Dialogue Concerning a House’s World System (After Galileo)

September 14, 2015

Text by Dennis Maher.


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Fargo House. City Wall-scape, 2014. © Biff Henrich.

The Fargo House is a contemporary art and architectural oasis located in a formerly derelict 1890s-era Victorian house on Fargo Avenue in Buffalo, NY. Artist and architect Dennis Maher acquired the property in 2009, when it was slated for demolition. Maher has been living in the house and simultaneously transforming it since that time. Excavations have been made into the walls, floors, and ceilings in order to intensify the house’s layers. This has been complemented by the continuous accumulation of salvaged materials and artifacts. The house has become a hybrid of post-industrial construction and archaeological dig; its surfaces and spaces are the patterns of daily living and the instabilities of objects. Within the house, operations of making and unmaking expose a world that is always on the brink of becoming. In 2013, Maher inaugurated the house’s first floor gallery space, which hosts public exhibitions, and initiated a program of workshops, tours, and special events that have established the house as a forum for the urban imagination. What follows is a dialogue between the house, its inhabitant, and a visitor.

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Fargo House. Library Globe Room (detail), 2013. © Biff Henrich.


INHABITANT: We resolved to meet today and discuss as clearly and in as much detail as possible the character and the efficacy of those laws to which your walls, floors, and ceilings, as well as your objects and furnishings do abide. I have heard it stated that it is you—not I—who is the prime mover of your substances. We may begin our discussion by examining the plausibility of that hypothesis: what is the source of your movements, and how great is your force and effect? For this it is necessary to establish the solubility of your constitution, which is exemplified by the invariant as well as temporary “continuities” of your domain.

HOUSE: Do I not demonstrate that walls, floors, and ceilings are inadequately suited to define the dimensions of space? Is it not first proved that walls, floors, and ceilings, being malleable in every way, are no more solid than the flow of matter through my orifices? To wit: a transformation is made only according to some active pulse; when there is a transformation of wall into ceiling, it is not because the wall lacks surface, or because space requires definition, but because the wall is a body, and is coursed by movements that originate beyond its own bounds. Do you not think that in all the corners of my reach, the dust that falls is anything but the thickness of evolving form? Do you imagine that my propensity for change is due to what some have called a restless temperament, or can you see that my mirror is aimed toward a city and its ever-advancing storm? The thing called “wall” is a cloud of many filaments and, like other constellations within my arc, has an inertia charged by relations among constituent parts.

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Entry Vestibule (detail), 2012. © Dennis Maher.

INHABITANT: To tell you the truth, I do not feel impelled by all these reasons to grant the animate nature of your contents. Any house that has a beginning, middle, and end ought not to be called continuous. And I feel no compulsion to grant that the malleability of walls, floors, and ceilings is due to anything more or less than the actions of a dweller who incessantly cuts and collects, finding in the openings and closings the forms you endeavor to evolve. I do not even understand, let alone believe, that the agency of one body can be mistaken for that of another; neither do I conceive that without the dweller’s tools and hands any of this might come to pass.

HOUSE: It seems that you ridicule these reasons, and yet all of them were inscribed long ago within the matter at my core. You, who are an artist and an architect, and for whom philosophies of space might transcend those of physics, seem now to scorn their mysteries.

INHABITANT: I have long held the magic of architecture in high esteem, and that fantasies are nurtured within your midst, I know very well. But these mysteries which caused such follies so as to mistake the “inner” for the “outer” chair, these I do not believe at all. Rather, I know that, in order to prevent the furniture from taking command, there must be a pattern of use and wear which is exposed in the ritualized activities of the dreamer’s waking life. Therefore, I believe that the spaces within which I reside are generated as much through the friction of daily patterns against your edges, as through the projection of a material psyche unleashed.

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Fargo House. Entry Vestibule (detail), 2014. © Ginny Rose Stewart.

HOUSE: I do not want to join the number of those who are too curious about matter’s mysteries. But as to the point in hand, I reply that the dimensions of space are commensurate to the dimensions of mind; and if a more cogent demonstration of the fissure between mind and matter had existed, it would not have been necessary to enlist the aid of your unending repairs.

INHABITANT: You might at least add, “if the fissure was known or if the depth of its chasm had been measured.” Visitor, you would be doing me a great favor by giving me some effective arguments, if there are any clear enough to be comprehended by me.

VISITOR: Not only by you, but by the House too; and not merely comprehended, but already known—though perhaps without your realizing it. And to make them easier to understand, let us take this paper and pen and draw a plan. First we shall mark the boundaries of the House as I remember them, and draw the lines separating room from room. I ask which of these is to your mind the one that determines the difference between container and contained and why?

INHABITANT: I should say the front door, and none other, because the threshold that it delineates is unique, distinct, and determinate. The infinite other lines are constantly shifting, moving in, out, over, and under one another. It seems to me that the choice ought to depend upon that which is unique and definite.

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Fargo House. Bridge Room (looking south), 2012. © Biff Henrich.

VISITOR: We have the front door, then, as determining the difference between container and contained. We now add a rear door at the opposite end of the house, so that between the two doors is a space of which I want to show you the breadth. Therefore, starting from the first door, and proceeding towards the second, tell me how and which way I will go, so as to avoid being absorbed by the space between. Would you determine it according to a succession of events, such as the initial knock, the turn of the knob and the swing of the hinge, or according to the marks that I have drawn here, or…?

HOUSE: According to the events, and not according to the marks, such being already excluded for such purpose.

INHABITANT: Visitor, you should take neither of them, seeing that the events are erratic and
unpredictable, and that the lines, as previously established, are indeterminate. Instead, I encourage you to traverse an alternate path. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine:

A table inside of the House.
When I tell you that this table is also a lamp, and that the lamp is also a wall, and that the wall has many windows, which may be either open or closed, and that, at times, the windows frame furniture, into which the stairs descend, into a cabinet with many drawers, within which other houses are contained, do you not see that the front door of which we speak is the most legible difference within a world of and as borderless as night, at the same time that they indicate to us the persistence of known, recognizable things? Your absorption, Visitor, within this world is a certainty, so much so that other visitors will confirm for you the impossibility of absolute focus. The central dilemma around which we have been circling is to identify who or what is the instigator of this matrix. According to others who have brought their tools to bear upon the House, the inspiration for their actions has had nothing to do with my will as the Inhabitant, but rather with directions imparted to them straight from the walls. “The House made me do it,” they tell me, at which point, as you might surmise, my incredulity rears its head, and, like an astonished and frustrated imp in a fairy tale, I begin to stomp up and down on the floors, pound my fists on the plaster, slam the doors shut, and forcefully shut off and on the lights. When at last I have calmed down and, lifting my head from my hands, have come to survey the brute that surrounds me, I see that there is now a new place to sit, to rest, to dine, to sip my tea, alone or with many others, around a table that the House endeavored to conjure; a table that is also a temple, that is cradled by a dream, that is fueled by the labor of kitchens and dining rooms that are everywhere under construction. My consolation arrives as I take my place at this table among the real and imagined builders who are now smiling, laughing and critiquing the joints. At that moment, I am struck with the certainty that its plane of consumption will never be hungry for feast or company.

HOUSE: Well then, I suggest that we eat.

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Fargo House. Room for the Image and Reflected Image (detail), 2013. © Doug Levere.

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Fargo House. Library Globe Room, 2014. © Biff Henrich.