Artist Olga Koumoundouros' takeover of the abandoned property at 3411 Holyoke Drive in Glassell Park began as an act of desperation. She and her partner, who live across the street, were having trouble paying their mortgage and were trying to think of ways to avoid defaulting on their house. Their neighborhood, an old working-class settlement known for gang activity, was riddled with foreclosures, and they didn't want their home to fall victim to the same fate. Koumoundouros considered squatting in the abandoned house and renting her own place out to tenants.
Once inside the other house, however, Koumoundouros found herself entering into a thought-provoking relationship with the space, the belongings that had been left behind, the history of the tenants who had lived there, and the hot-button socioeconomic issues that surround the current foreclosure crisis. By exploring the site and chatting with neighbors, she began piecing together details.
The house, a cheaply built structure from the 1980s, had been owned by Patty and Glenda, a lesbian couple who worked as civil servants. Patty died of brain cancer while living in the house, and some time after, Glenda packed up most of her belongings and moved to Kentucky to live with relatives. While the house was worth around $250,000, the owners had taken out a second mortgage on it for the same amount of money. Perhaps not wanting to deal with an essentially worthless property, Glenda simply left it as it was, with a few stray belongings scattered inside, not even bothering to notify a tenant who lived in a smaller house in the back of the property. Soon after returning to Kentucky, she had to have her leg amputated for unknown reasons.
Instead of moving into the house, Koumoundouros spent hours making art inside of it as a way to honor its previous inhabitants, and to actively engage with this forlorn and increasingly common environment. Among other works, she made an inspirational poster referencing Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, a slide show of photographs taken around the property, sculptural installations incorporating objects found around the house, and a glass leg, which she hung on a towel rack in the bathroom. She had an assistant choose old photographs from her own collection to mix into a recreation of Patty and Glenda's refrigerator door, thus blending her own history with theirs.
Over the last several years, Koumoundouros' work, which has been exhibited internationally, has dealt repeatedly with the notion of the American Dream as it relates to home ownership and social mobility; a show called "Poor Pension Math" that took place at Susanne Vielmetter in 2011 explored the effects of growing economic disparities. In the text accompanying a USA Projects campaign to support her work at this house, which she has titled A Notorious Possession, Koumoundouros observes: "Speculative markets have removed homes as markers of lives lived and now exist as currency to be traded with financial gain in mind. No longer do people turn to their homes as a place to cultivate lives according to their desires."
While the inside of the house nurtures the remnants of lives lived, Koumoundouros decided to paint the exterior a gleaming gold in order to highlight its commodity status from the outside; she wanted it to look like the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. On the interior walls and floors, she painted a series of garish rainbow motifs in a multi-layered reference to the pot of gold, the futile persistence of the American Dream, gay rights symbolism, and the previous owners' fondness for sponge painting, which can be seen in the bedrooms and closets upstairs.
The entire house, when I saw it last Friday, worked beautifully as an art installation, drawing you into the poignancy of the stories at hand and making the history of the place, which otherwise would have been forgotten and neglected, come alive. It worked even better, however, as a living nexus for present-day community dialogue and activism around the foreclosure crisis and its many attendant economic issues -- which is the artist's enthusiastic intention for the place.
When I was there, I was joined in my house tour by the artist and lawyer York Chang, who has been advising Koumoundouros on her legal rights in this situation (by taking care of the house and putting all the utility bills in her name, the artist has earned a month-to-month tenancy via a process called "adverse possession"). A graduate art class from Claremont showed up at the noon hour for a field trip. Artist Nancy Buchanan, who has also dealt with housing issues in her own work, popped in and exchanged notes with Koumoundouros on successful community co-ops. Young artists have been invited to squat in the now-vacant back house.
Koumoundouros has already organized an evening of performance in the house, and has many more ideas for events in the works, including some children's programming led by artists and a discussion/activism group for citizens who have been the victims of foreclosure. She is definitely tapping into a viral nerve with this project -- it has generated a noticeable buzz not just in the art community but among neighborhood residents and others concerned about the housing crisis.
A Notorious Possession is living right on the edge, however, as it is unknown how much longer Koumoundouros can continue working at the house. The property was scheduled to go up for auction last Thursday, but was cancelled at the last minute. Since Koumoundouros has no official ties to the place, she could not obtain any information on who cancelled the auction and why. She could suddenly receive a 30-day notice of eviction, or she could wind up staying there indefinitely, depending on the circumstances.
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