Art

Strangely Unsettling Photographs of Windowless Houses

An artist duo’s digitally doctored images of houses without windows prompt reflections on the struggle to maintain privacy in an age of oversharing.

Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, “Blind House 10, Goshen, NY” (2015) (detail view) (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — An old proverb holds that eyes are the windows to the soul. A collection of images by Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, on display in  Blind House: Utopia and Dystopia in the Age of Radical Transparency, seems to extend this sentiment to architectural spaces, making a strong visual argument that the windows are the eyes of the house. On view at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery, each of these 17 photographs of houses in within commuting distance of New York City has been digitally altered to seamlessly mask the windows. These windowless houses come across as lacking souls — not just blind, as the title suggests, but eyeless.

We take features for granted, unaware of how the removal of a single feature transforms the familiar to the uncanny until we encounter, say, the occasional person without eyebrows. Missing parts of the body are unsettling, because they represent a variance from some kind of natural design. There is something similarly unsettling about seeing the excision of a common feature of built spaces. Even as far back as caves, human habitats included some kind of opening that enables a line of sight. A wall text by artist and gallery director Amanda Krugliak frames the artists’ choice to present windowless houses as “a metaphor for a new paradigm of opacity — a type of rigorous discretion, the inversion of glass house modernism.” Krugliak correlates the necessity of this total blackout in response to the ever-increasing pitch of digital disclosure — both what we volunteer through social media, and what is taken from us without our permissions. We may be conscious of being seen when we stand before our windows, but we are less inclined to consider who is peeking inside when we’re not there.

Blind House at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery (installation view)
Blind House (installation view)

The blind houses lining the gallery walls surround a sculptural representation of high-disclosure culture: a clear plastic greenhouse structure, just large enough to accommodate an elementary school-style chair with attached desk and a corrugated metal trash can. On the elementary school desk is a red Ventura typewriter and a sheet of instructions, which directs visitors to read the description of utopia typed out by the previous visitor, then throw it away in the trash can and type their own description of utopia. Visitors are permitted to explore the trash can for discarded utopias.

Blind House (detail view)

“My utopia is a bridge over the ocean,” says the missive threaded through the typewriter when I sit down to take a look. The author has strung the sentence out so it reads vertically down the page, one letter per line. This is one of many sentiments I uncover that throw off a whimsical-idealistic college-student vibe, but I am reminded of another proverb cautioning about people in glass houses and the throwing of stones — and anyway, the real point of the exercise seems to be to underscore how easily utopias are made and discarded, or perhaps that one utopia can only exist at the expense of another.

The term “radical transparency” is thrown around the exhibition in connection with this central installation work, and I am reminded of the 2013 Dave Eggers novel, The Circle, which neatly predicts and hyperbolizes the cost of total visibility. In it, a cult-like tech company introduces a product called SeeChange, a wearable camera that provides real-time video documentation of the life of its wearer. The novel’s central character, Mae, opts to wear one of these cameras full-time — a process called “going transparent.” The SeeChange experiment quickly spirals into a dystopian surveillance culture that ends up costing Mae most of her closest relationships.

Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, “Blind House 29, Slate Hill, NY” (2016) (detail view)
Blind House, detail view

Martin and Muñoz are obviously fans of dystopia, having last exhibited work in 2011 at UMIH Gallery in the form of a series of odd, morbid snow globes, which went on to become an internet sensation. These dark little microcosms offer visual metaphors for the kind of tension that exists within a system that is at once closed and transparent. You can observe every detail within each snow globe’s moody little weather system, but you can’t touch it. Blind House seems to suggest pushback against the access to our personal lives that we offer the world via social media, but privacy can come at its own cost: when you brick over the windows, perhaps no one can look in on you, but it also becomes impossible to see outside your own four walls.

Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, “Blind House 19, Milford, PA” (2015) (detail view)

Blind House continues at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery (202 S. Thayer Street, Ann Arbor, MI) through May 3. The curator of the gallery is Amanda Krugliak.

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