The sympathetic agent

Santiago Sierra, Remake of 'Group of persons facing the wall and person facing into a corner'. 2008.. Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, London UK. Courtesy of the artist.

Santiago Sierra, Remake of 'Group of persons facing the wall and person facing into a corner'. 2008.. Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, London UK. Courtesy of the artist.


Published in:
Public Good #2

RAMP Press, Hamilton
Edited By Kim Patton
ISBN: 978-0-473-28673-6


Since the prevalence of modern homelessness artists have been incessant activists for its abolition. For as workers of precarious labour, artists have historically shared a similar plight to the homeless by living in self-induced hermit simplicity, as squalid tenants on the brink of insanity or genius, outcasts as prophetic nuisance, penniless denizens due to being undervalued or taken advantage of, subversive protesters prizing the squat as a badge of anti-capitalist defiance, or simply sympathizers as kindred outcasts of mainstream society. Therefore, it is no surprise that we see the subject of homelessness featuring throughout the history of twentieth-century art to the present day. Artists have been important provocateurs highlighting one of the most pressing but continually sidelined issues affecting cities and urbanisation today.

Amongst the many art forms, performance and social engagement practices have been more effective in inciting public debate about homelessness than, say, photo media or painting. That is not to say that there is a hierarchy amongst media to effectively elicit political awareness, nor should creative practitioners necessarily be aiming to lecture through their chosen art form, as Rancière surmised: ‘Spectatorship is not a passivity that must be turned into activity … there is no privileged medium as there is no privileged starting point.’[1]

While there may not be a privileged medium, it is still important to consider why there exists various types of reaction and experience to different forms of practice. Performance and social engagement practices participate in real-time within the sociological and political forces at play, rather than the slower contemplative experience of considering a representational work on the gallery wall. This immediacy of engagement has proven to be a crucial tool for artists in addressing the complex issues of homelessness. Works in this vein have tended to lean towards the replication of homelessness as lived experience or to establish forms of exchange with homeless people themselves as a means of communication and transfer of agency.

Unsurprisingly, this path of enquiry is filled with complex ethical and political implications. The artist’s motivations, the effect on those involved, the reaction and judgment of the public all become important factors to consider or strategize for. Artists knowingly venturing down this path often accept the complexities and contradictions of their actions and how they may be perceived as problematic by some (both within and outside of the art world). Theirs is the murky territory of taking on board a difficult subject and in turn they may become subjects themselves of ridicule, abuse and scrutiny. This often intense public reaction against such artists conversely aids visibility of the issue and illustrates what the homeless must have to endure on a daily basis.

Some of the most influential projects around homelessness have taken place on the streets of New York – a city that has had an alarming history of having a vast homeless population, currently over 60,000.[2] In 1991 William Pope.L crawled many metres alongside a renowned homeless “tent city” precinct in Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, a few months before police forcibly shut it down.[3] Dressed in an Armani suit and clasping a small flowering pot-plant, Pope.L arduously writhed and dragged his body in the heat of the sun and in the path of cars and pedestrians until his apparel wore through. Pope.L’s surreal action compressed complex psychological signifiers. The suit, as a cipher of conformity and economic power, was undermined by Pope.L’s horizontality and in doing so he created a charged spectacle that muddled power relationships. Pope.L explains that “in most cities, if you can remain vertical and moving you deal with the world; this is urban power. But people who are forced to give up their verticality are prey to all kinds of dangers.”[4]

A decade earlier, Tehcing Hsieh also explored the fragility of the homeless body within Manhattan in his One Year Performance 1981-1982. As a type of ‘formally enacted depravation’,[5] the performance was bound by the conceptual perimeters of his declaration: “I shall stay OUTDOORS for one year … I shall not go into a building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave, tent.”[6] In many ways Hsieh’s performance was an act of being amongst the physical grid and time-flow of the city. His mapped journeys show that he wandered in organically shaped loops rather than within the linear corridors of Manhattan’s Cartesian grid – made to service ease of mobility and commerce.[7] Hsieh's journeys were governed by survival necessities: places to sleep, eat, wash, be warm, and be safe from the weather and other human beings.

In a similar performance, Kalisolaite 'Uhila spent two weeks sleeping rough around the grounds of Te Tuhi – a contemporary art gallery situated in the south eastern Auckland suburb of Pakuranga. Titled Mo‘ui Tukuhausia (2012), a Tongan phrase that translates as “life put aside”, 'Uhila’s work was driven by the motivation to gain a lived experience of homelessness in a confined location. The work in many ways acted as a very loose social experiment to see how the hundreds of people frequenting Te Tuhi would react to a loitering figure. 'Uhila received many forms of contact with people from gift giving of food or loose change to adverse reactions including being spat on and verbally abused.[8] Such reactions served to test the limits of what is socially acceptable by simply being set outside of daily life. 'Uhila's action, therefore, proved that by living differently from the majority is to transgress against societal codes of behaviour, movement and habitation. To act against such codes is to place oneself within perilous danger of the multitude's collective force.

While the perfomative works of Pope.L, Hsieh and 'Uhila make apparent the plight of homelessness within greater powers that govern cities, they also remain limited to establishing situations of symbolic exchange. Other artists have sought to step beyond the symbolic to venture into the even more problematic territory of direct exchange between homeless individuals and the so called ‘general public’. Unquestionably, among the most contentious artists to implement such practice has been Santiago Sierra.  For instance, in his work Remake of “Group of persons facing the wall and a person facing into a corner” (2008), Sierra paid nine homeless women the price of a night in a hostel in exchange for standing in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.[9]. The conditions of Sierra’s transaction divisively separated the women apart from the gallery visitors and created an intentionally antisocial situation. Indeed, Sierra did not act to rectify the existing socio-economic divide but rather to make those with means uncomfortably aware of their complicit role in a societal system that causes dire inequality.

In comparison to Sierra’s work, which sought to replicate a division between the poor and the privileged, Bruce Barber’s works Squat I and II of the late 1990s intended to establish a situation of sustained direct contact. Barber created two gallery-based writers’ residencies for the destitute, first in Halifax and then later in Banff, Canada. To attract suitable participants he advertised in shelters by distributing a flyer reading: “Are you an aspiring writer, unemployed, receiving financial assistance or living without a fixed address?”[10] This specific situation gave the opportunity for a person dispossessed of the key attributes associated with urban security to have a type of ‘safe house’ in which to explore and develop the practice of being a writer. Similar to Sierra, Barber’s participants were also on display within a gallery context. However, in comparison Barber sort to establish forms of communicative and dialogical engagement to burgeon over time between the subject and the viewer, thereby allowing the possibility for a transference of agency to occur. In this sense, the artist became the engineer of a social situation full of potential that could then be co-opted, challenged and changed by those involved.[11] Most importantly, the residencies established a forum for issues of poverty and class discrimination to be debated as well as the differences between squatting and vagrancy to be discussed.[12]

Krzysztof  Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle project of 1987-89 took on a similar strategic form of communicative engagement to Barber’s work. This project expanded Wodiczko’s notion of Interrogative Design – a type of synthesis between art, design and technology formed to highlight the plights of those that are given little thoughtful design to aid their existence. Wodiczko worked closely with the homeless in New York to design and fabricate mobile trolley-like dwellings that served the individual’s needs. However, Wodiczko’s intent was not to provide a practical design solution for the problem of physical safety per se. Rather he intended to employ a design process that might empower homeless individuals to take control over their own situation. The unique design of the dwellings was also intended to attract attention and to invite conversations with those that would otherwise avoid contact with the homeless.  Therefore, by using the design process as a tool for social intervention Wodiczko created a situation where a dysfunctional aspect of the city was temporarily given new visibility. He explains:

It is important that we listen to the silence of the city, to the voice of [those] who [we] don’t want to hear or of those whose voices would be inconvenient. The city as a community must be continuously and simultaneously delegitimized in the name of democracy and in the name of those ….  excluded and neglected and suppressed. [For the city’s] space is not free and open but is barricaded by speakers who continuously project their voice at the expense of those of whom we do not hear anything. So cities are a type of hermeneutical proposition that also has a tendency to … cherish those that succeed and forget those that are vanquished.[13]

Cities are fundamentally built to create stable environments in which to enable trade, communication, community and safe habitation against the threat of foreign forces both terrestrial and human. Yet, despite their illusion of stability, cities are in a constant state of social distress as many voices vie for the power to control who is included and excluded. Therefore, if cities are  indeed spaces governed by contested voices then as sympathetic agents artists have an important role. Artists must continue to devise new actions, interventions and situations to continually make apparent that homelessness is evidence of a blatant infrastructure breakdown – a blight – a wound – a system failure.



[1] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Artforum. March, 2007. p. 279.

[2] Coalition for the Homeless, Basic Facts About Homelessness. accessed: 5 December 2013

[3] this artwork title is Tompkins Square Crawl (1991)

[4] Martha Wilson. William Pope.L. BOMB 55/Spring 1996. accessed: 5 December 2013

[5] Carol Becker. After Thoughts: Stilling the world. Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Teching Hsieh. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT. 2009. p.367

[6] ibid. p.160.

[7] During this year he charted his journeys of Manhattan on a series of maps and documented by a photographer.

[8] for further reading please see: Bruce E. Phillips & Kalisolaite ‘Uhila. Discussing Mo’ui Tukuhausia. in What do you mean we? Auckland: Te Tuhi. 2012. p.46-53.

[9] This work was originally performed in October 2002 at the Lisson Gallery, London.

[10] Marc James Leger. Squatting on Shifting Grounds: an interview with Bruce Barber and Katherine Grant. in: Littoral Art and Communicative Action. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing. 2013.  p44.

[11] Marc James Leger. Squat II and the Operationalization of Littoral Art. in Bruce Barber: Work 1970-2008. Auckland, Sydney: published by Te Tuhi and Artspace Visual Arts Centre. 2010. p.114.

[12] ibid. p.117.

[13] Krzysztof Wodiczko. Porous City. public lecture presented at MIT on 16 November 2009. accessed 5 December 2013. 0:12:00 – 0:15:40min.