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The Machine Is Unheimlich: Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project

By Dick Hebdidge

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project is part of the exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, but it’s not the first time it has been displayed at the Walker. It featured prominently in the artist’s Walker-organized 1992 solo show, Public Address: Krzysztof Wodiczko, and in an exhibition catalogue essay, excerpted here, by media theorist Dick Hebdidge.

The first time I saw Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle was in a square-cropped monochrome photograph on a black catalogue cover, where it sat, suspended in gloom, like one of the artist’s nocturnal projections—ominous and dislocated—as if transplanted from another dimension. The image showed a streamlined, four-wheeled metal object, reiminscent of a high-tech version of a supermarket cart, encased in a skin of plastic or rubberized fabric stretched across a skeleton of metal hoops. A wire cage containing cans and plastic bags was visible, bolted or welded to the chassis. But what drew the eye instantly was the gleaming metal nose cone pointing off over the viewer’s shoulder so that the whole vehicle bore a strong resemblance to a missle, primed and locked onto some invisible target. Parked under direct light on the parquet gallery floor, its hard, reflective surface shone with the spooky luminosity of a UFO in a 1950s science fiction movie. Exhibited in this image like a prototype in a pamphlet at a munitions or medical appliances trade fair, the vehicle appeared imbued with a powerful mystique as “a superlative [designer] object.”

The parody of professional design and display codes in the presentation of the Homeless Vehicle as late-modern gadget is integral to Wodiczko’s critical probing of what he calls “the symbolic, psychopolitical and economic operations of the city.” It is a key part of that larger strategy of projection, which, as Rosalyn Deutsche has argued, might be chosen as an evocative title for all his work, once we acknowledge that the word projection designates not just a technical mechanism but also “first, a symbolic operation by which concepts are visualized as external realities and, second, a rhetorical device for speaking with clarity at a distance.”

The Homeless Vehicle was unveiled before the gallery-going public in an exhibition at the Clocktower Gallery in New York City in 1988, though the rhetorical strategies it embodies had been prefigured in Wodiczko’s public projection works. Two earlier projects are of particular relevance; the Astor Building-New Museum of Contemporary Art padlock-and-chain projection in 1984; and the proposal two years later to “disable” the statues of Lincoln, Lafayette, Washington, and Charity in the recently “refurbished” Union Square Park by projecting images of bandages, wheelchairs, and derelict buildings directly onto them. In both these projections, the homeless are revealed to be less the victims of their own inadequacies than of that linked process of economic and social transformation which Marshall Berman has dubbed “urbicide”—a process whereby speculative property development, the suspension of planning controls, redlining, blockbusting, gentrification, soaring rents, the casualization and deskilling of manual labor, and the drastic reduction of welfare and public housing programs actively conspire to produce homelessness.

The Homeless Vehicle Project disturbed conventional views of homelessness still further by targeting an occupational subculture of single homeless men (those who survive by redeeming empty cans and bottles for five-cent deposits) as potential user-consumers of an ostentatiously designed object. The prototype on view in 1988 consisted in a hinged metal unit, which could be extended to provide sleeping, washing, and toilet facilities as well as a can-storage compartment. The product had been tested by a panel of homeless “consultants” and adapted to the precise subsistence needs of its prospective users. This replication of design and market-research procedures parodied the “logic” of the late-capitalist equation between consumption and active citizenship and was carried over forcefully into the final “product launch.” The vehicle stood in its fully extended “sleeping mode” at the center of the exhibition, surrounded by sketches of early prototypes and diagrams advertising its versatility and design features (such as the hinged nose cone that transformed into a washing bowl, the toilet-and-tarpaulin configuration for guaranteed privacy, and the large rear wheels for stability and enhanced maneuverability). In another room, slides of public spaces in New York City were projected onto the gallery walls, the scenes overlaid with blurred images, blown up from sketches, of the vehicle being pushed through the city by a ghostly hooded figure in a tracksuit. Meanwhile, extracts from Wodiczko’s taped discussions with the homeless consultants were relayed through loudspeakers. A document produced by Wodiczko and David Lurie was also on display. Like the vehicle itself, the document has gone on circulating, in slightly different forms, ever since, its arguments refined and adapted in light of further consultation with the client group for which it is intended. “This vehicle,” they write, “is neither a temporary nor a permanent solution to the housing problem, nor is it intended for mass production. its point of departure is a strategy for survival for urban nomads—evicts—in the existing economy.”

The Machine Is Unheimlich

Wodiczko’s vehicles actively invite a sense of déjà-vu. As Patrick Wright pointed out in The Independent, they look “unlike anything that has ever existed before, and yet deliberately engineered out of resemblances to things familiar” so that the solidity of the vehicle itself threatens to dissolve under the weight of its constitutive analogies.

But the sense of the familiar unfamiliarity engendered by these objects—their capacity to go on “making strange” our habituated ways of seeing—cannot be explained solely by reference to the connotative density of objects in themselves. Instead, it is in the temporary conjunction of text and context—in the precise combination of image, site, and object—that Wodiczko’s work acquires its peculiar resonance: that echo-chamber effect which can suddenly suffuse a neutral exhibition space or a dead historic building with new and unexpected meanings. For the homelessness of the Homeless Vehicle Project derives in part, like the spectral portability of film, from the nature of the apparatus through which the project as a whole is articulated. It is integral to his mode of operation as an itinerant artist and teacher. Wodiczko’s vehicles are not just metaphors or tools. They are not just “about” homelessness any more than they are simply “for” the homeless. They are also unheimlich (literally, “unhomely”) in that other, stranger sense to which Sigmund Freud alluded in his essay of that title. For while these peculiar contraptions come equipped with storage compartments for redeemable tin cans, they are also at the same time uncanny vehicles.

Like the Trojan Horse, they work undercover in the labyrinth, which, wherever you find them in the real world, remains their only true location. And it is as well to remember that the full disturbing impact of the Homeless Vehicle Project gets disclosed only after the machines have been wheeled through the gates of our attention and left to stand there in the silence, unloading their secret cargo while the guards are still asleep. For the power of insinuation is by no means incompatible with the process of interrogation that the project sets in train. In Wodiczko’s cryptic phrase, “something is damaged”: after one sees his work, a supermarket cart, a homeless person, a public statue, or a war memorial will never seem quite the same again. Rather than diminishing the urgency or bite of Wodiczko’s timely interventions, it is this dreamlike incandescence of the afterimage—its chilly, smiling aftermath—that in the end makes the agenda he proposes for art’s critical relationship to the city really stick.

Interrogative Machines

The appeal of Wodiczko’s work is that it steps straight into the breach left by the continuing trend within much acclaimed contemporary art away from direct engagement in a the war zone of today’s metropolitan scene. Its beauty consists in the tact, precision, elegance, and wit with which it highlights—literally, in the case of the public projections—not just the hidden face of power in the city but ways of approaching “problem issues” and addressing audiences and constituencies which have remained resolutely unapproachable within the terms laid down by 1970s and 1980s “art language.” And its interrogative power derives from the way Wodiczko facilitates multiple and sustained questioning of the authority of social “probabilities” by turning his art into a rhetorical tool, which, in marked contrast to the “empty” rhetoric of morally outraged “political art,” is designed to work directly in the world rather than upon it.

We are forced by the interrogative mode in which Wodiczko frames the Homeless Vehicle Project to ask the question, “What exactly are the homeless vehicles for?” Are they, as one critic asked of Wodiczko’s metaphorical vehicles of the 1970s, “working prototypes, functioning models or engineering blueprints?” Do we regard them, first and foremost, as provocations to thought and action—what Harvey Garfinkel has called “aids to sluggish imaginations”—or as stopgap measures for dealing with the housing problems of homeless men? Alternatively, are they intended as a communications aid for an emergent homeless “constituency”? Or are they conundra in a broader sense—open questions, impediments to closure, propositions designed to lengthen the hiatus between what we think is probable and possible. In the awkward process of interrogation that they initiate, the vehicles make everybody—except their intended users—feel uncomfortable. What makes it so difficult to dismiss the project out of hand is the challenge it issues to all those who enter the dialogue with it to improve upon Wodiczko’s own “modest proposals.” For like Jonathan Swift’s “solution” to the “Irish problem”—put forward in his famous 1729 pamphlet written for (or rather at) the English, suggesting that impoverished Irish peasants rear children to be killed and sold for food—Wodiczko’s machine-offensive on the streets of United States cities demands that we acknowledge the existence of a specific crisis, reflect upon its causes, and respond to the question it provokes: “If not this. then what do you suggest?”

Rather than representing either “homelessness” (by framing it iconically) or homeless people themselves (by “standing in” or “speaking for” them), Wodiczko conducts inquiries into the conditions that produce and reproduce the displacement of evicts and offers survival and self-imaging strategies for homeless people—strategies developed and adapted in consultation with relevant homeless organizations (such as New York City’s WECAN Redemption Center) and with evicts on the street. Each variant of the vehicle incorporates design modifications suggested by the homeless themselves (such as the reinforcement of structural components, incorporation of the semitranslucent Plexiglas roof sections that enhance visibility at night; curtains for privacy; and a fire escape). The vehicles are thus hybrid propositions, which bear an organic relation to the “ground” on facing single homeless people.

It is this originary entanglement of the vehicles in the actual lives of the (can) “redeemers” that endows them with their (other)worldly force. Wodiczko is designing for a “fallen” world; and it is this acknowledgement of complexity and imperfection that distinguishes his project, its motivation and objectives from the start-from-scratch heroics of the modern movement and from the cynical indifference to social inequality, scarcity, and waste of today’s designers-for-consumption. At the same time, the work and the rhetorical strategies it embodies are predicated on a recognition of the limited effectiveness of “radical” polemic (its partial use/truth value).

But despite Wodiczko’s explicit caveats about the vehicles’ wider signifying functions, many critics, understandably, continue using the project first and foremost as a pretext for reflecting on the immediate conditions in which homeless people live. Some have condemned the artist’s “failure” to offer political solutions capable of transforming current social realities. One of the most common objections leveled at his work, especially by those involved with professional agencies representing the homeless or catering to their perceived needs, is that the project threatens to trivialize homelessness by appearing to offer pragmatic solutions to a problem that can only be tackled at its root (i.e., through the provision of permanent accommodation). These objections continue to haunt reception of the work, despite Wodiczko’s insistence that, as Rosalyn Deutsche puts it, “implicit in [the vehicle’s] impermanence is a demand that its functions become obsolete.”

It is here, perhaps, that we begin to touch on the deeper sources of the discomfort many people feel when confronted by a vehicle which moves with apparent ease back and forth between sedimented categories (art/not art; use value/sign value; play/problem). The project’s provenance within the institutionalized realm of art and “Art Theory” can only confirm this feeling of awkwardness. For the fundamental problem, which is likely to dog anyone out to get a purchase on Wodiczko’s work with and on the homeless, remains not just the impossibility of the vehicle-as-practical-solution but also the qualitative discrepancy between the space of legitimated art and the day-to-day experience of actual evicts, between Wodiczko’s signifying strategies and their displaced (and terrifying) referent, homelessness itself. An unbridgeable gulf inserts itself between the muted, plush if tastefully “austere,” interiors of art galleries and catalogues and the catastrophic, unwalled, uninhabitable exteriors in which homeless people struggle to survive. Any critical engagement with the Homeless Vehicle Project is obliged to acknowledge the existence of that gulf in whatever way it can.

No Place Like (Home)

Far from seeking to reduce by pious hoping or “political” rhetoric (claiming “shared humainity” or “solidarity”) the distance between the homeless and the domiciled or (evicts and non-evicts, to use Wodiczko’s preferred terms) the Homeless Vehicle Project, through all its evolutions, accentuates the irreducibility of the distinction between having and not having “a place” (to live in/speak from). This double exile (from the community of non-evicts/the body politics) is in itself hardly new. But the registers in which it is currently experienced, together with the wider socio-political and ethical conundra such extreme forms of exile pose for artists and intellectuals intent on intervening critically in today’s urban arena, are peculiar to the late-modern scene.

While the “homeless” label may, as Wodiczko indicates, ultimately be of doubtful use (it lumps “Them” all together, detaches causes from effects, and tends to reinforce victim status by making a lack, i.e., the absence, of a “home” an identity marker), the category remains active in policy terms; and it needs to be understood historically before it can be dismantled or replaced. It is often pointed out that the picture of the homeless found in most contemporary fiction, reportage, charity appeals, and policy documents has its historical roots in the nineteenth-century literature of “social concern” and “social exploration” (William Booth, Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Emile Zola), in the photographic imagery of early practitioners such as Jacob Riis and John Thompson and the inheritors of that tradition in the 1930s: Farm Security Administration documentarians such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and softer-focused European photo-flâneurs such as Brassaï. The fixing of the image of today’s homeless within archaic nineteenth-century discourses has direct consequences on the diagnosis and “treatment” of homelessness-as-problem, not least in Great Britain, where homeless teenagers are still routinely charged as “rogues and vagabonds” under the provisions of the Vagrancy Act, introduced nearly 170 years ago to clear London’s streets of destitute veterans of the Napoleonic wars. However, the construction of the outsider-tramp as civilization’s repudiated (or scapegoated) Other—variously the object of compassion, fear, desire, and disgust—has, of course, a much longer history.

The exclusion (hence mythologization) of the nomad and the wanderer-pariah is as old as the walls around the first city. Full or “proper” citizenship has always implied not just rootedness in place but also property ownership. In classical Mediterranean cultures, once the hospitality traditionally extended to the stranger had been exhausted, access to the civitas—the community and its sustaining networks of ritual, privilege, and obligation—remained contingent on a more primeval order of belonging: an investment in the urbs, literally, in the stones of the city. With the establishment of eighteenth-century Europe of a bourgeois public realm where differences, ideally, were to be “aired”—hence reconciled by Reason as they circulated openly in the new coffee shops and classically proportioned squares—owning property and speaking “properly” became the dual prerequisites for being heard at all. (The democratic injunction “Stand up and be counted” requires, after all, a place to stand up on). Later, the two fundamental bases of human ontology—language and habitat—became further (con)fused at the point when the state began demanding a “fixed address” in exchange for citizenship rights.

The social and economic polarization of today’s “dual cities,” where, during the 1980s, the survival of a growing mass of low-paid casual-service works came to depend on the consumption choices and discretionary tips of high-salaried finance and communications élites, has ensured that the exclusionary terms of this bourgeois social contract have been set in concrete. At the same time, this contract has produced new forms of disenfranchisement for an outsider class whose visible lack of means prevents it from even getting past the security guards stationed at the entrances of air-conditioned shopping malls and luxury estates. This pattern of selective exclusion, denial, and withdrawal is reproduced at other levels through less immediately trackable forms of spatial restructuring.

Today, when the “universal placelessness” of electronic-communications technologies, cheap air travel, and the globalizing pressures of “nomad capital” have combined to produce the “exploded” or “overexposed city,” the demands of the state surveillance and the security policing of private enclaves in the city have become that much more insistent and intrusive, and the exile of the homeless that much more complete. At the same time, the language of the 1980s and 1990s political populism operates a subtle, though no-less-effective, doorkeeping policy. The decentering of the contemporary metropolis and “the ruling image of the screen” may mean, as Todd Gitlin puts it, that “uprooted juxtaposition” is simply “how [all] people live these days. But the countervailing stress in populist discourses promoting individual “responsibility” and “community belonging” on the values and virtues of the home automatically disqualifies the literally uprooted evicts from even entering the game.

The language of “rights” and “natural justice” has been so thoroughly diverted from its origins in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century social radicalism that George Will could argue in a TV discussion on the urban homeless in 1986 that the presence of beggars in front of midtown Manhattan office buildings constituted an “infringement of the rights” of already harassed executives who worked in them. In the same spirit, Norman Lebrecht, writing in 1989 in the London Sunday Times, took the board responsible for administering the Thameside South Bank Arts complex to task for failing to “protect the fundamental rights of concert patrons,” harassed by vagrants “pestering them for small change and pursuing them far into the lobbies” in an “intolerable” ordeal, which “takes the civilized experience of concert-going out of the realms of Orpheus and plunges it deep into an underworld of dereliction.”

Rhetorical excesses such as these are predicated on a splitting of social space into two antagonistic camps (public/Them vs. private/Us) organized around a set of oppositions that has already been institutionalized in the fiscal, housing, and law-and-order policies of successive United Kingdom and United States administrations. The dominant moral order becomes spatialized, to borrow at length from Mike Davis’ description of “Fortress L.A.,” in the division between “good citizens, off the streets, enclaved in their high-security private consumption spheres [and] … bad citizens, on the streets (and therefore not engaged in legitimate business) caught in the terrible, Jehovan scrutiny” of police helicopter surveillance. Some of the most dystopian design and policing initiatives to date derive from this pathological terror of the (revenge of?) the disenfranchised Other. Davis lists a few local examples: painfully uncomfortable “bum-proof” barrel-shaped bus benches; beaches closed at dusk, patrolled by police dune buggies; and the ultimate mean-machine, stationed outside a fashionable seafood restaurant, a “$12,000 baglady-proof trash cage made of ¾-inch steel rods with alloy locks and vicious outturned spikes to safeguard priceless mouldering fish heads and stale french fries.” The same mentality is activated to keep the homeless perpetually on the move: the head of Los Angeles’ city planning commission explained to reporters in 1987, after Mayor Tom Bradley had ordered police to clear the “cardboard condos,” that it was not illegal to sleep on the streets “only to erect any sort of protective shelter.”

In this paranoid bisected universe, the dereliction of both public space and the outsider class who “own” (i.e., have “stolen”) it is contrasted with the perfectibility of the private realm, where rightful ownership is (ideally) never in dispute. We hardly need reminding, in the late twentieth century, of the success of ideological appeals to the “primary” commitments of home and homeland or of the abiding power of the deep psychic (and financial) investments people everywhere continue to make in their private domestic spaces. But whatever contortions are produced in national populations by the manipulation of the “homing instinct” for political or commercial gain, the imbrication of libidinally charged images of heimat as first place and safe place in constructions of legitimate belonging seems immune to historical or geographical variation. The idealized shelter as recollected “firm position” is, perhaps, the fundamental trope in narratives of identity-formation. The lost time-space of the nurturing source remains the radiant wall onto which all our fantasies of closure, all our desires for ontological security, are ultimately back-projected.

The overwhelming sense of shame most of us experience when confronted by the spectacle of homeless shantytowns and cardboard cities must stem in part not simply from the affront they represent to any sense of achieved social justice but also from the ragged edges they impose around the frames of our most cherished fantasies, from the cracks they open up in our fundamental sense of what and who we are as human beings. In the words of Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman,” the first homeless hit song of the 1990s, “She’s just like you and me but … (she’s homeless, she’s homeless).”

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project, installed as part of This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s

Photo: © Walker Art Center

Sketches for the Homeless Vehicle Project

Source: Public Address: Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1992, published by the Walker Art Center

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle in action, 1988

Source: Public Address: Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1992, published by the Walker Art Center

Interior of Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Krzysztof Wodiczko, The Homeless Projection 2, The Soldiers and Sailors Civil War Memorial, Boston, 1986–1987

Source: Public Address: Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1992, published by the Walker Art Center

Krzysztof Wodiczko at work, Walker Art Center, 1992

Photo: © Walker Art Center

The Homeless Vehicle project installed in Public Address: Krzysztof Wodiczko at the Walker, 1992

Photo: © Walker Art Center

Installation view of Public Address: Krzysztof Wodiczko at the Walker Art Center, 1992

Photo: © Walker Art Center

Title graphics for Wodiczko’s 1992 Walker exhibition, with Poliscar (1991) at right

Photo: © Walker Art Center