PRINT January 2005

Michael Rakowitz

I like the poetics of Michael Rakowitz—the pragmatics of his aesthetics and the “making” (poiein) of his projects. Toying with the various boundaries between architecture, engineering, industrial design, and art, Rakowitz devises his works in a concise but richly metaphoric language that almost belies the practical and politial issues he addresses in his highly charged installations and public projects.

Born in New York in 1973 of Iraqi Jewish descent, Rakowitz is a nomad, always translating, transforming, shifting, renovating, and experimenting, continually asking what might happen if you put something belonging to one place, or one culture, into another. The effect resembles that of the poet who creates a surprising and unexpectedly vivid image through substitution, connection, or juxtaposition. After completing a masters of science in visual studies at MIT in 1998, he launched paraSITE that same year, first in the Boston area and later in New York: an ongoing project involving the production and distribution of inexpensive, portable dwellings in the form of inflatable, lightweight, double-layered plastic tents using trash bags and clear weatherproof packing tape. Created for use by the homeless during winter, the tents are designed to be attached to the exterior vents on buildings in major cities, temporarily exploiting, like parasites, the energy of their hosts. While every tent obtains and conserves precious heat, each one is also unique, custom-made for a specific individual’s desires and needs, which the artist determines over the course of several conversations with prospective users. One of Rakowitz’s “clients” asked for an elongated design while another preferred a bulbous, Jabba the Hutt–like look; one specified transparent walls, so that personal items would be visible from the outside, while others asked for opaque walls for privacy or for pocket windows to display “cardboard poetry.”

I first came across paraSITE while reading the city section of a New York newspaper, discovering only later that Rakowitz was an artist. This introduction is, I think, appropriate, given that Rakowitz—in contrast with most younger artists—does not engage the exhibition scenario as merely a site, cut off from ordinary life, for his cultural legitimization. For example, Rakowitz took over a run-down gallery space at New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center with his installation Climate Control, 2000–2001, creating a low-budget system of humidifiers and galvanized steel ductwork (the latter ran in and out of the windows, like veins carrying immaterial blood) that effectively “climatized” the room: a metaphorical shelter for homeless art? A short time later, rather than exhibiting anything of his own making in a gallery in downtown Manhattan, Rakowitz constructed a vent running from the ninth floor to a Chinese bakery at ground level, filling the room with the smell of baking buns. He gave the 2001 project the multivalent title Rise, bringing to mind both the buildings rising above and the breads rising below. In each of these projects, Rakowitz makes audiences conscious of how a building breathes, of how spaces and people are ultimately connected, of how air (that invisible connector of all things) circulates, and of how that circulation might be diverted toward liberatory purposes.

An exhibition in a former air-raid bunker in Berlin provided another location for an art project poetically related to the theme of air and connectivity: By Air, By Sea, 2002, was made by placing an electronic wildlife caller atop the tower at the bunker’s entrance. This broadcast the cries of indigenous birds of prey as well as other songbirds, causing multitudes of sparrows, robins, finches, and blackbirds to ally and mob the scene in an attempt to drive away the fictional predators, and then to disperse just as quickly. The event as a whole served as a metaphor for all the invisible, yet no less real, exchanges that occur in everyday life, for how we aggregate and disaggregate as multitudes, for how our breathing creates endless patterns of movement in and through social space.

Rakowitz’s latest work to involve a sense both of dislocation and connectivity is Test Ballot: Examining the Faulty Machinery of Democracy, 2004, an event executed on November 2 to coincide with the US presidential election. Instead of summoning birds, he brought fifteen voting machines, the Votomatic brand used in Florida during the contested 2000 ballot, to locations in Europe—including Milan, Ljubljana, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, Athens, and Innsbruck—and invited the global community to vote. This parallel election underscored what the artist felt was an odd paradox implied by the historic occasion: The outcome, on which so much depended globally, was derived only from the mandate of an American electorate. Again, Rakowitz proposed a connection between inside and outside (here, of the United States), asking for the admission of and interaction with different kinds of air.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is chief curator at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin.