notes on living in Kieren Reed’s Social Sculpture
Elliott Burns, September 2013
July 4th 1845, Henry David Thoreau begins a two year long living experiment; he takes residence in a cabin in the woods, next to Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts. Nine years later he publishes Walden, a highly polished, condensed account of his experience covering his day to day living, the woods, wildlife and laying out his philosophy on society and life. Thoreau’s cabin is likely one of the most famous cabins of American history, possibly history in general, today there is a replica of his cabin, and the land around is designated a National Reserve.
The concept of a cabin captures the imagination, the ideas surrounding it pre-date Thoreau’s hermitage; a rugged individualism, self sufficiency, an affinity with the wilderness, though it is Thoreau that connects the structure with the idea of intellectual pursuit. This combination of the pioneering spirit and philosophical enquiry fills the cabin with potency, making it a structure and symbol that may be appropriated.
In Kieren Reed’s Social Sculpture the cabin literally becomes a place of exploration, where its functionality is played upon in a variety of manifestations. Previously Reed’s cabin was installed at the Whitstable Biennale 2012 where it took the form of an information centre. Currently it resides in the grounds of Great Brampton House, part of a new residency program with Down Stairs.
The cabin has been extended with a porch and is fitted with a bed, sink, toilet and some simple furniture as well as a radio, wind up torch and a few of Reed’s small sculptural artefacts. The concept is simple that visiting artists will live and work in the cabin, during their residence they will uncover new uses for the space and traces of the usage will be passed onto following artists. On August 10th I was the first artist to take charge of the cabin.
The facilities of the cabin were complimented by access to a converted stable block, where I had a small studio and could use the wood workshop, kitchen and shower. Over my three weeks at Great Brampton House I would split my time between these two buildings and the surrounding grounds.
After my first evening at Great Brampton House I made my way back to my accommodation a little after twelve, finding a route between the barrier of trees that separated my from the rear of the house I approached the cabin slowly using the light from my phone. With a little fiddling I was able to unlock the door, brush my teeth and make ready for bed, except that the key could not lock the door from the inside, I could not angle it in sufficiently. After a few repeat attempts I began to consider alternate methods of fixing the door shut, jamming the key in the lock as best as I could I fixed my belt buckle to the key, pulled the door to and fed my belt up to a series of hooks and secured it by one of the holes. The door was fixed the following morning.
My intention in recalling this incident is not to critic the workmanship of the cabin, but rather to illustrate the manner in which resident artists should approach it, it is not a finished piece, it is a piece to be expanded upon, altered and edited. The potential of the cabin is limited only by the challenges perceived and the ability of the individual to fix them, there were issues that I was not equipped to deal with and there are potential improvements that I would have made if I had the materials. The future residents who will suit the cabin the best are those that embody a creative approach to DIY, can make do with simple supplies and envision their own unique improvements.
The second issue regarding the use of the cabin is the division of labour, not between individuals, rather between places. There are two main spaces to work, the cabin and the stables, one affords the comforts of modern living such as electricity, wifi and a couch, while the other is set up to intentionally minimise the luxuries we have become accustomed to. When I began writing this article I was sitting in the living room of the stables, it would have been a much harder task to pull together this text without the internet and a power supply. However, there is something to be said regarding the affect of a simplified setting on writing.
“I put a piece of paper and a pencil under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.” – Henry David Thoreau.
I too have maintained this practice, each evening I returned to the Cabin I set up a few candles and get into bed with a book, notepad and pen, with nowhere for the mind to escape to except onto the page I found my thoughts were afforded more breathing room. I copied lines from books onto post-it notes and stuck those to the walls; the cabin became a thinking space, part studio, part mental retreat. That said it can be a struggle when you are used to a virtual library being at your fingertips, no doubt if I had been born twenty years prior my brain would function in a different manner, not reliant on the instant gratification of the internet.
Over time the cabin will become a palimpsest of small histories, each resident artist leaving traces which feed into the next residency, and slowly a reduction from dependence on the stables and its modern comforts to a full interaction with the simplicity of the Cabin will occur.
This rate of change is dependent on the artists who come to stay in the Cabin; certain artist will mesh better with the intentions of Reed and Down Stairs. As the project moves forward it might be worth appealing to artist who envision a direct interaction with the cabin, to use it as a sculptural framework on which to build. Simple alterations and adaptations would go a long way to developing it towards an artistic ideal. No great feats are needed, only craft with an attention to detail and a communal spirit, though it is a community of people who are passing through and might never meet.
I cannot claim to have made the fullest use of the Cabin, primarily it is where I slept, I have read and written in it, it has been conductive to my thinking and in a manner it has shaped it, I have left traces of my time in it and tried to transform it for the artist who follows me. The progression from a room to live in to a truly creative space will be gradual, but over time the build up of histories will attest to the capability of it as a source of inspiration.
- Elliott Burns