Response 2 – NYC, Home of the Homeless (1.1)

by Andrew Rechnitz

The way in which this project documents the homeless population living in New York provokes an important question that we, as citizens, must take seriously if we are committed to bettering the lives of those who suffer on a daily basis.  If everyone counted the number of people they saw living on the streets, even for a day, would we be compelled to reconsider the severity of the problem of homelessness, would we in turn feel obliged to take some kind of action?

This project delivers its message by way of a game—a game that moves its participants to see.  To play, we count the number of homeless people in each scene, which has the double effect of privileging an object in our field of vision and enticing us to sustain a particular focus.  By foregoing interactions with her subjects, by looking elsewhere while in the presence of the homeless, our guide simultaneously shows us an image of the person who does not see, and it is an image that persists for the duration of the game.  Then, at the conclusion, Anna fixes her gaze back on us and asks us to recall how many homeless we have seen.  We recall, and we are left with the sobering feeling that, having seen, the onus is now on us….

I wonder, though, if we really do fail to see in this way.  Looking at these types of encounters from another perspective, we might consider that those who are homeless, who are outsiders, who constitute the abject because they have been disavowed by society writ large, are in fact the only people we actually see when we walk down the street.  At first, this claim might seem absurd, but consider that those of us who live in large cities pass by hundreds of people everyday, and we take little (if any) notice of them; however, when a homeless person emerges from the steps of a church and asks for money, or we encounter an outsider asleep on the ground whose only pillow is the pavement, or we pass by an abject subject with track marks running the length of his arm, we always look.  Surrounded by hundreds of other people—some of whom undoubtedly suffer from the very same mental illnesses, addictions, and lack of employment that the homeless do—strangely, the people we end up seeing are often the ones we appear to be ignoring.  If this is indeed the case, perhaps there is a different problem that we also need to consider.

Regrettably, it is true that far too few of us make an effort to engage the homeless in any meaningful way when we encounter them.  But it is perhaps equally regrettable that far too few of us make an effort to engage the barista behind the counter who takes our coffee order every morning.  These days, if we interact with others at all, it is usually because they serve some kind of function for us, because they serve as the means to an end.  How often do we think about the person working the drive-thru window as a real person, as someone with actual feelings, problems, fears, ambitions and all the rest?  We treat most people in our lives as functions, and in so doing, not only do we fail to see them, but we also fail to recognize that most of our interactions with others are entirely mechanical.

If we fail to recognize the severity of the problem of homelessness in the United States, it may be a symptom of our more general failure to care about most people.   Thus, in response to the game in this project, I propose an additional level called “How many people do you see?”  If everyone counted the number of people they ignore as real people, even for a day, would we perhaps begin to see the other in ourselves, and would we in turn feel obliged to start treating allof our fellow humans differently?