YOUR TOWN, INC.: Big Box Reuse with Julia Christensen

Big Box Reuse with Julia Christensen

Curated by Astria Suparak
For the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
Aug. 29 – Nov. 23, 2008. Tour through 2010.

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Big box buildings have increasingly dominated the American landscape since the 1960s. Author, artist, and researcher Julia Christensen spent the last six years studying these monolithic, free-standing structures and their resulting effects on our culture. In Your Town, Inc., photographs and new installation work examine how communities are changing in the shadow of corporate real estate.

Seventy-seven photographs from Christensen’s critically acclaimed book, Big Box Reuse (MIT Press, 2008), illustrate the ways in which communities throughout the United States creatively re-employ the structures constructed and abandoned by multinational corporations, such as Walmart and Kmart. Resulting endeavors include: justice center, megachurch, senior resource center, elementary school, and flea market.

For Your Town, Inc., Christensen fabricated a sculptural construction that is a reaction and response to the big box conceptHer UnBox (2008) demonstrates values and conventions opposed to the superstore sort: it is modular, transportable, easily reusable, and made of regional and recycled materials.  Furthermore, UnBox will be activated for creative and social uses, rather than retail purposes, by various local groups who can propose events to take place within this new facility.  The installation can enable discussion about urgent issues such as sustainability, user-friendliness, and reusability.

Across the floor of the gallery an actual-sized parking lot will be painted to local city code. The lot raises questions about the infrastructural aspect of our lifestyles–particularly, the auto-centricity of our culture.

Your Town, Inc. is an exhibition that explores the state of our built environment. Among Christensen’s photographs of reworked big box buildings, the UnBox structure, and the parking lot setting, the audience will be asked to think critically about how their own town has changed in light of corporate real estate. And ultimately, the question will be posed: how can you reclaim power over the design of your town’s future?

Your Town, Inc. is organized by the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, in connection with the release of the artist’s book with MIT Press.



Julia Christensen’s work has been featured in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, Preservation Magazine for the National Trust, and other publications; her new media, video and installation work has shown recently at the Lincoln Center, DUMBO Arts Center, and the Walker Art Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, and Yale School of Architecture Galleries. Her book, Big Box Reuse, was published by MIT Press in 2008. She holds the chair of Luce Visiting Professor of the Emerging Arts at Oberlin, where she teaches in the Studio Arts and TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) Departments. She has also taught at Stanford University and California College of the Arts.



Sept. 19, Fri.
6-8pm: Hometown BBQ Reception

Nov. 13, Thurs.
4:30-6pm: Carnegie Mellon University Lecture Series: Big Box Reuse Presentation + Book Signing

Oct. 2, Thurs.
Unbox Event: Craft Lunchtime with CFAfun

Oct. 28, Tues.
Unbox Event: From Cellar to Attic video installation by Ian Warren

More Unbox events to be announced.




Julia Christensen spent six years documenting the trend in Big Box Reuse, a book to be published in November. She details how 10 communities turned vacant big-box stores into schools, a courthouse, church, museum and other civic organizations. “We have a bunch of empty buildings all over the country,” says Christensen, an artist who teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio.

 Most cities don’t know what other cities are doing with abandoned big-box spaces, she says.

“I hope this project will give us a platform so that we can make informed decisions,” Christensen says. An exhibit of Christensen’s photos that appear in the book opens this week at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Hopefully, we can raise awareness,” she says.
– Haya El Nasser, “Recycling big-box store sites: As Wal-Marts close, cities can fill voids,” p. 3A, Aug. 26, 2008


The foremost problem with the current mortgage crisis is, of course, that too many families are losing their homes or risking doing so. Among important secondary issues, though, is that when foreclosed homes sit empty, they decay physically, declining in value and pulling the value of other nearby properties down with them.

Clearly, no one wants that to happen. Unless they are Wal-Mart. No, the mega-retailer isn’t in the housing business, at least not yet. But with more than 7,000 stores worldwide, it is certainly in the real-estate business. In certain circumstances, Wal-Mart is not only happy to let defunct stores sit empty; frequently, the company actually insists on it contractually.

This and other revelations about the afterlives of closed big-box retailers are the subject of Your Town, Inc…

Christensen’s book and the several dozen photos of the exhibition present case studies of huge suburban retail structures and the eccentric, unexpected uses to which communities put them when the original owners depart. She documents senior-citizens centers, an indoor racetrack, charter schools and that perennial favorite, the Spam Museum. Yet this variety derives precisely from the common practices of restrictive leases and deeds that forbid competing retailers to occupy the buildings or sites for periods of 50 or 100 years. Happily enough, many varieties of reuse are possible.

Christensen is an analyst rather than a bomb-thrower in her book, so the arguments are measured. The Miller Gallery installation, though, is more critical. Stripes for a code-correct parking lot are painted on the gallery’s floor. Only six parking spaces fit in a room with a capacity of 250 people. Aside from the photos, the primary artifact in this space is the Unbox, a sequence of folding frames and screens.

The Unbox, says curator Astria Suparak, was “informed by all of [Christensen’s] research, [but built to be] the opposite of a big-box structure in every way.” Christensen and some of her students made it by hand in Oberlin, Ohio, where she teaches, to be modular and transportable. All of the components, down to the nails, were bought from local, non-chain outlets. The vehicle that brought it to Pittsburgh ran on biodiesel. The Unbox is adaptable, and it will change its shape and degree of enclosure through a full schedule of receptions, lectures, discussions and other events, key components of this show.

The meaning of the Unbox as an armature of specific community will unfold literally and figuratively in its continuing use. But the non-plastic, non-disposable characteristics of its materials are immediately apparent. And while Christensen’s book underscores the ingenuity of the communities that have reused big-box structures, her exhibit emphasizes the possibility and necessity of not building them in the first place.
– Charles Rosenblum, “A new art exhibition looks at life after retail for abandoned big-box stores,” Sept. 4, 2008

On the second floor of a Carnegie Mellon art gallery, Astria Suparak stands in a parking space. Suparak doesn’t own a car, but the space is here because of her. Its white lines were painted as part of Julia Christensen’s Your Town, Inc., an exhibit about how communities have reused buildings abandoned by big-box retailers. It’s Suparak’s first show as director of CMU’s Miller Gallery, and a parking space is an apt symbol for it.

Suparak made her name as a globetrotting independent curator. Now she’s parked at CMU; her hiring, in March, makes her arguably the biggest underground art star to move to Pittsburgh in years…

Suparak calls the tone of Your Town, Inc. “critical yet optimistic.” The exhibit also features a large wooden structure meant as the antithesis of a big box: It’s portable, modular, and was built in Oberlin, Ohio, where Christensen teaches, from locally sourced materials. The show reflects Suparak’s interest in community, the built environment and sustainability. She plans a series of lectures and other events around the show, including a Sept. 19 “Hometown BBQ” reception.
– Bill O’Driscoll, “The Miller Gallery’s internationally renowned new curator, Astria Suparak, debuts her first Pittsburgh show,” Aug. 28, 2008 (Cover story)


The face of the American landscape has been forever changed by the invention of the “big box.” These giant, typically nondescript retail meccas exemplified by Wal-Mart not only lead to the mowing-over of existing terrain, they also shift the cultural ecology of a space and bring with them more roads, more cars, and more garbage. But what happens when companies abandon these spaces in favor of paired-down, web-based operations? This is the question that artist Julia Christensen asks in her project Big Box Reuse. She’s spent the last five years touring these renounced superstores, photographing them, collecting local residents’ stories about the community impacts of the big boxes, and writing a forthcoming book. Documentation of these efforts are being exhibited through November 23rd at Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery in an show curated by Astria Suparak, entitled “Your Town, Inc.” Meanwhile, Turbulence has commissioned a forthcoming wiki on which the artist will invite people from across the country to upload their own stories, photos, and videos. Among the project’s most poignant ironies is the question of what happens when the retailers that trade in over-packaged, often not-recyclable goods fail to successfully repurpose the structures in which they once perpetuated disposable culture.
– Marisa Olson, “Exploring Big Boxes, In and Out of the White Cube,” Sept. 3, 2008


A new exhibition at Carnegie Mellonʼs Miller Gallery examines the complex impact that monolithic mega-chain store structures have had on our culture, psyche and planet since the 1960s.

Curated by brand new gallery director Astria Suparak, Your Town, Inc. features the work of author, artist and researcher Julia Christensen, who spent six years studying the design, use and impact of imposing Big Box architecture…

Asking How can you reclaim power over the design of your townʼs future?, the exhibition will host a series of engaging events aimed at mobilizing residents to think critically about, and actively participate in, the design of built environments.
– “Big Box Redux: Your Town, Inc. opens with BBQ bash at Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery,” Sept. 15, 2008

PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE: “Who’s afraid of the big, bad BIG BOX? Not Julia Christensen, whose work shows how communities are reusing them,” Patricia Lowry, Sept. 3, 2008 (Magazine cover story)

THE TARTAN: “THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX: Your Town, Inc. at the Miller Gallery displays the need for eco-friendly construction,” Shweta Suresh, Sept. 8, 2008 (Magazine cover story)

MICHIGAN LIVE: “Exhibition at Western Michigan University looks at urban landscapes, reuse of abandoned buildings,” Rebecca Bakken, Feb. 14, 2010

PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW: “Artist Looks at the Re-use of Former Retail Sites,” Kurt Shaw, Sept. 7, 2008

YINZ GOT ART ‘N’ AT: “ReBoxed: Finding God in a Wal-Mart,” Jacob Spears, Aug. 29, 2008 



Aug. 29 – Nov. 23, 2008
Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA

Feb. 25 – Mar. 19, 2010
Richmond Center for Visual Arts, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI