Michael Rakowitz built several structures, in collaboration with homeless men, that inflate from the hot air of air vents on the sides of buildings. This work is well documented and has been reproduced in numerous books, countless magazines, and has been presented in many exhibitions around the world. It is a captivating project that does several things. It gets us excited about finding solutions to housing problems, even though it is only a temporary fix itself. It makes the plight of UNHOUSED folks visible and exciting and helps those who need it overcome "empathy fatigue" (though it is probably shaking people out of their self-absorption and indifference).
I have been lucky to get to know Michael over the years, as the art group I work with, Temporary Services, has been in several of the same exhibitions as Michael. Michael is an exceptional artist and person. He is deeply passionate about his work and paraSITE isn't a cynical, calculated design fantasy, it doesn't fetishize "urban nomadism". Michael worked directly with folks living on the streets of Boston and New York. They got to keep the original inflatable structures that they co-designed with Michael. This already demonstrates that Michael does not have a typical, detached approach to being an artist.
paraSITE is just one of many compelling projects Michael has done over the years. I have posted the text from Michael's web site about paraSITE below. I have also re-posted an excellent interview with Michael that was printed in The Nation early this year. Michael talks about several of his projects, especially his plans for an upcoming project he calls "Enemy Kitchen" that you can read about below.
Since February 1998, over thirty prototypes of the paraSITE shelter have been custom built and distributed them to homeless individuals in Cambridge, Boston, New York, and Baltimore. All were built using temporary materials that were readily available on the streets, such as plastic bags and tape.
While these shelters were being used, they functioned not only as a temporary place of retreat, but also as a station of dissent and empowerment; many of the homeless users regarded their shelters as a protest device, and would even shout slogans like "We beat you Uncle Sam!" The shelters communicated a refusal to surrender, and made more visible the unacceptable circumstances of homeless life within the city.
For the pedestrian, paraSITE functioned as an agitational device. The visibly parasitic relationship of these devices to the buildings, appropriating a readily available situation with readily available materials elicited immediate speculation as to the future of the city: would these things completely take over, given the enormous number of homeless in our society? Could we wake up one morning to find these encampments engulfing buildings like ivy?
This project does not present itself as a solution. It is not a proposal for affordable housing. Its point of departure is to present a symbolic strategy of survival for homeless existence within the city, amplifying the problematic relationship between those who have homes and those who do not have homes.
The issue of homelessness is of global proportions and it is foolish to think that any one proposition will address all the issues associated with this problem. There are many different types of homeless people. The mentally ill, the chemically dependent, those who are unable to afford housing, men, women, families, even those who prefer this way of life are included among the vast cross section of homeless people in every urban instance. Each group of homeless has subjective needs based on circumstance and location. My project does not make reference to handbooks of statistics. Nor should this intervention be associated with the various municipal attempts at solving the homeless issue. This is a project that was shaped by my interaction as a citizen and artist with those who live on the streets.
Michael Rakowitz first came to the attention of the art world in the winter of 1998, when a project called paraSITE began appearing on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Boston. It was a series of inflatable plastic homeless shelters, each one tailored to the individual specifications of its occupant--some had multiple windows, others a series of pockets for organizing belongings. One homeless couple, Artie and Myra, had Rakowitz produce a model with two connected rooms. What all paraSITE shelters shared was an essential architecture: They were designed to inflate by latching on to heat-exhaust ducts on the sides of buildings, swiping the escaping hot air and rerouting it to provide warmth for those living on the streets.
Born and raised in New York, Rakowitz has recently turned his attention to the country of his mother's family: Iraq. In a series of projects over the last three years, Rakowitz has reshaped our conception of Iraqi culture and of the damage that the war has wrought. In Return (2006), he revived the import-export business of his late grandfather Nissim Isaac David, an Iraqi Jewish refugee, as a multipart public project. Opening a storefront on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Rakowitz offered his customers free shipping to Iraq and imported Iraqi dates for sale in the United States. The store was highly stylized, exactly replicating the logos and stationery of his grandfather, but with Rakowitz, the sole proprietor, engaging anyone who walked in off the street about the global issues of the day. The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007) was a gallery installation at Lombard-Freid Projects in New York. In it, Rakowitz faithfully replicated the objects known to be missing or looted from the Iraqi National Museum during the initial US invasion, but he reproduced them in the cheap paper packaging of Middle Eastern import foods, or community newspapers, along with comiclike drawings explaining the history of Iraqi archaeology.
Rakowitz's work is informed by an idiosyncratic blend of performance, sculpture and graphic design; its activism is filtered through a highly aesthetic artifice. His projects, which weave together historical information and politics, are marked by a profound emotional depth. He is now on faculty at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and has recently shown work in the Istanbul and Sharjah Biennials. This conversation took place in July in New York City.
The article continues here: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20071001/tiven