Plastic shelters, car covers, looted artifacts and Iraqi dates were all a part of Thursday evening’s annual Plonsker Family Lecture in Contemporary Art at Brooks-Rogers Auditorium. The speaker was artist Michael Rakowitz, born in 1973, who had always wanted to be an architect but “never wanted to do the work.” After graduating from SUNY Purchase in 1995, he studied at MIT in the science of visual studies department in an attempt to merge the separate fields.
Drawing inspiration from Bedouin tent formations, Rakowitz became interested in how their sections were architecturally divided and angled differently each night to direct the warm winds of the desert into the center of the formation. The sense of being a nomad, he said, is not lost with cities and modernity because those who live in cities see a new kind of nomad every day: the homeless. Driven by his concern for the increasing number of homeless people and the prospects of an approaching winter in Cambridge and Boston, Mass., Rakowitz began a shelter project that he called paraSITE.
Applying prior knowledge from his design-heavy background, Rakowitz created inflatable shelters designed specifically for homeless people. These shelters were both heated and inflated by attachment to the exterior outtake vents of a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. The warm air, or as Rakowitz called it, “wasted air,” leaves the building and is sent through a long tube that is connected to the bubble-like shelter. Rakowitz’s double membrane walls are constructed from a variety of durable but easily found sources including trash bags, ziplock bags and duct tape. Rakowitz purposefully decided that the total material cost for each structure would amount to less than five dollars. Because of the feasibility of the project, Rakowitz encourages the local homeless people of the cities he exhibits in to create their own paraSITE.
The project grew from being one of providing the homeless with warm, temporary and cheap shelters to giving the shelter’s inhabitants visibility on the streets. As most homes were constructed out of shiny clear and white plastic bags, they immediately stood out from the dark and dirty streets behind them. Through paraSITE, Rakowitz indirectly gave the homeless he was working with public names and faces; they became visible components of the city. Furthermore, by creating a place for them to sleep on the streets, the homeless were kept out of the city’s municipal shelters where many stayed unsupervised for the night, resulting in dangerous living situations.
Rakowitz frankly states that his project does not refer to statistics nor should be associated with legislative “attempts at solving the homeless issue.” However, no matter how Rakowitz may define his project as “shaped by my interaction as a citizen and artist,” he cannot deny the positive effects it has brought to those living on the streets. Rakowitz later moved his project to New York City and continues to resurrect it each winter in the city where he currently lives.
Though Rakowitz is of Iraqi descent, he has never been to Iraq. A few of his major works, however, confront the ordeals Iraq has been facing as a war-torn country. Projects such as The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007) and RETURN (2004, ongoing) present objects that refer to the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that began in 2003. The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is an ongoing recreation of nearly 7000 missing artifacts presented through a narrative detailing the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.
RETURN began as a reopening of the import and export company owned by Rakowitz’s grandfather, Davisons & Co., but turned into an epic concerning the shipment of one ton of Iraqi-grown dates that revealed the intensity of the prohibitive “security” charges levied by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Homeland Security for any freight that originated from Iraq. By managing a small storefront at 529 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn to potentially sell the Iraqi dates, Rakowitz was able to observe interactions between customers of different backgrounds who came together at his store.
Through his projects, Rakowitz brings communities closer together while also promoting awareness of issues that may critique certain institutions, such as local governments. Yet by choosing to act pragmatically, Rakowitz manages to avoid the fanatic stance that tends to alienate, rather than convince, others. As he commented during the post-lecture discussion, “The last thing I would want is for my works to be didactic.”