Conversations: Michael Rakowitz

Conversations: Michael Rakowitz

Symbolic interventions in problematic urban situations

If you’ve walked the streets of Baltimore, Boston, or New York since 1998 there’s a chance you may have unwittingly glimpsed the work of Brooklyn-based artist Michael Rakowitz. His paraSITE shelters, which he designs in collaboration with homeless residents of the aforementioned cities, are tent-like structures that inflate by absorbing the air from urban buildings’ exterior ventilation systems, providing a portable refuge for their users. A paraSITEshelter is currently on view in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Safe: Design Takes on Risk.

Such symbolic interventions in problematic urban situations characterize Rakowitz’s practice. In 2001 he was invited to contribute a piece to the temporary exhibition GZ: 01 at 129 Lafayette Street, on the northern periphery of Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood. TriBeach Holdings LLC, the real estate company that owned the building, offered seven floors of the vacant structure as a space for temporary exhibitions, dually providing a pro bono service to artists and curators and cannily raising the market profile of the space. Rakowitz executed a project entitled Rise which extended a duct from the oven of nearby Chinese bakery Fei Dar several stories high into the gallery space, filling the room with the scent of baking buns. In a statement on the project Rakowitz wrote, “Mindful of the fissure between the community and the organizers of the exhibition, I wanted to bridge the gallery space with the local community in some way.”

For Dull Roar, Rakowitz’s first solo show at Lombard-Freid Projects in New York this past spring, he presented several drawings and sculptures, among them an inflatable recreation of architect Minoru Yamasaki’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis. Rakowitz’s structure deflated and re-inflated on its own, continuously reenacting the spectacle produced by the dynamiting of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972, an event commonly cited as marking "the end of modernism.”

Many of Rakowitz’s projects exist just as comfortably in the "real world” as they do in galleries or museums. In Return, for example, Rakowitz has recreated his Iraqi grandfather’s import/export business. The ongoing project was included in two exhibitions in 2004 and Rakowitz now aspires to become the first importer of Iraqi dates since the US enacted an embargo on Iraqi goods in 1990.

For this interview, NYFA Current editor Nick Stillman met up with Rakowitz in his Brooklyn studio to discuss his recent work, the ongoing nature of projects that were conceptualized several years ago, his teaching position at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and baseball.

Nick Stillman: Let’s start somewhat generally. Your projects almost always involve a social interaction with local communities in cities you’ve been based in. What do you take away from these experiences and what do you hope the communities you’ve worked in and with will take away?

Michael Rakowitz: Working with communities becomes a way for me to better understand a city. I want to understand my own urban situation, so I really am interested in how there are these social networks defining a city that I don’t always have access to. For instance, when I was conceiving paraSITE, it became clear that the homeless had a completely different topographical relationship to the city than I did, which was a fascinating education into how a city presents itself—or even conceals itself.

I don’t necessarily have a hope for what the citizens I’ve worked with take away from the experience. I view my projects as performing a necessary disturbance or jolt in everyday experience that will maybe slowly change our relationship to a crisis or a problem.

NS: When your projects hinge so completely around an active engagement with communities of people in a city, how and when do you consider them successes or failures—or even sufficiently fulfilling?

MR: I don’t know about fulfillment… I feel a real sense of discomfort about the capability of any of my projects to do anything on the level of function or pragmatism. I have an interest in design, starting from when I went to art school. I, along with my parents, thought the most lucrative way of being involved with art was to be a graphic designer—a very early ’90s way of approaching survival in the art world. After two years I realized that my desires to work spatially and three-dimensionally weren’t being met. But once I moved over into sculpture, what I started to miss was the way in which design could visually influence the viewer’s experience. That played into what I started to do in my undergrad work. I never wanted to show sculptural work in galleries, I wanted it to pop out of bricks and architecture and I wanted to hide things in matchbooks and produce disturbances in the everyday.

I also like the physical moment of—like in Rise, for instance—a piece of ductwork absurdly rising 125 feet into another building. If all formal aspects disappear, I have to say I probably would enjoy artmaking less. I am interested in the spatiality and physicality of making art, but I’m also aware of their existence as symbols. Their efficacy as a part of how the project is broadcast or understood is something that I hope lingers a little bit as an aftertaste.

With these projects, I’m interested in enlisting a sense of pathos, having the project do something on the level of metaphor. I look at my works as an alternative system of education for myself, a real urban education. But there’s an implicit understanding on my part; I know that they don’t solve problems. So I don’t see the projects as being things that are ever “successful,” but I wonder sometimes if my failures aren’t loud enough.

NS: You were just talking about enjoying the physicality of object-making, which is a good entry point into talking about Dull Roar, your recent solo show at Lombard-Freid Projects in New York. Are you as comfortable making work that will be seen in the “safe” space of the art gallery as you are making work that exists in the world?

MR: That’s a great question. I think it’s a lot less comfortable for me.

NS: I sense that. You’ve done a good amount of distinct projects over the past several years and the ongoing existence of almost all of them transcends their lifespan in a gallery or museum.

MR: Showing work in galleries is a new relationship for me, one that only presented itself as an option last year when I started working with Lombard-Freid. It’s something I’m definitely interested in. I enjoyed suddenly having a place to show all these drawings and other ideas that mostly existed as research for all my other projects. The dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in 1972 was really important to me and in some way influenced all of my work, so having the opportunity to engage in an almost scholarly discussion through objects and drawings how that one moment exists as this horrible poetry which defines all these other moments up until September 10, 2001 was almost like showing an equation—showing all the mathematical work that went into devising the solutions for the other projects I’ve been interested in.

NS: But the majority of your work seems tailored—custom-built, even—as a commentary on the site where it will be seen. Do you have a backlog of ideas ready to use or are the ideas you formulate contingent on the specific social and political connotations of the venue?

MR: It varies. I’m very thankful for having some training as a designer; sometimes it’s what saves me. I feel like I can operate with only 60 or 70 days to develop a project.

NS: It must help to be materially versatile in that situation.

MR: Yeah. And also to have really good friends and students who are so generous and willing to help. That’s a big part of anyone’s career. Climate Control, a project I did at P.S.1 in 2000 didn’t come from a backlog or arsenal of ideas, but I didn’t think twice about it back then. It wasn’t stressful. I had a good time with that one. And I actually really enjoyed working on the planning of it. Climate Control regulated the ventilation, temperature, and moisture levels of the room in which it was installed with a network of air ducts and fans to make it comply with institutional standards. It was really funny to be developing ideas about air. When I first had a studio visit with the curator and she told me to start to think about what I might do there, I had all these ideas about doing a series of performances where I would breathe into the ventilation system or maybe insert things into it, and I got there and there was no ventilation. Nothing. It was all radiators. So, I necessarily have to be flexible. When you’re doing a project about a city, you can’t help but work with people, and that requires building something from the ground up and being prepared to be surprised or even disappointed if the project doesn’t work out.

NS: Your best-known pieces in this urban art vein—probably your best-known works in general—are the paraSITE shelters, inflatable structures you’ve custom-built for homeless people in Baltimore, New York, and in the Boston area. Do you have any sense what their life cycles are like? Are you still in contact with the people you’ve given them to?

MR: That part of it, for me, represents the critical element of the work. The paraSITEs are probably the most socially engaged pieces I’ve done, just in the way they’ve progressed and how discussion has developed around the work. They allow for interaction as a type of transaction. That’s something that’s stayed intact with quite a few of the users. This guy Michael in New York is an older homeless man and stayed in touch with me for quite some time. I know Michael was using his for years. I know some of the guys in Cambridge, MA, were, too.

More important than the lifespan for me is learning about how the homeless interact with each other. When Michael called me and asked for a meeting so we could talk about my designing a shelter for him, he introduced me to a lot of homeless people that were part of his crew living in the area of Herald Square. There’s a very efficacious aspect to paraSITE that really creates the discussion in and of itself about function and metaphor. I’ve been very careful to tell each person I’ve built one for that they’re not solutions. They’re not even coming from someone who’s a designer. TheparaSITEs problematize the problem. And the people who use them are aware of that. They’re willing to speak with those who approach them and ask about it, which does happen because the shelters are curious objects.

NS: And how were you able to build a level of trust with the homeless people you worked with to the point where you could collaboratively design a shelter?

MR: The first time I spoke with anybody living on the streets about this idea was when I was coming from an architecture studio class that I was enrolled in at MIT. I saw a group of homeless men who had consistently been there for about six months, so we knew of each other and there was a comfort level there. I had come from a critique where questions were being asked about the project and the feeling was that it was something that could never be done and that it was totally a dreaming project… maybe this is the difference between architects and artists. I sat and spoke with them briefly and asked them to look at a series of drawings and said, “Do you think this is a totally stupid piece of academic BS? Is this something we could work on or should it just stay on paper?” They were intrigued enough to make a meeting with me. They told me to come over to the municipal shelter where they stayed. It was almost a boardroom-type meeting. So I walked into this conference room and they were all kind of skeptical. They knew I had come from an architecture studio class and were noticeably colder than normal. Someone said, “So… you’re an architect?” And I said, “No! No, I’m an artist.” And they all went, “Oh! Well that’s not so far from us.” But if I was an architect then I was almost part of the problem, one of the people who might perpetuate their life on the streets.

From there, we went to my studio and at that point I had built a pretty crude prototype of paraSITE out of black trash bags and contact cement. It didn’t look like much of anything… maybe like an inflatable hamburger. (Laughs) And they were like, “Uh, okay… this is all right,” trying not to hurt my feelings while they were looking at this kind of screwed up thing. So they started to question me: “Black trash bags: why?” I was thinking they’d want privacy. That was my first mistake. They wanted to be able to see potential attackers and they also wanted to be seen. They were thinking, “If we’re going to participate in this weird project, then the project should do what we’ve been unable to do—move out of the periphery of people’s view and actually be in front of them.”

That’s where my awareness of what inflatables meant started to become more fluent. They didn’t only have this relationship to architecture, like with the collective Archigram, inflatables also have this relationship to, like, county fairs and the Moonbounce, and it started to dawn on me that inflatables have connotations of pleasure and fun and as a piece of agitational furniture paraSITE could do what Gustav Klutsis’ Radio Oratorcould have done in the time leading up to the Russian Revolution: bring people in through graphics and a material presence.

From then on, I realized I was going to relinquish control and say goodbye to these drawings and plans I had. The only thing of interest I would do would be to create the connection to the building. The users were the designers of consequence. Developing relationships and trust has, for me, has been what’s kept the project alive and has served as a lesson for approaching other projects.

NS: You’re continuing to build and distribute shelters?

MR: Every winter. Since 1998 over 34 have been made. The frequency with which they were made dropped significantly after September 11, just because of what you can and can’t do with ventilation in a place like New York. It’s a different experience than building in a place like Baltimore now, where there’s a lot less of a surveillance culture.

NS: Let’s talk about Return. One thing I didn’t realize about the project when I initially saw it at Longwood Art Gallery was your intention for it to be a completely consuming and ongoing entity that’s actually come to take on the form of a “real”—if slightly (and intentionally) absurd—import/export business making transactions with Iraq. Could you talk about the ongoing nature of the project and where it stands currently?

MR: I actually did the first part of the Return project at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Queens for a show called Jamaica Flux: Windows and Work Spaces and I had it situated in a Korean clothing store that also worked in import/export. I sent a couple of small things to Iraq, but Return’s drop box was more something meant to be seen as a symbol. At Longwood, I started to think how great it would be to set up something where the budget for the show could provide the overhead to enable the shipping to and from Iraq to happen and to encourage it through advertising. I decided to put no art in the gallery and to set up a shipping center like Fed Ex or anything else and started to read books on how to run a successful import/export business and how to get one started. I wanted to resurrect the import/export business operated by my grandfather—an Iraqi who was exiled to the US in 1946—and to use it as something that would be… well, a symbol, because the tariffs that are in place make it absolutely unprofitable to do any trade with Iraq. I wanted Return to isolate and examine all of the really horrible inequities that are involved in this war.

For me, the project’s ongoing nature is important, because I actually do believe in certain aspects of cultural exchange coming from this horrible situation, and also in finding ways in which one’s culture can be disseminated through things like crafts and food and bringing that into the artistic discussion rather than just using night vision video or the things you see on CNN.

I think I only skimmed the surface of the project’s potential in those two shows. I’m taking the ongoing nature of the project very seriously now, and looking into being the first company or “port” that will bring Iraqi dates back into the United States. Iraqi dates—the Cadillac of dates—haven’t entered the country since 1990, which is when the US embargo of Iraq began. I found out the Iraqi date industry felt an impact when the US stopped importing products, and also realized how absurd it was for Bush to get on television internationally and say “mission accomplished” when there was no infrastructure in Iraq and things weren’t moving back and forth between these two nations that had gone to war. Nothing had been accomplished.

There were limited times UPS or Fed Ex shipped to Iraq, but as soon as an insurgent attack happened or there was a beheading, packages would be returned. Also, the fees were exorbitant. So I wanted for the project to use its budget to help Iraqi people ship things to their country that they wouldn’t be able to normally because the shipping costs involved were too high. So there’s that aspect of it, but I don’t want the project to be perceived as charity. It’s meant specifically to illuminate that the problem exists. Cultural specificities can work as incredible social tools. For instance, tomorrow night will be the first part of a project I’m starting called Enemy Kitchen, which will be a cooking show with my mother where we’re cooking Iraqi recipes—dangerous food. (Laughs) Something happens when you’re eating the food of the enemy. It’s like falling in love with Baader-Meinhof.

I’m going to tell you kind of a long story, but it’s a good story. (leaves room and returns with a can of date syrup) So I was in Sahadi’s Imports on Atlantic Avenue, this Middle Eastern grocery store, which was one of my grandparents’ first stops when they came to America from Iraq. Iraqis—Iraqi Jews, anyway—use date syrup instead of honey on Rosh Hashanah. My grandfather used to press the syrup from the dates. After 1990, when I would go to look for this stuff, you could only get Israeli date syrup in the US. It was sort of amber-colored and was really more like honey. It just didn’t taste like the Iraqi stuff. So I went to Sahadi’s in 2004 and saw this date syrup in a really beautiful can and Charlie, the proprietor with whom I had become friendly, beckons me to the back of the store and tells me my mother would love it. I asked why and he whispered that it was from Baghdad. But on the can it said it was prepared in Lebanon. Turns out the date syrup is actually made in Baghdad, then shipped over in trucks to Syria where it gets put in an unmarked can that’s brought to Lebanon and given this label, after which it’s shipped to the US!

NS: I was going to guess some fake labeling procedure was at work.

MR: Exactly. And I was so into this contraband moment. The sad part of the story is that last year, when I went to go get it again at Sahadi’s to use it as an object in the gallery for Return,they had only one case left. I bought the whole case. When Bush said “mission accomplished,” the Iraqi manufacturers then wanted the date syrup label to read Product of Iraq. The Lebanese and Syrians were fine with it until the discussion turned to exporting it to the US, and the American importers were looking at what it would cost and decided it would just be too much. They would have been bringing it in at a loss. So there’s this absence.

I’m actually working on locating the people who are making the date syrup. I think I’ve found them, and I want to bring it in. I want to make a deal—with a budget from someone—and import this date syrup, which may cost something ridiculous like $30 a can. But of course, through these objects you can really illustrate the absurdity of the American-Iraqi relationship. I mean, if it isn’t unacceptable to hear about people being blown up every day, I know people will be pissed off when they have to pay too much for a can of date syrup. One of the things I’m working on now is actually having it be sustainable, and I don’t know if this may mean taking years off from teaching and going full-time into import/export, because I’m also on the verge of signing the first deal to bring in Iraqi dates.

NS: Very clearly, you’re making work that doesn’t have a lot to do with aesthetics or any sort of aesthetic tradition. Hypothetically, how would you defend yourself against criticism from purist-types who would argue that your work doesn’t belong in art institutions?

MR: Well, I did confront this a little bit in the form of an audience at the Royal College of Art last year in London, who I think were very… offended by the fact that I would take ideas outside the white box. I gave a lecture on everything from paraSITE toMinaret to Rise to Return and Dull Roar and the feeling was that when paraSITEmoves out into real space it betrays what art is. It seemed so conservative that I kind of didn’t believe it was happening, but I felt that there were concerns that an idea could be poetic in nature and also have an interest in function attached to it. A showroom situation seemed to be more acceptable than going out into the world with these things and letting them live a life. 

I think it’s very easy to take on moralistic positions and say, “How can you work with these people; you’re exploiting them,” but that complicates the situation by throwing it into blacks and whites, which isn’t necessarily useful. paraSITEcan be seen as portraiture, and can maybe be looked at as my most conservative piece on that level because I’m just responding to what people want. When desire and need come together, that’s a territory I want to live in.

NS: You’ve appeared on a lot of panels and have given numerous lectures over the past few years. How important is it for artists to speak lucidly and openly about their own work?

MR: This is a current event question, almost, because I have students who just don’t want to talk about their work. Depending on the kind of work that’s being done, staying silent about it can add something to its perception.

NS: It clearly can; Richard Prince, for example. His silence, or the silence he achieves through what he doesn’t say, is part of the work.

MR: Right. I went to Marfa this summer, and I think some of those tour guides were told not to be so lucid when talking about Donald Judd’s work.

NS: Strange. Judd, in particular, was so effusive when talking and writing about his own work.

MR: But he also had very distinct ideas about how art should be viewed.

NS: Definitely. Dogmatic ideas.

MR: Yeah. And I don’t know that those ideas involved a discussion at the point of viewership. I think it’s important to have the tools of being able to write and speak about your work available to you. I think some work benefits from not being explainable. I try very hard to not be didactic, so I don’t want to throw text or language at the viewer when they’re seeing a work like paraSITE. I have to say that if you’re going out into the world and doing interventionist work, I do think it’s important to find a way of communicating with language. But it would be dangerous to say that it’s an essential part, because that might shut down an opportunity for another way of operating to come about. Does that make some sense?

NS: What I think you’re saying is that you don’t want to freeze out the intuitive aspect of being an artist, that side that’s not really explicable in the English language.

MR: That’s a good way of putting it, because intuitive artmaking is something I can appreciate but have never felt I’ve been able to participate in. Being a teacher has forced me into the space where I’m dealing with a lot of individuals and having to address work not only with my own criteria but with the criteria of the artist who’s producing it. With students, I really need to refrain from saying it should be this way or that way and rather to wonder whether the project is doing what the author wants it to do.

NS: Speaking of teaching, let’s pick up on something we were talking about before the interview, which is your interest in baseball. You told me you had assigned your class to read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which discusses how to remain competitive in professional baseball with the enormous economic disadvantages a lot of teams face compared to richer organizations that operate in bigger media markets than, say, Oakland or Kansas City. 

MR: It’s nice to find a way to link all the things you’re interested in. You mentioned to me before you came over that you were scouring stats, so you know what I’m talking about! Baseball is something I’m passionately drawn to. I really love it. If I weren’t making art I’d probably try to find a way to be a beat reporter.Moneyball formulates an alternative way of running a baseball team in a climate of economic disparity. How to compete? It illustrates the rise of the cerebral, statistical ballplayer with six fingers or who’s too fat to play ball but that ballplayer does things outside of the “language,” so to speak, that makes it onto highlight shows. I introduced this metaphor to my students, who already know that I’m a total baseball nut and find some comedy in this, which is always disarming.

Moneyball illustrates that alternative models can exist as a creative means of addressing situations, whether it be figuring out new methods of creating housing in East Baltimore or devising other examples of community art for students who aren’t satisfied with its pre-existing models. I also have them read things like Viktor Papanec’s Design for the Real World in my Agitational Design class, where they’re approaching the circumstance of East Baltimore as this really poor area of a very tough city. Moneyball is this insanely convincing text that shows a David and Goliath relationship that’s applicable to how things work in the city they’re in and also demonstrates that you can have a revolution based purely on a business model. They were really into it. It also gave them an inroad to understanding how SoHo became New York’s successful art district in the ’60s in a neighborhood of semi-abandoned industrial buildings. Baltimore is a place that students have always moved away from. Now I think we’re seeing a generation of students who are actually staying and realizing that alternative structures arise when you have enough people to create a critical mass combined with opportunities like cheap rent, available buildings, land, and places to do projects you want to do.

Michael Rakowitz’s work can be seen in the exhibition Safe: Design Takes on Risk,on view at the Museum of Modern Art until January 2.

For more information on Michael Rakowitz, visit:

Images, from top: Installation view of Return (2004-present), Longwood Art Gallery; installation view of Dull Roar (2005), Lombard-Freid Projects, New York. All images courtesy the artist
Amy Aronoff
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