Confronting Homelessness Close to Home, with Help from Martha Rosler

Martha Rosler, "Housing Is a Human Right" (detail, 1989), Times Square Spectacolor animation (all images courtesy the New Foundation unless otherwise noted)
Martha Rosler, “Housing Is a Human Right” (detail, 1989), Times Square Spectacolor animation (all images courtesy the New Foundation unless otherwise noted)

SEATTLE — “Home Prices Bring Smiles, Tears.” “Anti-Homeless Attacks Won’t Solve Problem.” When I saw these headlines running across the Seattle Times and Seattle Weekly newspapers earlier this month, a single sentence flashed through my mind, on repeat: “Housing is a human right.” These are the words Martha Rosler programmed across the Spectacolor screen of a smaller, shabbier Times Square over 30 years ago, as part of the Public Art Fund project Messages to the Public. That same year, 1989, the renowned multimedia artist used an invitation from the Dia Art Foundation to create If You Lived Here…, a three-part, collaborative group show focused on homelessness and housing.

Over the past decade, as Times Square has continued exploding into an endlessly brighter, denser, gaudier spectacle, Rosler’s collection of flyers, newspaper clippings, informational pamphlets, and photo documentation of If You Lived Here… has quietly begun a new life, touring the world in response to ongoing requests and landing this month in the modest storefront gallery of Seattle’s the New Foundation. Mirroring the original show, this incarnation includes three exhibits in the gallery, as well as a yearlong series of affiliated shows, film screenings, and conversations at different organizations around the city, all living under a title from that Times Square sign whose technology has long since faded, but whose message remains as urgent as ever: Housing Is a Human Right.

Installation view, 'Martha Rosler: Home Front' at the New Foundation Seattle (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘Martha Rosler: Home Front’ at the New Foundation Seattle (click to enlarge)

Home Front, the gallery’s first cycle, fills the New Foundation with the visual remains of the exhibit’s first presentation, as well as additions made since the archive began touring 10 years ago. Newspaper clippings and calls for community action to combat rising rents and housing shortages blanket several tables throughout the space. Enlarged condo advertisements and infographics that visualize the increases in income disparity between the wealthiest and poorest US citizens over the past several decades widen across the wall like a mouth that’s stretching to make its voice better heard. Video works by artists included in If You Lived Here… cycle individually on a projector, while two smaller monitors make the 35 videos created for the original exhibition available on demand. In the back of the gallery, boxes of Rosler’s personal research files and selections from her library line the shelves. Despite the New Foundation’s small size, a single visit felt like an egregiously short time to spend with Home Front. And then I remembered, it’s only the first cycle of three.

My first few moments navigating the materials induced a wave of panic as I tried to determine where, exactly, one begins in a space so full of content. Overwhelmed by all of the competing voices and imagery and resources, not knowing where to look, the effect was something like being a tourist in Times Square. It was almost as if I’d forgotten how to look at art. Or, at least, needed a lesson in looking at this art.

Flyer inviting Donald and Ivana Trump to brunch at the Plaza (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Flyer inviting Donald and Ivana Trump to brunch at the Plaza (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

In my disoriented state, I became vulnerable to the familiar. The New York Times’ recognizable font drew my eyes up to an article from January 1989’s “Home” section that had been enlarged as a poster, hung high above the space. The story’s headline boasted, “Life at the Top: Even the Weather Is Different,” followed by related insights from a resident of Manhattan’s Trump Tower. Donald Trump’s name echoed again in a small flyer below the Times article. Posted at eye-level, it sardonically invited him and Ivanka to brunch at the Plaza, their then-recent $400 million purchase that had been contingent upon convincing a rent-controlled tenant to give up her apartment. Amid Trump’s victory in the Nevada primary this week, the flyer became more resonant than ever in its nod towards where the country stands on the socioeconomic concerns of Rosler’s assemblage of materials.

Even beyond its ties to national politics, the timing of this show’s arrival in Seattle couldn’t have been more poignant. Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency in response to the city’s homelessness crisis this past November. That was followed by the Coalition on Homelessness’s count of 4,505 unsheltered homeless people living in Seattle’s King County at the end of January, a 19% increase from the estimate last year.

I heard the startling numbers of the Coalition on Homelessness’s count during a community talk that included Rosler, the Coalition Executive Director Alison Eisinger, and community organizer Patty Flowers; it was one of the first public programs affiliated with Housing Is a Human Right. While much of the panel was spent educating the audience in the realities of the statistics and the speakers’ experiences organizing on the ground, it was a simple statement from Flowers that brought together the realities of the discussion and the content of Rosler’s show: “This is not a new phenomenon.”

The current state of homelessness and the cycles of unaffordable housing in the US that create it have been going on for centuries. Experiencing an exhibit that grapples with an issue of this scale in a meaningful way requires putting in the time and work that Rosler’s dense mass of materials commands. Standing in the gallery, I was confronted by an abundance of evidence from a cultural moment when homelessness was being combatted on all sides. I could only feel inadequate in my own awareness and efforts — both as an individual and as someone living in a community where this is the first major exhibit on the subject in recent memory. Organizations around the world have been asking to display this show for a reason, and it isn’t because Housing Is a Human Right is easy or beautiful to see. Rather, the questions it raises are necessary to ask ourselves, including the biggest, simplest one of all: What I am doing about this problem as a member of the human community that includes those who suffer from it?

Detail of Martha Rosler's 'Home Front' at the New Foundation Seattle (click to enlarge)
Detail of Martha Rosler’s ‘Home Front’ at the New Foundation Seattle (click to enlarge)
The reading room for Martha Rosler's 'Housing Is a Human Right' at the New Foundation Seattle
Detail of the reading room in Martha Rosler’s ‘Housing Is a Human Right’ at the New Foundation Seattle (click to enlarge)

In the two weeks since I first experienced Rosler’s exhibit, headlines like the ones papering the New Foundation Gallery appear with the same frequency as they did before. But now, every time I see one, I notice it more. I read the article with different questions in my mind — questions that centralize my role in contributing to both the problem and the possible solutions. That it required a New York artist to come to Seattle and put homelessness at the forefront of the visual art community’s conversations, when our greater community was already well into a state of crisis, is disconcerting. But it should also prompt a desire within those of us living here, inside of homes, to become residents of this issue over the next year, rather than mere tourists. Only then might we really understand that 1989 sign as something more than a romantic idea from the past that has faded quietly into the night.

Home Front, the first in Martha Rosler’s series of exhibitions at the New Foundation Seattle (312 2nd Avenue South), continues through March 26. Her umbrella project Housing Is a Human Right continues at the New Foundation and other locations around Seattle through January 15, 2017.

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