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Of the three building occupations to which I've been privy, two involved elaborately constructed defenses -- contortion-inducing obstacles placed to block the advance of cops. But the occupation orchestrated by the artist Olga Koumoundouros at a residence in Los Angeles has no built defenses. The front home there is now actually painted gold so it's very visible. She has been inviting people over to trespass with her. Legally she sees it as "adverse possession" rather than a "Notorious Possession", which is the title she's given this very radical social sculpture she's working on: occupying the residence with gold paint, sculptural installation, and dinner theater.
Real estate takeover is serious business. In the States, long-term squatting has occasionally succeeded in periods of major capital flight. After Zuccoti Park was busted, in a wide tack, many in Occupy Wall Street went to work in the trenches of debt and income inequality. In Early Dec. 2011, in a highly publicized, and quickly quashed move, occupiers and a homeless family took-over foreclosed property in East New York. Occupy Homes and other groups have sprung up in the Big Apple and today are working on legal defense for foreclosed tenants, and supporting tenant strikes. There "Shlomo" tells me that under the radar they are still helping homeless folks occupy foreclosed properties. Bilal Ali, of Los Angeles' Occupy the Hood, tells me that after City Hall was busted, folks felt "the way to sustain the occupation movement was through grassroots initiatives." Fort Hernandez, a home possessed by the Hernandez family in Van Nay, is so named because it is currently fortified with barricades maintained by members of Occupy L.A., Occupy San Fernando and Occupy the Hood as well as friends and neighbors. The Hernandez family has refused eviction; they say they'll pay the mortgage to the owner if they can produce title for the property. Bank of America has not done so; and the occupiers say they will get arrested defending the rights of the Hernandez' to fight the bank.
On the night of August 29, 2012, Olga's Los Angeles based "Notorious Possesion" went public in an evening's event named "Friends and Allies." Attended by a sizable group of L.A.'s contemporary artists, the evening began with mint juleps, then we were
ushered to sit at tables set with silverware and pickles. My table also had a copy of a book "Take Back the Land", by Max Rameau. As diner was served, actors (including Olga) performed a didactic play, for which the book was called on as a prop for
reading. The play, "Four Specter Performance", involved "Four performers each playing a stereotype giving voice to an inner debate." With this disjointed narrative, the play told the story of the death of Patty, who had "owned" the land, and Olga's ultimate decision to take possession of it. At the end of the play we were invited to tour the two homes.
The front house had been Patty and her partner's Glenda's. It was bare many of their possessions, but still had some furnishings, books, and a Rosie the Riveter lightswitch. It was at the bottom of the stairs that connected the first and second floor. The rear home had been Richard's. Burnt into its wooden doorsteps is the wiccan saying "merry meet and merry part and merry meet again".
I conducted this interview with Olga about her project, "A Notorious Possession":
What is the story with the property that you've occupied, how did you come to occupy it?
My house almost directly faces the entrance to this property and its two buildings. The women that owned it, Patty and Glenda, were fascinating. They were quite loud with, what they called, their "potty mouths." Our friend and their tenant, Richard, lived in the back house. He was very kind to us when we moved. He helped us get our lawn together and with moving stuff now and again. His daughter babysat my child. When Patty died we were saddened. Around seven months later Glenda left, without telling Richard. I happened to see her on the street with the moving truck and some relatives. She told me she was leaving with them to move back to Kentucky. A couple of months later Richard came to us grappling with his predicament -- his friend and landlord left and didn't let him know. He was puzzled because the house was paid in full. Why would she walk away from the property?
I guess Richard brought us into the story. The bits we heard from him peeked our curiosity. We liked hearing about the block and what was going on with its long-time residents. These were houses passed down from generation to generation. Now there are a total of five abandoned properties on the block. It feels like California is leading the nation in foreclosures.
At the time [my partner] and I were dealing with our own delinquent mortgage. We started thinking about a way to avoid foreclosure ourselves by living in their house and renting ours to cover our payments -- just until we got from under water. It was through our own desperate need to find a way to get by, that we went over to check out the property.
Once inside the house, we found a box designated for Patty's ashes and felt very uncomfortable about moving in. As an artist I became obsessed with the desire to build a structure to house Patty's ashes. The bank was just going to throw them in the dumpster when they took over. As a sculptor, a long-standing question of mine is how can I show embodiment within an inanimate object? Or how can objects show a life lived? With the property, I had a house to help me investigate these questions.
Why did you paint the house gold?
I decided to paint the house gold when I found out that Glenda and Patty had a $250,000 lien against the home; it wasn't paid in full. The bank was going to come for it. I realized the story of the home wasn't just about the heartbreak of a lover's despair after the loss of her partner, but here was also the story about foreclosure and economics. Painting it I wanted to make the house even more of an object. I wanted to formally unify it -- highlight the crassness of its existence as "housing stock" traded for economic value. I want it to look like a commodity in the most blatant way.
How is it that you relate to the illegality of your actions?
I put the utilities in my name. I invited some young artists to live in the back house. I did some gardening, put out the trash. It turns out there was a big leak in the kitchen so I did some plumbing. A neighborhood is an organism of sorts and problems start to happen when there are holes or dead units in the organism. I deplore the vacancy rate. There are people that need housing and can function well enough to maintain a home. According to the law, as I understand it, the requirements of adverse possession -- which is what we hope to qualify for with the site -- is to take obvious possession of the house and contribute to its well-being and improvements.
What else do you plan on doing with the "Notorious Possession" site?
After the September 16 event, I plan to bring a conversation with anti-foreclosure activists to the house. It would be nice to have a neighborhood talk there. The folks living in the back house are working on some things as well. I also will be going to the auction when the lien on the house goes up for bid on September 27.
What do you hope to achieve with this project?
I hope to have a conversation with people about Glenda and Patty's lives -- how as a lesbian couple, both of whom worked as civil servants, they are a part of the American dream yet suffered in its gaps. By sharing compassion there can be a greater social and political understanding of these gaps. I am also inserting my own narrative, because I identify with their story. I want to share with others the connections I've made accessing their house. It has helped to break down the isolation, the scariness of things, when I feel like I'm sinking along with the other empty homes on the block.
I also want people to reconsider the aesthetics of this house and others like it in California's landscape. The houses that went up during the housing expansion of the late 80s through 2008, a time when houses were built just to maximize profits, they are only meant to last 20-25 years. We are well aware of their aesthetic problems, yet houses like these are everywhere. In circumstances where the property is worth more than the home, people demolish and simply put them in the dump. Houses aren't disposable! They are treated like this even during a time people are being displaced due to economic lack.
How do you relate to the Occupy Wall Street Movement?
I have been both compelled by, and intellectually supportive of, the movement, though I was only able to visit these occupations a few times. The agenda of exposing the unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. is one I'm very sympathetic of. I believe strongly that it serves all people to have a strong social contract within society and government.