Home as Portal: The Wandering House
The roving public art project by Cecilia Cornejo Sotelo weaves together stories by community members in southern Minnesota—creating a fractal of perspectives on home and belonging
The bright teal ice fishing house with its domed roof is quaint, playful, inviting. It is a hybrid, morphing object—at once makeshift shelter, recording booth, public art, and private confessional. The vibrant colors are reminiscent of the floating coastal homes of Chiloé Island in the artist Cecilia Cornejo Sotelo’s home country of Chile. The structure of The Wandering House, itself, familiar to many Minnesotans (yet, notably, not all.) With its reclaimed stained glass windows and aesthetic nod to a regional pastime, it seems at home, enviably inconspicuous even in the small cities and rural downtown streets in which it suddenly pops up, welcoming individuals in each community to share what “home” means to them. The invitation, however, is a deceptively simple one. The thoughtful prompts Sotelo offers to engage respondents while inside the house are weighty, thick with meaning, calling for a far deeper exploration and excavation:
“When does a place become a home?” “I know I’m home when…” “Are there any other events from the past two years that have changed your relationship to ‘home’ and to your ‘sense of belonging’? For example, consider the killing of George Floyd, the ongoing debate over gun control, climate change, or any other matter that affects you.”
I sit silent in the recording booth for a long while, thoughts of home-places, home-making, home-scaling and (dis)belonging swirl hot in my chest, lodge in my throat.
Two years into our persisting peri-pandemic realities, and amid ongoing social and political upheavals, a consideration of home feels deeply salient and fraught, if not a bit tender…fragile. Home may be a sanctuary or the most dangerous place to be. But as Sotelo attests, we all have something to say about what “home” means to us. That is universal. Home is a material reality, imagined, a metaphor—a physics and a poetics. Home is a discursive construct as much as it is a physical object, a thing that comes to matter profoundly, and a cherished state of being and be-longing that is often inextricably tied to spatial and temporal affinities on various scales: the body, family, neighborhood, community, city, town, nation, homelands, and far beyond.
Sotelo first began The Wandering House project in 2018 in her home of Northfield, MN. There, The Wandering House engaged long-time Northfielders who had called the area home for generations, as well as youth, students, immigrants, and passersby from every walk of life. The sound booth anonymously recorded the voices of participants. Their responses were later used in an ancillary embroidery project where participants stitched sentences from the previously recorded audio. The embroidered panels were then made into a quilt by textile artists and expert quilters from the community. Additionally, Sotelo created a sound collage with excerpts from the audio recorded in The Wandering House. A similar community-centered process was used in the town of Lanesboro in 2019.
The Northfield and Lanesboro sound collages weave distinct voices overlaid on scenic video of each town’s landscape. In an excerpt of the Northfield sound collage, a 91-year-old World War II veteran lauds the GI bill, while a Mexican immigrant shares the financial need that brought them to Minnesota. In another clip, references are made to “Minnesota nice” and the “whiteness” of the community, while another participant longs for local queer community and connection to queer elders they can see themselves in. A husband shares a dream of returning home to Mexico with their wife to live by the sea because, ultimately, “Aquí somos pasajeros”—”We’re just passing through.” Here we are reminded that “home” is also about thresholds and the passage between our inner and outer worlds—self and other. Home is where we return to ourselves and cultivate our inner world.
The soft, roving images of the Northfield landscape visually underscores the deeply intimate meanings of home shared by the participants via audio. Sotelo’s sound collages are visually, sonically, and textually rich. Listening in, one hears ambient sounds, distinct voices, cadences, poignant responses shared in both English and Spanish that seem to flow into one another, weaving meaning between them.
The Wandering House audio recordings from Northfield and Lanesboro were featured in Sotelo’s exhibition H O M E ~ exploring, mending, reimagining in the summer of 2022 at the Rochester Art Center. The audio is also part of a sound mapping project still under development, spanning years and various locations in Minnesota. The Wandering House website now hosts a “Virtual Wandering House” where new and previous participants located in Northfield or Lanesboro can record a new response reflecting on how notions of home have changed. The Wandering House is currently in Red Wing, MN. This marks The Wandering House’s last stop (for now) as Sotelo begins an artist residency at the Anderson Center and engages the local Red Wing community around their conceptions of home and belonging.
Sotelo’s The Wandering House and her wider body of interrelated work may be considered ethnographic, in so much as it is faced with what anthropologist Clifford Geertz described as “a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render.”1 The Wandering House aims to grasp the myriad, ever-shape-shifting meanings of “home.” Sotelo’s iterative, community-led rendering of these meanings cultivates a process in which subsequent objects, interactions, (con)texts, archives, and audiovisual material around conceptions of “home” and “belonging” are co-created and co-constituted. The resulting work is prolific and generative as is the social practice that shapes it.
The artist’s work is steeped in social practice, centering community members as creators of the process and its outcome, speaking for and about themselves. “It always begins with community,” Sotelo says. For her, the process of working alongside community is much more important than the final product. Her recent exhibition at the Rochester Art Center featured The Wandering House, and felt like an exhibition of an ongoing, ever-evolving process rather than of tidy, finished work. The work roams, disperses, gathers itself, only to branch out again onto varying scales with a kind of fractal logic—from mere inches of embroidery thread to an ice fishing shanty to Sotelo’s documentary film Ways of Being Home (2017) that predates it all, nesting together the home-making and home-scaling of Mexican immigrants in Northfield and their families in Maltrata Veracruz, Mexico. Excerpts of the documentary were shown in early October at the Anderson Center in Red Wing.
Calling forth ideas around home always already implicates critical considerations about inclusion and exclusion, what it means to belong, and whose sense of home really matters in a social, political, and economic landscape marked by asymmetries of power and privilege. While not explicitly about immigration—though, movement, migration and (im)mobility are all a part of how we shape home) —The Wandering House and Sotelo’s broader project does work to center the perspectives and experiences of home of Latinx community members. Reflecting on her social practice and working with community members, Sotelo states, “We’re not ‘giving’ anyone voice as artists. People already have a voice.” That voice reverberates in the sound collages, sonic landscapes, and in the sentences stitched across lengths of quilting fabric. The Wandering House records these voices, emerging as a generative site as the house travels—a rhizomatic portal, holding worlds of meaning about home.
Cecilia Sotelo Cornejo’s The Wandering House is on view at The Anderson Center at Tower View in Red Wing, MN through October 31, 2022. >> more information