Wiebe ’14 Confirms Balls of Steel, Raises Dialogue Through Performative Sculpture

For those of you who think that walking to Usdan without a parka and boots is ‘braving’ the [pseudo] snowstorm, try spending your next couple days and nights in the wooden structure pictured above. Well, you don’t have to, because Will Wiebe 14′ has already taken on the task. If you happen to walk by Russell House in the next couple days, you might notice a conspicuous, wooden tent on the front lawn, and you might see Will Wiebe all cozied up inside. Wiebe built the tent for his sculpture class, but the project was not complete until yesterday afternoon when he moved in for the remainder of the week and the weekend.

This performative sculpture raises dialogue surrounding the ideas of land ownership, privilege, independence, and property ownership. The independence exercised in the execution of this piece—the fact that Wiebe built the tent himself and set it down without consulting the university—raises interesting questions about our relationship with physical space.

Ben Doernberg ’13, like a true WesKid, emphatically identified a controversial aspect of this project: how it violates the code of non-academic conduct, which states that “Symbolic structures (e.g., displays, statues, booths, banners, shanties, tents) must be approved by the dean of students according to standard procedures.” This controversy brings one to ask, are we no longer allowed to inhabit homes that we have built with our own hands? Can we not choose where we live? Do modern societal notions contradict basic notions of freedom and independence? Wiebe would argue that they do. His bold decision to bypass administrative approval supports his idea of reclaiming space and exercising control, as a free individual, over that space. His self-reliance throughout the project, and his unabashed claiming of the space, speaks to the issue of obtaining a home in this economic climate, how modern society makes it so difficult to exercise the basic human right of obtaining shelter through simple means.

This project has a profound historical significance as well. The location of the tent is essential, because Russell House, with its grandiose pillars that just scream colonial American bourgeoisie, is, according to Wiebe, “a placeholder for the original displacement of the Native American population occasioned by the establishment of Middletown.” Wiebe brings to light the disturbing reality that all of this land we inhabit and ‘own’ has been obtained by means of relentless massacre and theft. Before the pilgrims arrived in the new world, Native Americans were living peacefully on the land, and their society had no concept of land ownership—the earth was beyond human grasp and could not be owned. After early Americans began to rape, pillage, and steal Native villages, they called it American land, and instituted the concept of ownership in a place where no such idea had ever been present. The act of building and inhabiting a structure on university owned property raises questions about the nature of property ownership. Should Wiebe’s claiming of that space be prohibited or allowed? How can the university and the greater Middletown community own stolen land? Does Wiebe now ‘own’ the land underneath his tent just because he decided to set it down in that spot?

Above all, this project is an impressive display of grit. Though Wiebe had not anticipated the snowstorm, he decided to pursue his vision and go through with it. The tent is sealed and insulated, but I can only imagine how cold it will get at night. When asked about the possibility of freezing to death, Wiebe responded, “I’ll be fine. I’ve got some water, a flashlight, and a sleeping bag.”

I am a little concerned that he didn’t mention food in that list, but hey, a lack of nourishment just adds to the stew of social commentary.

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6 thoughts on “Wiebe ’14 Confirms Balls of Steel, Raises Dialogue Through Performative Sculpture

  1. goatmilk

    This is awesome – we’ve certainly got a very manicured, controlled space here. It opens the same dialogues as the chalking debate but puts them into a deeply historical scope.

  2. Jwow

    This is pretty awesome and I agree with the sentiments. One comment though:

    The question “[d]o modern societal contradict basic notions of freedom and independence?” presupposes that “freedom” and “independence” are concepts that exist external to this debate about space and ownership; in fact, the opposite is the case. The belief that “freedom” and “independence” are natural rights grew out of an Early Modern intellectual climate that used these ideas to rationalize and justify colonialism, racism, and institutionalized oppression. There is nothing “basic” about these concepts, which any thorough look into their genealogies will show.

    Once again, that’s not to say I disagree with this RuHo land reclamation–I totally endorse it. I just think it’s important to know that the idea of “exercising one’s freedom” is no less complicit in “the original displacement of the Native American population” than Samuel Russell himself was.

    1. Will

      Arguably I (the artist) didn’t write this piece and the aforementioned is not a quote of my own–it’s the interpretation of shawarma. I’d encourage you to get in contact with me and learn about the inspiration and motive behind my project.

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