The front walls of 16 Eichler homes in Palo Alto's Greenmeadow neighborhood will become movie screens on June 10, showing films of the indoor activities of residents in an innovative art installation that will debut at sundown.
Titled "California Living Project II: Palo Alto," the project entails 20 different film loops, all several minutes long, depicting the south Palo Alto neighborhood in a commentary on the paradox of openness and simultaneous isolation, according to its makers, two visual and dance artists.
Developer Joseph Eichler's iconic mid-20th-century tract homes are known for having private fronts with no windows or very small ones but floor-to-ceiling glass rear windows and doors, allowing residents to interact with the natural environment of their backyards.
For filmmaker Nate Page, this architectural design provided him a window into residents' inner worlds.
Page's camera recorded what the residents did within the homes for between 20 and 90 minutes, capturing both intimate and creative moments: a woman sitting alone practicing her recorder; a man playing with his dog; a family dancing together in their kitchen; a mother coddling her baby; a teen break dancing while talking on his cellphone; a woman weaving on a loom while a man strolled in a cartoon-character mask. In the films, dinner parties and game nights are punctuated by voices, chirping crickets or atmospheric music.
Page's own childhood experiences in the Midwest suburbs provided the impetus for the project.
"It was a fairly alienating experience of neighborhood. I would see the lights of the TV flickering in (people's) windows, and I'd get a glimpse of the psychology of the residents by what they were watching on television," he said.
Page developed a similar project in the Balboa Highlands, an Eichler tract in Granada Hills, California, in September 2013. In Balboa Hills, the residents at times seemed to stage their behavior. Some dressed up in 1950s outfits and had parties, for example. That got Page and his collaborator, dance artist Chelsea Zeffiro, interested in whether the residents were self-conscious and if they were performing or not during the filming.
Rather than turning Greenmeadow residents loose and recording them, the two artists decided to add interactive dance to the project, which blurred the lines between spontaneous behavior, self-expression and conscious and deliberate action.
"Each became a unique collaboration with the individuals, their ideas, temperaments and personalities," he said.
Zeffiro sat in kitchens and living rooms with residents and developed relationships, noting parts of conversations that could lead the people to develop a sense of what they wanted to do. Sometimes it involved dance; other times it didn't.
Zeffiro described how she and dancer Kaitlyn Petrik helped residents Ann and Don Rothblatt through their process of discovery.
"We spent about 30 minutes or more dancing to a Jazz CD by musician Bobby Short. They shared with us that they had just celebrated their 60th anniversary. At first they were reluctant to join myself and Kaitlyn. Once they did, the four of us did very subtle changes in movement that read really well on camera. I think it demonstrates the very sweet interaction we had with an incredibly sweet couple," she said.
Ann Rothblatt recalled: "I felt too self-conscious to be part of the filming at first. Then, after watching Chelsea and another young woman for awhile, I got up the courage to join in. My husband and I moved separately at first, then together. If I had it to do over, I would have danced with him the whole time!"
Zeffiro and another colleague, dancer Angel Acuña, did two simple and intimate duets with resident Mary Anne Deierlein and a group dance that included Deierlein's husband, Greg, and a few friends who live in the neighborhood.
"The concept was so intriguing because I spent most of my life in homes featuring 'front porch' living and understood the contrast of Eichler living, where, from the street, (it) is completely private and reclusive," Mary Anne Deierlein said.
"It is a simple concept of filming home life and activities, so at first we over-thought the activities needing to be scripted, rather than natural. After meeting with Nate at our house to discuss the scope and reach and possibilities of the project, I was most interested in dance and movement and creative living activities. Chelsea is a delightful, creative, intuitive artist and dancer," she said.
Resident Julie Zerbib's 15-year-old daughter, Nelly, and their dog also took part in the project.
"For us, our main motivation, aside from taking part of a fun experience, was to immortalize our house that we love so much. Chelsea and Nate offered us that but also gave us a glimpse into the artistic mind and process, and that was a wonderful experience," she said.
In the end, Nelly worked with Zeffiro on an improvisational dance piece centered around the dining table and using everyday objects in an alternative ways. The dog also made it in to the film: As the women moved in tandem, the canine stood nearby, looking out the back window.
"My daughter loved the experience. We really appreciated that Chelsea tried something different with her and that was a unique experience for my daughter," Zerbib said.
Deierlein said participation in the project "definitely reaffirmed" her appreciation of Greenmeadow. Rothblatt agreed.
"We've always loved our house and neighborhood, but this experience made us appreciate both even more," she said.
Zerbib said she is intrigued to see who else in her neighborhood was willing to participate in the project.
"You can feel it's people who love their home and the Eichler style," she said.
For Page, the art installation is about creating community and giving people a chance to experience their environment and each other in ways they hadn't considered.
"I want this to be a disarming experience of intimacy in a community," he said.
Recalling the art-installation night in Granada Hills, he said it exceeded his expectations.
"I thought at first it would be creepy and voyeristic, but it felt like Halloween and block party."
Page and Zeffiro self-funded the project. They plan to work in other Eichler communities and to find additional ways to interact with the residents. The pair is looking at an Eichler community in Sacramento, and they hope to return to another Palo Alto Eichler neighborhood. They are also planning a book on the project, he said.
What: "California Living Project II: Palo Alto"
Where: Greenmeadow neighborhood, select streets. Maps are available at Greenmeadow Community Center, 303 Parkside Dr., Palo Alto and on the project website.
When: June 10, sundown to midnight