Saturday 26 March 2016

CUT OFF: The artist IMPREINT and perceptions of homelessness

The cardboard sign sitting outside of a red telephone box looked curiously lonely.  Where was it's owner?  I searched for him for a few moments, looking for his outline inside the box.  Was he making a call?  Did he choose to go to sleep?  Where was the man who had prepared himself to go out for dinner at an expensive restaurant?  Why did I assume he was a man?  

IMPREINT, the artist behind the signs, in a project called Cut Off, succeeds in making normality strange when he presents us with the image of a homeless person's sign.  This sign refuses us the right to the gaze.  Sometimes we gawp at homeless people, wondering what has happened.  Sometimes we choose to look away.  But the choice is always ours.  I thought about how often I have looked at homeless people, questions in my eyes, but no real words of acknowledgement.  And I thought about how furious or enraged I would be, if the situation was reversed.  

The homeless live amongst us, often cast into shame filled spaces where begging for change comes with an apology.  IMPREINT draws attention to the social norms which cast homeless people into the margins, into shelters, soup kitchens or street corners, but never expensive restaurants.  In a world where we think of work as making a profit, people who are not able to generate income are very often seen as failures, drunks or addicts, deserving only the very least.  We draw on the myth that the poor are lazy in order to lessen our own guilt.  

Are poor people lazy?  Men who work in the hot sun for very little money work hard.  Sometimes, they are unable to make ends meet.  Sometimes work is irregular.  What do we call work anyway?  What do we call failure?  Why should people who have very little be cast into marginalized spaces?  Why should we able to gawp rudely, prejudices written onto our expressions?  

Who is this homeless man?  He is unseen.  Any impression I had of him was created by my own stereotypes and pre - judgements.  IMPREINT brought up the face or the image I gave to 'the homeless' and forced me to confront my own preconceptions.  I questioned what I believed, and why I thought this.  I questioned my right to stare.  All that seemed normal to me, or common sense, came into question.  I questioned my own hypocrisy in deciding what poor people need.  

Finally, I thought about the request for food, and not money.  IMPREINT shakes up our perspective on what a homeless person deserves, but the sign still asks for food.  Money helps when it comes to transport, shelter, health, and the opportunity to wash or shave in order to be treated as fully human.  A homeless person would be far less likely to acquire a good meal if he was unable to wash, after all.  It would be harder still for him to find work.

By throwing all of our assumptions up in the air, and asking us to reflect on our own reactions, IMPREINT asks us to reflect on our prejudices, and to question whether they are really harmless?  Is it okay for me to define my humanity as so different to that of another person's?  Is it okay to look at a set of circumstances (which may happen to anybody, but are more likely to happen to people without social support) and declare somebody else as  'other' or less worthy of a meal?  Is our everyday way of seeing the homeless the only way of seeing?  

IMPREINT showed me that my narrow definitions or ways of seeing were not the only ways.  Perhaps next time I gaze at a homeless person, I will do so differently.  Perhaps, if we learn to see ourselves as interconnected, capable of seeing the world as we wish it to be, and of making an effort to bring this world to life, our gaze will be less harmful.  Perhaps, as Impreint's beggar shows us, the only way of creating a new reality is to imagine a less discriminatory world, and work hard to bring that world into reality.

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