Reliquery for a Found Object

Reliquary

This project involves the investigation of a historic house on 8th Street near downtown Gainesville, Fl. Originally built in the 1880’s, the house was owned by a single family for over a hundred years, passed down through generations. In the mid-nineties the last family member, the great-grand daughter of the original builder, died with no heir. Immediately following her death, the house was given to a trust and received historical designation with the hope it could someday be preserved as a community museum. Without money to restore or properly care for it, however, the house quickly fell in to disrepair and has remained in this state for that past 15 years. Though vandalized repeatedly, much of her family’s possessions, clothes, dishes, furniture, and even toiletries remain in the house as they were on the day she died. Dresses hung in the closets, dishes by the sink, a bottle of perfume waits on a window sill, and a bundle of old records tied with a velvet ribbon is carefully placed on a vanity in the upstairs bedroom. The house itself is a document held in suspension, a palimpsest of an entire a family history.

The house functions as a matrix in this way, organically derived, silently giving birth to information without the hindrance of determination or prejudice. The people who lived there left traces on every surface, a gouge in the wall where a vase was thrown, the happiness of pink paint, the dull sheen of shoe worn hallways or the studded texture of high-heeled dressing rooms. X-rays of specific joints in the house reveal cut-nails from the 1890’s clustered harmoniously with their galvanized great-grand children, as the family grew and new rooms were added.

X-ray of House Joint. 19th Century cut-nails w/ modern 21st century nails.

x-ray cluster w/ door chime, old and new nails

The house absorbs energy and is changed by it. It swells with music and fancy clothes and then it decays into detritus. It does not feel these things, but it responds to them. And each response is as authentic as the dweller that walks and lives and emotes. This is how the current house functions as a source far more reliable than a written history, or reconstruction.  A litany of names and dates, set next to pristine period furniture pales beside the rawness of an abandoned pantry of powdered milk and spam, of a silken dress hung on the back of a door with anticipation, or a stack of old records tied with a velvet ribbon and left beneath a leaky roof.

Kitchen and pantry (still full)

 

I spent a week documenting the house with a small group of grad students. With a portable x-ray machine we were able to investigate various joints where new construction was added over the years, the house nearly tripling in size from the original 19th century building. The question soon arose, “What is the ‘original’ house?” What does “original” mean? To find the original house do we disregard everything and everyone occurring beyond this point of origin, disavow them from the dwellings history?  Is the authentic house the one existing as the last nail was hammered, before the first stick of furniture crossed the threshold?  Or is the authentic house the one which has been lived in for over a hundred years, which has been abandoned for the past fifteen? Do we think of the occupants in the same terms we think of the house? Must we discover the original Mrs. Smith in 1892 or perhaps the daughter of 1930 or the granddaughter of 1964 or the last family member of 1995? At what point do we cleave their lives to determine that everything beyond this point is additive, not authentic, not part of the original?

What ever determination is made concerning the nature of the restoration, it is clear that these last years would be not be represented.  Any restoration would aim to wash them away, removing the detritus, placing the dress neatly in the closet, the dishes in the cupboard, the perfume in a cabinet, and to dispose of those items which are beyond salvage or repair.  This project aims to create a method to preserve the current period of decay.

Holding

Among the detritus was a bundle of records which sat squarely beneath a slow drip for more than a decade, the layers of packaging slowly wearing away despite the endurance of a carefully tied velvet bow.  The bow is the essential document, it records a carefully attentive moment,  giving the records a greater significance then those shattered across the living room floor.

Bundle of Records tied w/ a purple ribbon

Music was an important part of the family’s role in the community, and a great part of their life in the house. They were four generations of musicians who shared their love of music with the neighborhood. That love, in many ways, is synonymous with the family name. Neighbors remember music emanating from the open windows on cool summer evenings. The slow metered drip of the leaking roof measured the passing of time through a fundamental transformation in the records from their role as the musical life of the house to a relic in that era of decay. Losing that relic to a trash heap, would be to lose a part of the story.  The challenge is to design a method to hold the bundle within the restoration, to stop its deterioration, while preserving its effect, its significance in the palimpsest.

X-ray of Bundled Records

The Reliquary

The project is a reliquary embedded in a wall of the restoration.  The wall does not hold the bundle as a museum might, suspended in a plexiglass cube. The presence of the object within the house is not about the object itself, but rather about the object’s role in the life of the house, much as the sandal of Saint Andrew is held in the reliquary of Trier Cathedral. The significance isn’t embedded within the object itself,  as it might with a skeleton or bone, but rather in the role the object played in the life of a traveling saint. In St. Andrew’s case the reliquary makes reference to his travels by taking the form of a foot. For the bundle of records the intent is to reference the wrapping and tying of the bow, the vehicle for locking and unlocking the musical life of the house. The pictures below includes several early studies for how the records might be held and revealed. The last drawing is the final solution and describes the unlocking of the reliquary, which precipitates a shift in how the relic is viewed, from focusing on the records themselves to the bow which binds them.

early study

early study

early study

 

final drawing

full scale mock-up

When closed the end of the bundle shows at the end of the wall, opening the lock exposes the crossing of the bow through the portal where the locking mechanism nests

Reference to the velvet bow is made through a brass rod which functions as the handle, the key, and the fastener binding the assembly together. Like the velvet bow, this is the point of entry, and must be touched and manipulated to gain access. The assembly penetrates the wall from one side to the other. The photos below show the unlocking of the reliquary. A metal disk attached to the rod is pulled from its recessed seat in the wall, allowing the bundle to slide away from one viewing slot, to create another.

locking mechanism

The transformation is not unlike that which occurs when a record is taken from its sleeve. Here the record shifts from the tangible to the intangible. Buried within the sleeve, it is a physical object. On the turntable, however, its qualities are more elusive. Transcending a physical nature, it becomes music. And in becoming music, its fundamental identity is released and reveled.

locked

opening

revealed

The unlocking of the reliquary slides the relic to an alternate position, one that reveals the point of access for unlocking the music buried within.  As the records are warped and unplayable, however, the brass locking pin serves as proxy. When opened the two are revealed side by side, the knot and the lock. The small circular recess vacated by the locking pin on the back side of the wall reveals the velvet ribbon’s point of crossing. In this way it mirrors the pin as well, the ribbon finding its anchor at a point opposite the knot, each holding a similar tension to keep the records contained. It is the spindle, the central mechanical core for the lock, the bow, and the record as it spins on the turntable. The opening of the reliquary, does not release the relic to be handled or inspected, but rather reveals the critical point of engagement in both wrapping the bundle and playing music.

backside spindle locked

backside spindle opening

backside spindle revealed