City Paper feature on Your Town, Inc.

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A new art exhibition looks at life after retail for abandoned big-box stores

Charles Rosenblum
Pittsburgh City Paper
Sept 4, 2008



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., a new exhibition of work by artist Julia Christensen, based on her forthcoming book Big Box Reuse. The exhibition runs through Nov. 22 at the Miller Gallery, at Carnegie Mellon…

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.


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Read more about the Your Town, Inc. exhibition