PORTLAND, Maine — Stacks of old yellow pages, vintage porn mags, handwritten grocery lists — this is the kind of stuff a group of artists discovered when they bid on the contents of a 20-by-10-foot storage unit.
For years, maybe even decades, the owner of that unit had been paying a local storage company hundreds of dollars a month to hold the items, before finally deciding — for whatever reason — to let it all go into default.
The artists, a group called Bare Portland, dug right in. For the next year, they probed the contents of every old notebook, every receipt, every creepy horror movie from the stranger’s VHS collection. They weren’t looking to pawn off someone else’s estate — it was worthless, after all. Instead, they used the stranger’s possessions to tell a story of their own.
That story became a play, and that play opened this weekend. “[Storage]: a Story of Stuff” rearranges the stranger’s life’s possessions in an empty wing within an abandoned Catholic girls school in Portland, a sort of playground where an audience can experience their findings as a unique story.
Catherine Buxton, the show’s producer, said that the experiment was both exhilarating and uncomfortable for the 20 or so artists who worked on the project, raising ethical questions and the uneasy feeling of invading someone’s privacy.
But it also offered valuable insight to a universal condition.
“We all have a relationship with stuff,” Buxton said.
The show explores how a person’s tendency to hang onto things “can become a burden to themselves, or to someone else,” said company member Dana Hopkins, who designed the installation inside the former girls school.
It’s also a commentary on gentrification and displacement, director James Patefield said. Rent in Portland, where the storage unit’s former owner lived, has skyrocketed over the past decade. It can be common, the artists learned through their own research, for people to keep a storage unit to place their stuff in because it’s cheaper than rent. Sometimes, they’ll even live there.
As company member and actor Kerry Anderson put it, “what happens to your stuff after you lose control over it?”
Over the last decade, minimalism has come into fashion again. Marie Kondo, the Japanese organization guru whose teachings have become a recent sensation, told us to throw out everything that doesn’t “spark joy,” and digital technology has found cloud-based storage solutions to contain many of our hobbies, rendering our music collections, bookshelves — and yes, even the pornography — into a nethersphere.
But offloading our possessions onto the digital cloud isn’t a luxury everyone can afford. After the 2008 housing crisis and banking collapse, writes bestselling author Jia Tolentino in a recent essay, it became “newly necessary and desirable to learn to rely on less.”
But for people who live in poverty or trauma, those possessions represent “a lifeline” to their sense of identity and history, or a hope that one day they’ll live somewhere where they can be reunited with them. Or in extreme cases, that can bring about conditions like hoarding, which is recognized as a psychological disorder.
Self-storage facilities may sell or auction storage unit renters’ property after they’ve been in default of payments for 45 days or more, according to state law. One Maine self-storage facility owner said that such defaults occur about 12-15 times a year.
People have various reasons for defaulting on their payments to storage units. Bare Portland said that while they don’t have a means of contacting the previous owner, their impression was that the person willingly let the stuff go.
Still, they recognize that their experiment — dragging someone’s life into public view — brings up issues of privacy and consent. The cluster of thorny social issues was enough to garner the group a $5,000 grant from the Kindling Fund, facilitated by local arts organization SPACE, to support the project.
“We don’t want the exercise to be this voyeuristic impulse of figuring out who this person was,” said Buxton.
The group worked hard to erase all references to the person’s identity. They ran everything through a property lawyer and signed confidentiality waivers, and redacted all mentions of the former owner and anything that could be traced back. The focus is not on the person’s identity, but the life that the person lived.
“How could I possibly describe in any compelling way the stranger whose stuff we’ve inherited?” asked Douglas W. Milliken, one of three Portland writers the group brought in to help write the script. “Not only would that very likely result in a very boring play, it’d also be an awfully rude thing to do to anyone.”
While they insist the play should not be considered a mystery, the process has inevitably brought them closer to the subject.
“We know a lot more [about the person] than we feel like we should,” Buxton said.
“[Storage]” runs through March 21 at the Stevens Square Community Center [former Maine Girls Academy] at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online and cost $10 to $20.