[An edited version of this appeared in AdBusters]
Some years ago I was passing the display window of a trendy Queen West art gallery--the kind that would show everything from text-heavy conceptual art to installation pieces that, in any but a gallery context, would have been referred to, with neither irony nor glimmers of authentic apperception, as a kitchen, a living room, an upstairs bedroom or a public school classroom. (This is not entirely a new idea: in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam there's a good-sized exhibit room devoted to l6th and l7th century dollhouses for grown-ups: detailed and precise miniaturizations, in cutaway views like on a Hollywood set,with tiny people fixed in their appointed places, in lush family rooms or dismal servants' quarters. Beautifully crafted these unquestionably were, the miniaturization so detailed and precise that a doll's house of this kind could cost more than a middle class dwelling for full-size people.)
The window featured what I thought was a new display, or part of one: a white-bearded man in scruffy clothes was perfectly posed in the centre of the window, sleeping. Now here for a change was an arresting and exciting--as opposed to comfortable and nostalgic--conceptual piece: the only question in my mind was whether this was an actor or an actual homeless person. I hoped the latter, since the money he'd be paid as fee would help him out for a while at least, and the shelter must be welcome now that we were getting consistent readings below zero, and snowfalls that nothing but the return of spring wouldclear. I was on my way somewhere but I thought I'd come back later and inquire about this.
I was giving the curators too much credit for inventiveness--two hours later when I returned, the display window was empty: the white-bearded gentleman had been asked to move on.
I've often mulled over the implications of this show that never was. Wouldn't it be an interesting blend of art and social conscience--which are not infrequently at odds with each other? Can you think, offhand, of a more imaginative way of thinking globally, acting locally?Why don't we start a worldwide movement to press city, regional and national art councils to fund a project of this kind in every city,Amsterdam and New Amsterdam (now New York), Singapore to Shanghai, London, Paris, Bangkok, New Delhi, Beirut, Jerusalem, Montreal, Toronto,Angkor Wat, Oslo and Copenhagen--a monthlong exhibition--maybe two months if funding allows--of from a dozen to thirty of that city's own homeless.
Sleeping in doorways as window display by no means exhausts the creative possibilities. Most working days, while the gallery was open,they'd be walking/talking art, circulating among the patrons, telling of their childhood, bright hopes for the future, current situation and prospects. It would be every kind of art at once; visual, text-based,theatrical, experimental, improv in the "happening" sense. City by city,with a few good camera operators, the video you could generate would be astounding. It might even lead to a reality tv deal--one which, for a very large change, would produce a show in some way connected with reality.
It might, who knows? prove as controversial as "Piss Christ"did in its day. Beyond a shadow of a doubt though, what I'd like to call the "Universal Homeless Project" would have far wider implications in its social critique. And what legitimate objection could be made?The only one I can think of is that, while providing gainful employ to a few of them, for a month or two, it might in some way degrade the homeless--as if that hadn't been decisively and sufficiently accomplished already. I can't conceive how they could be valued less, as objets d'art,than they are presently as refuse--mere discarded husks of irreplaceable human beings.
As to whether it would go some small way to changing things, I don't know--something better. The only other alternative I can think of is to shrink the homeless--literally. Years ago you'd see makeshift dwellings made out of computer boxes in the financial districts, installed over sewer grates to catch the warmth of the steam. Not exactly Habitat for Humanity standard, but they provided a certain rude shelter against the worst of the elements. (You could pull two together at the joins et voila! a roof over your head for the night.) Now that laptops are the personal computer of choice, such dwellings are going the way of the dinosaur. Can the homeless meet this challenge by shrinking to the size of person that could live in a laptop box? Who knows--maybe the cuteness factor would kick in, and they could finally acquire some human dignity, if they could only manage to make themselves living dolls. Gulliver won Glumdalclitch's permanent affection that way.
C 2005 Martin Heavisides