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Issue 228

‘UnHomeless NYC’ Calls Into Question the Exceptionality of Artistic Practice

At the Kingsborough Art Museum, New York, a group show advocates for collective, cross-disciplinary collaboration to ensure that no one is without a place to call home

BY Andreas Petrossiants in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 12 APR 22

Homeless. Houseless. Unhoused. These are all terms used by housing activists, autonomous organizations, journalists, reformers and those without stable housing alike. Some prefer ‘unhoused’ to emphasize the fact that shelter is actively denied to many by a racialized and gendered state apparatus, so that a few may reap financial rewards. Others use ‘houseless’ to reinforce that even those without access to a brick-and-mortar edifice may well have a ‘home’. For a new exhibition at the Kingsborough Art Museum at Kingsborough Community College (KCC), the title takes a different approach: ‘UnHomeless NYC’ proposes a collective term that applies to an entire city, rather than an individual, calling for housing for all.

Curated by Maureen Connor, Jason Leggett, Tommy Mintz, Rob Robinson and Midori Yamamura, the exhibition grew out of meetings held throughout the pandemic to discuss housing justice. Yamamura, an art history professor at KCC, told me that she had reached out to Robinson – a formerly homeless organizer and activist – to speak to her students in an effort to destigmatize discussions about homelessness in a public school system where 33,000 students were without housing at some point during the 2015–16 academic year. 

Miguel Robles-Durán and Cohabitation Strategies, How to Begin Again, 2021. Courtesy: Kingsborough Art Museum, New York; photograph: Brian Edward Hack

The exhibition occupies a single, large room; installations, infographics, videos and interactive objects cover almost every inch. Despite this, the show does not feel overbearing: a key strength is the breadth of the exhibited projects, both historically and in terms of the practices they showcase. The first piece we see is Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here (1989), inspired by former Mayor Ed Koch’s infamous refrain: ‘If you can’t afford to live here, move!’ Originally commissioned by DIA Art Foundation as a response to the housing crisis and gentrification of New York during the 1980s, Rosler’s updated version juxtaposes the original statistics with data from 2022: graphs are featured in primary colours on a tablecloth, affixed to a wall at the centre of the room, and on the floor. Nearby, Uneven Growth (2014) – a documentary video by Miguel Robles-Durán and Cohabitation Strategies – includes interviews with key urbanists, activists and journalists, such as Thomas Angotti and David Harvey, to narrate how eviction became a trusted tactic for landlords to gentrify vast swathes of the city.

Manon_Vergerio_Anti-Eviction_Mapping_Project, New_York_Chapter_2014_Photo_Brian_Edward_Hack_KAM
Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, Narratives of Displacement and Resistance: NYC Oral History Map, 2014–ongoing. Courtesy: Kingsborough Art Museum, New York; photograph: Brian Edward Hack


Many works offer items or instructions for viewers to take. Bill Beirne’s Priority Seating (2017–ongoing) includes a stack of stickers meant to détourn signs on the subway about who deserves preferential seating, adding ‘homeless’ to the list. Michael Corris’s workbook, Incidents on the Street (2022), allows viewers to think about the needs expressed on cardboard signs produced by unhoused people. Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE (1997), which offers information on how to build warm, inflatable homeless shelters, resonates with Heater Bloc – a project run by autonomous groups across the country that aims to build temporary housing and provide low-cost heaters to help people living on the street survive the winter. 

Willie Baronet, We Are all Homeless, 2022
Willie Baronet, We Are All Homeless, 2022. Courtesy: Kingsborough Art Museum, New York; photograph: Brian Edward Hack

Perhaps most impressive is how fluidly this diverse range of projects by artists, academics and activists aligns to demonstrate the various frontlines of the housing struggle, and to show how anyone can get involved and contribute their skills and experiences to the fight for housing justice. In one corner, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s Narratives of Displacement and Resistance: NYC Oral History Map (2014–ongoing) displays eviction data collected on an interactive map; in the opposite corner, an installation by artist Sachigusa Yasuda shows how clothes can be recycled and mended to fulfil the needs of those on the street (Upcycle, Uplift, 2022). Not only does ‘UnHomeless NYC’ call into question the exceptionality of artistic practice – the making of art for art’s sake – but, by inviting a broad spectrum of participants, it demonstrates how collective and cross-disciplinary collaboration is necessary to ensure that no one is without a place to call home.

UnHomeless NYC’ is on view at the Kingsborough Art Museum, New York, until 14 April. 

Main image: ‘UnHomeless NYC’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: Kingsborough Art Museum, New York; photograph: Tommy Mintz

Andreas Petrossiants is a writer and editor living in New York City. His work has appeared in The New Inquiry, Historical Materialism, Artforum.com, Bookforum.com, The Brooklyn Rail and e-flux journal, of which he is associate editor.