Use, Part 2: Emergency Response Studio

Paul Villinski’s Emergency Response Studio is a sustainable, aesthetic trailer designed to be a mobile artist’s studio (opening today at Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, TX).  In many ways, it is the opposite of the actual FEMA trailer seen in the post-Katrina Gulf states: in place of a toxic, claustrophobic substitute for a home is a self-sustaining (solar-, wind- and battery-powered), naturally lit live/work space for artists in moments of catastrophe.  In effect, ERS is a useful piece of architecture.


Paul Villinski, Emergency Response Studio (installation detail), 2008, outside the New Orleans Museum of Art, Prospect.1

Recently Modern Art Notes linked to the dialogue between reviews of ERS written by the Houston Chronicle’s Douglas Britt and the Houston Press’s Troy Schluze; Britt comments on the quality of the work and how Schluze’s critique is more of Villinski’s personal motivations and execution than  it is of the actual work of art.  After reading through Scluze’s article, I was most in disagreement with his refusal to see Villinski’s ERS as a work of art; he writes,

“As an example of a self-sustaining ­living-and-working space, ‘ERS’ is quite remarkable, but it opens up a can of worms when it’s presented as art, especially in the way Villinski envisioned the project. In the gallery brochure, Villinski writes, ‘I believe we ought to deploy artists as part of the mix of disaster workers, medical personnel, NGOs, architects and urban planners — those people charged with responding to, repairing and re-­envisioning disaster sites like New Orleans.'” (“Pleasure Cruiser”, Houston Press, 2.10.09)

The issue of ERS of being exemplary in its design as an architectural project but “a can of worms” when considered a work of art is, in many respects, an issue of use.  Emergency Response Studio is work of art in terms of its conceptual elements as an installation piece; the work’s larger meaning takes it beyond being only an attractive example of green design and beyond the single use Schluze identifies as the artist’s sole intention for the work.  ERS can certainly be read as a tangible, straightforward piece limited to the single use identified in one instance, but it also embodies concepts that are provocative in ways that are more than “useful” in the literal sense.

When I saw Emergency Response Studio, it was parked outside of the New Orleans Museum of Art.  The installation’s interpretation is affected by its location. I imagine the experience of seeing it parked in the Lower 9th Ward, among the remaining FEMA trailers and absence of people and businesses, was a markedly different experience from seeing it in front of NOMA, located in the comparatively lush and populated City Park.  While sharing the Roosevelt Mall with the museum, Emergency Response Studio‘s conceptual understanding as a persisting, meaningful resource within struggling locations is brought out through its location beside New Orleans’s own persistent art resource: NOMA.


Paul Villinski, Emergency Response Studio (installation detail), 2008, outside the New Orleans Museum of Art, Prospect.1

As Villinski’s idea of deploying artists among disaster workers suggests, the arts are not typically considered essential to relief efforts.  Beyond its intended use as a studio for artists sent from elsewhere to respond to disasters, Emergency Response Studio highlights the need for artist-centered organizations to survive and re-emerge as a resource within communities that have lost nearly everything.  This was one of the key concepts brought to light when touring New Orleans’s scattered, yet persevering arts institutions (an essential aspect of Prospect.1’s success).  In this regard, Villinski’s installation is representative of Prospect.1’s overall impetus.


Paul Villinski, Emergency Response Studio (installation detail), 2008, outside the New Orleans Museum of Art, Prospect.1

Like Retail/Commercial’s relationship with use, Villinski’s installation ultimately merges Kant’s definitions of “sculpture/uselessness” with “architecture/useful” (see previous entry “Use, Part 1“).  This is accomplished by manipulating a commercial trailer both physically (in terms of its architectural structure) and in terms of expanding its meaning and relevance in the broadest sense.  Discrete categorizations like Kant’s are deceiving.  Taken literally, they limit art unjustly.  But when considered mere starting points for understanding, they can evoke the essential complexities of true works of art.