by Matt King
In her video, Anna Charles allows us to see our world as a space of contradictions. Her project has embodied this sense of contradiction from its inception: assigned to create a viral video, something designed to capture attention and spread as quickly as possible, Charles chose to focus on homelessness. The two subjects speak to drastically different experiences. The viral video suggests ephemerality, frivolity, and spontaneity (even if the video were scripted or rehearsed, it’s eruption into the world is spontaneous); it speaks to a culture that thrives on the new, the flashy, and the inconsequential, a culture that comes out of its haze for only brief moments of hilarity, shock, and awe. Homelessness suggests a sense of time worn down, of people facing the same challenges of shelter and sustenance day after day, of the weight of a society bearing down on those least fortunate within it. Both phenomena are caught up in a question of attention, of how our attention gets divided in a world that demands it in so many different ways. The viral video and homelessness fall on different sides of the same coin of attention, and yet both lend themselves to being forgotten.
The video itself captures both this sense of contradiction and this focus on attention in its basic premise by asking the audience to pay attention to something that most are accustomed to ignoring. Even with our best intentions, most of us do not know how to pay attention to homelessness, how we can give it the sort of attention required to have a lasting effect. In the world of viral videos, Charles’s project is an attempt to turn the medium on its head. Viral videos are meant to be passed on so they can then pass on; “NYC, Home of the homeless” is meant to linger. It asks for a sustained attention beyond the viewing experience. In this sense, the video is less about itself than what happens when the camera isn’t on, what happens when our own frames are aimed at the world around us. With this in mind, it seems appropriate that the video does not focus on the lives of the homeless; instead, it focuses on the way that homelessness appears – or fails to appear – to the people walking by.
A sense of contradiction manifests itself further in the video’s juxtapositions. The most obvious example here is the juxtaposition between the song and the images, but Charles creates a sense of tension before the first image appears, as the brakes of the subway squeal beneath the opening whistle of “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” The act of seeing seems fraught with mixed messages as well. We are asked how many homeless we see, but the video frequently presents us not with the image of a homeless person but rather with an image of a blanket or a collection of bags. We know that a person sleeps underneath, but we do not see him or her. Many of the people in the video only appear to us as a blurred face or hand in the background. The video withholds what it asks us to see, leading us both to the possibility of playing the video as a sort of twisted scavenger hunt as well as the possibility of realizing that the video ultimately asks us not how many homeless people we see in the video but rather how many we see in our daily lives.
Charles addresses perhaps the video’s most troubling and complicated contradiction in her reflection on the piece. Here she explains how some family and friends discouraged her from pursuing the project, believing that such a video would be exploitative. Her sister, who “works at a facility that helps the mentally and physically disabled” and “interacts with homeless people on a regular basis [. . .] felt guilty about filming them because she knew how they feel when they are being exploited and abused.” Does the video contradict its aim, exploiting what it hopes to draw serious attention toward? Would it have been more respectful to ask people for permission, to show their faces and tell their stories? Or is the point made more effectively by keeping its subject at a distance? The video allows for both readings. Either way, we cannot escape the societal contradictions that allow homelessness to exist. Despite our concerns and best intentions, we already exploit the homeless to the extent that we participate in a society and economic system that supports (if not necessitates) homelessness. This does not mean that we have the power as individuals to change the system or that our individual efforts are meaningless, but it does mean that we participate in the contradictions. “NYC, Home of the homeless” reminds us of these contradictions, and it asks us to keep looking.