A failed Puerto Rican housing project in the rainforest is being brought to life through video, installation and photographic works at Chicago’s Graham Foundation this week.
Canadian artist David Hartt’s new show, in the forest, is an exploration of Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie’s Habitat Puerto Rico Project. Unlike Safdie’s lauded 1967 project, the eye-catching Habitat 67 housing project (the prefabricated, modular concrete blocks have become a Montreal landmark), the Puerto Rico project has a very different legacy.
Hartt looks to Safdie’s Habitat 67 and Habitat Puerto Rico as examples of an assertion of Canada’s identity: cosmopolitan, technologically innovative and optimistic. We caught up with him to find out more.
What is Habitat Puerto Rico and what interests you in it?
The experimental housing development was designed to provide 800 low-cost dwelling units to moderate-income families in a system of stacked prefabricated concrete modules cascading down a terraced hill in the densely populated Hato Rey neighbourhood of San Juan.
Can you explain the exhibition title?
The title is taken from this Claude Lévi-Strauss memoir called Tristes Tropiques. For me the book was a way to understand what I was doing anthropologically and what some of the methodological and social implications were.
You grew in Canada. How did the place influence you?
Growing up black in Canada, I think I’ve always experienced this sense of being a perpetual minority. I think it granted me an incredible freedom, which vowed me to move through different cultures and contexts through my work. When you’re not participating in the dominant identity it allows you to explore. My work deals with me finding what I call singularities. So sites that I feel express an ideological outlook in a place. This has taken me everywhere from Russia to Detroit and I have always been concerned with a kind of cultural exploitation as I go.
What drew you to the work of such an iconic Canadian figure like Moshe Safdie?
I grew up in the legacy of Habitat 67. The entire city went through a huge transformation prior to 1967, which preceded the Expo by ten years. Safdie’s Habitat 67 epitomised the efforts to frame Montreal as a modern city in post-colonial Canada. So when I was growing up, the city had this kind of new car smell to it.
How are you telling Habitat Puerto Rico’s story in the show?
The show is made up of one 20-minute film and an installation across four rooms featuring 28 ceramic vases that function as vessels for native plants and seats for viewers to experience these tropical elements. Then there are five aluminium sculptures around the building that are reminiscent of the roofline of Safdie’s modular architecture. Finally there are seven more indexical photographs of the site. There’s a soundtrack that is played throughout the Graham Foundation. I wanted the work to function less like a documentation and more like a kind of fiction. You understand it as a reality but also as a subjective representation. You’re encouraged to linger and spend time there.
David Hartt’s in the forest opens on 14 September at the Graham Foundation, Chicago.
Main image: David Hartt, still from “in the forest,” 2017. 4K Digital Video File, color, sound; 20 min. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey and commissioned by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.