Empty offices vs Homeless!
Video workshop with users of ‘The House of the Homeless’
Workshop and TV-production by artists Peter Callesen and Kenneth A. Balfelt with Mia S. Mortensen, Steen Flemming Hansen and Michael J. Christensen
Homeless and drug addicts are often portraited as victims in the media. Through their contact with society, the media and the social system it is often easy also to inscribe themselves into that role. The idea with the project is to “turn the camera around” so that the homeless actively form the preception of reality. By being the one that asks the questions and by organizing a TV program a posibility for participating in society and the media as an active subject arises. Through generating ideas and making a TV-production the victimised can act as subjects and active political operators, and point at problems they find relevant.
Through an invitation from the public art project ‘NB – Lad os mødes (Lets meet)’, Danish artist Peter R. Callesen () and I decided to visit De Hjemløses Hus (The House of the Homeless) at Nørrebro in Copenhagen. The house is a place for homeless to come and socialise, eat, get a haircut or shower, talk to someone or participate in activities. Most of the users are homeless, former or potential homeless, drug or alcohol addicts, or have other social or mental problems.
Here we went through a very open process to find a project that could be relevant for the users of the house. First, through talk with the users, we heard that an activity of some kind could be interesting. Then we thought of a video workshop. Then we brainstormed about a subject for a video production.
Some ideas were the kids of the homeless, the pets of the homeless and, the one we chose in common, about that so many offices are empty at the same time as there are homeless! This became the theme for the production, that was decided to try to get broadcasted on TV.
We found three people who were committed to participate, Mia S. Mortensen, Steen Flemming Hansen and Michael J. Christensen, and we all worked on equal terms in the project.
We worked together for 9 month to finish the TV-programme. We got a very close relationship but never really talked about problems. The “normal” realationship between a social worker and a homeless is through dealing with problems. We did not want to do that. We did not want to be social workers and teachers. Rather, we wanted to work together on a project where we all had an equal say and all could contribute.We as artists and Mia, Steen and Michael as themselves with individual skills. Afterall, we needed each other to make the project! A good example is when we needed to film a break-in only Mia, Steen and Michael knew how that look like for real!
We have squatted an attractive empty office building in the harbour of Copenhagen and have interviewed responsible politicians. The focus is on the way our society prioritise and and how choises that are benificial in one context increases homelessness.
Art as Research in Social Work
The House of The Homeless have taken up the model Peter and I used and want to make more projects of this type. I would like to try and describe what we did and how the project also became research in social work:
What we did from the beginning was to say, mostly to ourselves, that we are now teachers or social workers. We want to participate in the project on equal terms with the homeless – they have experiences and qualifications that we do not have and visa versa. By doing this we did not meet around a personal problem or history but was focused on making a project together. This I think created a situation where we “meet” as whole subjects and not in an “I have a problem” vs.” I can solve a problem” dichotomy which the normal meeting point between homeless and social worker. We did not know what problems they had and their personal background except from a few obvious things, like drug use.
We insisted throughout the process that Mia, Steen and Michael participated in all steps of the project. We did not want to decide matters without them. This came to a test in the long and tiresome editing process.
Once we decided for the video project, we decided that we did not want to show the homeless as victims. We wanted them to be active subjects that participated in democratic efforts and be part of the formation of reality. It is, was our experience, very easy to inscribe yourself into a victim position. But we proved that an active political subject position was possible as well!
Also, we put up the term that the project would take as long as it takes and that the pace was determined by the homeless. We expected the project to last 1-2 months but it needed 9 month before the TV programme was ready to be broadcasted!
They social worker of The House of The Homeless, Jørgen Torkelund, said that he could see that they three participants had “grown” and gained more self-confidence. He emphasised that the feeling of participating in a project where they are openly respected and has influence was important.
To participate in an art project and the space it offers often came up. Because of the prejudice about art we, Peter and I, were often framed in a way that opened up processes and ideas. The limitations that any process has were seen as different and more formable because we were artists!