Why are beggars despised? - for they are despised, universally. I believe
it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practicenobody
cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole
thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all modern talk about energy,
efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except
„get money, get it legally and get lot of it”? Money has become the grand
test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.
"A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his
living like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not,
more than most modern people, sold his honour: he has merely made the mistake
of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich” George Orwell,
Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933.
Down and Out in Budapest and Vollsmose
(Art India magazine, April 2001.)
The situation of George Orwell’s beggar seems to be not that miserable at
all and in comparison with present day workaholics and the new poor described
by Zygmunt Bauman in his recent book "Work, consumerism and the new poor",
the beggar at least in the 1930s was given voice in Orwell’s book.
Orwell took refugee from his Etonian background and secured position in the
Imperial Police and lived and experienced the „underworld” of beggars and
tramps in 1930s London and Paris. His intervention into the gutter was lead
by a desire for describing the reality of beggars, gaggers, chanters and
mugfakers at first hand. In fact, one of realism’s strongest doctrine or
being true to reality was the self-experienced sensation. If you haven’t
been there you would not know! And indeed his book has given us a document
of reality seen through the eyes and language of one of this century’s significant
pre-dogma writers. Finally and maybe most of all the book gives an insight
to better understanding of man’s wish for freedom and the consequences it
might have of failure, invisibility and exclusion.
Orwell’s situation as observer and sympathiser in Down and Out resembles,
if transplanted to present day society, both mass media strategies as well
as artistic practices. To cut it short, there seem to be an urge for being
involved with contemporary reality and focus on social issues such
as homelessness, the new poor, immigrants and drug addicts as well as issues
of more worldwide consequence like global economy, environmental problems
etc. But when artists invite marginalised groups to participate and even
involve in artistic practice and reflection, what actually happens and with
which aims are this invitation given and taken? Are their acts in fact
led by a wish to change the values and status quo of today’s society or rather
by a wish to change the concept of art?
Another homeless project- or photos of importance?
In 1997 two young artists initiate the project Inside Out : photographs by
Budapest’s homeless. The idea of the project was given by the artists Dominic
Hislop and Miklós Erhardt who invited homeless in Budapest to tell
their own stories through photographs:
'The Inside Out project began in July 1997. Between then and February
1998 around 40 homeless people living in Budapest were given simple colour
disposable cameras and invited to take photographs of whatever they considered
to be interesting or important to them in their everyday lives with the knowledge
that their pictures would later be viewed publicly as part of an exhibition.
The participants were approached on a fairly random basis in the City’s Metro
stations and homeless shelters. Through the support of our sponsors we were
able to recompense the participants for their work.'
The photographs as a whole give a kind of montage-orientation in the lives
of people living in the streets, in public community houses and shelters.
Followed by text passages from interviews done by the artists each of the
different situations on the photos are commented. What we see is not the
glossy colour prints by Richard Billingham committed to the artist’s experience
of his own proletarian background. Rather, the choice of photography as the
media of expression for this specific social group points to an unhabitual
structural coupling of that specific media and the homeless.
For a short period of time the homeless’s search for cardboard boxes, copper
and other rejected goods collected and sold to sustain a living, was substituted
with a kind of mapping of one’s own reality. A gesture which is both a subversive
maybe unintended critique of contemporary society, combining defiance with
elegy, and, at the same time, an optimistic grasping of everyday life practices
and experiences.The desires and needs that formerly drove the homeless through
the streets and community houses were transformed into communication and
The subjective dimension of the project co-exists with objective data, given
in the catalogue, on the supposedly increased but incalculable number of
homeless in Hungary: „Estimating the number of the homeless is considered
a problematic issue in both Hungarian and international literature. Difficulties
arise from the definition of homelessness and also from the heterogeneity
and geographical mobility. Though, as a kind of statistical postscript, the
number of homeless in Budapest is estimated by the Hungarian Maltese Charity
Service to be app. 15-20.000. The absence of exact figures on homeless somehow
concludes a gradually non-existence of homelessness in the eyes of others;
that is, in governmental policies and once more underlines the failure of
statistical inquiry, which only reproduces data of the system to which it
The photographs were shown in a city gallery of Budapest and, during the
opening, homeless were the audience, as well as the protagonists of the installation.
Giving voice to the homeless was provided by the artists, but the plural
voices to be heard were the homeless themselves. As the American collective
Group Material’s actions and exhibitions in the 80s, this exhibition did
not follow „real gallery” standards and the curatorial policy was unorthodox.
It refused to posit the artists as „autors” of the project and the homeless
as the unfitting. Neither Miklós or Hislop were presented by their
names in the gallery and, in the catalogue, they figure simply at the back
cover as the persons conceptualising the project. The question of authorship
was complicated even further by the way the homeless handed over the cameras
to friends, family and others giving the project a transitory character of
freedom and equality for all participants- whether professional artists,
homeless or simply passersby.
The fact that the exhibition was shown in a public funded gallery, rather
than a commercial gallery, may explain the openness towards a more publicly
responsible programming of the exhibitions. The exhibition seems to ask -
where is the place of the homeless in cultural production? The unneeded and
unwanted were removed from the streets of London during Thatcher, in Budapest
put into secure community houses and in Vollsmose, Denmark, locked up into
stereotype housing estates. The seemingly well intended social (dis-)integration
of a group of marginalised people has been persistent and, as a consequence
this group became invisible and non-audible or simply described as a pitiful
group by the mass media.
The two artists’ invitation gave the homeless a conceptual framework. The
installation and the catalogue expanded the initial private commitment to
a cultural production defined by process and exchange rather than any normative
doctrines, and focus our attention on a specific social issue that represents
both failed policies and resistance to the conformity of society. The insistent
interest in practises involving the real world rather than a traditional
studio-bound way of making art connects the project to conceptual art practises
but the actions and observations inherited in the project are activist in
Rebel with a cause
The Centre of Urbanity, Dialogue and Information (CUDI) is a project run
from an apartment in Vollsmose, a suburb of one of Denmark’s larger provincial
cities. CUDI is a multi-cultural and interdisciplinary experiment realised
by governmental funding and with support from the Danish employers’ organisation
LO. The economic involvement of these benefactors necessarily question the
interests they might have in the project, and if CUDI’s political activities
will be accepted, if they critise the policies they represent?
Already by its establishment back in the 70s Volsmose was an architectural
disaster like, at that time, many of the public housing estates built in
Europe. Through the 80s and 90s the Volsmose estate went through a process
of becoming more and more overcrowded with people, whom the society did not
know, where to place. But from being a place with almost no public awareness
and attention, the estate recently found itself being the main subject for
discussing the increase in law-breaking and moral decay.
In the Danish media police reports on the disorder in Volsmose, and other
similar estates in Denmark, described them as overcrowded prisons, being
the nests for all kinds of crime, drug dealing and sexual promiscuity. The
media’s sensational picturing of „criminal elements” without doubt reaffirmed
the residents’ of their social misfitting in society. The media and statistics
on the tenants’ heterogeneous national backgrounds, altogether presented
the residents of Volsmose for a public fear of „otherness” blown up by the
media’s coverage and finally resulting in public debates demanding protection
and further exclusion of „criminal” groups.Even though, the Vollsmose estate
till now is without security entry systems and CCTV, but the local
police surveillance has been increased, thereby indicating that the residents
carries all blame of the supposedly huge crime in the area.
Simultaneously to this debate CUDI moved into the estate in the Summer 2000.
Their aim being that of establishing both a private (a home)and public residency
(with exhibitions,visiting artists, urban projects etc) within the reach
of anyone with the desire to engage it. As stated by themselves "CUDI is
a reaction to the media’s representation of reality that is in opposition
to ethnic minorities. It is a reaction to the authorities’ marginalisation
of social loaded families. We want to change and displace existing social
norms and structures to obtain more cultural visibility and democratic equality
thereby strenghting the identity of the area". The methods for doing this,
involve practices in the expanded field of art, architecture and social activities.
The centre was furnished and structured to meet these aims defined by the
artists. A web site was established documenting the activities as well as
giving space for the residents to posit ideas for future projects. A model
for direct actions and virtual futurology was formed to unleash potentialities
trapped in hegemonic structures and by the mass media’s manipulation of the
identity of the site.
Until now several of CUDI’s projects have confronted and involved residents
in discussing the faults of a long-term and mistaken spatial policy and design
of the estate. Symbolically the act of transplanting a lawn to the CUDI-residence,
might be seen as a reverse demonstration of the anti-social spaces
outside the individual private homes in Volsmose. Following this the lawn
is symbolically recast in the act of giving names and thereby direction to
paths surrounding the parks. A process is enacted, and the site’s transformation
is all done by the help and intervention of the residents.Anyhow, one may
ask whether this is once again an attempt - not made by authorities and planners
- but by artists and local residents, to look to structural solutions (solving
the residents’ spatial disorientation around the parks) without giving any
considerations to the social and economic factors of the residents’ daily
existence? Are CUDI’s aims and activities merely echoing a tendency in recent
To put it briefly, social systems are systems of communication defined by
language, media, cultural traditions etc. The concepts and practices implicated
in these systems are in themselves not stabile elements within the social
systems, but rather part of their respective and maybe temporal environment.
For these systems to expand and couple with other systems, an intervention
is necessary. The residents’ act of making new paths and giving names to
existing ones is, in other words, a way of opening a system of spatial design
to a social system. This practice of constantly expanding established and
maybe closed system of communication whether this is defined by differences
in languages, professional expertise or other, provokes thoughts about the
shifting relationship and potentialities between man and his immediate environment.
CUDI seems to seek a way, in collaboration with the residents of Volsmose,
to expand the closed social as well as disciplinary systems, which keep us
trapped in situations, where communication does not happen, but instead become
a unilateral monologue of dominance and power. Societal change are in other
words depended on intervention and an urge to communicate beyond normative
borders of professional as well as of social and cultural significance.
CUDI’s projects might serve both as political tools and as stimulants of
imagination similar to the homeless project done in Budapest: linked together
they delineate an utopian form of vision shared by the Situationists and
Conceptualists alike. One which offers the multi-ethnic, the new poor and
the homeless new ways of thinking about the environment in which they live,
and, as a result offer new ways of thinking about changing the future.