Artist gets probation for building secret mall apartment

AC says: "A Providence artist collective built a secret apartment in The Providence Place Mall. It had furniture, electricity, and a Playstation. They had plans to add a bedroom and a floor, but those hopes were dashed when they were surprised by mall security recently."
Picture 8-17 Michael Townsend, 36, said he and seven other artists built the apartment in a 750-square-foot loft in the parking garage four years ago and lived there for up to three weeks at a time while documenting mall life.

The apartment included a sectional sofa and love seat, coffee and breakfast tables, chairs, lamps, rugs, paintings, a hutch filled with china, a waffle iron, TV and Sony Playstation 2 -- although a burglar broke in and stole the Playstation last spring, Townsend said. The artists built a cinderblock wall and nondescript utility door to keep the loft hidden from the outside world.

There was no running water -- instead they used the mall bathrooms.

Link | Video


  1. I don’t think the article says anything about the building an apartment and living there being “art”, just that the people who did it are artists – there were, for example, documenting mall life while they were there. If a headline said that an artist committed murder, it wouldn’t necessarily imply that they considered the murder art.

  2. Does something have to be legal to be considered art? Or can some things be illegal and art at the same time?

  3. Actually, if you follow the links to their site, it does seem like they consider this to have been some sort of cross between an art installation and a sociological statement about consumerism (how original!). It’s interesting that although they display the usual cynical condemnation of consumer culture on their “Malllife” pages, they were planning on making the loft “super-sweet” by adding laminated wood flooring, and they already had a PS2, both of which would be considered decadent consumer luxuries by many people in third-world countries. Maybe they’d justify this as some sort of clever ironic statement, who knows? Seems like they could’ve done something a lot more creative with this concept than just building a hidden room and playing videogames in it.

  4. Alright, to start with, it’s my feeling that whether or not something is art has no relationship whatsoever to whether or not it is legal. Basically, what my Aesthetics class in college taught me, is that there is no one definition of art, but that art is best defined as actions and things which “tend” to have certain common qualities. That’s another discussion, but that’s the basics.

    Art is frequently a transformation from the literal to the metaphorical (vivid colors in a painting expressing intangible real life emotions) or in other cases, a transformation from the metaphorical to the literal (consider all of those models and paintings of pigs with wings, they’re literal interpretations of “When Pigs Fly”). In this case, the artists chose to take a commercial which was clearly not meant to be taken literally (unless the real world went all dystopia while I was asleep last night) and made it literal by literally living in the mall. The use of the space was artistic AND the observations and the expressions of that data gained from use of the space were also art, in my opinion. Anyway, I love it, now to find myself a mall and some cinderblocks…

  5. what’s not mentioned anywhere that i can see (unless i missed it) is how they got all the stuff: did they pay for it? swipe it? dig it out of dumpsters? a combination from the above? if they paid for all that, i’m impressed, but i find myself doubting they did. still, it is quite amazing that they hauled all that stuff up into that space unnoticed, and remained unnoticed, for four years! the artistic statement may be suspect, but the accomplishment is solid.

  6. If they actually “lived there for up to three weeks at a time” and there was no running water except the sinks in the public restrooms, how did they bathe? What did they do when they needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night? If they pulled that off, i.e. really “living in the mall,” I’d be impressed, but I don’t buy it. I’ll bet they just snuck up to their little room every now and then and played videogames for a few hours and then went home. Which is cool, but I think they’re enhancing it in the retelling…

  7. Actually, Michael is my (sometimes, but more frequently now) roommate; I can attest to the fact that yes, he did live there for several weeks at a time. Of course, that doesn’t mean STAY THERE CONSTANTLY for several weeks at a time – who sits at home for that long? He came here for laundry, internet access etc. but for all intents and purposes, the mall apartment was his home (and my other roommate’s home as well, actually, so things were pretty quiet around here – little insider information there). So much so, in fact, that when he wasn’t around for a couple days (following his arrest) nobody took it as anything out of the ordinary.

    Also, he has another great site – – which is much more interesting, valuable, and less ambiguously art. He spent thousands of hours on it, literally from before I got up to after I went to bed, especially uploading all the videos (which he just finished about a week ago). Give it a look.

  8. Also, re: Franko’s comment – they did pay for all of it. They’re not criminals; they didn’t even ever have to break in, pick locks, etc; there were always doors unlocked and/or ajar, and even if one route was blocked they had plenty of other ways to get there.

  9. How is this art? Disguising their intentions as “studying mall life” is a joke– how would they accomplish anything in a closed room, in the mall’s garage?

    Sure you can say “Well we survived off the mall” but then again you could survive off the mall without living there.

    This is nothing more than some kids found a spot, managed to keep it hidden and turn it into a place where they could hang out, drink, etc. without paying for any of it or answering to a landlord.


    on the legality question, i think that while something does not have to be legal to be art, often something illegal has to be labeled “art” to exist long enough to be effective. this practice was almost discussed in the debate about steven kurtz. it is my opinion that critical art ensemble only call their work “art” because it is easier to accomplish their work within that context. it’s a lot easier to get grant money, media attention and cultural currency as “artists” than as “anarchists” (which i believe steve is.)


    this time (as opposed to the steven kurtz thread) i think our cynicisms are more in line. it’s a less powerful statement because of the consumer indulgences of the playstation and even considering un-sustainably farmed lumber. it kind of makes it just a fort. they could have taken it further with “bucket & sawdust” style composting toilets and the use of re-used materials. however, inspection of their website reveals they were instead “committed to the pursuit of normalcy and the purchase of objects and clothing that would help define me an active participant in the great things the mall has to offer.” although, perhaps like you, i wonder why. there is more than enough normalcy to go around that we don’t need it in otherwise creative squat/art projects!

    @all yinz other folks reading this…

    this project made me think about my friend mark dixon, one of the world’s best artists (in my opinion,) who once spent 49 hours inside a wal-mart with no supplies. he ate, slept, photographed and wrote about it here.

  11. If this had happened in New York City there would be riots. Free rent for four years in a secret room is an undying dream of New Yorkers.

    The tape project was very nice, Johnny Teapot. Thanks for linking that.

  12. In college I worked the overnight security shift at a large suburban shopping mall. I was required to walk the back corridors checking for unlocked doors and suspicious activity. It was a horrible job but I came to understand that the parent company had similar policies in every shopping mall they managed (hundreds around the country). This makes me wonder about this mall…no security dudes?

  13. Actually, in April (?) or somewhere thereabouts a security guard DID find the place – but rather than report it, he just broke in and stole their Playstation 2.

    Also, while some of the other occupants drink, Michael has never had a drink in his life (nor does he like tea or coffee or any other beverage served hot, which I find extremely weird), and I’m fairly positive they didn’t use the place as a party lounge – especially considering that only the eight artists directly involved knew exactly where it was, and outside of that only a couple dozen others knew it existed at all.
    One must also consider, when weighing in on the “art or not art” issue, that this was very much a work in progress. He got caught, and since it was going to become public anyway, and the project was effectively shut down, he figured now was as good a time as any to share it. However, given a few more years, he could have done a lot more with it; made it a fully functional unit (there were frequent brainstorms and plans regarding plumbing etc) and eventually he was going to set up streaming videos or use some other means to link to the outside world and make it a more public project.

    If you came across a canvas with the images sketched on in pencil, but with no paint applied, would that be art?

  14. godammit, running water or no, that mall apartment is bigger and better appointed than my real one.

  15. Johnny Teapot, thanks for the posts. It may seem like missing the point, but I find myself fascinated by the logistics of this. I think someone already asked, but I’ll repeat it: Did they spend evenings there, and if so, did they have to be particularly stealthy to use the restrooms and such while the mall was closed?

  16. You cynics should lighten up. If you read the guy’s website, he more or less apologizes to the mall, the security, the police, and anyone else he inconvenienced. Just because he calls it an art project doesn’t mean he’s some sort of pompous, whiny, entitled jerk who thinks he’s better than the zombies strolling around the mall buying wares. He seems pretty reasonable about the whole thing, and isn’t even complaining about his arrest.

    If you ask me, y’all just seem like you’re pissed off that you never had a super-sweet hang-out room at the mall.

  17. Even as an artist, I find myself much more drawn to the logistics of this apartment than the art aspects. Anyone have a napkin-sketch blueprint they’d share? How was the apartment accessed?

  18. I have to say art or not I just find the whole thing intriguing.

    On his website he mentions that he’s saddened that he can never “return to the mall again,” is he referring to the apartment or a lifetime ban at the mall in general? It would be a curious study to see how much money was spent at the mall by Michael and the other artists. For all we know the Providence mall has just enacted a lifetime ban on some of its best customers!

    If I was some corporate guy I’d be thinking of the marketing potential. “The Providence Mall: So Great it Makes you Want to set up a Secret Apartment and Live There”

    At least it wasn’t in a Boston mall. The police would be calling it an Improvised Housing Device.

  19. I’m interested that this was regarded as criminal. If this was in England, I can’t immediately think that he’s broken the criminal law. I’m pretty sure that this wouldn’t amount to criminal trespass: that applies to specific sensitive installations like military bases. He didn’t break and enter, so far as I can see, either. So. He may have unlawfully abstracted some electricity. He may have committed criminal damage by altering the fabric of the building. Probably the worst crime he could have committed here was some breach of the planning laws – constructing a dwelling without the appropriate planning consent and without meeting the appropriate building regulations.

  20. Interesting. Now, boys, go get a life and stop squatting. It’s not ‘art’, it’s just being weird.

    That mall’s ‘security’ personnel will have some big questions to answer and probably a bit of explaining to do to their employers. If that is the level of property security at that mall, then you wonder why employ anyone to do that job…

  21. Mark Frauenfelder: Does something have to be legal to be considered art? Or can some things be illegal and art at the same time?

    The latter; you should explore the BoingBoing Archives some time.

    Charlie Wade: That mall’s ‘security’ personnel will have some big questions to answer and probably a bit of explaining to do to their employers.

    That does raise an interesting notion: could terrorists do something like that as a method to circumvent Airport security in some way? To what benefit?

    Y’see, this is why I don’t worry too much about terrorists. Anything really creatively crazy they think of, American Citizens will have dreamed it up first. (Yes, I include 9/11; see Tom Clancy’s 1997 “Executive Orders” and L. E. Modesitt Jr.’s 1998 “The Ecolitan Enigma”. We just didn’t test it.)

  22. The big question:

    “How many copy cat installations is this story going to produce?”

    Kids all over the world are now scoping out malls, parking garages and buildings to see if they can reproduce the idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds of these installations popped up all over the world.

  23. thanks for the clarification, johnny teapot — i am impressed that they paid for all that, and i feel better about the whole thing as a whole, i suppose

    that being said, i guess i’d be more willing to consider it “Art” (with a capital “A”) if it were better explained as to what they were trying to show with this project: that it’s possible to live solely on stuff bought at a mall? that malls are notorious space-wasters? that our mall security setup is weak and full of holes?

  24. For those oh-so-terribly concerned about whether this is “art” (a rather silly distinction to argue over regardless), and those questioning “the point” to all this, just read the explanation on the guy’s website, the link to which Jimh helpfully provided earlier. He explains his intentions rather clearly.

    Go ahead and dispute whether there’s any value to this, or whether he’s just a very dedicated prankster in artist’s clothing, but the simple fact that the whole mess could create so much discussion makes it seem quite artistic to me. And I agree with Jimunius: this guy seems pretty harmless, and very well-mannered about the whole ordeal.

    By the way, I’m very intrigued by this bit at the end of his apology/explanation: “Yes, I have done other secret installations.”

    From here on out, I think “secret installations” ought to be regarded as an important new brand of personal expression.

  25. I must admit, I am a bit skeptical. Are we sure this isn’t a nice hoax? If the entry way is only 11 inches, how did they get the stuff in there??

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