In 2006, artist Paul Villinski traveled to New Orleans to display his work at the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. There he witnessed the conditions in which post-Katrina victims were living, including some of the 50,000 trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The FEMA trailers, which are meant to house up to six people, are cramped, with small windows allowing limited sunlight and poor ventilation.
Emergency Response Studio (ERS), an exhibit currently on display in the Center for the Arts (CFA) courtyard, is Villinski’s reaction to the way the government responded to Hurricane Katrina, and also his proposal for the way people who are displaced by disasters can live in the future.
ERS is a 30-foot Gulfstream Cavalier trailer which Villinski “gutted” and renovated. The trailer is very similar to the FEMA trailers. Most of the materials Villinski used to outfit the inside of the vehicle are recycled and environmentally friendly. The cabinets and paneling are made out of bamboo chutes, which is an eco-friendly option since bamboo chutes grow rapidly. The flooring is linoleum, which is made out of linseed oil. Even the trailer’s insulation is made out of recycled denim. Equipped with solar panels and batteries, the mobile home is completely self-sustaining.
Villinksi also installed a mock-up of an actual FEMA trailer inside Zilkha Gallery.
“It represents what it would be, abstractly through 2 x 4’s and the presence of absence, what it would be like to live in a FEMA trailer,” said Nina Felshin, curator of the Zilkha Gallery.
The 2 x 4’s outline a bunk bed, a pull out couch, a double bed, kitchen, bathroom and dining area. Objects like an apple, a bar of soap, and shirt and hanger indicate what the spaces represent. Other materials in the exhibit include a large black-and-white photo of a crumbling house in the lower 9th ward, a series of photos detailing Villinksi’s process with ERS, a video of Villinski speaking about ERS and a small model of the trailer that Villinksi used to show funders.
“There are two kinds of political art: critical and didactic. These do not allow viewers to interpret for themselves,” Felshin said.
ERS draws attention to the growing issue of climate change, which is especially critical to communities on the Gulf Coast that are affected by hurricanes. It also critiques the poor standards of living that inhabitants of FEMA trailers experience. An entire wall of Villinski’s trailer folds out to admit sunlight and air (some people still living in FEMA trailers today are experiencing respiratory health issues because of the lack of ventilation), and the metal paneling of the original trailer was replaced by colorful windows that add warmth to the interior.
Villinski proposes the ERS not only as a way for artists to embed in disaster sites in the future, but also as a way people could live in post-disaster settings. According to Felshin, It cost Villinksi $86,000 to build his trailer, approximately the same price as one FEMA trailer.
Villinski’s piece goes beyond being a “political piece” by featuring aesthetic components that allow others to explore the possibilities of his suggestion.
“The most interesting contemporary art is art that is encouraging you to think,” Felshin says, suggesting that the curtains in the bedroom of the trailer actually resemble waves.
“To me, the butterflies made out of recycled materials represent the metamorphosis of the FEMA trailer,” said Aine McCarthy ’10, one student who visited the exhibit.
In imagining this metamorphosis, Villinski projects a positive, creative and humane vision of future post-disaster transitions.