Artist Statement

Shannon Cain, St. Paul-de-Vence

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

(Note: this statement was written before I was illegally evicted by the developer on Wednesday June 29. I’d left the house for food and water—as was my right—and when I returned, they were in the process of bricking up the front door. My possessions had been moved to a hotel across the street.)

I compose this statement from the former guest room of James Baldwin. For the past seven days I have been occupying his abandoned house, sleeping and working and writing. I sit at his window and stare in exhilarated disbelief at the same hillsides and the same ocean that once held his gaze. In camping here for the last week I have established my rights as a squatter under French law. As of now, the land speculators who own this property cannot legally evict me without a court battle.

I occupy the house of this American civil rights icon as both performance art and political activism. With this solo sit-in, I hope to demonstrate the power of the individual to change the world. I place my body here hoping also to prove the necessity of the arts and to clarify the role of the artist.

© Shannon Cain

© Shannon Cain

Exactly one week ago, I stayed awake all night pacing my apartment, wrestling with the decision to occupy. Finally, I lay down—and when I woke and went to the internet, there in my facebook feed was a video clip of Toni Morrison, urging me forward with these words:

I want to remind us all that art is dangerous . . . the history of art has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans. And those people are artists. They’re the ones who tell the truth. When you enter that field . . . it’s a dangerous pursuit and somebody’s out to get you. You have to know it before you start and do it under those circumstances, because it is one of the most important things that human beings do.

***

This week I’ve been confronted with accusations of illegitimacy. They boiled down to this: who do you think you are, white person? Where do you get the right?

How do I possibly claim legitimacy to occupy James Baldwin’s house? I claim legitimacy as a queer person. I claim legitimacy as an activist for social justice. I claim legitimacy as a writer. I claim legitimacy as a seasoned activist. I claim legitimacy as a person who cares for the planet.

As a white person, however, I claim no legitimacy at all to occupy this house, apart from the elegant fact that I am the only one here.

***

I find myself the inaugural artist-in-residence of this new creative colony. My artistic work during this residency centers on a performance installation called One Thousand Cranes, Crushed. This is the final exhibition of a traveling installation project I carried out in artist residencies throughout the United States during the summer of 2013. These cranes accompanied me to The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; to the Hambidge Center in north Georgia; to The MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire; to the Ragdale Foundation on the plains of Illinois; to a privately subsidized residency on the coast of northern California; and to Hypatia-in-the-Woods, a residence for women writers on Washington’s Puget Sound.

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I end the cranes project here on James Baldwin’s old staircase, amid the accumulated dust of  abandonment, by asking participants to destroy them with their footsteps as they mount the stairs.

I folded and numbered these cranes over a one-year period in 2009 and 2010. This began amidst a major and bewildering personal life transition that found me comforted by the simple repetition of making a pile of beautiful little things. Although my goal was to fold a thousand cranes, I started feeling better after about 500, so I put them aside. But in January 2010, a mass shooting in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona, sent me into such a spiral of despair, sorrow, and confusion that I pulled out the origami paper again to fold my way out of the grief.

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Here in Baldwin’s house I hope to confront the audience-participant with the feeling of what it means to destroy that which that carries beauty and meaning. What does it feel like to kill these sweet little cranes by crushing them with your shoes? I think about the bulldozer operators who knocked down half of this house. I think of the pillagers who stripped the house of its precious metals. I think of the government officials who approved the building plans. I think of the hundreds of Baldwin aficionados worldwide who knew the story of this house and sat in silence, inaction, or worse, whose personal agendas took precedence. I think about the times that I, too, turned away from a cause I believe in. Mostly, though, I think of the corporation out to turn this historic property into nineteen of the ugliest condos you’ve ever seen. I think of the individual at the land speculation company who made and carried out illegal plans to knock down those wings, who delivered the orders to destroy the patios. To demolish the old stone stables. To burn the ancient Cyprus trees. To leave the house and its stunning nineteenth-century Italian frescoes unprotected, windows and doors wide open year after year. To order Baldwin’s study and living quarters demolished. To him I say this: kindly suck my dick, you greedy fuck.

For seven years, conservative white moneyed interests who stand for everything James Baldwin stood against have been holding this house hostage, speculating, waiting for the moment when their profit will be highest. In the meantime, a historical and cultural treasure goes to seed. No longer. Today we booted them out. Today, at last, the artists are back in occupation.