Would You, Could You in a Box? (Write, That Is.)
By JULIE SALAMON
Published: May 9, 2005, NY Times, Art Section
The novelist Laurie Stone understood that her desire to go into the box was a symptom of something, she just didn’t know of what. Ms. Stone, 58, will have a month to consider her decision from the confines of a sleek-angled structure, about 140 square feet, whose walls resemble shoji screens made not of rice paper but of translucent cellular plastic panels. Her temporary home was built just for her, in a converted factory in Queens.
On Saturday night, in front of 200 onlookers, Ms. Stone and two other novelists, ensconced in neighboring pods, embarked on a variation of the spectator sports made familiar by reality television. Ms. Stone, Ranbir Sidhu and Grant Bailie are the participants in “Novel: A Living Installation” at the Flux Factory, an artists’ collective in Long Island City. The goal is for each to complete a novel by June 4. The purpose is to consider the private and public aspects of writing.
No cameras will record this voyeuristic experiment, though visitors can peep occasionally (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m). The potential for public humiliation comes not from the perils of constant surveillance, but from the more familiar writers’ problem of failing to meet a deadline. Make that deadlines. They will give weekly readings of their works in progress on Saturdays at 8 p.m., and take part in two public discussions scheduled for this coming Sunday and May 22.
What the novelists write is not as important as how they live while they are writing. Each habitat was designed by builders who, like the writers, entered a competition. The writers can emerge for only 90 minutes a day and must record on time cards the reason for their absence (laundry, bathroom, snacks). Each evening they will gather together to eat a meal cooked by a chef from a local restaurant.
For the Flux Factory curators, the exhibition (or exhibitionism) is an extension of an experiment their group has been conducting for a decade. Seventeen of the mostly youthful Fluxers, as they call themselves, live in the Flux Factory, a 7,500-square-foot space, which has the trappings of a college commune. (“Novel” is in the 2,000 square feet set aside for exhibitions.) The Fluxers’ mission is to constantly consider the relationship between life and art, a process oiled by grant money.
The idea for “Novel” came to Morgan Meis, 32, a founder and the president of Flux Factory, as he was trying to finish his dissertation on the Marxist philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, and his theories of experience. “I said I should do a project called ‘Dissertation’ where I lock myself in a box” and just finish the thing, Mr. Meis said.
Instead, he staged this show, together with Kerry Downey, 25, a fellow Fluxer. They put out notices on various Web sites, at graduate schools and architecture firms. Two hundred writers and a dozen designers applied.
With no money at stake and little prospect for celebrity, why did the writers, all past the age of youthful impulse, decide to participate?
Ms. Stone, a trim, lively woman with stylish short hair, was drawn by the isolation. “The idea of escaping from TV, all media, was very appealing to me,” she said, in an interview before the experiment began. She came with the essentials: books, makeup and linens. Her main worry was that she would not adjust well to living in such close proximity with strangers. “I’m afraid I won’t be flexible,” she said, “I won’t be happy. I’ll be rigid and terrified.”
The writing and reading aspect did not alarm her. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she asked, and laughed. “I’ll be terrible and give a bad reading. I’m extremely experienced with that.”
Mr. Bailie, 43, had different motives. He received some fine reviews for his first novel, “Cloud 8,” published in 2002, but earns a living as a security supervisor for an office complex and mall in downtown Cleveland. Mr. Bailie, who paid for his plane ticket to New York, also has a wife and two children from a previous marriage, so his writing time is limited.
His space resembled a cross between a rustic hut and a primitive ship’s cabin (but with electrical outlets). Its designer, Ian Montgomery, 24, is a carpenter and fine arts graduate of Bard College who has lived at the Flux Factory for eight months. In keeping with the Fluxers’ experimental gestalt, Mr. Montgomery, with a mop of curly hair and a beard, wore a casual black dress over his jeans. Barefoot as he navigated his creation, he explained why he had decided to include a “grow table,” a board covered with dirt sprouting wheat germ, clover and rye.
“I’m really interested in the potential energy that can be exerted in a short amount of time by plants and writers,” he said.
The third writer, Mr. Sidhu, 38, moved to California from India when he was 13, and has lived in New York for seven years. He was looking for freelance work when he saw an ad for the project on Craig’s List. “This seemed so much more interesting,” he said. “The business models are consolidating and making publishing narrower and narrower, whereas this breaks open that model through play, refocusing on what’s really important, which is the writing itself.”
Mr. Sidhu will be living in an airy space defined by various boxes and movable plexiglass walls designed by two graduate architecture students at Columbia University, Mitch McEwen and Kwi-Hae Kim.
Paul Davis, one of the architects who designed Ms. Stone’s abode, had been up all night adding the finishing touches and was still attaching panels with a staple gun an hour before Ms. Stone secluded herself.
Mr. Davis, 43, has sleek good looks that seem more suited to a martini ad than a warehouse art-happening. His firm, Salazar Davis, mostly does fancy residential and retail jobs, with clients that include AgnÃ‹s B. and Air America radio.
He said he loved his break from the functional: “It was fun to remove ourselves from the practical business of selling something and be set loose to explore the ramifications of what it is to inhabit a place.”