Matters in Shelter (and Place, Puerto Rico)

Concrete blocks, wood, poly mesh tarp, coffee clay (used coffee grounds, flour, salt).

Photography by Jerry L. Thompson.
Shown in Indicators: Artists on Climate Change
Storm King Art Center
, NY 

Organized by Nora Lawrence.

Matters in Shelter (and Place, Puerto Rico) was conceived in response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastating Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017. Although the humanitarian crisis still occurring on the island was set in motion long before Maria by colonialism and capitalism, it was brought to a new level of urgency by the predictable disaster of that super-powerful hurricane.

My parents are both from Puerto Rico. The tent-like structure of Matters in Shelter is partially derived from my mother’s description of a semillero, or hothouse, used to nurture young coffee seedlings on her family’s coffee farm; the mesh tarp that covers my shelter is blue, reminiscent of the FEMA tarps that still dot the landscape in Puerto Rico. Inside, the floor and platforms are made of concrete blocks.

Concrete has become an increasingly necessary building material as climate change causes hurricanes to become more powerful, but cement production creates five percent of the carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, second only to energy production. Cement is the second-most consumed commodity on Earth, after water. The use of cement directly contributes to its own necessity.

Coffee is entwined with Puerto Rico’s agricultural and colonial legacy. Coffee was also, until Maria, an industry experiencing a revival in the faltering Puerto Rican economy. Some estimate that more than eighty percent of Puerto Rico’s coffee crop, ready for harvest just as Hurricane Maria hit, was devastated by the storm. Coffee farming is labor-intensive; trees take three years to bear fruit and beans are harvested by hand. Coffee also uses a lot of energy in its journey from bean to the disposable paper cup in your hand. While coffee holds a familial importance for me, it’s also a commodity that is problematic, especially at an industrial scale.

In a piece from 2015 called My Lands are Islands, I used a homemade coffee-clay to make works that were inherently unstable. The clay is made only of used coffee grounds, flour, and salt. It is then pressed into molds to dry. For Matters in Shelter, this same clay is now being made in the form of concrete blocks. As the coffee blocks crack and fall apart, I will replenish them. The maintenance component of the work feels analogous to making art, and mirrors my concerns for Puerto Rico’s position in relation to the United States, and what I can do about it—a sort of circumscribed persistence and insistence.

I was drawn to “The Maple Rooms” as a site that redoubles the forms (the rectangle of posts) and themes in the work. Although all of Storm King is a constructed landscape, the relationship of the human and the natural, the planned and the entropic, is especially visible in the Cartesian grid of maples high on the hill at the edge of the woods.

How do you deal with the existential position of rebuilding while knowing there will be another hurricane; when the materials and resources you have are inadequate to—and even contribute to—the problem? Matters in Shelter makes this sisyphean act visible. Though permeable, the structure provides a buffer to the rain, wind, and sun. In this modest protection, it makes space for persisting in the daunting act of repairing and rebuilding, and asks us to consider how we could do it better.