Home Makers is a series of work exploring the politics and experience of homelessness in London. At a time when the number of people without shelter and the criminalization of homelessness is increasing, this work seeks to make visible in public spaces the individual experiences of homelessness, and the resilience evident in acts of home making in a hostile city.
The work began with a period of research and interviews with people who have experienced homelessness, as well as experts in the field, from which two initial projects emerged, documented here. The artist will continue with this body of work beyond the tight timetable of the Goldsmiths term, given the time required to work collaboratively with people in precarious situations. Hence the work described here includes reference to work planned for the coming months.
Public discourse on homelessness is often dominated by callous and self-referential narratives, such as the ethics of begging. There is less attention paid to the human experience, the extraordinary coping mechanisms of those who are forced by a broken housing and economic system to make their homes on the street. “Street Heritage” uses replica blue heritage plaques to invite passers-by to look again at the city around them. The plaques lead viewers to a website with interviews and photographs, providing a deeper understanding of the physical and emotional experience of homelessness, and the respect due to those who survive it.
The first plaque is on the Southbank, above a stairwell next to the skate park (figure 1). This was where Andy Palfreyman spent his first night homeless, the first of 30 years on the streets. The plaque includes the url for the street heritage website (figure 2), which features an interview with Andy, some photographs, a transcript of the interview, and information about the project. 1 1 www.streetheritage.org. The artist built Andy Palfreyman a basic website, www.andypalfreyman.com, to help his emerging career as a photographer. This is part of the artist’s commitment to proactively counter potentially exploitative relationships. 3 The work also questions the assumptions underlying the heritage plaque tradition, in which a narrowly defined “public” nominates “eminent” people within a narrow range of professional fields, adjudicated by an elite panel. By its insertion into public space, It enters a place where notions of legitimacy are questioned (Deutsche 1996). The first plaque was installed without permission, however later plaques will test the official system through nominations. 2 The artist has been invited to extend the project as a course for St Mungo’s Recovery College, for and with people who are in situations of housing insecurity, from May until August. The course will facilitate group research into potential candidates and places for commemoration by Street Heritage (see annex for outline). 25 towards Ilford Another strand of this project focuses on women and girls, who are the most invisible homeless. With streets too precarious for sleep, many find night buses are a place of relative safety (while most women view night buses as a place of potential threat). The number 25 bus, which goes from Holborn to Ilford, is the longest route in London, and the most popular for those who use buses for sleep. This work, “25 towards Ilford” (figure 2 and 3), pays respect to the resilience of those who find safety on London’s night buses, as well as making visible in the city people who have been excluded by the violence of the city. The artist hand embroidered the bus route of the number 25 on a miniature duvet cover, designed to match the size of two bus seats. The cover conjures images of bedrooms, and home, while the embroidery resonates feminine nurture and craft.
The artist spent time on number 25 buses, sitting near the work, inviting conversation with those who stopped to look at it. The intent was to create a discursive space for questions about homelessness, precarity, and care.
For the Goldsmiths “works in progress” demonstration (March 26-29), the artist acquired a London bus seat. The seat and embroidered cover were installed in 310 New Cross Road, where it was easily visible from the street, attracting passers-by and conversation.
In a poetic gesture, the work was finally left on a number 25 bus, with an explanatory note for anyone curious, explaining the work, and inviting someone to claim it.
25 towards Ilford
Women and girls are the invisible homeless. With streets too precarious for sleep, many find night buses are a place of relative safety. The number 25 from Holborn to Ilford is the longest bus ride in London, and has become the most popular for those who use buses for sleep. This work, “25 towards Ilford”, pays respect to those who have found safety on London’s night buses.
The work is part of a wider project by Rachel Reid exploring homelessness in London, which began with research and interviews with people who have experienced homelessness. A longer term work, “Street Heritage,” will commemorate unnoticed places around the city that have become temporary homes, using heritage plaques that invite passers-by to look again at the city around them. The plaques will also lead viewers to a website with interviews and photographs of subjects. The first plaque is on the Southbank, above a stairwell next to the skate park. Future subjects and locations for plaques are being chosen in collaboration with a group of people who’ve experienced homelessness.
Rachel Reid has spent more than two decades working in human rights and journalism