Living in a mall
By chance, I got to listen to Adriana Yoto’s presentation at a small art space called KLUUBB in Wanchai on Friday night. In 2003, Yoto and seven of her artist friends built an apartment in an abandoned and hidden part of a massive mall in Providence, near their homes. They lived there for four years, until they were ultimately found by some curious security guards and arrested.
When the Providence Place Mall was being built, other buildings were torn down to make space. Some of Yoto’s friends were kicked out of their apartments. Small businesses closed down. It’s a behemoth, accessible only through a grand entrance and rigged for cars. The mall has 4,000 parking spaces and 10 spaces for bikes. There are 170 shops, and four department stores.
Before the artists embarked on the project, the mall ran an advertising campaign saying something to the effect of, “This mall is so great! If only I could live here!” The artists took the call-to-action literally.
After discovering the abandoned space in the mall — Yoto’s husband had noticed the anomaly during construction — the artists assumed the hyper-capitalist mindset of the mall owners. They felt an obligation to develop it. After all, it was wasted space.
They smuggled in bricks through a squeeze-gap that led to the outside world and built a wall and door, which could be locked. Up a steep set of stairs, in a lobby-type space, they found their new home and gradually built it up, adding furniture, a TV, gaming consoles, artwork, and even a waffle iron. They used an extension cord to access a power outlet two storeys below. The only amenities the dwelling lacked were a bathroom and toilet. They were planning to set up plumbing, before they were foiled.
When it came time to move in pieces of large furniture, they couldn’t use the squeeze gap, so they just took it in the front door and out the back, passing security in broad daylight. No one suspected a thing.
The artists slept at the apartment every night, and would sometimes spend a large part of their weekends in there. No visitors were allowed, and the artists never talked about the apartment in the outside world. During the day, they would go to work in their studios. They used the mall toilets to relieve themselves, and Yoto had a morning routine of visiting the Origin store to use the test-sink and products to wash her face and hands. She’d drink the free tea at the Borders bookstore.
The fun had to come to an end some time. A couple of security guards in their 20s got bored one day at work and explored the mall, trying every door. When they found one that didn’t open with the skeleton key, they kicked the door in. They took the Playstation for evidence. The artists came back to find the door kicked in and some stuff missing but decided to continue living there anyway. Eventually, Yoto’s husband and a friend from Hong Kong (okay, they broke their rules, but she was the only visitor who came to the apartment) were found in the apartment by police, and the group was arrested.
Considering the circumstances, it wasn’t a bad way to get found out, Yoto reckoned. “I’m happy that we were caught by versions of ourselves. We were caught by adventurers.”
Yoto’s husband, Mike, was the only one to get taken to court, charged with misdemeanor trespass crimes. He got no fines, but he did get a probation officer. She found the whole affair highly amusing. During his short stint in jail, Mike was getting high fives from the inmates. Mall security told him, “What you did was illegal — but you did a really good job!”.
The mall owners were the only ones with a negative response. They’re suing for the copyrights to all the images and video that were produced in the apartment, because it’s their property. Yoto finds the implications of that interesting, because increasingly our lives are being lived in public. She wondered what would happen if someone wrote a poem while sitting in Starbucks and was later arrested. Would the poem belong to Starbucks?
Scary things happened in the mall while they were living there. A 14-year-old girl was raped in a bathroom. Some guy jumped off the parking lot — he didn’t die but he messed up his legs. A security guard accidentally drove his car too far in the parking lot, so half of it was hanging in mid-air. (Despite best efforts, the mall owners couldn’t keep that one out of the next day’s newspaper.) People fell off escalators. The mall was a place of drama; just not the sort that was advertised.
Yoto jokes that the project was an artists-in-residency programme that the mall didn’t pay for. They were living the dream. “We were fulfilling that promise — the empty promise of the mall; that it was this experience, this adventure.”
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