Hot Docs

Secret Mall Apartment Review: Artistic Intervention in a Shopping Centre

Hot Docs 2024

5 mins read

Secret Mall Apartment
(USA, 92 min.)
Dir. Jeremy Workman
Programme: Nightvision


Imagine living inside a shopping mall on the sly. It may not sound like much fun, but a scrappy group of conceptual artists decide to do just that in a fascinating film that questions everything from what constitutes an act of resistance to the definition of art itself.

Furious at gentrification and the teardown of their beloved industrial core to make way for the gargantuan Providence Place Mall, eight artists, led by the indomitable Michael Townsend find a hidden, abandoned space up a ladderway between cracks in the mall’s exterior off the underground parking lot. They’re determine to devise a way to create living quarters. They scavenge for furniture, even build a wall and install a door to create an enclosed 750 square foot space. They drop a cord down to a source of electricity. They get nourishment at the food court, clean up in the mall washrooms and return to the apartment to watch TV and play video games and plan their next moves. From 2003 through 2007, the group schedule a way that each can stay for up to three weeks at a time, while sustaining living quarters elsewhere.

In Secret Mall Apartment, the eight arts activists, with the help of an exact replica of the apartment created for this film, explain their working process. How did they get large pieces of furniture and scores of concrete bricks, among other things, up a ladder to their haven? The answer makes up one of the more amusing segments of the film. When they detect a door in the underground parking lot that leads to their ladderway, they open it and hear an alarm, which is hugely worrisome until they realize that when the alarm sounds, nobody comes. It’s a psychological deterrent and nothing else. When security finally does accidentally see them, the group gives a roundabout explanation and the guards shrug and say, “Okay, fine.” To the team’s credit, they allow that they would not have had such an easy time had they been Black or brown.

The eight activists all speak lucidly about their politics, their alienation from everything the mall represents and the pleasure they took in hoodwinking the authorities to create their mall getaway. But the undisputed leader of the pack is the charismatic Townsend, who’s also helmed a series of impressive and meaningful art installations to which director Jeremy Workman (The World Before Your Feet) gives ample attention. Townsend’s Tape Art Crew finds appropriate collaborators among young people, hospital staff and even patients, to create public art images with tape. The images can be made for interior walls, as young hospital patients did for their hospital rooms. Another project honoured first responders killed on 9/11, creating portraits inside their home communities.

You get to like these people, especially Townsend, and you really don’t want them to get caught; you have to be impressed with their audacity and that they’re determination to fight gentrification, commodification, and capitalism. But Townsend’s tape art is public art, and a secret mall apartment is not.

The genius of this doc is that it guides you to the point where you begin to wonder: why are they doing this exactly? Ariana, Townsend’s partner at the time of the action, admits that ultimately the whole thing got a little tiresome. She realized she didn’t want to live in the mall, she wanted to buy things at the mall to take home to their apartment, but Townsend doesn’t agree.

If this was act of resistance, wouldn’t it have been useful for the forces you’re fighting to know what you were doing? Who benefits, actually? And if nobody can see this clever installation, is it art?

Like any fascinating meditation on the meaning of art and its potential as a political force, Workman’s doc asks more questions than it answers, which is a very good thing.

Secret Mall Apartment screens at Hot Docs 2024.

Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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