Can Andrew Wodzianski Make Himself at Home in his Corporate-Sponsored Residential-Art Piece?
On Andrew Wodzianski’s fifth day living in a storefront window at 1318 U Street NW, I ask the artist a question he finds difficult to answer: How does he feel about the real estate company sponsoring the exhibit placing limitations on what he can and cannot do there?
He pauses for a while, and then begins to think out loud: "I thrive on parameters and restrictions, whether they’re ones I devise for myself or ones that are set for me," he says. "This entire goddamn thing is parameters.…Some compromises were made, but I don’t think they take away from what this whole thing is about."
Then he receives a text from the sculptor Tim Tate: "Focus on your agenda—not hers."
Tate and a handful of others are watching our interview, just as they’ve been watching Wodzianski’s actions for the duration of the project, thanks to a 24/7 Web cam in the southeast corner of his cushily equipped 100-square-foot living space. For the past few days I had been one of them, and I was fully aware that when I went to interview Wodzianski, anyone would be able to watch. But it isn’t until Wodzianski reads Tate’s text out loud that I really think about the camera’s implications for our interview—which Wodzianski had promoted on his Facebook page to encourage people to tune in. It reinforces for me a thought that’s been constantly in Wodzianski’s mind throughout the project: People are watching you.
After Tate’s text, other messages from Wodzianski’s most dedicated viewers begin to roll in. But these comments aren’t media criticism. "Give her another beer," Wodzianski’s best friend says after I take a few sips from a PBR. "Move the flowers to the right if you have a boner," says another. One text cracks Wodzianski up: "I can’t even show you this one," he says. He’s reluctant to share another text message later that evening—this one from his girlfriend. "I think I’m going to have to do some damage control tomorrow," he says.
The performance artist Chris Burden didn’t take phone calls when he lived in the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York for 22 days in 1974, laying motionless on a platform where he was not visible to gallery patrons. He didn’t eat or speak for the duration of the piece. When the artist Tehching Hsieh locked himself in a wooden cage from September 1978 to September 1979, his only human interactions came when an assistant delivered his food and removed his waste once a day. Marina Abramović, the subject of a current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, lived in the Sean Kelly Gallery gallery atop a platform with three "rooms" for 12 days in 2002, where all of her actions—from eating to bathing to urinating—were visible to gallery patrons.
But since April 18, when Wodzianski took to his space—which he has not been occupying for the entire 14 days of his project–he’s often been found chatting with friends and enjoying a beer. He’s been eating donated meals and playing Scrabble. When he wants to go to the bathroom, he uses facilities hidden from public view behind his living structure. When he sleeps, he raises up the boards that cover his bed during the day to keep the light out of his eyes and the public from disturbing his rest. The biggest disruption has been reporters coming to the space to interview him—they’re taking up time that could be spent painting, or more likely reading the latest issue of the Atlantic. He’s got WiFi and , thanks to a corporate sponsorship, all the Pabst Blue Ribbon he could want.
Wodzianski’s living with little privacy but great comfort—a message that the JBG Development Company, which sponsored the exhibit, happily approves. The retail space he occupies will one day be a boutique hotel. Instead of sacrifice, Wodzianski says his Pop-Up Living, part of a five-part project to support the Cultural Development Corporation’s annual gala, is about economic living, and more important, about the difference between reality and fiction and whether the camera influences his behavior.
With two decades of reality TV behind us, one might think that question has already been answered. Wodzianski isn’t sure.
"At the end of the day, I’m just wondering if this is the largest selfish endeavor of all time," he says. "It’s about me understanding who I am. Is this really Andrew, or is this some artifice; is this scripted?"
With the exception of the interviews and the constant influx of well-wishers, Wodzianski is sleeping a little lighter, painting a little less, but still spending his mornings with the Washington Post and the Diane Rehm Show over a cup of coffee. "This is the most boring porn ever," one commenter remarked on his live stream.
If the porn is boring, that’s because Wodzianski has agreed with JBG not to have sex—or participate in any "illicit activities" —in the space. Nor can he use the rear loading dock, improperly dispose of his trash, or play music too loudly, because he inked the same standard retail contract that all of JBG’s lessees sign, says Matt Valentini, the company’s development manager. This doesn’t hinder his art in any way, Wodzianski says, because he has no desire to copulate—or be naked, or do drugs—in the space anyway, though he says he certainly misses having sex.
But it also ensures JBG a chaste, inoffensive project that builds positive publicity for a hotel that is being met with a great deal of neighborhood opposition.
"I think they’re pretty pleased with their investment," said Wodzianski, whose project has been featured in the Washington Post and on NBC and Voice of America. But in an art community that increasingly relies on developer-sponsored art events to build hype for projects, it ensures that any future Burdens or Abramovics or Hsiehs will have to look elsewhere to do their really edgy stuff.
I first learned of the contract when I was watching Wodzianski online last Wednesday. He had just sat down with Libby Ellsworth-Kasch of Brightest Young Things, and after demonstrating all of the features of his furniture (the space was designed by Studios Architecture and built by Coakley Williams Construction), he told her about the agreement.
"I signed a contract that says ‘no illicit behavior,’" he said.
"Well, then it’s not interesting," she said, laughing.
Wodzianski has let dozens of visitors into the space since he moved in, and all of them know that they’re being broadcast to anyone willing to watch. Other than his longtime girlfriend, they’re mostly fellow artists and critics—Wodzianski says Kathryn Cornelius, Cory Oberndorfer, Jessica Dawson, and Blake Gopnik have all been guest stars on the Andrew Show. Whenever guests enter Wodzianski’s space, they become a part of the art—and are forced to confront many of the same questions about identity as the artist does.
Wodzianski questions his motives for many things while under the camera. It’s only natural, then, to question his guests’ motives as well.
"All of these VIPs start coming in and I think, is this a coincidence, is it the nature of D.C.’s art scene in its size, or is this from some greater machination?" says Wodzianski.
Later in our interview, Wodzianski and photographers Joshua Yospyn and Matt Dunn and I sit down for a spontaneous dinner at his fold-up table. Brian Hight, general manager of Creme, who has been feeding Wodzianski for the past few days, stops by unannounced with a complimentary feast of shrimp and grits, and crab hush puppies, with coconut cake for dessert. Wodzianski stands up and does an impromptu commercial for Creme, showing the food to the camera. Then he places it on a table that displays the logos of PBR and JBG.
Another text, again from his friend. "Liven it up, punch plaid shirt guy." That would be Dunn.
Though Wodzianski planned to leave the space exactly eight times over the course of the two weeks—he didn’t want to take time away from his teaching job at the College of Southern Maryland—he had an unplanned trip out of his box last Saturday. As he and his friends were sitting around playing board games and drinking beer, a man walked up to the storefront window, cocked back his arm, and threw a rock, shattering the first pane of glass. Wodzianski grabbed his phone and tailed the vandal all the way down the street as he described the man to a 911 dispatcher. A few blocks later, the man was apprehended by police, and Wodzianski got a ride back to his box in a squad car. When he returned, he was amused to find his friends struggling to explain the performance piece to some cops.
Wodzianski was at first undecided whether the person in the box was really him. But at the same time, throughout our interview, he questions whether the person outside of the box is really him, too.
"In my self-defeatist humiliating nature, as I’m trying to make my guests feel more comfortable, I make remarks that find their way to print, and those become the legend of Andrew Wodzianski—that I am this bumbling jokester prankster. And maybe that’s a disguise I don’t mind," he says. "It’s hard to think that I would be that kind of shallow character, that I would only be that one thing to somebody—that Polish guy, that fall guy, the half-assed Jim Carrey. That’s the fear I have of you. You have that power. I’m giving you a lot of authority in how to sculpt me, and I’m not helping. I’m just giving you a lot of riddles."
"Goodnight sweetie," Tate texts. "I love you, big guy," Wodzianski says to the camera.
I return home and tune into Wodzianski’s channel. He is sitting at his table recording a wrap-up of the day’s events, talking about me. He leans toward his laptop and says, "Maura and I had a lovely interview, though most likely frustrating on her end because I was very evasive, elusive, enigmatic, and mysterious. Or, she reads through all of this and considers me…" A long pause. "Something. I guess we’ll find out when it’s in the City Paper next week."
Photos by Darrow Montgomery.