Project Space: November House: Christine Bisetto & Terri Thornton
by Subtext Projects
Subtext Projects (Alison Hearst & Erin Starr White) documented the work of Christine Bisetto and Terri Thornton in a vacant home every day throughout the month of November 2009. This essay was composed through an ongoing conversation between Subtext and the artists about process and product.
We were first drawn to this project for its candidness and the prospect of witnessing first-hand new work created in a unique setting: Thornton’s unoccupied rental house. The artists had no rules, per se, except that they were to visit the house each day during the month of November. As co-documentarians, November House afforded us intimate glances into both artists’ processes. Throughout the month, our roles as historians were amplified: we captured artistic events on a day-by-day basis, mapping their development through photo documentation. Works we became accustomed to would vanish or alter as the days passed; happily, we never knew what awaited us.
With unrestricted access into the space we saw far more than what one might from a regular studio visit; we were witnessing the nascence of artworks, but also the careful editing performed by artists—the disappearance, alteration or reincarnation of projects seen days before. Surprisingly, during all our visits to the house, we very rarely ran into Bisetto or Thornton as they worked. Like ships passing in the night, obvious progressions in their artworks seemed to mysteriously happen without us seeing the artists having a hand in the work. Like Bisetto has said about the project, which surely rings true for all of us, each visit to the house was somewhat like piecing together a crime scene, “seeing what was moved or marred or left gave clues as to the activity.”
We found that the work being made in the house was in very direct response to the architecture of the space. Pieces like Bisetto’s twine-wrapped wires would hinge on extant holes pierced in the walls or hug the frames of doors. Thornton responded to the architectural elements of the house by using white tape to outline the bottom of doors, her yoga mat in a precise position on the floor and to edit the view from the back-bedroom window. The artists’ reactions to the physical space caused an increased awareness of the structure for us as well. The subtleties in Bisetto and Thornton’s work, and also in their clever use of existent elements of the house, caused us to tip-toe around the space, taking notice of the tiniest aspects of our surroundings; we didn’t want to miss a beat.
Given that Bisetto and Thornton were using the house as a studio simultaneously, it might be expected that there would be a good deal of collaboration between the two. But as the final state of the house suggests, both artists found that the collaborative spirit existed between themselves and the architecture of the space. Thornton describes her first moments in the house as ones of listening and responding and says “we [Thornton and the house] were able to get to know each other and develop a connectedness. I claimed my territory and I almost felt aggressive. I laid my yoga mat down . . . it was a good point of entry.”
This aesthetic of privileging the ephemeral and the everyday is something equally shared by both artists and serves to link the two as kindred spirits. For Bisetto, working in the house wasn’t as much about privacy or claiming personal space as it was working openly in a somewhat public environment. As she explains, “it wasn’t until Terri claimed the front bedroom, towards the end of the project, that the boundaries became clear. I do think it was interesting that she chose the more private spaces . . . I sat in the front room most of the time . . . It did feel like you were on display.” As Thornton utilized a private approach, working in and focusing on very specific areas in the house, Bisetto states, “Terri’s work emphasizes the cerebral and is very thorough so the pace is different. She thinks a lot. She breathes a lot. She has to figure out one space before moving to the next.” Bisetto’s projects were dispersed throughout the house, whether in the laundry room, kitchen, hallway, fireplace, backyard and bathroom; as the artist states of her working methods, “my pace is very action-based. I think I hold my breath. I want to move from one space to the other quickly to see many relationships.” Bisetto’s “creating, re-creating, re-creating again, keeping or destroying” method of art-making resulted in the dramatic amendments or disappearances of projects, while Thornton primarily worked on the same pieces in a more subtle, unwavering process.
The project truly did become about the space itself and not about the work being made by the artists prior to entering this month-long assignment. The house seemed to call for certain interventions by each artist and each responded in kind. Sketching the light cast on a wall or rooting the ends of her wire pieces in holes already pierced in the walls, Bisetto’s work acutely considered the structure of the house. But, for Bisetto, the home’s past also played a role. She states, “I do feel that there was collaboration with the previous tenants because I used some of the things they left.” Towards the beginning of the project, Bisetto’s interaction with the previous occupants was straightforward; she worked with notes the tenants had left for each other, and photographed the many objects left behind. In mid-November, the work shifted to the holes left in the walls by the previous tenants; still engaged with them and the space, these works weren’t solely focused on what was left behind, but rather these remnants and details were used to set up boundaries and to guide her in certain directions.
Several of Thornton’s pieces were discrete, minimal white outlines tracing the room’s various doors. With the doors opened to match the tape’s silhouette, it seemed the white lines functioned as a sort of demarcation or holding pattern just below each door. But with the doors closed or slightly off-register with the tape, the thin rectangles appeared mysterious and a bit disjunctive. It was as if their purpose was hidden, and, because of this quality, extraordinary. Thornton explains that she taped the floor area hovering below the doors because she “was listening to the space . . . I locked it down once I heard it.” And Thornton took advantage of the claim she made on the back bedroom—she carried out activities she wanted to do in private such as reading and practicing meditation. In another taped piece, Thornton sat on her yoga mat and looked out a back window to a tree and a fence in the backyard. She explains that the view had elements that were less than desirable, so she slowly taped out—or removed—pieces of the view. Each time she placed another strip of white tape on the windowpane, she studied the image before her and, in doing so, owned it. This exercise was one of focusing and honing in on what she truly wanted to view as she sat on her mat, gazing into the backyard. This process was one of evolution and could only be realized with time and dedication to process. So the space not only supported her art-making practice, but also her living practice. Could this have occurred in a more traditional art-making environment? Perhaps. But the empty framework of November House allowed these two artists to feel free from the sometimes limiting parameters of the studio.
As evidenced by the copious photographs of the work, the space, and the people of November House, the documentation of the project was primarily carried out by Hearst and Starr White. Yet both artists documented their work in the space in separate and distinct ways. Thornton kept a journal where she penned her activities in the house each day. Written in list form, this journal serves as Thornton’s memory of her time and work in the house. Thornton mostly refrained from visually documenting the work she made during the month via drawings or photographs and expresses that she was “aware the space was no longer hers when she repainted the closet for the new tenants.” In contrast, Bisetto’s form of documentation was primarily photographic, capturing her and Thornton’s work on a daily basis. This mode of documentation eventually informed her artistic practice in the house as she created a photographic artist’s book, On Mantle, documenting the jaunts of various farm animal toys; while narrative in form, in some ways, On Mantle provides a humorous account on the actual process of documentation. She states, “the entire time I was photographing the space and photographing different ideas, and towards the end, I just photographing things on the mantle. The camera became more important as the month progressed and the photographic element opened up a world of ideas. But making something, documenting it and removing it was very conscious. I don’t think I work that way in my studio. Things simmer a bit more.”
Subtext Projects is an experimental art collaborative.