Break-and-Enter: On the Exhibition ‘Undomesticated’

9 January 2020

By Zach Pearl

in miniature

The mid-century modern across the street, now composed, perfectly centered within the window of the storm door, appeared angelic and fantastically distant in its miniature state. (1) Unassuming power poles and trees were mirrored in the wetness of the street, and they seemed to extend forever, piercing the top and bottom of the frame. Paralyzed there, like a moth under glass, the image of the house was a reality unto itself. All power lines and branches led back to its door, its half-open windows. “Thus, in minuscule, a narrow gate, [had] open[ed] up an entire world,” in which details were all that mattered. (2) The silhouette of a radio, a spider plant descending in pairs. This was all I could focus on as I came face to face with the Intruder.

His eyes were dark and too remote for reflection. Vanishing points. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to return his shrinking gaze. He was shirtless and bedecked in beads of sweat. As the smell of adrenaline filled the vestibule, I could only look away—beyond the imminent—to the emergent tableau of a floating house. Creamed corn siding. Dusty crimson shutters. Hundred-year-old oak trees undergoing a long mitosis. Like me, the house was shipwrecked in time, unable to re-enter the current, the present. Was it a mirror? A dialectic? Was I the house, now defeated and redoubled, contained within a frame?

Neither of us were moving except for the slight swelling of breath. The intruder was eerily still like a mime; he seemed more a fixture than a person. This anti-dynamic rendered our encounter as an object for study, then hesitation, and eventually neurotic meaning-making. He was taunting me with the threat of interpretation.

Abruptly, an angry car horn shot between us. Passing headlights brought surfaces to life and his face strobed into acuity. I instinctively lurched forward and puffed up my chest.

“This is a private residence. You should go.”

I was disarmed by the politeness of my own words. How erudite. How Canadian!

After a thick pause, he simply turned around. His movement was slow and deliberate, as if pivoting to place a heavy bottle on a high shelf. As he fingered the door handle, he muttered something lurid I couldn’t quite decipher. But his breath was heavy and close. Then finally, with a huff, his sinewy frame was gone. Or perhaps, it only receded.

doors and corners

Morbid curiosity settled over me after he left. You would have thought me grateful to see him go. And I was. But gnawing questions gathered on my arms and legs like cobwebs. I groped for the lights in long-neglected rooms of the house, weaving my fingers through intersecting lines of inquiry. The viscosity of darkened corners became a constant source of frustration. My questions were not the typical how the hell did he get in? I knew that already—the door was unlocked. It was late at night; I was high. A cynic might say I had it coming. But I was oddly unconcerned for my own safety. Instead, what haunted me for days afterward were questions of identity and ethos:

Not: Who was he? But: Who was he to me?

Not: What was he thinking? But: What was he thinking that I was also thinking?

Not: Where did he come from? But: Where was he headed after me? And, why?

Like a photograph, our encounter offered a proof of some kind. But it didn’t offer knowledge of his character, his origin, or trajectory. The Intruder was a network of references, but only the image—our particular intersection—was legible to me.

After examining every lock, latching them again and again—as if the act of locking was a cumulative gesture—I came to rest in the reading nook. Unlike the others, this corner of the house is always illuminated, always revealed in artificial light. Its details are not presumptuous. Rather they wear their insides out. The MDF that normally sits behind the smooth façade of drywall is exposed here and decorated in the measurements of its construction. (3) Bold lines of caulk reinforce the essential junctures, and these lines converge behind the back of a sky-blue sofa. From its centre, I can sit and look out onto the vastness of the main floor, my body stationery but my lines of sight infinite. No looking back—only out and through. There is something totalizing about this lookout position; an all-seeing function of the home-as-technology. (4) Such is the power of the corner, to act as “a haven that ensures us one of the things we prize most highly—immobility. It is the sure place, the place next to my immobility” and my antithesis. (5)

Inset_01_Nicolas Fleming_Une causeuse, un distributeur d'eau, un vase.jpg
Image: Une causeuse, un distributeur d’eau, un vase, 2019 by Nicolas Fleming. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

Who is Antithesis? Surely, not the Intruder. He and I are a dialectic. “Antithesis is a wall without a doorway.” (6) It privileges no view. It reciprocates without reflecting any Other. This corner of mine is solely internal—solipsistic. And yet, I still don’t feel alone. Some residue of the Intruder remains, around the corners and forever just beyond my perception. Eventually, lines of sight turn to vectors of escape. I look down to see I am clenching some weathered hardback of Deleuzian theory. But even a minor critique can only operate within the confines of a major literature. (7) The air in the room grows thick with dichotomy, and I sink beneath its weight.

I once saw a movie like this. (8) The viscera of a room come bearing down on a girl, and she clings to the wall in terror as if thrown by some sublime and centrifugal force. She moves slowly and painfully sideways, looking for escape. When she reaches the corner, she just keeps on moving and disappears into the seam.


“A nest-house is never young.” (9) Something ancient and chthonic emanates from its circularity. But in its motif is a holding pattern. Nothing woven in its timeless structure can escape.

Like a windblown thread or piece of debris, the Intruder’s shape has been accidentally stitched into the nest, and now it’s here interminably. Broad shoulders and beads of sweat are etched everywhere in sharp relief: Against the stairway, the bedroom wall, the recesses of the pantry. His profile alternates, moving over and under, inflaming figure and ground until He is the contrast, the keynote. Every object once familiar and intimate is made strange and unhomely in the warp and weft of shadows. There is an informatics of daylight as it reveals and sculpts the environment.

Beside the picture window, sun is drawing the contour of rolled carpets so banal they seem to mummify before my eyes, turn to stone. (10) In the kitchen, an old radio murmurs something about viscosity. (11)

The only safe space is in the atrium, away from doors and corners. I stand beneath the skylight and watch its voyeuristic beams make a spectacle of the ornamental rug. The flowering creatures of its own motif run counter to each other and clockwise in an onto-epistemology. (12) How to know? and how to be? as rotating orbits of inquiry that cross-pollinate. The trillium’s of the outer ring spawn new roots and move toward the centre, across boundaries and species, making kin with all things natal and unformed. (13)

I think about the Intruder as a fluorescent egg sac, and he hatches in my psyche.


“The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration. And since the inhabitant of a shell can amaze us, the imagination will soon make amazing creatures, more amazing than reality, issue from the shell,” (14) says my head from inside an IKEA lamp. (15)

The Intruder is a fantasy of conflict. I invent his ongoing menace around the house to mould my identity in counter-formation, but there is no imminent threat. His spry frame left weeks ago now, and I am spiraling inward—reinforcing borders, becoming anti-Intruder. It’s the moment of origin that I’m after. “The origin makes possible a field of knowledge whose function is to recover it, but always in a false recognition…” (16) I can’t go back to the impossibility of conflict. There is no there there that functions outside or apart from here. So, why contemplate its imaginary spaces?

Would I have the courage to do anything differently? To dare begin a conversation? How far into the house would I be willing to retreat in order to cage, to engage, to marvel at the appearance of my Other from a distance?

Image: Undomesticated, 2019. Koffler Gallery installation. Works by Birthe Piontek, Karen Tam and Iris Häussler. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

the attic

How much does the interior of the home mirror the psyche? All the knick-knacks and souvenirs take on archival significance as indexes of memory-making—the “I” am becoming. Post-Freud it’s easy to imagine what significance might be drawn out from the collected objects of the bedroom, and a hungry libidinous Id is obviously chained to the furnace in the cellar. But, what of the attic? Its mystique emanates not from its hidden contents but from its aerial nature. It hovers above us like an in-house heaven, taunting us with the imaginary of our past and the urge to escape, to seek ‘higher ground’.

“But over and beyond our memories, the house we were born in is physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits. After twenty years, in spite of all other anonymous stairways, we would recapture the reflexes of the ‘first stairway,’ we would not stumble on that rather high step. The house’s entire being would open up, faithful to our own being. We would push the door that creaks with the same gesture, we would find our way to the distant attic. The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hand.” (17)

As I surface, pulling my frame up and over the threshold of the trap door, I emerge into an unwritten world. Miscellaneous furniture is tucked into every nook and cranny, and all of it veiled in heavy white muslin. It would be impossible to distinguish a human body from a draped dresser or coat rack. The liquid code of the textile renders the forms amorphous, faceless. (18)

Could one of these ghostly assemblages be the Intruder? What if he never left? Perhaps this is where he’s taken refuge—in a faceless world, in a moment that hasn’t happened yet. “What often appears as separate entities (and separate sets of concerns) with sharp edges does not actually entail a relation of absolute exteriority at all.” (19)

When I close my eyes, I can only remember his movements. I cannot recall his face.

As I walk, the floorboards moan and make unbecoming sounds. I release plumes of dust into the air, and the whole space is awash in dancing particles. Their fluid tapestry performs tricks on the eye. Trains of muslin shift and writhe, and I am unsettled by their shadow play. Although they are only ‘things’, they seem capable of performance. They do not possess but perform the makings of an attic. “Agency is not an attribute but the ongoing reconfigurings of the world.” (20)

Downstairs, I hear the ominous sound of the shower turning on. No one is in it. The wind picks up and rattles the house with the low drone of an elevator shaft—the technicity of a constructed abyss. (21)

I leap backwards down the ladder and slam the trap door shut. I bound to the bathroom and throw back the shower curtain. Only my own hairs are collecting in the drain. They are wet and evasive. Above me, I can hear the faintest thrum of footsteps.

inset_03_Gwenaël Bélanger_Breakdown_2008-2013_ Photo credit_©Sébastien Lapointe_2.jpg
Image: Breakdown, 2008-2013 by Gwenaël Bélanger. Photo by Sébastien Lapointe.

house and universe

“So, you say this was a break-and-enter?”

“Not exactly. The door was open.”

“Open or unlocked?”

“Open to the universe maybe, but formally shut.”

“Okay. But he threatened you, right?”

“Do you mean physically or existentially?”

The police officer scowls, remembering why he hates this part of the job. Then he adopts a strange and technical smile.

“Sir. I’d really like to help you out here. But, like I said over the phone: Without any evidence of forced entry or a perceived threat to property or safety, we can’t consider this a case of ‘home invasion’.”

“Well. He definitely entered without my permission. And, he definitely broke some things, though you can’t really see the damage.”

“How do you expect me to document that?” the cop says as he cocks an eyebrow.

“Look,” I said plaintively, “the real issue is that he’s still here. He never really left. I saw him move towards the front door, but I can’t be sure he went outside.”

“But you said that this incident happened several weeks ago.”

“It did.”

“And you only came face-to-face with him once.”

“That I’m aware of, yes.”

The cop blinks stiffly.

“Listen, Son. I’m not sure exactly what you’re trying to tell me is going on here. But I don’t think I can be of much help.”

“Do you daydream, Officer?”

“Excuse me?”

“I take it back. I do think the Intruder left… But when he did, he didn’t take all of him with him. And since then, I daydream a lot. In fact, I seem to be dreaming all the time. Just the other day I looked out the window and saw the strangest thing—a disintegrating house! (22) It was whirling around in the air like a flower petal, and it was breaking apart in circles. Even stranger though, was that it seemed to reveal more and more of its structure even as it disassembled. The violence of exposure…It looked a lot like this house, actually.”

Suddenly, the police officer goes grey and sombre. He begins looking around, inspecting the walls and the furniture in the room. Then he says: “Sometimes the house grows and spreads so that, in order to live in it, greater elasticity of daydreaming, a daydream that is less clearly outlined, [is] needed.” (23)

“And the Intruder caused this?”

“The Intruder is a fantasy. But the House is a Universe—one full of ‘agential intra-activity in its becoming’ (24) and ‘things’ going bump in the night.”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“Look, Son. There’s really nothing more I can do for you. The locks on your doors are working fine. Nothing is missing or damaged. Call me when you have something concrete, m’kay?”

Image: Undomesticated, 2019. Koffler Gallery installation. Works by Lucy Howe, Mary Anne Barkhouse and Yannick Pouliot. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

With that he got up from the sofa and placed his card on the table. Oddly, rather than leaving an impression of his body in the cushion, the upholstery seamed to bloat and billow outward in a mutating gesture. (25) I stared at it in quiet bafflement for a while until the sound of his boot heels on the driveway broke the trance. Then I heard the engine turn over and dissolve into the fuzz of the autumn air.

After I was sure he’d gone, I went to the storm door and looked out through the frame for a long time. For who or what I’m not sure. The neighbour’s house, with its peeling crimson shutters, was no longer a static image. Gusts of wind carried leaves across its darkened windows like antennae feeling for prey. The whole scene seemed less stoic now, more porous and fragile in its floating world. I tried to make out more silhouettes in the windows through the pale haze of the afternoon. Vaguely, mistily, I could see something like a figure looming in the picture window. They were motionless—statuesque and intentional. Somehow, I was certain that they were looking back at me, into me. I do not remember if my mouth was open or closed.

  1. Kevin Yates, Camp Street, 2013. Bronze, painted wood.
  2. Gaston Bachelard. The Poetics of Space. Maria Jolas, Trans. 1958. Beacon Press, 1969, p.155.
  3. Nicholas Fleming, Mini Bungalows, 4/8 & 7/8, 2018, Drywall, latex paint, varnish, Astroturf, MDF.
  4. David Wills. Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 11.
  5. Bachelard, p. 137.
  6. Roland Barthes. S/Z: An Essay. Richard Miller, Trans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974, p. 65.
  7. See “What Is A Minor Literature?” in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 16-28.
  8. Julie Favreau, Chambre, 2009, Video, 5:21 minutes.
  9. Bachelard, p. 99.
  10. Valérie Kolakis, The square side of a diagonal supported by a framework or a lumpy painted rug, 2011-2019, Concrete soaked rugs.
  11. Nicolas Fleming, Boom Box 01, 2018, Boom box, drywall, epoxy, latex paint, acrylic medium, glue.
  12. See Karan Barad’s concept of “agential realism” and her call for ontoepistemological frameworks in science and technology in Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Duke University Press, 2007).
  13. Hannah Claus, interlacings, 2015, looped projected animation, pine needles, 3:36 minutes. Animation Technician: Scott Benesiinaabandan.
  14. Bachelard, p. 107.
  15. Gunilla Joesphson, Missus Sisyphus (Funeral), 2019, Video, 15:09 minutes.
  16. Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (1977) in The Foucault Reader. Paul Rabinov, Ed. Pantheon Books, 1984, p. 79.
  17. Bachelard, p. 14-15.
  18. Birthe Piontek, Ghost, 2016, from the series Abendlied. Laminated vinyl.
  19.  Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”, Signs, vol. 28, no. 3, Gender and Science: New Issues (Spring 2003), pp.803.
  20. Ibid., pp. 818.
  21. Lewis Kaye, Elevations, 2019, Site-specific six-channel audio installation, 5:13 minute loop.
  22.  Gwenaël Bélanger, Breakdown, 2008-2013, Animated 3-D video, 4:01 minutes.
  23. Bachelard, p. 51.
  24. Barad (2003), pp. 818.
  25. Lucy Howe, Untitled (Chair), 2009, Mixed media.

Undomesticated ran from September 18 to November 17, 2019 at Koffler Gallery at Artscape Youngplace, Toronto, ON.

**Update May 2021**

To all artists and cultural workers: we are calling on the Koffler Centre of the Arts to divest from Zionist funding, specifically the UJA Federation that enables violent settler colonialism in Palestine. Please join us in taking this pledge to refuse invitations from the Koffler until it:

– Divests from the UJA and other explicitly Zionist organizations that undermine the Palestinian struggle for freedom

– Acknowledges the ongoing harm caused by their complicity in Zionist artwashing

– Publicly states that they will no longer discriminate against artists with anti-Zionist politics and expresses support for the decolonization of Palestine


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Feature Image: interlacings, 2015 by Hannah Claus. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid courtesy of Koffler Gallery.