In 1998 the Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz started his project paraSITE, building customized homeless shelters for people in need all over the United States. The tent-like structures are attached to the exterior outtake vents of a building’s heating, ventilation, or air conditioning system, blowing up the outside walls of the construction and providing heat, privacy and protection. His background in architecture informs Rakowitz’s practice. Yet his interest does not lie with building institutionalized help-facilities but rather with the personal interaction he has with each subject.
Through his conversations with the person in need, Rakowitz is able to individualize each shelter, adding windows or separate rooms according to each person’s needs and desires. At his talk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Rakowitz explained, “Even in these spaces of urgency there are still these stories that are about love, that are funny… those kinds of things don’t come to the surface when we are just talking about nameless, faceless homeless. It’s built for those people, and they have names and that’s why I say it started as architecture but it became portraiture.”
As an artist he is interested in the individual and is not providing a long-term solution. The shelter serves as a triage instrument, a form of social protest that Rakowitz hopes to see become obsolete. His interest in homelessness stems from a deeper curiosity about placelessness and nomadism. After studying the building structure of Bedouin tents during a residency in Jordan, he discovered similarities in the way the Bedouin made use of the warm desert winds and how homeless people in Boston camp under outtake vents during the winter.
“There are these two different forms of nomadism, those who are nomadic by tradition as the Bedouin and those who are nomadic by consequence as economic or social refugees in our cities, and then there was wind and that was where the project was born.”
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