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The first time I went to see the Broodthaers Airbnb apartment, I was late. The bus trip from where I live in the South Bronx across town to Harlem at 10 in the morning wound up taking much longer than Google Maps claimed it would, and the rain only made it worse. When I finally arrived at the four-story building, a mix of red brick and brownstone with an iron gate at the front — likely a prewar, Colonial Revival–style rowhouse — I was happy to see that it was one of the few on the block with character, even a bit of pretend pomp: a huge multi-paneled front door with stone trim and oversized windows suggesting a neoclassical pediment and cornice.
I rang the bell and Joe, the person I’d made arrangements with through Airbnb, came down. I shook his hand self-consciously because it was still damp from holding the iron railing. He didn’t seem to mind. I thanked him for being patient and we headed upstairs to see the space.
I’d discovered the apartment through an email advertising “MBnb, a studio apartment available through Airbnb in honor of the great Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers,” which is “made available to artists and scholars courtesy of the Broodthaers Society of America in support of the Broodthaers retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (February 14–May 15).” It had been tricky to set up our meeting. The Airbnb website allowed Joe to email me the address (spelled out), but when he tried to include a phone number, it was redacted. The site also redacted my phone number in my reply. Joe found a clever way around the censors, writing: “When you come on Monday, just bring xxx grams of nova lox, a toasted sesame bagel with xxx seeds on it, and a xxxx model electric pencil sharpener. That should work.” It did. I was impressed by his workaround.
We marched up the stairs to the top floor as Joe told me about taking the same trip across town that I just had when he goes to his studio in the South Bronx. Then he led me into a space that’s part reading room, part shrine, and part art project masquerading as a bed-and-breakfast.
In the reading room, the first thing I noticed was that there were images of eagles everywhere, and decals and insignia galore all over the walls. These refer to Marcel Broodthaers’s Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles — a conceptual museum he devised in Brussels in 1968 that did not maintain a permanent collection or location. The Belgian artist, who turned to visual art at the audacious age of 40 after spending most of his professional life in poetry, developed a reputation as a wily and cantankerous provocateur through conceptual projects such as this museum. Joe told me that he collects the badges from a wide range of sources, including sites associated with biker gangs and nationalist movements. He is fascinated with how the symbol retains its connotations of power and victory while its specific meaning changes depending on the group or discourse within which it is situated.
This room also contains three chairs that look like downmarket versions of the Grand Confort armchair made famous by Le Corbusier, a few plants, and two large windows that let in a lot of natural light. Joe showed me some of the publications that are the prized objects in the room, including an issue of Der Spiegel from the ’60s in which Broodthaers took out an ad featuring himself wearing a van Laack shirt, (a real company still in existence) posing as the president of his “museum.” The ad uses fictive narratives to play on the audience’s expectations with regard to status and authenticity. As Broodthaers supposedly claimed at the opening of his Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, “Fiction enables us to grasp reality and, at the same time, that which is veiled by reality.” It’s clear that Joe is taken with this vexing character and his practice of giving with one hand while taking back with the other.
Joe told me that the space is fully booked for the next few months. I asked him how he’d gotten the word out, and it turns out that one can garner a good deal of public interest merely by establishing some digital real estate — that is, creating a convincing website. His offers some hidden goodies in the apartment like an “Atlas Lounge” promising lazy Sundays filled with luscious baked goods, crossword puzzles, and Wild Turkey shots — but how much of this is real and how much is fiction is not clear.
Joe told me that he has a regular reading group convene in the space and holds open houses on some Sundays, and soon he will also offer talks by visiting researchers. The project is intended to be self-perpetuating: Joe uses the money he earns from the endeavor to fund his growing collection of Broodthaers-related objects, which then appear in the reading room/shrine.
A few feet away, the kitchen is little more than a recess between the bedroom and reading room, but it nevertheless gives the apartment an entirely homey feel. It holds a coffeemaker, a large chrome refrigerator, a knife block, herbs and spices, and utensils — seemingly all the tools one would need to make simple meals while staying there.
In the back is a bedroom that has a Spartan feel. The simple Shaker-style bed is low to the ground and has a lamp by its side, plus an overhead light. There is a small table in the corner with two matching chairs forming a lovely breakfast nook and a standing desk with an architect’s lamp attached.
Joe told me that he got the idea for the Airbnb idea from a famous Broodthaers quote supposedly said at the launch of his career as a visual artist in 1964: “I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life.” Joe conceived the space as a sharing-economy take on that sentiment.
In the course of our conversation, we discovered that we have a friend in common, a fellow professor at Princeton, where Joe teaches. We discussed arranging a stay for me at the BnB, so I could write about the experience from personal experience.
A few days later, Joe emailed me with the exact wording of the Broodthaers quotes we’d discussed, and I realized that I hadn’t yet bothered to discover his last name, which I now saw in his email’s signature line. It’s Scanlan. This person is Joe Scanlan, an artist who has become linked with certain incendiary works he’s produced. Suddenly the pieces of this story gelled for me, the way glass shards recompose themselves into a pristine mirrored surface in a Jean Cocteau film. Of course Scanlan would be interested in Broodthaers, an artist who also developed an inflammatory and unruly practice, playing with notions of expectation and frustrating them (though Scanlan presses on wounds that have not yet healed, rather than just unexamined assumptions).
Via email, we worked out that I would stay at the BnB the following Tuesday. It turns out that Joe’s studio is walking distance from my apartment, and I agreed to meet him at the unholy hour of 7:30 in the morning to get the keys. Joe has a magnificent studio space, large enough to arrange one of the stages of a NASA space shuttle. He told me he was glad to have me staying at the Airbnb while he was away teaching, and that there was a bottle of wine and a quiche in the refrigerator. I tried to be demure, but actually I was looking forward to both. I thanked him for the opportunity and headed home.
It wasn’t until about 11:30 that night that I was able to get back to the Broodthaers house. It had been a long day, and I was ready to unwind. Hotel rooms and BnBs are surreal spaces — not quite yours not quite someone else’s. I trudged up the stairs and attempted to put the key in the lock, but it wouldn’t go. I tried for several minutes before finally understanding that it wouldn’t ever go.
This is likely the perfect ending to the Broodthaers experiment: holding out the carrot only to pull it back before it can be eaten. Although it must be said that the online commentary indicates that most everyone has enjoyed staying there.
I headed back home on the bus, having left the keys under the rug.
Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through May 15. Hunter College will hold a two-day conference, “Unraveling M.B.” on May 14 and 15. Joe Scanlan’s Airbnb is reportedly booked through June.
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