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Secret Mall Apartment

Directed by Jeremy Workman
Produced by Jeremy Workman
With: Michael Townsend, Colin Bliss, Adriana Valdez-Young, Andrew Oesch, and Greta Scheing
Cinematography: Michael Lisnet, Jeremy Workman, and Dan Kennedy
Editing: Paul Murphy and Jeremy Workman
Music: Clare Manchon and Olivier Manchon
Runtime: 91 min
Release Date: 08 March 2024
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

Jeremy Workman (Lily Topples The World, The World Before Your Feet, Magical Universe) has made many movies about artists with distinctive visions and unique working methods. His latest documentary centers on Road-Island-based artist Michael Townsend, who, along with seven artist friends at the beginning of the current century, commandeered an empty space tucked inside a corner of the colossal Providence Place Mall and transformed it into an apartment. Most of these artists had lived and worked in old mill buildings that were demolished in the late '90s as part of a massive movement to redevelop and spruce up the city, which began with the construction of the gigantic, awkwardly shaped mall. Artists turning an unused pocket in a commercial building into a living space certainly seems like a fitting small act of retaliation against the government and commercial developers who laid claim to their living space. But this project wasn't a work of political "theater of resistance" because it was, as the movie's title implies, a secret. And while the story made national news when, after four years, Townsend was finally caught by mall security, it quickly faded into the stuff of urban legend.

There are several reasons why this event hasn't been more widely known, even by residents of Providence. For one thing, Townsend was the only one of these merry pranksters who was caught and charged by police or identified by the media. Secondly, though he videotaped most stages of the project, Townsend only made these recordings for the purpose of basic documentation, the way he has always photographed or videotaped all of his deliberately impermanent art. His footage was never meant to be turned into a film or museum piece or made available to the public in any way. Lastly, like all local news coverage (and now practically all media headlines from even the most reputable journalistic organizations), the gist of the story as presented was somewhat misleading. Yes, eight artists did construct an apartment-like space in a corner of the mall, where they hung out, played video games, devised other creative projects, and occasionally spent the night, but they didn't really live there, so the facts almost instantly morphed into local legend.

That is, until this fantastic film. Over the nearly two decades since the mall apartment was discovered, several filmmakers approached Townsend about making a movie from this story. But, while there's nothing holding anyone back from producing a work of fiction based on a news event, Townsend was not interested in participating in any project that presented what he and his friends did as something more punk or political or extreme than what it was. Part of what makes Workman's film such an effective documentary is that the director is able to create a multi-dimensional portrait of Townsend and explore all the ins and outs of the mall apartment project without attempting to fully understand how the mind of this unique artist works or put his odd creative expression into a predetermined ideological box. There's no mistaking that the project grew out of frustrations with gentrification and urban renewal projects that bifurcated the city along existing class lines. And there's no question that watching the patently illegal exploits of these mild-mannered insurgents brings up all kinds of points about white privilege and the radically different ways people of different races are treated in public spaces. However, these issues were not the project's primary impetus and are not the main thrust of the movie. Secret Mall Apartment explores the amazing and often fascinating ways in which many people who create art are different from the rest of us.

The film weaves many threads and uncovers many layers to the story, rendering a solid feature film from something that might at first seem more suited to a short. The history of Providence, the construction of the mall, and the decision to demolish the old mill buildings where the artists lived and worked are all explored clearly and entertainingly, as are some of Townsend's earlier secret installation pieces. Then there is the work he's primarily known for, which he calls "tape art." This is a process of creating life-sized drawings of people, animals, and objects with pieces of different colored painter's tape, hand-ripped and stuck to walls. Townsend does this work mostly with students and children in hospitals, decorating their rooms in highly personalized ways. Again, none of this tape art is permanent, but it's always photographed. Concurrent with the mall apartment project, Townsend and crew also embarked on a multi-year effort to make small tape-art murals all over Manhatten as a tribute to every person who died in the 9/11 attacks.

Through the archival recordings that Townsend made with a tiny digital camera concealed in an Altoids can and contemporary interviews with all seven of the other participants in the project (none of whom ever came forward about their role in all this until now), we learn what drove this crew to set up this covert windowless combination of dorm room, prison cell, and treehouse. We also get a sense of what drives this type of approach to art in general. It's telling that, 17 years later, all eight of these folks are still working artists in one form or another. We learn how Townsend discovered the existence of the "anomaly in the architecture" that he eventually occupied, how he and his crew accessed it, how they got heavy furniture, electrical power, building supplies, and the like up to it, and how they continuously foiled mall security. Much of this is extremely funny and charming. I've always respected people who do this type of art, but this is the first time I could actually picture myself hanging out with folks who are doing it. The approach to everything during this undertaking seems so playful; it all feels motivated by the simple joy of creation rather than by anger, pretension, or the mere rush of getting away with something. Each of the individuals involved seems to have an odd respect for private property and even law and order as they undertake a project that most anyone would inherently classify as trespassing and a flagrant defiance of societal norms and regulations. Yet, since none of the work they do involves destruction or vandalism of any kind, I think most viewers would be hard-pressed to see this harmless illegal use of an unused space as morally wrong, especially when compared with the perfectly legal and sanctioned invasion, clearing, and demolition of their prior residence by greedy developers with questionable motives.

Though Townsend documented the project with a '90s-era low-rez SD digital camera not really designed for capturing video and audio, the archival footage is stunning. There would be no documentary were it not for what was recorded on this primitive consumer device. The footage showcases the crew shopping for furnishings at thrift stores, moving giant pieces of furniture up steep steps and through a small access point, and explaining to mall security why they just happen to be unloading many tons of cinderblock from their car through an alarmed security door in the parking garage into a hallway relatively late in the evening. This footage is absolutely riveting, often thrilling, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Townsend even captures a conversation between him, his wife, and a few of the other artists during a dinner at the mall food court, which clearly foreshadows the break-up of his marriage. Workman also hired a production designer to recreate the apartment space on a stage according to the participants' memories and photographs. This set enables one of the best uses of staged reenactment I've ever seen in a documentary (though it would have played better without any production sound).

I've only been to the Providence Place Mall on two occasions. Both were in 2023 to see Oppenheimer, as the IMAX cinema at that mall is the closest theater to me equipped with 15-perf celluloid IMAX projection. I had to go twice because the IMAX broke down on my first attempt, but each time, I was flabbergasted as to how to park, enter, and navigate the colossal structure. This mall is not user-friendly, and it's astounding that it has no entrances facing the "poor side of town." I spent way too much time meandering the halls, elevators, stairwells, and especially parking lot ramps on foot, but I'm so glad I had this experience as it helped me understand, even now in the cell phone and surveillance era, how impossible it would be to keep tabs on everything going on in this colossal structure. Knowing that the mall's movie theater often does midnight shows, it's easy to imagine how surreal it must feel to be wandering around this empty, cavernous maze of concrete, cement, and glass during the wee small hours of the morning.

But to enjoy this film, one need not be intimately familiar with The Providence Place Mall nor the unique trappings of the tiny capitol city best known for its school of design and for its longest-serving mayor having his terms in office interrupted by a four-year stint in federal prison for racketeering and kidnapping. There is something universally American about this story, which exists as both a time capsule and a look back at how the country has changed since the turn of the millennium. It is also an eloquent ode to the power of creative expression and living one's values. It reminds us (and it seems we often need to be reminded) that great art does not require clear political motivations or overt ideological messaging to matter. In fact, often, the best art presents something we can't fully wrap our brains around and must contemplate and wrestle with to understand the artist's intention as well as what it might mean for us.

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Delightful doc looking back on a group of artists in the early Aughts who set up a covert clubhouse in an unused space of an oppressively giant mall makes for a thrilling, funny, eloquent ode to art for art's sake.