Remains: An Interview with Liam Gast
Liam Gast is an artist based in New York who mounts installations and performances – what he calls “hauntings” – during stays in Airbnb rentals. He spoke to us over Skype from his apartment in Sunset Park, his voice occasionally fading out over the digital airwaves like a ghostly apparition.
_Typically, when we think of an artist’s medium, we think of _something conventional, like oil paint or film. How did you get started using the Airbnb rental as your medium?
Honestly, I think the medium chose me. I had been sort of blocked with my work one summer and I went to stay at this Airbnb up in the Adirondacks. And once I got there I was immediately
uncomfortable: there was this stark contrast between the first floor, which was this open plan with a big giant living room, and the upstairs, where there was this dark narrow corridor with the master bedroom at the end and what would be the kids’ bedrooms off the sides. And in the ceiling of the master bedroom was a door which contained the attic ladder stair. It all felt very sinister and in a flash I’d imagined this entire narrative for the house: this seemingly very social family headed by an overbearing, insecure patriarch, and one day his black sheep son embarrasses him in front of guests. And later, in a fit of anger, he kills the child, but the family saves face, remains silent about the whole debacle, and hides the evidence. As soon as I saw that attic ladder, I just envisioned the whole thing.
But it felt really wrong to just write the story down and take it with me – it belonged to the house more than to me – so instead I imagined what physical remnants of this story the house would hold and I produced those: a toy with a tiny smattering of blood buried in the yard, a journal narrating the events half-burned and jammed between the floorboards of the attic, and so on. In theory, if the owners of the Airbnb explored the house and discovered these objects then this story I wrote would seem real to them, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell it was a fiction. I effectively rewrote the history of the house.
Then I just started doing this on repeat: I’d rent an Airbnb, listen to the building for a story – not all houses had one, sometimes a stay would be a bust – and then produce the remnants of the story and inscribe them into the bones of the house.
But then later you moved away from the mystery story approach.
Right, yeah. Writing these tight narratives, then producing the objects, leaving the journal pages, essentially planting clues, it was a really fun way to work. But I started to feel that it was too caught up in narrative conventions. The well-written mystery story has to be so carefully structured: each clue gives a bit more information leading up to the final unveiling according to this almost set formula for suspense. Actual life is not like that. Usually, nothing much happens; there’s not a lot of forward progression, and there’s certainly no big reveal at the end. We just kind of life. Sometimes houses tell the stories of their previous inhabitants in more banal ways, through just being repositories for the everyday detritus of living.
So I swung in almost the polar opposite direction: no plot, just scenery.
Like you’d build a stage set?
More like redecorate. I’d get to the Airbnb and first thing I’d do is remove almost all interior decorations – postcards on the fridge, framed photos, wall art, take off the bedspread, etc. Where possible, I’d remove the furniture too. Then I’d put all that out of sight – either up in the attic or condense it all into one bedroom or something – and then I’d redecorate the place entirely, as if someone else had lived there.
I’d put up new paintings on the wall, different magnets on the fridge, even different old soup cans in the back of the kitchen cabinets. I’d put a new rug in the living room, imagine what stains it would’ve acquired over time, purposefully create those. I’d stage some photographs in the house – get some friends to come up for a night, throw a fake birthday, take a few pictures, frame one of them, put it on the table in the study. I’d essentially invent a character who lived in the house and try to imagine, as completely as possible, the stage set of his life.
I’d try to build up about five years of imagined habitation in the week I was there, really a whole other parallel life for the house. At the end, I’d take it all down and painstakingly restore the home to its original state.
You refer to your works as “hauntings.” Why do you use this term?
A lot of haunted house movies hinge on a tension between seeing a house as property – this abstract attitude towards space, of title deeds and prices – and then the lived aspects of space – all the memories, dreams, bad events that a house holds. And usually the narrative is one of comeuppance: the people who see the house just as real estate (the upwardly mobile family who move into the gothic mansion despite the bad rumors swirling about it) is bound to be punished by the house’s lived history; they’re bound to be terrorized by the ghosts of the house.
And Airbnb, to me, just seems to be so keyed into these tropes. I mean, it’s the ultimate in the viewing of space as an abstract real estate entity: the Airbnb logic essentially turns the house into money, into a ratio between amount-of-space-to-time-available-to-price. But then there’s the other side of the coin, the reality of strangers going into your house and living in it, with their bodies and their emotions and their baggage. So all the conditions for haunting are there, the abstract versus the lived.
At a certain point, I realized that this was what my works were about, this conflict. I find the abstract investment side of Airbnb to be quite troubling and I very much want to leave some trace of my inhabitation, either literally, through the objects of the murder narratives, or more indirectly, by the imagined-then-deleted pasts of the redecorations.
The emphasis on ownership makes me think of legal documents, title deeds, the paper trails of inhabitation. Do you think you’ll ever go back to the more textual interventions of your earlier work?
Honesty, if anything, I think I’ve moved even further into the realm of the ephemeral, even further away from the strategy of planting objects or texts in the rental. My most recent works have just been performances, nothing concrete added to the house at all.
Almost like plays? With an audience?
No, no audience. Just the actors. And not really a whole play with a beginning and a middle and a moment of catharsis and the whole shebang. Really the attempt is to condense all of the drama of living into one single moment that hopefully has a lot of staying power. For example, we staged one performance that was just a single violent marital fight, maybe five minutes long. And then the actors performed just that scene, basically on repeat, for the duration of the stay. I think of it almost like scoring a piece of wood, just taking a knife and digging into the same spot over and over, until there’s this irreparable scar. Or like how mediums talk about ghosts getting stuck in loops and repeating the same unfinished action over and over. That’s what I hope these our staged events because in the end we don’t either.
Of course, the best way to ensure that a location will become haunted is through death: you know the tropes, someone was murdered in the house, or it was built on a graveyard, something like that. And if you think about it, death is the ultimate limit point for a performance. If you died in character – that would be the performances create, this timeless psychic stain, this residue that forever affects the house.
Do you think you’ve ever successfully left these traces? That you’ve ever really haunted an Airbnb?
That’s a good question, the one I ask myself all the time. I’m not sure. Can you believe so fully in a performance that a house takes it for real and writes it into the DNA of its walls?
The actors are very committed – they’ve moved to this new location, they’re entirely cut off from their regular lives. And repeating the same short performance over and over is almost incantatory, it’s like a mystical transmutation occurs; by the end of the stay the self melts away and the role takes over entirely; they become the character. But, in terms of leaving a trace, my concern is that this process has to end. The actors eventually leave the Airbnb and the fictional world I made there and become themselves again. Maybe the architecture doesn’t truly absorb complete unification of performer and role. Death of character, death of person, there’d be no difference. I think a house would definitely take up that psychic trace. We’d need to find a very dedicated actor to take on that role though. It wouldn’t be a quick jaunt to some Airbnb upstate, pretending at country living for a weekend. Ghost: that’s a role that lasts all eternity.