On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
Lately, many of us are spending much more time in our apartments than we originally anticipated. For those lucky enough to be able to work from home, our living spaces have become small tele-republics of their own, beaming us into the homes of coworkers, bosses, and friends. Life stains the edges of our Zoom boxes. I’m in your bed; you’re in my kitchen. In this way, we might imagine that some of us are already living in Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain’s online project New York Apartment, a virtual apartment encompassing five boroughs and 300 million square feet, stitched together from thousands of actual real estate listings in New York. The project is funny and absurd, but toothy for the way that it documents a rapidly gentrifying city from the inside out.
The interface is reminiscent of the spare, slightly sketchy, no-frills utilitarianism of Craigslist. Eight columns set in Times New Roman dole out the various components of an apartment listing: the hook (Can you recognize opportunity when it knocks?), banks of pictures, lists of features and amenities, virtual and video tours, a mortgage calculator, and contact info. Rather than simulating the experience of apartment hunting, however, it feels more like eight bins of spare parts from which you might Frankenstein an apartment together. I wondered how different it might have been if the interface were more like the slick, minimalist carapaces of many emerging real estate apps like StreetEasy or Roomi, which are only accelerating the turnover of young creatives to the city. Probably a little too uncanny. Lavigne and Brain’s project doesn’t critique that so much as help you bear witness to that frenzy.
New York Apartment is an archive hidden in plain sight. All of its data is publicly available, just not in this format or all at once. It’s data-as-critique à la Hans Haacke or Martha Rosler, and it’s a gesture they’ve explored in other online projects as well. Enron.email (2016) recreates the experience of receiving all 500,000 emails from the Enron email archive. Getwellsoon.labr.io (2020) pulls all of the comments from medical GoFundMe campaigns. Archives allow patterns and affects to dilute in single instances to concentrate into a pungency. In New York Apartment, we get euphemism and bombast (“gracious” dimensions and “stunning” lines) but also fantasy and new beginnings (Looking to start a family? Need a new studio?). In the aspirational language of real estate, the benchmark achievements of social classes become more obvious.
Scrolling through the many rooms of this apartment, it is interesting to note your taste affectations: a loft-like room with an Eames chair and Vitsoe shelves (wow), a dark, wood-paneled room with doilies and a chestnut armoire (eww), floor to ceiling windows and a king sized bed (blood money, expensive and crass). More often than not, these preferences map onto a class orientation or aspiration. You can pick out the rooms that might appeal to the Midtown lawyer, the poetry professor, the immigrant family of five, or the art critic. If taste is a sort of spidey-sense of social mobility, this project presents it all, buffet-style, in a way that makes you aware of the un-individuality of your own.
And gentrification, the negative-shadow of that class aspirationalism, seems to lurk in every corner: in the foggy horizon of the virtual 3-D tours, in the language of its provocations (Looking for a new neighborhood?), but perhaps most sharply in the pictures of the apartments themselves. These are a genre all their own. We’re seeing all of these apartments cleaned up and dressed up in a limbo as they never were and as they never will be, offering themselves up for conquest. There are no people in any of the pictures, of course, because you need to imagine yourself there. Each picture shows a room that someone has intentionally tried to minimize signs of previous life. Even those rooms that are messy and unprofessional show signs of expecting a guest. In its sparest incarnations, in new developments and renos, all we see are the sanitized appeasement of rented furniture, stock art, and stainless steel appliances. In this way, New York Apartment evokes the disturbing logic of gentrification in what its pictures hide: the displaced.