Reactor

Andres Serrano Shows Us How Not to Help the Homeless

by Jillian Steinhauer on January 3, 2014

As New York City transitions from a technocrat mayor to a more “populist” one, much recent discussion — at least in the press and among us liberals — has focused on homelessness. The New York Times profiled a homeless child named Dasani to illustrate the city’s larger problem: 64,060 homeless people in New York, the largest population of its kind in any US city and the highest local levels since the Great Depression. Michael Bloomberg’s response was to blame it on God; Mayor De Blasio invited Dasani’s mother to his inauguration.

Artist Andres Serrano has been thinking about the crisis, too. His response is a little different. He decided to buy hundreds of homeless people’s signs off them, use the signs for a slick video artwork with a techno beat, and post it on Creative Time Reports. The work, called “Sign of the Times,” features individual signs floating and drifting against a black background, as a club-ready remix featuring samples from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech plays hypnotically. You inadvertently start bobbing your head and shaking your butt … and then you remember you’re looking at the signs of people who have no choice but to sleep on the streets.

Serrano’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place, but his taste is bad. And “Sign of the Times” is the worst kind of faux-political art, because it turns horror into kitsch and avoids saying anything actually political — or anything at all — by hiding under the cover of trite universal messaging. You can’t not agree with his project, because no one is pro-homelessness. “I won’t say this is a political piece, because if it is, whose politics?” he writes in the accompanying text. Translation: I don’t want to commit myself to any political claims or ideas, so I’ve made a bland video about an “issue.” That issue is, sadly, not even controversial enough to raise the video to the level of propaganda, only transform it into a bizarre form of “homeless chic.”

The naiveté and myopia of Serrano’s idealism are evident in the premise of the project. As he writes it, this is the spiel he delivered to the homeless individuals he approached:

I’m an artist. And artists see things in a different way. And one of the things I see are the signs the homeless have. I’m buying these signs because I see every sign as a story. There are many stories out here that should be heard. Can I offer you $20 for your sign?

Leaving aside the patronizing and self-satisfied tone, one wonders how Serrano expects to tell any stories when he’s detached the signs from their owners (forcing them to make new ones), thrown them into a techno-filled void, and stamped his name on them. The artwork is under his name, and its subtitle in the video is “Andre Serrano’s Collection of Homeless Signs purchased on the streets of New York City.” Lest we forget, let’s all say it again one more time: Andres Serrano, the artist, bought these signs. From whom? Eh, some homeless people. Doesn’t matter. It’s in service of a larger point.

Rudolph West with his before and after signs, part of Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hopes "Signs for the Homeless" project (via homelesssigns.tumblr.com)

Rudolph West with his before and after signs, part of Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope’s “Signs for the Homeless” project (via homelesssigns.tumblr.com)

Ever since Serrano’s post went up I’ve been thinking about another homeless-related art project that made the rounds on the internet a few months ago. This one, you might say, is the inverse of Serrano’s. Called Signs for the Homeless, it involves artists Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope meeting homeless individuals on street and offering to make them new signs — hand-painted, beautifully designed, word-for-word re-creations of the old ones. Note the difference: Serrano paid people so he could appropriate their signs; Nakayama and Hope are giving them new, eye-catching signs in exchange for their old ones. The latter also photograph their subjects and interview them, posting the pictures and conversations on Tumblr, where others can read and possibly learn something. Submissions are welcome, too; the project is not exclusive to Nakayama and Hope.

Will the duo solve the crisis of homelessness through their art project? No. But at least they’re working to make homeless people more visible, which is a necessary first step. Serrano keeps them in the shadows and sets their pleas to a catchy beat. All we can do is bob our heads and nod along.

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  • Colette Fahy

    ‘Woo, homelessness!’ – what I’m getting from Serrano’s video. The signs themselves are really interesting and could have been presented in a more serious way, the dance music and MLK audio clip are just nauseating though. Seems like a missed opportunity to open up a conversation on the individuality of homeless people and the varied ways in which it impacts people or comes about.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Agreed. I think that’s why I was so disappointed by the project—because the premise of collecting signs is a good one, but then it was such an epic fail.

  • vivi

    Although the second tactic, making new eye-catching signs for the homeless and replacing the ones made by the homeless, sounds like the empowering, best alternative, it still places the sign holder in an uncomfortable position. I can imagine that when the homeless hold up their new professionally designed signs, onlookers say such things as: “With talent like that, you could get a job as an artist or graphic designer!” Then, the homeless sign holder might awkwardly explain that someone else made it for them. They again – look dependent and reliant on someone else. Or, the sign holder could BS and say thanks, give me a job ; )

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      You make a good point. I’ve been thinking, too, about how those new beautiful signs won’t last. As I say above, they’re not going to solve anything, but I do at least see the value in the project. I think the best part of it is the interviews, honestly.

  • Shawn Chapman

    At least Serrano didn’t dunk them in a vat of urine. At least I hope he didn’t!

  • Jake Myers

    I wish the story went more like this, “Andres Serrano hand paints 1000 signs and hands them to homeless people all over NYC. Then informs the public that they can purchase these beautiful, one-of-a-kind works of art from these homeless art dealers. Critics & collectors will actually observe these impoverished people and offer serious sums of money. To avoid accidentally buying a fake, privileged people will spend time with the less fortunate and maybe slowly grow a conscience while trying to acquire an original Serrano commodity.”

    • Willie Baronet

      Love this idea!

  • Cavewoman

    The new signs seem to completely miss the point. Homeless people don’t need shiny new signs (that don’t match their dire situation…If I saw someone holding one on the streets I would think it was either a joke, or someone was playing a joke on them…which feels like the case) but they could probably use $20…or not to be exploited to make an artist look kind and concerned. I agree that maybe making the issue more visible through art is a good thing for artists to spend their time on, but neither of these projects are doing it appropriately, IMO.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Thanks for your thoughts. I spent a long time grappling with the Nakayama and Hope project also and whether I thought it had any/enough value. It’s useful to hear another POV.

      • Cavewoman

        Thanks for the article!

  • Jordan R

    http://frontburner.dmagazine.com/2013/12/19/buying-signs-from-homeless-people-is-hot-new-trend/

    Dallas artist, Willie Baronet has incorporated his work with the homeless into his art practice for twenty years. In 2012, my gallery was fortunate to host one of his installations of in the “we are all homeless” series of work. I agree with one of the commenters, the signs are real, and the stories are quite moving when not set to cheesy dance music.

    • Willie Baronet

      Thank you Jordan! I left a longer comment above with a link to the TEDx talk. The discomfort continues!

  • AML

    I hope this is not just a dead end piece and instead the beginning of a project for Serrano. There’s something quite ironic to it all, push it to a postmodern edge then, that might be interesting… There’s so much potential, unfortunately this piece does not stand on it’s own.

  • Naomi Anderegg

    I don’t think the sign change is any better — there’s an anonymity afforded to those who sell their signs for a project that isn’t afforded to those who agree to have their pictures taken and get a sign makeover–note that apparently more people were willing to sell their signs and make new ones than were willing to have their signs redone. And, sure, the music is cheesy & upbeat. But so are the colors in the new signs pictured.

    I’d be interested to see how the new signs go. . . I think it’s likely they’d collect more help or change with the original cardboard sign than with the glitzy new one. Have they thought about collecting any pre- and post- data on sign effectiveness?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Great question. I don’t know! We should ask them. (Or, if you guys are reading, please chime in.)

  • http://rottenart.wordpress.com/ rottenart

    So an artist of his caliber and acclaim is using the signs of the homeless in a cringe-worthy video art piece and the actual homeless people (who needs to know their stories anyway?) get a measly $20? Sounds about right for one of the grand dames of contemporary art world.

  • Willie Baronet

    I also have mixed feelings about the project. Part of me believes anyone raising awareness about homelessness is helping in some way. Another part of me is conflicted about the context of art vs. the context of social activism, and the ways those intersect. I’m still very much involved in producing work as I continue to buy signs (which I started doing in 1993), and continue to struggle with my own issues of affluence, artistic integrity, and what home truly means. I am really grateful for all the people willing to engage in the discomfort of this discussion.

    Here is a link to a TEDx talk from last year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J35V-1-d_zc

    • Willie Baronet

      And thank you Jordan Roth and Sandi Edgar for your mentions, support and awareness!

      • Patrick Lichty

        I had also thought about having a show of signs in the late 2000’s, exhibiting them with the story of the individual , etc. But I had thought of $50 + materials to make a new sign. I think there is something to consciousness – raising, but then there is the issue of homelessness. which is so complex. I also felt this closer to home as even though I am a sessional white middle-class academic, I found myself in periods of hunger for the first time this year, and without savings.

        The national dialogue on poverty is one long coming. Too bad it took the slide of white middle-classers to make it visible.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    a unique moment of human interaction was involved, homeless people have almost none of that.

  • betribal

    I don’t know why I appear to be the only one who doesn’t have a problem with this. The concept of readymade signs for the homeless, however, truly terrifies me. I don’t think it will serve the homeless very well, either.

  • lady

    Maybe Serrano’s project is in response to SIgns for the Homeless. they are sort of saying “your signs are not good enough”. Serrano is looking at them in and of themselves as a form of currency. And what in our culture of marketing and marketing of culture is not attched to a video with a catchy beat? Perhaps to be continued in the course at Brown “the Anthropology of Homelessness” or does NYU offer similar?

  • Sara

    Nakayama and Hope’s concept is interesting but I have to wonder what it does to advance the conversation// bring awareness around homelessness. To give their subjects a beautiful piece of art is neat and might compel passersby to pause, but how does the typography tell their story or cause that passerby to ask a question other than “How’d they get that nice sign”.

    There’s a Boston artist Marc Clamage who recently did a project profiling the homeless in Harvard Square. He captured them at work and took down their stories–and paid them for their time. Definitely worth a look if you wonder about Serrano’s or Hope and Nakayama’s intentions/executions. http://www.ipaintwhatisee.com/panhandlers.htm

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