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.