MIT FEMA TRAILER PROJECT, 2008-2009
In 2008, Jae Rhim Lee worked in the City of New Orleans’ Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Development, an entity charged with overseeing the city’s recovery after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While developing a city-wide soil remediation program to address historical environmental injustice in the Gulf Coast, she saw hundreds of marooned surplus FEMA trailers sitting in parking lots, decaying and fallow.
At the time, news reports painted a grim picture of the impact of these trailers on both the US economy and trailer occupants: many residents were dying from formaldehyde off-gassing in the trailers, US taxpayers had overpaid for thousands of trailers purchased through no-bid contracts, millions of dollars were spent on parking the thousands of surplus trailers, etc.
Moved by the history of environmental injustice in the Gulf Coast and what was clearly a revisitation of those inequities in the form of FEMA trailers housing low-income, often minority residents, JR returned to MIT to teach art in the fall of 2009 and launched the MIT FEMA Trailer Project with Ute Meta Bauer, curator and then-Director of the MIT Visual Arts Program in the School of Architecture.
The MIT FEMA Trailer Project, supported by 2 graduate-level courses, evolved into a transdisciplinary art project that investigated the history of surplus FEMA trailers and transformed a surplus trailer donated by FEMA to MIT into a proposal for sustainable disaster recovery.
MIT students, faculty, and staff researched the history of the trailers and produced a timeline of their use, held skill shares to learn applicable skills for the trailer transformation (including sheet mulching and mushroom cultivation), conducted bioremediation of the old paint factory site where the FEMA trailer was parked at MIT, and submitted modest proposals for what the US government might do with the surplus trailers. “Hospital Panopticon,” proposed a panopticon-style organization of surplus trailers in which patients would be both surveilled and healed. “NIMBY” proposed that we fill thousands of trailers with toxic soil and send them up in balloons that would redistribute risk and toxicity upon landing.
The course curriculum was accompanied by a year-long Lecture Series in the MIT Visual Arts Program exploring disaster recovery, emergency management, and disaster technology, organized by Ute Meta Bauer, Amber Frid-Jimenez, and Jae Rhim Lee.
The MIT FEMA Trailer project culminated in The Armadillo: A mobile,multi-purpose community space with a composting center, outdoor vertical garden, rainwater catchment system, and permaculture library.
The Armadillo, once a symbol of government waste, environmental health issues, and disaster resource mismanagement, serves as a model of urban sustainability and transformation.
Upon completion, in May 2009, the Armadillo was the site for temporary art projects at MIT. MIT students, faculty, and staff were invited to use the Armadillo as a site for projects which address sustainability, waste, and gardening.
In June 2009, the Armadillo was donated to a community organization and embarked on a cross-country tour, with stops at the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston, MA, the National Mall in Washington, DC, and DiverseWorks Art Center & Discovery Green in Houston, TX, among others.
*The MIT FEMA Trailer Project was generously funded by the Council for the Arts at MIT and the Visual Arts Program, MIT School of Architecture.
Special thanks to Course TA’s Jegan Vincent de Paul, Priyanka Shah, and Caitlin Berrigan, MIT Visual Arts Program Staff Charlie Mathis and Chris Dewart, and Jim Harrington, Facilities Manager of the MIT School of Architecture.
Sterling, B. (2009) Hey Look, MIT Students! A Leftover FEMA Trailer! Wired. https://www.wired.com/2009/06/hey-look-mit-students-a-leftover-fema-trailer/
Fessler, P. (2008) Trailer Graveyards Haunt FEMA, Neighbors. NPR. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92183909