Rooms to Let: An Incredible Art Installation in the Unlikeliest of Places

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A couple weekends ago, Mike & some of our friends & I drove over to Slavic Village, where I'd never been, for an innovative, larger-than-life art installation called Rooms to Let. Supported in part by the residents of Cuyahoga County through a public grant from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, Rooms to Let is an annual project that transforms vacant houses & empty lots into massive works of art featuring works by dozens of local artists of varying styles.

We got there late in the day, so we only made it through three of the four houses. Luckily, two of them were located on the same lot. Unfortunately, the time frame meant we had to speed through a lot of the exhibits, & I'm sure I missed a ton of really cool stuff. I could've stayed in these houses all day, if I'd been by myself; as it was, I was the last one of our group out of all three of the houses we visited. Oops!

I'm no photographer, but here's a look at some of the best of the day. I couldn't let this amazing exhibit go undocumented - but as you look at these photos, imagine that it was all, like, 10 times more beautiful & fascinating than what you see here, OK? OK. Let's go.

We weren't sure what to expect, but the first room we walked into was covered in absolutely gorgeous, colorful paintings of nude women with modern, feminist, activist messaging woven throughout. It was hard to believe they were painted on the walls of abandoned building, places that someone once called home. 

This candy-colored room felt especially unsettling, somehow. The bright, saturated colors against the backdrop of a peeling, other-wise-falling-apart room... well, it was plain old spooky. Look how pretty & shiny & new these colors are - & then look at the crumbling building falling down around them.

Some of the rooms were reminiscent of the outdoors, with trees & even waterfalls brought inside. I'm not artistic enough to, you know, quite get it - but it was really cool to see a fake creek running through an abandoned stairwell & a roomful of trees growing through the walls.

Some of it was interactive, inviting visitors to take part by writing on the walls or knocking down blocks or playing music or, in one case, even sweeping the floors. In another room, a woman with a white-painted face & body sat at a desk, legs up, gum popping, as she flicked little pieces of paper across the room & refused to engage with any of her viewers.

One of the coolest rooms, though not exactly art in the traditional sense, was the "Selfie Pink-Ghost-Room," its name hastily scrawled on a plywood door. We made our way into a dark basement... filled with fake fog, pink lights, & a blank photo backdrop for... selfies, of course. It was a little too crowded down there for us to snag a good one, but it was still a cool place to explore.

My favorite room, in a really painful way, was the Donald Trump room, a child's playroom with not-so-subtle messaging about the danger of the impact of our fine president's words on young, impressionable girls & women. I kept hearing people peek their heads into the room & exclaim, "Look how cute it is!" - totally missing the point, like half this country, I guess.

That certainly wasn't the only politically minded display, though most were slightly more subtle. A number of the displays focused on housing issues - meta, yes, but important, too, especially given the setting of the exhibits.

And some of the exhibits hearkened back to Slavic Village's homeowners of ages past. In one room, the artist herself was actually present, chatting with visitors & explaining that the tchotchkes that peppered her work came from a home in the area that a friend of hers had recently purchased - photos & paperwork & recipes & all kinds of things that told the stories of the family that once lived there.

And some of it felt angry & broken, a reminder that this artwork came at the expense of a once-vibrant neighborhood's lifeblood. I was surprised, frankly, that more of it didn't feel angry... & I wondered how some of the neighbors felt, the ones living next door to these dilapidated-but-now-beautiful homes-turned-canvases - the ones still living in dilapidated homes themselves.

There were also some really incredible pieces of straight-up, traditional artwork in the "I want to hang that on my wall at home" sense. It was sort of depressing to think of all of this beautiful art being demolished along with the walls that hold them - but I guess that was sort of the point. Art is ephemeral. Stability is ephemeral. Life is ephemeral.

 And some of it just felt like art, period - weird & pretty & strange & inspirational & confusing & what-the-hell-ever else. There was literally a bathroom covered floor-to-ceiling in hair. Art, man.

The artwork continued outside, too, with performance art in the backyard, neon & metallic paint on much of the foliage, & murals being painted in real-time in vacant lots - not to mention this clown-covered couch hanging by a thread out of one of the windows. Yikes.

I have to confess: As much as I loved the artwork, something about Rooms to Let left me deeply unsettled. It is uncomfortably voyeuristic - not to mention classist - to visit a down-&-out neighborhood to see beautiful works of art in spaces that are tangible representations of economic downturn & poverty.

I appreciate what the folks behind Rooms to Let folks are trying to do, & I of course appreciate all the incredible art itself - but in practice, well... it just didn't feel good. People live in Slavic Village, people struggle in Slavic Village, people in Slavic Village are trying to make ends meet & better their community. They're not an exhibit.

Part of the lead-up to Rooms to Let included a fix-a-thon & a community clean-up project, but... well. It doesn't change what's happening in Slavic Village, in so much of Cleveland, or around the country. It doesn't change what economic inequality looks like - or feels like, for the people living it. Here are a few ways to support organizations doing work to correct economic inequality.

Overall, Rooms to Let was an incredible experience, some of the coolest & craziest art I've ever seen. Even though it made me uncomfortable in a number of ways - & was, probably, supposed to - I love that Cleveland artists & activists are taking on interesting & creative ways to try to bring attention to what's going on in our city, to bring something beautiful to something downtrodden, & to inspire creativity in Clevelanders.

Where can I find more great art in this city? Let me know in the comments!

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