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paraSITE Art Project: Drawing Attention to Homelessness

This article was written by Sarah Rich in April 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Main Entry: par·a·site
Pronunciation: /ˈpærəˌsaɪt/ or [par-uh-sahyt]
Definition: an organism that lives on or in an organism of another species, known as the host, from the body of which it obtains nutriment.

Michael Rakowitz's parasite has lived a long time, enduring numerous attempts by its host to vanquish it forever, transmuting in the face of opposition in order to stay nourished. This case is one worth noting.

I'm in the UAE this week attending the Symposium of the Sharjah Biennial -- three days of exploration around the relationship between culture and ecology through architecture, visual art and new technologies. Yesterday, artist/interventionist, Michael Rakowitz, discussed his 10-year old ongoing project, paraSITE, sharing a compelling narrative that bears repeating.

We've mentioned Rakowitz briefly before when he installed P(LOT) -- a series of car-shaped tents made of car covers that turned parking spaces into temporary living spaces. paraSITE is also an exploration of temporary urban living spaces, but with a longer life, an historic point of inspiration, and a more utilitarian/humanitarian purpose.

This story is worth hearing from the artist's mouth, but in lieu of a firsthand account, here's my best attempt at retelling the tale, with photos from the artist.


Michael Rakowitz traveled to Jordan in the mid-90s on a study program where he focused in part on the nomadic tradition of the Bedouins, and the architecture of their tents. When he returned to Boston, where he was a student at MIT, the presence of the homeless population in the city triggered a quandary for him regarding the contrast of a nomadic lifestyle by tradition versus by necessity. The nomadic patterns of the urban homeless, particularly in the cold months, were dictated by the location of heating vents releasing exhaust from HVAC systems inside houses and buildings. Many of these systems had been designed like boxes, such that a person could sleep on top of the vent and stay warm; but viewing this as a problem, the city had begun installing vertical vents which slanted downward off the building, making it impossible to rest on them.


When Rakowitz spotted a man standing beneath one of these vents catching some heat on top of his head, an idea struck him, and so began a decade of public, participatory intervention. Rakowitz would find a way to transfer the waste heat and contain it in a small, collapsible shelter which would inflate upon attachment to the blowing vent. His first stab at heated street architecture emerged as a sketch of a tented bubble attached to the vent with a tube, all of which would be made from readily available materials -- in this case, black plastic garbage bags. He took the idea for a test-drive with a small crew of homeless men who he often passed on the way to class. "This," Rakowitz said, "was my design's first real critique."


As a Masters student in Visual Studies at MIT, this crit was surely unlike the ones Rakowitz ordinarily underwent within the confines of the studio. His critics instructed him to meet them at the municipal shelter where they sometimes slept. When he arrived they escorted him into a room with a long table and sat him at one end. They sat down at the other and folded their arms. The one named Bill Stone said coldly, "'re an architect."

Rakowitz replied that he was not an architect, but an artist, at which point the ice in the room seems to thaw a bit. For these guys, there was a big difference. If he was an artist, he wasn't so far from being like them...if he was an architect, he represented a population that makes a living by filling spaces the homeless could otherwise occupy with residences they can't afford, thus pushing them further into society's margins.

Once the relationship was clear and the critics warmed up, Rakowitz received his evaluation. "It's a good idea. But why," Bill asked, "did you make it out of black bags?" Rakowitz explained that he thought the opacity of the bags would offer them some privacy and anonymity inside their shelter.

Lesson #1: Privacy is not a concern for people living in the street. In fact, it's impossible. What is a concern is security. They want to know if someone intends to threaten their safety or steal from them. And as for anonymity, Bill assured him, they were already invisible enough in the world. For many good reasons, he wanted to see and be seen.

This would be Bill's tent, and Bill's tent would have windows.


Rakowitz's second iteration added a skylight and a wraparound window strip with interior zipper closures. The attachment that hooks the shelter to its heat source on a building wall can be tightened and expanded with elastic drawstrings to fit the size of the vent. This is the reason for the project's name. Like a parasite, the structure can adapt to its host in order to temporarily exploit its energy, squeezing another productive lifecycle out of a byproduct that would otherwise disappear into the air.

The co-designer was satisfied. And as he'd hoped, his new house drew the attention of others in his street community, and they wanted their own. Rakowitz began customizing paraSITEs according to specific needs and whims. He made one with transparent interior pockets constructed from ziploc bags, into which the inhabitant could insert his belongings as a reflection of personal style and a way to create privacy on demand. Another guy asked him if he could build a shelter in the likeness of Jabba the Hut. This is the result:


A man named Artie approached Rakowitz and requested a shelter for himself and his girlfriend. He envisioned the place having a living room and a "lovin' room" extending off the central area (and in this case he made a special request for black plastic). But part way through designing, Artie came knocking to say that his girlfriend talked too much and the shelter would need to have two separate living rooms - one for each of them. And so the Lovin' Room became the connecting corridor between a pair of his and hers hangouts.


Rakowitz explains in his statement about the project:

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?


Perhaps not like ivy, but the paraSITEs did make themselves known. A few years into the project, Rakowitz introduced his work to the streets of New York, and in short order drew the attention of the New York Times. Popular response may have been general positivity (or at least harmless bemusement), but the official response was not so favorable. According to a city law, the shelters violated a 3-foot height restriction on temporary structures. paraSITE owners (and their designer) were now potentially subject to punishment when an officer came across one.

Fortunately, there's truth in the statement Necessity is the mother of invention. One of the guys with whom Rakowitz was working investigated this code and found a loophole. If the inflatable structure qualified as a "body extension" (along the lines of a sleeping bag), then it was legally permissible. So the paraSITE underwent a redesign. The new version resembled an outdoor enthusiast's dream sleeping quarters for extreme adventures -- a puffy, caterpillar-like compartment with a long tail that extended up to the heat source.


But despite the innovative circumvention, a confrontation with the authorities did eventually occur. One day, while the owner of the newfangled paraSITE was hooking his bag to the dryer vent of a laundry room on a residential building, a woman living inside called the police. As it happened, on that day, Rakowitz was on site taking pictures of the installation. It appeared there was going to be some trouble and Rakowitz told his friend to pack up the paraSITE get a move on -- he would take the rap. The woman came downstairs, the cops approached, the two men both stayed put, and a conversation ensued, the outcome of which wasn't what you'd guess.


The woman ended up receiving a detailed explanation of the paraSITE by its owner, which convinced her of its benefit to such a degree that she asked if she could get in and try it out. In the process of hearing the explanation, one of the cops recognized Rakowitz from having read the piece in the New York Times, and realizing that he no longer needed to appease the woman who'd called, the cop made it clear (indirectly) that he and his partner were supporters of the paraSITE project. The truth is that if the homeless can find a comfortable, warm place to spend the night other than in a city shelter, it's of mutual benefit to law enforcement, who constantly deal with crime, rape and other critical problems which arise in understaffed and overcrowded shelters. The officer told Rakowitz to take as long as he needed to shoot his photos, and headed on his way.


Rakowitz doesn't presume to call paraSITE a "solution." In fact, he adamantly attests that "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."

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 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.

It may be true that this is not a solution for the masses, but paraSITE is certainly more than an art project. If it were art for art's sake, or even art as a sociopolitical statement, Rakowitz could have stopped doing it years ago and held up its memory as a symbol of a point well made. What has happened instead is that through the personal investment and connection established by and between both the artist and the homeless participants, paraSITE has taken on a life of its own, and the positive results it yields, no matter how localized or small, continue to fuel the work and demonstrate the long-term social utility of a singular, 10-year-old disruption in the heart of Harvard Square.


paraSITE: A Decade of Urban Intervention is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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