Saturday, March 20, 2010

Home Street Home

by Drew Martin

This is a continued conversation with Rebecca Kevill about placing homeless man sculptures in public places. This time I have asked her questions about her own work in England. Please see the previous posting for her questions to me.

I find it remarkable that while we are an ocean and a generation apart we came to the same place with our homeless men sculptures. Do you think it is some kind of cosmic collaboration or is it simply a set of conditions we are both responding to?

I think it could be both. I feel in this day an age with all the money, technology, information and resources our race has there is no excuse for people being without homes and shelter, clean clothes, food and water. But yet there are millions of people without proper living conditions and I find this quite sad. I live in a country that will pay for people’s homes when they do not have jobs, free medical care and other benefits, so I find it hard to believe in a society so rich that people still slip through the net. As a member of society I find it quite hard that the rest of society chooses to ignore this and I do not understand why governments can’t find a solution to this problem. We are members of a social system that isn’t as helpful to the people who need it the most and I believe this has lead us both to respond to this issue. It could be perceived as a cosmic collaboration through coincidence and as you say oceans and generations apart, we still witness the same issues and I’m sure this problem has been embedded in our culture since homes were invented.

How did you personally come to this project?

The project started when I chose to create artwork based on city life. My first idea was concerned with the old buildings in the city centre and the layers and layers of dirt and grime that had built up on them over the years. Studying the rest of the city centre I saw parallels within the darker side of city life, from prostitutes to homelessness, binge drinking, violence, etc. Thinking about homelessness a lot deeper made me realize that these people are “the visible invisible” as we see them but we look straight past because they make us feel uncomfortable. Yet seldom do people think how uncomfortable it would be if roles were reversed. This concept has developed further which has taken me to where I am now creating the loose change prints and arranging interventions.

Do you feel there is anything specific to England in your homeless man or is he a flat-world global citizen?

I believe the only thing that would distinguish him as specific to England are the clothes he wears: scarf, hat, fleece, gloves, pants, as it can be quite cold and I felt the clothing I had chosen was the most realistic compared to what other homeless people wear around the city centre. If I was to put him in a warmer city, it would not work the same as the clothing would be unsuitable. Anybody from any part of the world can become homeless so he could be from any walk of life and could be developed further to represent the different homeless people worldwide. As I was concentrating mainly on Manchester city centre I felt it more important to try and tackle the issue in Manchester rather than taking this global but the project is something that is always expanding so you never know.

Why did you choose the spots you did? In the background there is signage for a food co-op, a pharmacy and a Foot Locker. Are those key?

Yes they are “key” to the idea. The spots where specifically selected. I placed him outside of a Foot Locker on one of the busiest shopping streets in Manchester (Market Street) as I felt this street would gain the most variety of reaction. The vast majority of people who walked past were too concerned with what the latest fashions are and shopping or getting back to work on time and did not notice he was a dummy and ignored him thinking he was a real person begging for money. Here they treated the dummy as they would a real homeless person. The second location was Piccadilly. This is quite a diverse area within Manchester, it is the epicenter of all the different quarters with in the city and it was here I found the most interest. More people noticed the dummy begging and left him some change; some people went to see if he was ok because they believed him to be real. Some altered his sign so he could get more change. The third place was out side of the Halifax bank in a quieter part of the city, as people withdrew their money from the bank they hastily walked by without looking at the dummy in case he was real and wanted some money. I would also like to add that I intentionally did not give the dummy a face; I wanted people to notice this and to think what the significance of this could be. This steamed from the idea “The visible invisible”

Does your homeless man have a name and a story? If not, what would those be?

Yes, Barry is his name. His story is a tale of an existence of non existence in a world where he has nobody and nobody notices him. People do not see him for the man he is, yet they judge him for what he has become. Like so many other people who are homeless he did not have the support system of friends and family when his luck ran out and had nobody to turn to and nowhere to go, which forced him to take refuge on the streets and to start drinking heavily to numb the cold and the misery.

I like the 'Change Please' sign and what you are really saying by that. Is that lost on passersby or do you think some people get it?

I found a wonderful street art image depicting a homeless man with a sign saying “Keep your coins, I want change”. This to me proved to be a profound statement that inspired my sign greatly. I did not want it to be too obvious, but the people who actually looked at the homeless dummy and realized it wasn’t a real man understood the message that this sign was sending. I wanted to ask the public to change their reactions to homelessness and be kinder to them as they need support from people who are better off. The word change means so many different things to me concerning this issue. Social change, which is much needed. People changing their mind and attitudes, change as in money, offering help to change somebody’s life and the change needed to improve a government system that does not seem to help these people much.

What is the range of reactions to and interactions with your man? Do people give him money?

People did give him money. The only location where this happened was in Piccadilly. Here he raised approximately £3.00, which I donated to a homeless man who has been helping me compile visual research for this project. The majority of people walked by and ignored the man. As soon as people see somebody asking for money their instant reaction is to walk past and totally avoid looking so they can divert an uncomfortable situation of acknowledgement. An old lady donated some money as did a middle aged man, both of these people did not look like they had a lot of money which I found very endearing. Some other people donated some coins. Somebody also altered his sign and another man altered his hat to gain more attention to the dummy. Other people approached me directly to ask questions about the project and told me it was a brilliant idea and it offers a wake up call to the vast public.

You told me that a policeman recently asked him if he was OK and you were delighted by this. Is that because he took the bait or because he showed compassion, or both?

I was glad because this showed concern and compassion to the welfare of the dummy who he thought was a real man. It’s nice to know that if it was you living on the streets and looking near to death, that there is at least one person walking past that cares for your welfare rather than trying to avoid direct contact as much as possible. I was also glad as this gave me confirmation of the realism the dummy represented and the impact this would have on the people walking by.

What is the connection between this project and the actual state of homeless people? You are referencing them but they are not actually really part of the project. Have you thought about a project in which the homeless are participating and directly benefiting? Maybe it's setting up an elaborate dining table on the street with a great spread, reserved only for the homeless who are brought to their seats with dignity, while the common citizen is told they are not invited.

That is a really nice idea Drew. It would be brilliant to put into practice. Homeless people are part of the project in a sense that their stories are my research and this pushes my work forward, also within my sketch books and visual research I draw them and take their photos. The real reason I try not to directly use them to participate with in the art work is because a lot of homeless people do not want to be recorded as a lot of them are running away from people and problems and others are simply ashamed and do not want to be published in works, although they are pleased that through art I am trying to change how other people react to them but they don’t feel it necessary to directly get involved.

I have only been in England a few times, and have only spent a total of two weeks in London but the feeling I got when I compare it to what I know from America is that the lower class really feels stuck. In the US , even though the lower class is probably worse off in terms of lifestyle and services, there is also a feeling of hope. It's delusional but at the same time it is uplifting. Can you comment on this and what know of the psychology of the down-trodden?

I know from personal experience of being working class that when you are down on your luck the feeling of entrapment is down spiraling and hard to get away from and often it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you can’t pay your bills and buy food, etc. We do live in a society where if you are working class you are simply working class. The government in my opinion gives with one hand and then takes it all back with the other. The middle classes thrive and prosper where as the poorer classes struggle more and more with increasing cost’s and bringing home wages that stay at a national minimum. Capitalism operates on a nasty system whereby if you cannot afford to pay a bill, they simply sell the debt on to bailiffs who push the debt up to a ridiculous rate and when you can’t afford to pay the increasing rates they come and seize your belongings and in the worse cases your home. Once you end up in this situation it is easy to feel there is no way out and the government does not seem to be tackling this problem in a fair and reasonable way. The current economic crisis is making matters worse for a lot of poor people whose jobs are no longer secure and the bills and taxes keep amounting up. It is easy to feel like there is no escape as the consequences of these types of situations are devastating to families and individuals and a constant worry to the people facing these problems. On the other hand, I do believe that the majority of British people who have a support system of friends and family find this uplifting, I believe the support and compassion we offer and receive from our loved ones is what keeps us all going. Even if it is only somebody making you a cup of tea and lending an ear to your problems it is instantly reassuring and gives you a ray of light to finding a solution.

Rebecca comes from a print making background. Pictured below is the cyanotype Penny Flute from her The Visible Invisible series. Under that image is a picture of a cardboard homeless sculpture titled Sleeping Rough. This is a work she left out in the elements and visited daily, noting and documenting its demise. I love both of these works. I like how the negative look of the busker is more than just a cool effect as it comments on the fact that he is socially invisible. The cardboard sculpture is especially interesting because of how much it looks like a Pompeii victim and how Rebecca created a piece primarily from cardboard, which is the ubiquitous and essential material for street survival. I had read about this work in emails from Rebecca but did not picture how human it remained, even throughout its disintegration.