Two decades ago, eight artists moved into a ‘secret’ room in the Providence Place mall. Now there’s a film about it. - The Boston Globe (2024)

As in, the mall?

In the footage, mall “resident”/public artist Michael Townsend reveals he and his artist friends have been “methodically” moving into the mall, where they have created a secret, furnished apartment.

“Really? That’s hilarious,” the employee says.

They ask where they might shower. How to get mail delivered.

“If we can get mail here,” Townsend says, “then we’ve done it.”


But done what? Pulled off the ultimate prank? Completed a surreal public art performance standing against corporatization and gentrification?

Exactly what eight local artists set out to accomplish in 2003 by moving into the Providence Place mall is the crux of Workman’s documentary, which premiered at SXSW and screens Sunday at Somerville Theatre, as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston.

Two decades ago, eight artists moved into a ‘secret’ room in the Providence Place mall. Now there’s a film about it. - The Boston Globe (1)

In southern New England, the mall apartment has near-mythic status. If you’re old enough to remember the early aughts, or were gripped by the “99% Invisible” podcast episode “Accidental Room,” you likely know the basics about the artists who built a secret apartment in a 750-square-foot space in the Providence mall.

They had furniture, including a large sofa, not to mention a PlayStation, TV, waffle-maker. They moved some two tons of cinder blocks, bought at Home Depot, to build an apartment wall. In 2007, mall security discovered the apartment; Townsend was caught and banned.

“The Mall Eight,” as Workman calls them, had been approached over the years by various filmmakers, but many “wanted to tell the sensational story: ‘Oh my God, they lived in a mall for four years!’ — which is incredible, don’t get me wrong. I love that,” Workman told the Globe. “But I was intrigued that this story is like a Trojan horse.


“It’s about living your life with meaning,” he said. “About art and the purpose of art, gentrification, the idea of public versus private space.”

Q. You might get this from other southern New Englanders — but I’ve been interested in this story for so long.

A. So many people from the Boston and Rhode Island area are like: “Wait, what? I know this story.”

Q. Exactly. So how did this come together?

A. Very randomly. I was in Athens, Greece, at a building covered with tape art — this incredible whimsical piece. I was blown away. I sought out the artist: It was Michael Townsend.

We became fast friends. One night he told me this crazy story. It stuck in my brain. What I didn’t know at the time was Michael had been approached over the years by upwards of 25 filmmakers. I think [the artists] understood my approach. I had their back. I was thinking about them as artists and not just: “Tell me what you ate at the food court.” Which, again, I love — but they’d gotten a lot of that.

Q. You saw the apartment as a “Trojan horse” to explore deeper themes. How did you start out seeing it, and how do you see it now?

A. It kept changing in front of my eyes. At one point, it was a “Jackass”-style prank. At other points, I’d think, “They’re occupying the very space that occupied them.” “It’s a unique dada art project, a happening.” Other times, a headquarters for them to plan their [other] art. Even as the filmmaker, I saw it shape-shift.


Q. There was a popular podcast episode about this story.

A. That was the first thing Michael did. That captivated everybody and got everybody interested in a film. But the artists kept turning it down. It was important for this movie to capture the why.

Q. What do you see as the why?

A. It’s complex. They felt powerless. Gentrification was coming. This response was kind of co*ckeyed and absurd — but had real meaning for them.

Q. I had no idea they filmed so much. Their old footage is a goldmine.

A. It’s unreal. There [were] 20-some-odd hours. They sat on it for 17 years. Not a soul saw it until Michael was like, “Yeah, here’s all the footage.”

We went from this bounty to absolutely nothing. But the movie already was starting to move in this interesting direction of being self-reflexive and meta. The making of the documentary was kind of mimicking the making of the apartment.

Q. You literally rebuilt the apartment.

A. Artists from Providence worked on it. So it was almost the movie folding in on itself.

Q. Michael still lives in Providence.

A. Near the mall. When he wakes up and looks out the window, it’s the mall. He’s still banned.

Q. Do you see what they did as art?


A. Sometimes it’s a stance against gentrification. Sometimes it’s this surrealist public/ private artwork. Sometimes it’s a treehouse. Sometimes it’s an F-you to the man. Sometimes it’s all these things. That’s why I love it.

Interview has been edited and condensed.


At Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville. 7 p.m. Sunday, May 5.

Lauren Daley can be reached at She tweets @laurendaley1.

Two decades ago, eight artists moved into a ‘secret’ room in the Providence Place mall. Now there’s a film about it. - The Boston Globe (2024)
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