The Newspaper House - Work in Progress
Participatory public art project
Installation – Gillett Square, Hackney, London - March 2008

Mixed media -used newspapers, plastic cable ties, wood
Dimensions: 400cmx480cmx620cm
Produced by Creative City.

Text by Metin Senergüç - February 2008

Making the invisible visible
Newspaper House is an interactive, participatory and multi-disciplinary public art project by Sümer Erek. The project, implemented in three phases, is about building a house out of used newspapers.

In the first phase, the newspaper house is built out of wood (an outer house) based on an architectural plan. In its second phase, the shell like house dismantled and transported to Gillet Square in Hackney and rebuilt there. At the square, the outer-house is filled with newspapers brought and rolled up by the public. The final phase is complete when the construction is finished and the wooden 'shell' is taken away revealing the newspaper house.

Newspaper House, which develops at different time scale and space, requires also different structural and conceptual analysis. Such an analysis, in turn, requires understanding the notion of 'house' which keeps reappearing in Erek's works. This notion can perhaps be seen as his reaction to having lived more than half of his life away from the land of his birth. But to see the notion of 'house' as a nostalgic longing for the motherland would be misleading. Especially in "Upside Down House" (2001), the 'house' is used not just as a location but also as an existential niche, home and a metaphor for identity and belonging.

In the Newspaper House project, Erek takes 'house' a step further. He turns the 'Newspaper House' into both a shelter and a workshop, where he creates his art. At the same time it becomes a finished artwork and a 'gallery', in which spectators see the artwork. Perhaps this is why, when he speaks about this project, Erek says: "One of my main aims with this project is to share it with participants who are not artists and to embrace this process as natural as one lives his daily life." In this context, Newspaper House is conceptually positioned somewhere between the private and the public and the real and the fictitious.

Initially, Erek gives the impression of creating a copy of the outer house by filling it with rolled up newspapers. But we can see that the mass inside grows slowly and takes a shape that is independent of the outer shell, almost an enigmatic form. As the architectural structure of the outer house is slowly lost behind the inner mass, it transforms conceptually into a more specific form. Inner-house turns into an abstract silhouette of the outer. As the tangible presence of the outer house starts to disappear from sight and the inner-house takes shape of newspapers, the mind is set free to roam. In other words, once the visual completeness of the outer-house removed, the slanted world of perception appears.

The process of building a house of newspaper inside an outer-shell, which is then removed to reveal the inner structure, is akin to digging a sarcophagus out of the earth after millennia of burial. This ritualistic removal shifts the focus from the outer to the inner, from the visible to the invisible. It reveals a delicate and fragile but also flexible character of inner structure, which is full of new meanings. But what does Erek want to tell us?

While we expect a treasure to come out of the shell, we are met by a world woven by newspapers. Does he want to show us a 'treasure of knowledge'? In archaeological excavations, we get more information from the daily, mundane objects rather than those covered with precious jewels. It may be true that the news and pictures inside those tonnes of newspapers show us all we want to know about this society. But since we cannot read them all one by one, it is not easy to understand their meaning. Can the meaning that hides between the form and the content be found in the Newspaper House?

The inner house that is revealed by taking out the hard and protective outer layer is like the soul that has left the body. Moreover, this soul moves in the opposite direction to the body it has just left. While the outer house has got carefully defined borders, the inner house, which is now in the mould of the emptiness, is like an indefinable living body pregnant with meaning. The outer house belongs to reality, the other to phantasm. The former embodied in positive shapes, the latter in negative. One is male, the other female.

In this age of information, newspapers inform as much as create disinformation. As such, the newspaper is amongst the most important tools of those in power. Erek's rolled up newspapers, in a way, point to their paradoxical character. The information that newspapers contain is still there, but impossible to read anymore as they've transformed into building 'bricks'.

Participants are also asked to write their own news inside the papers before rolling them up into 'bricks'. Like the message in a bottle, the participants write their desires and wishes and add them to the mortar of the house. This symbolic act appeals to participants' sense of ownership. And it's as if, in this age where the individuals feel powerless, ineffective and voiceless, the project wants to tell them that, "everyone's thoughts and wishes are important, one day they can turn into parts that change the whole". As such it reminds us that the paradoxical nature of information - it's both positive and negative use - is tied to the perception of the individual.

As the physical link between the inner and outer houses is broken in the third phase, the conceptual link between the two also moves into another plane. The outer shell that serves the purpose of a mould is left behind like a dead body. Newspaper House, on the other hand, continues to exist like a death mask that modelled on the face of a corpse. What has to be underlined here is that this mask is not made of a hard material but an organic one: that's to say, neither the body nor the mask is eternal. With his choice of material, Erek gives life to mask, too. Thus, the Newspaper House starts a new life by the separation of the two structures that exist where the visible and the invisible, the alive and the dead, the past and the present, the specific and the abstract, the hard and the soft and the real and the imaginary co-exist.

The process of change that turns trees to paper, paper to a building and the recycling of the paper also reminds us the dialectical process of nature. From this perspective, we realise that the wooden shell that used as 'mould' was not 'the first'; neither the newspaper house that slowly appeared is 'the last'. Newspaper House turns into a monument dedicated to the tension between the beginning and the end, between the nature and the human.

If we re-read Walter Benjamin's aphorismatic warning: "The work is the mask of its conception", we may believe that Erek is trying to turn this process around in his Newspaper House project. He first builds the mask, then places the ideas within it. He starts from the tangible and defined to the unknown and the obscure. He first touches, and then he looks. Instead of looking the object that he holds, he fills it up from inside to make it visible.

Seeing is not only linked to the action of the retina. It is also related to social permissions and limits. In other words, seeing with one's brain is a normative action. In this sense, Erek points out that excesses lead to pollution, which, in turn, leads to a kind of blindness. He builds a mould to show the emptiness. Then he fills this emptiness and discards the mould. Throughout the realisation of the Newspaper House project, which is like Sisyphean challenge, he reminds us that we tend to forget things that we don't see and that the things that are always in our line of vision could, after a while, become invisible.