‘Secret Mall Apartment’ A Hit At Sneak Preview

Tape artist Michael Townsend was really enjoying himself last night. Not only was he excited that the new documentary “Secret Mall Apartment” would finally be seen by a hometown crowd, but this sneak preview at the Providence Public Library was basically a homecoming party with old friends, including the rest of the “Mall Eight.” Lots of hugging. (We understand that the party continued afterward at some local watering hole . . . or maybe some secret hole hole where they had tapped into the keg lines of the neighboring EvilCo Bar.)

Mr. Townsend seems incapable of bragging about the pivotal role he played in initiating the incredible, four-year, art installation that is the subject of the film. He and the rest of the cohort were never motivated by fame, proof of which is that they all kept this a secret for four years! Townsend noted last night that when the news story first broke in 2007, he had received many offers from filmmakers, but he had turned them all down.

Then he met director Jeremy Workman. They clicked and Townsend entrusted him with the 24 hours of video footage he had been shooting the entire time. That this story took so long to be made into a movie is proof that Townsend wanted it to be good and needed it to be about more than just a hilarious prank.

But make no mistake, much of this film is hilarious, and not just for locals. This is a wildly entertaining movie and I will be recommending it to friends and family who have never been to Providence.

Having said that, locals will get an additional kick out of the archival footage of Providence before and during the mall construction featuring pols with shovels and local newsreaders. We are also treated to one developer’s uncomprehending look around the art and music collective known as Fort Thunder.* Townsend was part of that group and it was their fight against the gentrification of the neighborhood and ultimate eviction from that particular area that got him thinking . . . the new mall had started it all.

Townsend had already been creating extraordinary installations around town — even making them hard to find —  like The Tunnel. This involved sculptures of human shapes suspended in a drippy train tunnel — creepy and  unsettling, like the figures in Pompeii. He later developed his tape art; the scenes from his work at Hasbro Children’s Hospital is a highlight.

Other talking heads in the film include: Brian Chippendale, Xander Marro, Jim Drain, Umberto Crenca, and Townsend’s current partner, Emily Ustach (seen here), who shares some revealing tidbits. (Spoiler alert: Michael is not motivated by money.)

Congratulations to director Jeremy Workman who brought the original artists up front at the end for a Q & A. Asked how they kept the secret for so long: Andrew Oesch said his parents only just found out about it at a film festival. Greta Sheing?” My parents still don’t know about it.”


*Unknown whether the developer bothered to check out the 2006 exhibition “Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the present” at the RISD Museum. ProJo arts writer Bill Van Siclen wrote:

. . .  despite protests from both the arts and preservation communities — and despite rising national attention that culminated in the selection of the Fort Thunder-based performance group Forcefield for the 2002 Whitney Biennial — the cluster of historical mill buildings that housed Fort Thunder and several other artist-run spaces — was torn down to make way for the Eagle Square shopping mall.


Big thanks to Joe Wilson and Micah Salkind of the Providence Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism for putting this together. Mr. Workman promises that more screenings will take place in town at some point, in some theater, but Mr Townsend is still banned from mall property. We have made our feelings known: Pardon the man and screen the movie in the mall cinema!


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