Latest Posts


(For its 31st edition, the SXSW Film & TV Festival will host nine days of screenings from March 8-16, 2024. Check out Chris Reed’s Secret Mall Apartment movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Urban renewal programs—most often code for gentrification—always arrive with much fanfare, touted as the solution to all kinds of societal problems. More frequently, they allow greedy developers, abetted by certain politicians, the opportunity to make a lot of money while destroying old neighborhoods and displacing longtime residents in favor of a newer, more moneyed, class. They solve nothing, and in many cases create different issues, which then require additional “renewal.” Rinse and repeat.

In his latest documentary, Secret Mall Apartment, director Jeremy Workman (The World Before Your Feet) turns his attention to one kind of response to the ravages of new construction, following what happened when a group of 8 artists decided to stage an artistic protest of a very unique kind. From 2003 to 2007, led by Michael Townsend—a professor at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), underground installation artist, and one of the founders of the Tape Art movement—they created and furnished a hidden apartment space inside of the Providence Place Mall, which opened in 1999. In and of itself a part of that era’s redevelopment plan, the structure also motivated the eradication of nearby buildings to make way for condominiums. And who lived in those buildings? Many a struggling artist.

And so it seems more than appropriate for these folks to discover a space inside the new mall—the result of the odd angles forced by the river below—and make it both a piece of secret performance art and a lounge. Over the next four years, they little by little bring more and more things, including sofas, lights and a TV, to soften the harsh cement walls. If nothing else, it’s amazing that they were able to get away with it for so long, right under the nose of security.

Thanks to the tiny lo-fi video camera that Townsend used to document everything, Workman has a vast archive to pull from for the narrative, bolstered by present-day interviews and, eventually, a recreation of the apartment inside a production space. We are treated to many details of the risky endeavor, all the while gaining an appreciation for the technical and artistic ingenuity of our protagonists. They are a highly skilled bunch.

And an altruistic one. Workman takes time to show us the mostly volunteer efforts this collective has undertaken over the years in hospitals, brightening the days of ailing children. They also travel to New York in the decade after the September 11 attacks to create temporary memorials around the city to honor those who died. Both kinds of work are done by making figures with colored tape, Townsend’s specialty.

Beyond the story of the apartment—and it was eventually discovered and closed, though Townsend was the only one caught and subsequently charged—the movie discusses the nature of creativity and the meaning of art, including asking what role both should play in our lives. Should there always be a higher purpose to the work of artists, or are installations worth celebrating for their own sake? No doubt everyone will have a different answer, but what is not in question is that life without any kind of artistic expression is as dull as a concrete mall’s bare walls.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2024 SXSW Film Festival; Secret Mall Apartment, Jeremy Workman

Liked it? Take a second to support Hammer to Nail on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

Post a Comment

Website branding logosWebsite branding logos