The Case for Space: how micro-living is killing culture.
A few years ago, my husband and I began our search to buy a condo. Both of us are performing artists who dabble in other “real world” jobs to sustain ourselves. We had moved to Vancouver after a decade in NYC, and were watching the housing market spiral out of control. After we finally got our Permanent Resident status, both of us middle-aged, we figured it was literally a “now or never” situation, and started the hunt. We realized quickly that there was nothing we could afford in the city limits of Vancouver, and started widening our circle. The few places close to our price range in the suburbs directly outside of Vancouver were decrepit and crumbling. The circle kept widening.
One day, I saw a billboard proclaiming the shiny promise of “Brand New Homes – starting at $200,000!” The condo complex was in Surrey – a sprawling suburb about a half-hour away from Vancouver, but on a transit line. Out of curiosity, I suggested to my husband that we might go to their upcoming Open House event.
The day of the event, we pulled into the festively ballooned parking lot of the space housing the presentation homes we were there to see, as the complex itself was still under construction. Inside, the whole experience had a futuristic, sci-fi feel, clearly catering to a younger generation of tech workers and enthusiasts. State-of-the-art VR experiences and 3D holograms were employed to give the viewer a sense of what living in the complex might be like.
And then there were the model condos to tour.
Or should I say, cells.
Now, I worked as a singer on cruise ships for several years. And on ships, there is clearly a need for economy of space. We’d have a crew compliment of about one thousand, with a passenger manifest of about three times that. The crew and officer cabins – our personal quarters – were designed to economize every inch of space so it could be best utilized. A little cell of personal space in a hive of activity.
Walking into the model condo, I felt as if I was walking into crew quarters on the USS Enterprise. Every square inch was designed within a fraction of its life to serve basic human needs: wall shelves hinged up and down, tables slid out of walls or swiveled on their axis. The kitchen was not so much a kitchen but a galley – one you might find on a small luxury boat: the narrow sink fit one plate and one glass; the stove was a hotplate built into the countertop. And for sleeping? Ahhh, the Murphy Bed is back, my friends. Masquerading as a paneled wall during the day and hinged down at night to occupy the one and only open space in the condo.
And the realtors and salespeople said, “Isn’t it wonderful! Everything you could ever need! How convenient!” And the news articles that permeated my news feed and sprawled across local newspapers proclaimed: “Live Small! Be environmentally responsible! The merits of tiny houses!” Meanwhile, Real Estate Developers laughed while sipping champagne by the pool at their sprawling multi-acre luxury homes.
The entire condo unit was just over 300 square feet. For a mere $200,000. That was four years ago. To buy that same place now costs TWICE that. Close to half a million dollars for one well-appointed prison cell.
Now, we did end up buying a condo, in a different suburb. It’s approximately 700 square feet, on the top floor of a four story building in a residential area and has a large open format, big windows and a lovely little patio which all look out on a beautiful view of the mountains. One wall of the main room is entirely mirrored, and we built in tall, narrow shelving close to the walls which optimizes our storage space and keeps things fairly out of the way. It all has a feel of space and openness, which my heart needs. But, although our space is more than double that of that little state-of-the-art pod, I still crave more room. We NEED more room.
We’re artists and musicians. I work mostly from home, booking gigs, designing and rehearsing. Right now, half the living room is taken up by our two desks, four guitars, two bass guitars, a banjo, an autoharp, amps and speakers. My sewing and costume design station takes up another corner. I have a huge array of large and elaborate costumes which cannot live in my home with me. They are (thankfully) stored at a friend’s space in the city, but it would be nice to have my creations near me. Our shelves are filled with books, music and items of whimsy and inspiration. Our two lovable cats complete the environment. We make it work, but every time I want to start creating something, it throws the space into chaos and disarray until the project is completed. Nearly everything must be displaced in order to create.
I need a space that can withstand the act of making art without upsetting the apple cart. As an artist, and as a human, I deserve space. We all do. But at what cost?
As an artist who wants to have an opportunity to place her art in front of as many humans as possible, it’s imperative to live in an urban area. Any urban area with that type of audience is going to be densely populated, with a high cost of living. And those inhabitants rely on the city to nurture them with culture as well as technology. Art is a huge part of culture. Without it, the human soul starves. Where does that leave the artist who’s struggling to make grand works of art?
I constantly see artistic colleagues fleeing the city for the promise of vast creative space in a more financially sustainable city or town. But unless these spaces fill up with like-minded individuals, I fear those artists are isolating themselves and stranding their art on a virtual desert island.
Art needs people.
People need art.
And artists need space.
The idea of government-subsidized spaces for artists is a lovely fairy-tale, but unfortunately it’s just that. Unless you are one of the few elite artists who has learned to work the government funding model at the highest echelon, those spaces and subsidies are virtually unattainable. The act of trying to infiltrate the system is a full-time job. Learning the language of grant application and the nuances of what “sells” your project requires not only endless hours of research, but now also requires paying to attend seminars and classes to learn HOW to apply for this support – with no guarantee that you will receive any. Your art needs to fit neatly into specific categories in order to be approved. It needs to conform to guidelines. And the projects that ARE funded are the ones that tick off as many specialty boxes as possible to enable the government to file their reports saying, “Look, we supported all these culturally diverse types of people and styles of art this year. We have done our civic duty.”
For lack of space, the art of making Vital Art is in danger.
Vital Art is messy and dangerous. It requires bold experimentation and grand failure. It needs space for trial and error. A playground. Art which unifies, cauterizes, revolutionizes, and wakes up the sleeping psyche – doesn’t always fit into neat categories or compartments. It is often accidental and serendipitous. It plants itself in a space and gestates there until it is too big and must burst out to be experienced by the outside world.
So without space, how can great art be born?
We need a better funding model. Or a lottery. Some new system to offer space and funding to brave, wild artists. Creative beings who may not have a specific, neatly organized proposal, but are willing to take over a space – mixing up all their skills and abilities and ideas and throwing them into the soil to discover what bit of magic may grow. Then spending time feeding and watering that magic – caring for it until it blossoms as art which may truly be transcendent. Art which might change the world. Bring us together. Validate our humanity.
But how can any of that happen if society keeps neutering the wild artists in its midst by not giving them real spaces – artistic gardens – in which to grow art? Our culture is at risk. Our culture is a garden that’s currently choked off by weeds. But digging out a little room in our world for artists will help the roots grow strong again. Perhaps those who have a little extra space would like to contribute to the health of our culture by sharing that space with a creative soul. Giving us a little piece of earth. It’s all we really need to grow some much-needed magic. And save the world.