Loading

Teddy Smith The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University - Quarantine CRew Project 2020

Simply put, At Work is a collection of writing about spaces in flux. The scenes, mostly from my personal experience, each embody this idea of the “in-between” or that which is constantly changing. For me, these concepts are deeply rooted in queerness and the affective quality of the everyday, and are a steady throughline in my writing and visual work. This project was a unique opportunity to use this lens to reflect more specifically on my experience in construction and installation spaces. Here, the in-between is the space where all the pieces assemble and collide, where walls can talk, rhythms rise up, and things get a little messy.

At Work

Spaces assemble as an accumulation of the everyday. On the outskirts of town, a single totalling car crash imposes lasting impact, forever altering the landscape in the minds of passersby and those involved. Potholes deepen and curses rise up and new routes are negotiated. It’s more than simple cause and effect, rather: a lingering, a shock that spreads and jumps. A mouse is found in the trap and for days the house finds itself just a little more on edge. Cigarette and strawberry butts lay littered on the lawn for some time, a still life left like breadcrumbs to some intimate gone public. And the new homeowners wonder at a glob of toothpaste smooshed into the busted edge of the guest bathroom tub. Eventually they grow tired of the eyesore and remodel the whole room.

Moving through space is a real take and give. We pick up bits and take them for a ride, and discard others along the way. It’s a constant reweaving of the way of things, as we bring on new worldings with each foot through the door. For some of us, this is a promise, for others a real pain. Mostly we’re ambivalent, caught dead stop between picking up the threads and picking at them.

Me, I can’t help feeling most at home in the goings-on of a space in habitual flux. I’ve got a soft spot for train stops and airports and long meandering drives, apartments whose stories are embedded in the walls, and long walks looking up at windows and doors and other neighboring thresholds. There’s contraction and spread in these contacts, a buzzy undercurrent pulling at the matter of things. Bearing witness can feel as though you’ve been swept up in tow, let in on some big secret to how things take shape.

❖❖❖

Perched on the top rung of a ladder, I scrape away at a long bead of caulk running up the freshly naked walls. I’m working in the gallery, in that narrow strip of time between publics where the walls get to dance. The stillness of looking and pondering has been put on hold as the space undoes itself. Things are moving quickly in and out in a roundabout of activity. It’s a scene worth getting lost in: the unpacking and securing, building up and peeling back, wrapping, unwrapping, the tracking down and gaining traction. Tape is stripped away and screens are pulled back and it’s bright and white, and whiter yet. The room unfolds like gift wrap, carefully plucked and tucked and set aside for reuse, relieved of all its goo and bows, to’s and fro’s.

I get carried away. My blade dives too deep, and a fault in the crisp orange peel surface busts open. A flaky geode of paint breaks loose, unearthing a sedimentary history. Concentric swatches of color, a few decade’s worth of trendy shades and tasteful backdrops, have clustered up and jumped ship to form this topographic hunk. It falls to the floor without fanfare, like a buildup of dust swept off a rediscovered attic-bound treasure, a modest exhibit in time’s tendency toward accumulation. Like the ceramic fragments rolling by in plexi cases, the static oils and cyanotypes hanging bored in the next room, there’s more here than meets the eye.

I run my index finger around the drywall’s craggy injury, and toy with the idea of a carefully procured sample—some swatch matching back through time, a sort of dendrochronology of the room. I’m in the habit of taking up spare bits and traces like evidence of something at work and, whether through some simple desire to see things animated or a burning urge to get to the bottom of things, my imagination often runs amok. A patch of discolored hardwood becomes a drama played out in three acts winding down to a real flop of a final scene. A single abandoned glove, tucked up under the very back seat in the very last train car, spins out in a failed trajectory, stirring up an invented itinerary of all the stops it might have made. I get sentimental about the impossibility of covering up or the irresistibility of leaving behind. There’s a simple satisfactory pleasure in the way things fall.

But we’ve got a bit of a rebellious streak against the nature of things. We can’t help being drawn to the promise of good as new. Soon the unfortunate crater from which the time capsule sprung will be plastered over and sanded down smooth. We’ll roll on a few more layers of Eggshell 869 and wonder at the room growing incrementally smaller with each concealing coat.

❖❖❖

It’s winter, 2018, and it’s brutal cold out. But by February the apartment feels to be closing in on us, the dry heat inside inflicting a suffocating stillness, sucking up all the breathing room and drawing first blood. All cooped up, a particularly hazy variety of longing seeps in. When I need to be stirred up, I bundle up and head out back to find something happening. From the Escheresque stairwell landing, I look out across the coach house rooftop extending into the night, and watch faces blur in the blue line cars roaring by. The roof has been rotting through for some time and leaks steady. But in the swirl of the passing trains, that glistening tar pad looks to be solid ground on which to land—a firm threshold where the still and transient crash and collide. I’m irrationally drawn to it, to the rhythm and the promise of proximity to that familiar Chicago heartbeat, and to that hot second audience along for the ride.

I begin building out scenes there, on that slippery makeshift stage, queer little bits to happen upon on a late evening commute. I start small but bright, dragging every lamp in the house out onto the landing and lighting them up, one by one. I feel buzzy in their glow. One especially brisk night, I wonder what it might be like to make oneself at home in that open air middle ground. And so I lug all the fixings of a room out there: my bed and books, my side table and a light to read by. I settle in and lay there under the covers for some time, bracing against the bitter wind as the train rises up behind me, a wall of sound pouring over the spread. I watch the flicker of a flatscreen in a neighboring window. The night feels charged up, the walls dissolved to free up an anthology of possible escapes.

❖❖❖

A constellation of discarded material is scattering across the raw cement floor, a light breeze sweeping through the open garage door to send them swirling. Haywire nails and sharp lengths of corner bead, bits and bobs of stray plaster meander toward rest and lay ready for the taking. At the epicenter of the wreckage, the source: a precarious pile of MDF and busted drywall has sprawled like the abandoned rubble of a great shack. I teeter on a seesawing 2x4 at its peak, on the hunt for the perfect support.

I’m a gangly nine years old, out of school for the summer and doing anything to keep busy. Here, there’s not much to get into but trouble. If you’re trying to stay out of it, you bake in the sun and make something out of the nothing that is the great big sandbox terrain of West Texas. Bored is my favorite word, and Mom’s got a knack for crafty solutions. She and my dad work in construction, doing trim work in new homes. With nowhere to go and not much to do, I often find myself tucked away in some stark corner bedroom, my after school program and summer camp set on a string of job sites.

When the oil industry is booming, work is steady. Gas prices lead small talk like brush fire, eliciting a gruff exchange of groans and hopeful reasoning. When they’re high, greasy roughnecks flood into town with their families in tow, to take advantage of the work to be had. It’s a slow burn but there’s a reworlding at work here, a shifting of the grid lines. Folks descend like a dust devil rolling in, settling in just long enough to stir shit up. They gamble on a dusty old town known for its quaint positioning smack in the middle of nowhere and nowhere, and buy up tract homes and F-150’s like lotto tickets. On the weekends, they roar out of town headed to Dallas where they hit the outlets and buy themselves another week of tumbleweed chasing.

Strip malls spring up around the loop, and neighborhoods sprawl from there, rebelling cowboy style against containment. The laws of the road don’t apply here and the smell of diesel hangs thick. In summer, the asphalt near boils and, if you push your luck, you’re liable to burn right through the rubbers of your sneakers. The heat is trapped and so are we, using old tactics to occupy a space that’s rapidly changing all around us. But we’re in the business of building homes and this is ours. And so mine is a front row seat to the settling in and down, as the adults all wait nervously for the next inevitable bust and simmer to come.

❖❖❖

In the gallery, things are coming up and going downin a whirlwind. We work in the fickle rhythm of the in-between, a dance with what is given and brought, a perpetual state of almost. All the workings of the room—the paintings hanging there, the drywall and plywood and 2x4 studs below that, all the tacks and screws—pick themselves up, scatter, and rise up again. Things are escorted out, walls pulled apart at the seams and demoed for parts. A clunky cadence is felt in the thick of the room. For a while, we’re just getting in the swing of things, and the beat is chaotic, a frantic propulsion towards one’s place. Sometimes the body finds itself somewhere it shouldn’t be, and feet shuffle to find the flow again. It’s tricky figuring what to grab onto so as to feel useful. There’s bodies craving work here, so keeping your hands on something, anything, is key.

There’s standoffs to be had too. Swells of absolute still sit like freeze frames amid the stop motion wreckage. A good build up is essential to an artful drop. And so there’s the looking it over, running of hands on rigid surface, the peeling and peering always as if half-expecting a trick in the stud work, a message hidden in this bottle that just won’t give. Tensions rise, a deep inhale catches, growing solid and thick in the back of the throat. Anxiety of stopping dead might take over if it weren’t for the suredness of that inevitable and impending release.

An approach is offered just as the collective mind begins to wander. The Sawzall comes out in a flash and someone with a long reach and big hands gets a power trip for a time. The room feels pressurized as the wailing scream of the saw deepens, making contact with the hold up. Even as the space begins to open up, the air gets thick—with anticipation and a dull longing and a hefty asthmatic spew of Sheetrock dust. We’re taking stock, placing bets on the way things will land, like a game of jacks, pick up sticks, jenga mapped out in calculating detail. We take brief comfort in the certainty of give.

And then that audible release as the grind halts. We’re through and all is settling. The rhythm resumes and we all find ourselves grasping at something again.

❖❖❖

Sawdust rises and settles in a feedback loop, soundtracked by the rhythmic scream of a miter saw in the center of the living room. An air compressor generator bass line marks the passage of time and work done, the pfft of a nail gun grasping at a tune. My parents run through the choreography on autopilot. Mom silently secures the measurements before gliding material click clacking across the saw box. She brings the blade down with seeming ease, and then the clamoring shambling splat of baseboard or crown moulding meeting solid cement. My dad with his bad knee, strapped into his tin man stilts, glides along the perimeter of the bedrooms, the hall, the kitchen, putting things in their place. I find a solid spot to sit for a while, and watch as the room takes shape.