Article

Stevie Ada Klaark talks with visual artist, educator, and Black feminist scholar Tia-Simone Gardner about her tiny home turned mobile residency, The Inhabitation Project, and the balance between stability, mobility, and intimacy in artists' connections to place.
December 7, 2017

The Inhabitation Project, photo courtesy of Tia-Simone Gardner.

Tia-Simone Gardner and I met on a Wednesday morning at a local café in Northeast Minneapolis. The background noise of other conversations, children’s squeals, and the muted shuffling of people just emerging from their homes to get coffee or tea on a gray November day crept into my awareness. Karen Dalton’s voice moved through the space for just one song off of her album In My Own Time. Dalton’s music is one of a drifting life and of mobility. This seemed appropriate and timely for this place, as Gardner and I discussed livability, dwellings, and locality—from what it means to stay, to how there are different kinds of staying and different kinds of leaving. We talked about Gardner’s current work, The Inhabitation Project, a tiny home turned mobile residency that Gardner has been working on as part of her Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota. The Inhabitation Project insists upon the pull to wander—but it also insists on the need for stability, what that suggests, and what it might take to stay.

Stevie Ada Klaark: What initially interested me in your work were your thoughts on radical inclusivity, as heard in the discussion at the White Page, after the panel event for Code/Switch, where we first met. What we wound up talking about in our previous conversations were your projects, and we landed on your mobile residency or your tiny house project. Can you tell me a bit more about it, why you started to make it? What do you call it?

Tia-Simone Gardner: Right now, I am calling the whole thing The Inhabitation Project. But I need a name for the structure itself. It needs to be named something, but I don’t know what to call it.

Klaark: I like Inhabitation. I like that it sounds like a circle.

Gardner: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Klaark: Like the shape of it—it just sounds circular.

Gardner: Yeah. I mean the whole project is about—how do we live and dwell in cities and not in cities? And how do we live not just statically, but also as mobile, in something that is affordable? It started out with my needing a studio and a place to live, and the cost of those things being more than I could afford. And so the tiny house movement has been an ongoing interest, but I also have been thinking that it has always been there. People have lived in RVs, people have lived in mobile homes, and people have improvised housing since people have organized societies. Building a tiny house on wheels is now really legible. I felt like I could prepare for it and get someone else to help me pay for it. I couldn’t pay for it on my own.

Klaark: Right.

Gardner: I was able to get support from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the U. They helped me hire an architecture student to look at the plans for it. And I received a McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship, which coupled together helped get this built. And then, working on my dissertation—I originally thought I was going to write about mobility and stasis as a part of thinking about race along the Upper Mississippi. All these other things just started to come together with the tiny house, and my advisor suggested that I should just incorporate the house into the dissertation. And so I did. I started researching housing and affordability in Minneapolis and St. Paul. There are things that I wish I had the capacity for. I think had there been more time and more resources, I would have made it more ecological. The first question people ask is, “Why isn’t it solar?”

Klaark: Why isn’t it solar?

Gardner: Solar costs way more money, and for a mobile structure there is whole different system than for a static structure. Having a collaborator on board who knows the technology would have been really nice. Maybe in the future that would be a possibility.

Klaark: Totally.

Gardner: You know, those things are awesome and great, but it just takes more resources to be able to use the technology.

The Inhabitation Project, photo courtesy of Tia-Simone Gardner.

Klaark: Absolutely, but what is so exciting about the project is that you are living in it. And potentially, like any other dwelling, it is adapting to your needs at that point in time. You know, as things shift and change in that way, solar is feasible as part of a future plan—like once the seed is planted, it takes time to grow and manifest. Who knows how it will evolve? I mean, you know in part, but it’s also that how we live and dwell is based on responding—or should be based on—responding to our basic needs at that time.

Gardner: That’s so true. That’s so true. I’m glad that you said that. I think it’s nice to approach the space that you live in as adaptable. It’s not a fixed structure. It’s nice to think about it in other iterations, so it can be changed over time.

Klaark: Which is exciting. I feel like many of the trends in a lot of compartmentalized, mobile making/dwelling structures tend toward conversations that are similar to each other, and what I find really interesting about your project is that it acknowledges paradox. There is this desire for stability, and yet having to have this fluidity and mobility is necessary in order to have that stability. It’s strange, and also really poetic, and pretty great.

Gardner: There is that paradox there. I don’t want to generalize or over-romanticize the artist, but we do have to have some flexibility. As an artist, you are not a fixed spectator anymore. I mean, there are fixed spectators. 

Klaark: Yeah, absolutely.

Gardner: There are fixed spectators. But I think more and more, our careers require travel.

Klaark: And the needs of our work too, the work that we are making. But then it leads to the question: What is feeding the other? Is our work adapting to imposed structures, or is it leading the discussion? Especially because where funds come from and how they are used—even if they are unrestricted—do set up a foundation for something to exist.

Gardner: These are the things I struggle with—wanting to have flexibility to make work at home. Home is Alabama. There are ways of working, and working with people, that I feel like I have a better understanding of because I grew up with it. I have time, depth, and kinship. I have those things that make it feel somehow less of something and more of something else. I know that place, so I can work in a way that is more intuitive. I know who to go ask questions of. There is some small claim that I don’t have here. There is also work that I don’t know I would be able to do there, because the resources aren’t there. How do you make the projects you want to make with care, caution, respect? How do you do that with compassion and with a humanist, feminist approach?

Klaark: That lens is so important, and I think that is why I am very interested in this project. I think about traveling, and being a part of communities, about what seems to be the inherent condition of being an artist. How do we approach residencies in a different way? There are times that just because of the way that a residency is set up, you feel like an intruder on a place, the community and the resources. At what point are we taking more than we are giving? Being able to acknowledge that, and adjust accordingly, is necessary. So is finding a way to be more compassionate and understanding, in order to be able to acknowledge when you are doing more harm than good in a community—even before you get there.

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I know that place, so I can work in a way that is more intuitive. I know who to go ask questions of. There is some small claim that I don’t have here. There is also work that I don’t know I would be able to do there, because the resources aren’t there. How do you make the projects you want to make with care, caution, respect? How do you do that with compassion and with a humanist, feminist approach?

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Gardner: Even before you get there. Yes. That’s the thing that is important. I think a lot about temporariness. Temporariness can be something you need to think about more. Temporariness requires us to think ahead more. It does require us to think with the pace of our environment differently. It makes us think about—how do we educate ourselves in relationship to other people in the places we are in? It’s something I think about in the creating of residency and taking up residencies, particularly when we don’t belong to a place. What assumptions do we make? Because it always is some sort of give and take.

Klaark: Yes.

Gardner: You know, I had a professor who passed in 2014, Terry Adkins, who was really important to me.

Klaark: Adkins was amazing.

Gardner: A lot of the work relied on ritual. The practice part of it relied on ritual. Absolutely, his work was a good example of this. How do we incorporate the ritual of learning and engagement, without it becoming predatory? We really do have to be cautious about how we treat people, places, and how we treat our work.

Recitation (2011). Tia-Simone Gardner.

Klaark: Just this mindfulness about the reverberation of our actions—there is so much work that gets made, and there are a lot of mentors and professors in higher education, where work gets funded, and that work is not self-aware or not aware of the communities it is brought into. It’s about time spent. That does bring me to something we have discussed previously. In documentation that I have seen of yours, there seems to be a dealing with time, this simultaneity that is found in thinking of your present experience and times past. I think that building this house that is mobile has to do with time, in a very different way than we think about building a structure in a neighborhood. How do we think about the future when we think about temporality? And it’s not about creating a binary. When mobile you can pick up and leave at any time.

Gardner: That’s a really important question. I can answer the question with a question. How do we start to think about the future as non-accumulative? I don’t think it has to be either/or; I think there will always be a mix of static things and non-static things. With houses and housing, how do we think more strategically about using temporariness within planning to our benefit? Plans sometimes only allow for the accumulative. It’s supposed to be 20-, 30-, 50-, 100-year plans. Mortgages.

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How do we start to think about the future as non-accumulative?

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Klaark: Exactly. And also thinking about our ecology, we have more and more disasters happening because of climate change. I think that is also changing people’s awareness for their environment. I don’t think it is wise for people to think about accumulation the way that people did in the 1950s. That is a polarized comparison, but it leads to a colonial mindset of what accumulation means: going into a place, accumulating more and more abundance and wealth, so that your offspring can inherit that. I suppose my question is: Is it possible that we are beginning to question what we are inheriting? Do we want to inherit it, and is there something else we could be passing on? And what does that look like?

Gardner: That’s a really good question, and I think that’s true. I was passing by Augsburg this weekend, and they made this small dwelling that can be put up really quickly, and is essentially crisis housing. And so it is temporary housing, but I wish that the temporary didn’t have to come into effect in a crisis. We can preemptively think before and outside of crisis modes.

Klaark: Right.

Gardner: We can stop and think about what comes after us, ecologically, and it can be something more than the monetary.

Klaark: Because the monetary system we have right now is a fiction. It was devised by a person and can be reformed and reshaped. It is going to take a lot of work.

Gardner: It’s just done so much damage. We can look at what has happened in this country to indigenous people, to black people, to poor people. It’s just done so much damage to try to beat people out of being property owners. Property owning in itself is a huge game: win or die. It has done so much more damage than good. There must be some other means. We can’t get out of it completely, but there are other ways to assess the way that we live right now. There are other ways to live in and manage our lives and cities.

Klaark: The Inhabitation Project suggests that.

Gardner: Yes.

Klaark: The things that we are talking around remind me of the recent New York Times article that was a feature written by Kate Bolick on Andrea Zittel’s, A-Z West out in Joshua Tree, and the response that Zittel gives in response to her work being compared to male predecessors, who make sculptural monolithic land art pieces in the middle of nowhere—and then leave. I think with Zittel, it also is about her return to California, since she was born there. But Zittel’s response is that she is living with her work. A-Z West is about livability over time. I have been thinking about her response regarding her living with it. And there’s a difference in that, where a colonial mindset is about conquer, destroy, and leave. Within a colonialist framework, there is an eventual leaving, in which the structure that has been put in place is supposed to hold—which is absurd. To think about projects, such as The Inhabitation Project, that are about livability, is also to think about an undoing. Undoing is an incredibly vulnerable process, and makes me think that people from the outside might say that the narratives about people wandering, making work, and leaving are similar. This is a different kind of leaving, and this is a different kind of staying.

In the Dark Series (2009-2010). Tia-Simone Gardner.

Gardner: That’s really good. I am thinking when you said that, about where I wanted to go—when you build these things, we shouldn’t be making random choices. Just because space seems free doesn’t mean we should just carve something into it because we can.

Klaark: And we make the pilgrimages. You go to these sites.

Gardner: There is something important about not thinking about space like that, because I want to take The Inhabitation Project home home. There’s a vacant lot next to my mom’s house because her neighbor’s house burned down. She moved into a condo for the livability. I hope to enable myself, for a very short time, to go home and be next door to my mother in my own space. So it’s not just like I am going to go to the vast “out West”. I hope that folks will start to begin to think about space in a different way than that.

Klaark: This cycle of manifest destiny, essentially.

Gardner: That I can just “mine” anything.

Klaark: How many people have gone out “on the road” with their Neil Young mix tape and refurbished van? But how much of that is indicated by your social standing, and your ability to travel through places that are unwelcoming? Going out into the world as a woman, I have encountered peril or felt uncomfortable because my body is not welcome in certain space. It is about who you are, and what you have in order to attain that sort of lifestyle.

Gardner: I hope that having someone let you borrow a place to park is understood as an intimacy. I can’t think of a scenario of feeling safe in an unknown, less populated place. There is an intimate relationship that you have to work on, work up, work through, and do to initiate these mobilities together. A friend in Wisconsin has a CSA farm and is going to let me park the house on the farm. I am parking my house right next to her house. I don’t think women or people of color approach living or livability in the same way as others. We haven’t been able to do that.

Klaark: Yes. The intimacy part of the project is what is missing from the dialogue around these other narratives in art and design that we have to talked about. I think it is a radical way of rethinking how artists move through communities and make work.

Gardner: This thing, this home. I really want to take it home. We'll see.

Tia-Simone Gardner is a visual artist, educator, and Black feminist scholar. She received her MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and participated as Studio Fellow in the Whitney Independent Study Program. Gardner has held artists residencies at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, New York; IASPIS in Stockholm; and the Frank Mohr Institute of Art in the Netherlands. She is a 2016-2017 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow, currently living in Minneapolis, MN.

Stevie Ada Klaark is an artist and educator. She holds an MFA from Cornell University, College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP). Her work has been featured on the cover of the Chicago Review, in Bat City ReviewBlue Mesa Review, on ArtBBQ and BOOOOOOOM!. She has participated in residency programs at Norðanbál Gamli Skóli, Hrísey, Iceland; Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts, Toronto, ON, Canada; and Contemporary Artists Center at Woodside (CAC), Troy, NY. Klaark is the recipient of the Hemera Foundation Tending Space Fellowship. She lives and works in Minneapolis, MN.

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