Michael Rakowitz first came to the attention of the art world in the winter of 1998, when a project called paraSITE began appearing on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Boston. It was a series of inflatable plastic homeless shelters, each one tailored to the individual specifications of its occupant–some had multiple windows, others a series of pockets for organizing belongings. One homeless couple, Artie and Myra, had Rakowitz produce a model with two connected rooms. What all paraSITE shelters shared was an essential architecture: They were designed to inflate by latching on to heat-exhaust ducts on the sides of buildings, swiping the escaping hot air and rerouting it to provide warmth for those living on the streets.
Born and raised in New York, Rakowitz has recently turned his attention to the country of his mother’s family: Iraq. In a series of projects over the last three years, Rakowitz has reshaped our conception of Iraqi culture and of the damage that the war has wrought. In Return (2006), he revived the import-export business of his late grandfather Nissim Isaac David, an Iraqi Jewish refugee, as a multipart public project. Opening a storefront on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Rakowitz offered his customers free shipping to Iraq and imported Iraqi dates for sale in the United States. The store was highly stylized, exactly replicating the logos and stationery of his grandfather, but with Rakowitz, the sole proprietor, engaging anyone who walked in off the street about the global issues of the day. The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007) was a gallery installation at Lombard-Freid Projects in New York. In it, Rakowitz faithfully replicated the objects known to be missing or looted from the Iraqi National Museum during the initial US invasion, but he reproduced them in the cheap paper packaging of Middle Eastern import foods, or community newspapers, along with comiclike drawings explaining the history of Iraqi archaeology.
Rakowitz’s work is informed by an idiosyncratic blend of performance, sculpture and graphic design; its activism is filtered through a highly aesthetic artifice. His projects, which weave together historical information and politics, are marked by a profound emotional depth. He is now on faculty at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and has recently shown work in the Istanbul and Sharjah Biennials. This conversation took place in July in New York City.
Your project paraSITE began to receive a lot of attention a few years ago. They were small pieces of simple inflatable architecture, but they ultimately contested quite bluntly some aspects of public space and civic life. Where did the idea come from?
Everything began to come together when I went to Jordan on an architectural residency in January 1997. The idea of nomadism was very much a part of my concern, and I ended up doing these bits of research on the Bedouin encampments in the Karak region of Jordan, near the Dead Sea. And that was where paraSITE was born. It was where I experienced a key detail: the way that the tent poles were set up to take into account the wind patterns that went through the desert. And when I heard that it was almost like sailing, I thought it was a beautiful metaphor for the way that the tent existed on the dunes. And walking down Tremont Avenue in February 1997, I noticed a homeless person sleeping near a ventilator, the exhaust of a building, and it was the warm air that was blowing his hair. I looked at that and I immediately thought about harnessing that wind as another encampment for urban nomads, for homeless people. And it’s still one of the mainstays of my production: I do it every winter.
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Were there specific artistic precedents that you were looking at when thinking about this?
Well, in school I had become interested in the work of SITE, which stands for Sculpture in the Environment. They were very visible and active in the ’70s and ’80s, with the buildings they designed for the department store Best. There’s a very iconic picture of the one they did in Texas called “The Indeterminate Facade,” which looks as though the bricks are cascading down the side of the building, and the building is caught somewhere between ruin and construction. And there was a manifesto culture that was attached to their production, and the principal, James Wines, had written one called De-Architecture. It was a bit of an angry manifesto, against art that lacks communication in the public sphere with an audience. And it talked about the breakdown in communication that exists in artworks. So I was interested in the thing not being perceived as “art.” And that’s what I’m trying to introduce–someone who sees paraSITE and doesn’t know what it is can see the cycle of connections between wealth and poverty, architecture and public space, and perceive those things while just walking down the street. It’s not “artwork.” It’s real situations.
It seems that a lot of your projects try to reconfigure public space itself, perhaps even as an idea–what public spaces should do, ought to do, are legally enabled to do, or how people should be involved with them.
When it comes to public space, the first thing I look at are the people. And then I think of the buildings as being the backdrop; you know, buildings are supposed to do different things. And the way that I work, I’ll zero in on an iconography, like the vent itself when it was blowing the air. That’s what happens: I’ll find my context and then realize there’s an opportunity there.
I’ve seen quite a few New Yorks in my life, and I remember when it was more possible to contest that public space, which now has become increasingly difficult. But I also see buildings as places where one can engage collective response and memory. Pedestrian traffic is very interesting to me also–being introduced very early on to the Italian piazza and understanding the essential platform for a public to congregate, it just seemed very healthy to have these spaces where democracy or collectivism could manifest itself. What I grew to understand as a student is that if you dislocate from the centrality of a place like the piazza, you end up with a much more interesting set of questions. You know, Where does ownership begin and end for a building? What’s allowed to happen in that space? And of course, being transient or homeless. Actually, a lot of homeless prefer the word “houseless” instead, because they do have a home; they just exist in ways in the city that are different from someone who’s paying rent. And so hopefully one can accommodate more sophisticated questions about how to come to terms with the idea of vagrancy, in a way that’s not criminal nor dealt with fascistically–either enables it or finds solutions for it. But that’s just one project we’re talking about. I see public space as a place where you introduce a platform.
The New York Times Magazine ran a piece about the show “Safe: Design Takes on Risk” at the MoMA in 2005. In it, you said, “Security isn’t locks on doors; you can put lots of those on. But it’s better to talk to your neighbor eventually.” And I thought this was essential to your work: Whether it’s through architecture, food or a postal system, all of it somehow makes people be less strangers with each other and stop perceiving others as alien. It’s easy to do that if you share a meal, or interact in business, or share space.
Yeah, that’s true. And for me, I think where it becomes about sculpture and art and performance is in ways that one can introduce artifice into that strangeness. You know, the first step for me is to find a way to emphasize even more the visibility of separation. With paraSITE, these guys were explaining to me in Boston, when I showed them my first prototype, which was very crude–made of black trash bags and contact cement–the first questions they asked were, “Why did you use black bags?” And I said, “Well, I figured you’d want privacy.” And they said, “That’s where you’re wrong: We have security issues, but not privacy issues.”
You mean, they don’t have privacy issues because they don’t perceive people to be actually looking at them in the first place?
Yeah, they just figure that this goes with the territory. They’re living in public space; there are no walls to conceal what they’re doing. So the inflatable membrane of the paraSITE shelter became even more visible. You’d be able to look through it; it’d be translucent, and you’d see there was a person inside, someone you’d never talk to because of social boundaries.
And so when it came to doing Return, it was very much the same strategies at play. In this case I was drawing on family history and resurrecting an import-export business that was in Baghdad and then New York when my grandparents came here. I set up a storefront that not only utilizes the official nature of my grandfather’s stationery–it’s the same exact typeface, and everything else–but it just said exactly what the store was able to do: It said “Free Shipping to Iraq” and “We Sell Iraqi Dates.” And the appearance of the word “Iraq” on the storefront window was something that was strange. Here I am in the heart of the Arab community in New York City, and I put it on a window–this word–and it caused everybody to try to draw a relationship between this strange word and the store. And they couldn’t believe it was really there, and they’d come in to talk and find out what was going on. And again, that’s the artifice of the strange. Being honest about the strange all of a sudden creating a new possibility. And at this point, I have faith in that: It’s become a bit of a tool for me. And here, a store–which can be seen as a private enterprise–becomes a public instance, because it deals with public life.
The Return project is complex: It’s neither performance, installation nor sculpture, but it involves all of those. It hinged on interactions between you and the viewer, and among the viewers themselves; and as it progressed, it gained a narrative momentum that had a real emotional effect for all involved.
For me, the piece is rooted in many ways. I set up Return basically to show the absurdity of the US government’s intensive surcharges levied by Homeland Security and the Customs and Border patrol for anything that comes from a country like Iraq. I had this whole network constructed on how this thing could operate, with an open system and a public platform defined by the people who participated. And I had no idea that it would end up highlighting the plight of the Iraqi refugee, but the truck that had the dates in it waited for four days at the border while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were trying to flee and were being turned away by the Jordanians. And then after this twenty-one-day journey, back and forth in the desert, [the truck] ended up in Damascus, where it created another scandal. So all these points on the narrative became critical material, or critical moments in the work. Getting these Iraqi dates was so much about authenticity. Creating a suture, or prosthetic, that could be created for those who can never go back, or for those who will never go but have this irrevocable relationship to Iraq now, just as Americans.
In all the reviews of your work that I’ve read, while they’re often positive, no one knows what to make of it, exactly. The aesthetics of your work seem less noted than the ostensible content. Nobody talked about the paint job in the store, or the design of the shelves, or the bins for the drop boxes, or the logos or the fonts.
Yeah, right. Well, I knew what I wanted the store to look like, you know. It had a real physical layout that was very much designed. I became very aware of this when my wife was doing all this reading on Food [the artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1971 restaurant]. And, you know, Matta-Clark had made very distinct decisions, all the way down to the bins that food was contained in. In terms of design aesthetic, I understood that that’s what makes it interesting for me. But certain things recede, especially when you’re dealing with efficacy. Of course you have vinyl letters on a storefront–the travel agency next door has those! So that stuff becomes invisible. And I’ve realized that captions can be art; and the way that narrative and aesthetic information, that is poetic, needs to be regarded as art. I think even the experience of irony is art, since irony has a poetic attachment to it. So I notice confluences of things, and I like the fact that art can be an action that happens in everyday experience. Existing outside the language of the accepted institutional framework allows for everything to be political. And maybe the lack of focus on the art itself on the part of the critics is because of the monumentality of it being about Iraq, too much for the screen printing or the logos to come in yet.
Does the store have a future?
Well, I do want to open up the store in Chicago to continue this motif of the absurdity of bringing in these dates, but as a cultural project, because cultural money is the only thing that will allow it to be present. Right now it’s bad business, but it’s good art.