The Nomadic Dwellings project, an intriguing example of socially engaged art, addresses a homeless person’s need for impermanent shelter by actively recruiting architects into a visual arts space to engage in original creation. It is the inspiration of Folie/Culture (roughly translated, Madness/Culture), an organization based in Quebec City with a mandate to encourage reflection on mental health issues by artists from all disciplines. This project was motivated by the fact that many of the homeless are mentally ill.
As underlined by Folie/Culture director Céline Marcotte, the goal is not to engage in political intervention that will solve the problem of homelessness, but to introduce an artist’s’ reflection on a pressing social issue into a public space. The architects were given an assignment that is foreign to their normal practice – constructing a dwelling for a single person living on the street, working with concepts of impermanence, portability and versatility. The other criterion was the use of materials that are easy to find, inexpensive and, as far as possible, recyclable.
Folie/Culture invited eight participants based in Gaspé, Montreal, Vancouver and their own city, including architects and architecture interns, designers and artists. The exhibition was originally mounted in Quebec City in 2007 as part of Homeless Night. Saskatoon is its fourth and final stop.
Before being exhibited in the gallery, the pieces were installed in situ at locations around Saskatoon. I saw them on a cloudy afternoon in Friendship Park, in a biting south-east breeze that threatened rain. The artists’ presence was signalled by their materials: tarps, nylon, insulated plastic, corrugated cardboard, rope and, in one case, bent dogwood branches.
Discussions with the creators involved not only how their pieces address the theme but the larger context of shelter and the loss of it, in Saskatoon and elsewhere.
BouchardBoucher (Élisabeth Bouchard and Éric Boucher), originally from Quebec, toured North America before alighting in Vancouver. On their travels they focussed on the homelessness caused by the mortgage meltdown in the United States. Their contribution, Urban Camouflage, is a series of waterproof, insulated blankets, the outer surfaces printed with photographed reproductions of brick, concrete and graffiti-covered walls. The blankets have been user-tested.
Nicolas Marier from the Collectif EKIP was stretching blue plastic tarpaulins over public art, in trees and over park benches, demonstrating how features of the urban landscape can be appropriated as shelter elements. The French part of his title, Blues/Bleus, also means “bruises”.
Alejandro Montero of Tergos Écodesign was displaying and demonstrating The Poncho Shelter, a garment made of fabric roll-ends that converts handily into a tent. When collapsed, the articulated folding struts are stored in a suspended interior pouch.
A young First Nations woman tried out Christopher Varady-Szabo’s Caracoon, a cross between a carapace and a cocoon made of fabric stretched over a frame of interlaced branches. Wheels at the narrow end make it portable and allow it to double as a carrier.
Jean-François Prost was setting out to distribute and post printed materials in downtown Saskatoon on measures to legalize squatting in empty buildings, under the slogan “Use It or Lose It”. His ultra-simple tent construction, Addition, can be attached to the walls of buildings in a corner.
Jean-Maxime Labrecque, an architecture intern, makes a scathing social criticism in his Inhabitable, Foldable Document, a stackable 6+-foot cardboard box with air-holes labelled Corpo, for the convenient storage of itinerant human beings.
Architects Croft/Pelletier and Claude Fugère were unable to travel to Saskatoon. Their contributions were exhibited only in the gallery.
The least nomadic piece, Fugère’s La boîte urbaine [The Urban Box], consists of a cubical structure that can be set up as a dwelling by night and folded into a park bench by day. The finished product would be made of real or simulated wood and require the collaboration of an enlightened municipal government.
In Lanterne [Lantern], the Croft-Pelletier team set out to explore the project’s paradoxical aspects of homelessness (exclusion) and homeless people appropriating an architect-designed dwelling (inclusion). The result, modelled on the Chinese paper lantern, is a fabric tube supported by hula hoops, 3 feet in diameter and long enough to provide sleeping and storage space. It collapses into a plywood box on wheels.
The project clearly succeeds in engaging designers in a reflection on the needs of the homeless for light, portable shelter, discretion and a quick escape. At the political extremes are Prost’s challenge to “Use It or Lose It” and Labrecque’s “Corpo”, with its implied annihilation of individuality and identity. Between the two, immediate acts of sympathetic imagination draw attention to the raw challenges of life without shelter.
— Tod Emel