Open house: Foreclosure art meets the whims of the web
His home in foreclosure, Jack Stenner opened the empty property to virtual squatters in an eerie art installation.
Four years ago, Jack Stenner and his wife purchased a one-story house on Twelfth Road, a quiet boulevard not far from the center of this leafy North Florida town.Skip to next paragraph
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The Stenners found much to love about their new home, which had been designed decades earlier by a faculty member at the nearby University of Florida. The living room was roomy and bright, the yard was grassy and sun-dappled, and Mr. Stenner, an assistant professor in digital media at UF, could use the shed out back as a studio.
And yet within a few months, it became apparent the house was less than a perfect fit. Even with only three residents, the kitchen always felt cramped, and contractors had informed Stenner that it would take a lot of cash – and plenty of time – to complete the conversion of the shed.
So in 2007, the Stenners acquired a second house in Gainesville – without selling the first. In retrospect, it seems like a major tactical error. But this was three years ago, before the phrase "subprime mortgage crisis" had entered the national lexicon. The Stenners figured they'd find someone to lease the Twelfth Road house for a year or two, and eventually put the place on the market.
Cue the spectacular burst of the housing bubble.
Within months, the value of the Twelfth Road house, which the Stenners had purchased for around $300,000, had plummeted by tens of thousands of dollars. "We were stuck with two albatrosses around our neck," Stenner remembered recently. "Our life savings were draining away."
Eventually, after months of missed payments and frantic phone calls, the bank informed the Stenners it would foreclose on the Twelfth Road home. Stenner, who is tall and gregarious and has not lost his native Texan twang, does not deny that he and his wife made a mistake by not selling the property when they could. But he places much of the blame for the current foreclosure crisis on banks and appraisers who continued to "jack up" the prices on properties in North Florida, causing "a major disconnect between the value and the actual house," Stenner said. "It's driven by greed, 100 percent. The people in the financial industry, who sit there tweaking their models and manipulating prices and securitizing loans – I don't think they realize that they're affecting real people."
In the summer of 2009, Stenner began mulling over a piece that would explore that "disconnect" – between virtual markets and the real-life destruction that is often left behind. His idea was simple: He would take his own foreclosed house and surrender it to the whims of Web users – the virtual horde – around the world.
Together with his former student and friend Patrick LeMieux, Stenner set about installing motors on the blinds and the front doors of the house; Stenner and Mr. LeMieux then mounted video cameras around the property. Finally, the pair connected the motors and cameras via a snarl of wires to a central hub in the living room.