Recently, the performance artists Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley designed and built a long, lean glass house in a bucolic field at the OMI International Arts Center in Upstate New York. The floorplan is a mirror image, with one balcony, bedroom, and sitting area on each side of the structure and a kitchen and bathroom in the center. Sounds like a typical modernist retreat, right? But there’s a twist: the house teeters precariously on a single column and reflects the movements of the two artists staying inside.
The ReActor House, as the art installation is named, is an experiment in how a house reflects–and even shapes–the relationship of its inhabitants. On its own, the house is perfectly balanced. But as Schweder and Shelley move about, the house tilts like a balance scale. So even if the two don’t see each other, they’re keenly aware of one another’s movements, which reveals their emotional state. In turn, they learn more about each other.
“A lot of designers will approach the question of building a home for someone as, ‘How can I have this reflect who you are,'” Schweder says. “As artists, a distinction is we ask, ‘Who do you want to become through this thing?’ It’s more about becoming than mirroring.” Schweder and Shelley have been collaborating since 2007 on performance pieces that use architecture as a medium. “We started with the idea that [Winston] Churchill had, which is, ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,'” Schweder says. “It’s a continual construction of subject and object.”
While the structure isn’t wired for electricity, it’s a fully functional house, complete with bedrooms, a living area, balconies, a kitchen, and plumbing and toilets that drain into a holding tank that’s emptied after each performance. The house is mounted on joints that allow it to rotate 360 degrees, like a weather vane, and to pivot about 30 degrees in all. 4th State Metals, in Brooklyn, fabricated the mechanism. “It’s like a Zodiac scale on a Lazy Susan,” Schweder says. “We establish walls and partitions in houses to get distance from one another, but this connects you and lets you know what they’re doing and feeling with a different modality of privacy, and different means of communications.”
The project’s point isn’t to keep the house as even keeled as possible. At times it’s fully tilted; at others it’s level. “You sense the person thorough the house,” Schweder says. “The house becomes a ‘Wardometer’ to me. He’s pacing; he must be anxious. He’s on the deck; he’s more calm.”
Schweder and Shelley expected a grueling stay inside the structure but were surprised by how overwhelmingly pleasant it is. “We thought it would be difficult,” Schweder says. “At first, people were asking, ‘How can you do this?’ Now people are saying, ‘Can I come in?'”
While the artists haven’t decided if the structure can accommodate house guests, viewers can spy Schweder and Shelley’s next performance–a five-day-long stint from October 6–10 at the OMI International Arts Center.
[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): Richard Barnes/courtesy Art Omi]