and the Hong Kong artist to the police, who let the visitor go. The police initially charged Townsend with breaking and entering in the daytime, a felony, but at District Court, that charge was reduced to trespassing by agreement of the police and Magistrate Joseph P. Ippolito.
Townsend pleaded no contest at his arraignment Thursday, and Ippolitio sentenced him to six months’ probation and ordered him to pay court costs and an unstated sum of restitution. That combination of plea and disposition does not constitute a criminal conviction under state law.
Before he was taken from the mall, Townsend was obliged to sign an agreement entitled "Notice to Depart and Forbid Entry," which bars him from the premises.
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