Email from Dorthe Abildgaard
Sun, 11 Mar 2001

............ Thanks a lot for the info, I am interested in following the discussion in case you publish some material for people stuck somewhere - not being able to come to this discussion.

I enclose an article I wrote recently on some of the artists I met in Budapest. Maybe it has your interest!

Best wishes and keep in touch!

Dorthe Abildgaard (DCA Foundation)


Down and Out in Budapest and Vollsmose

Why are beggars despised? - for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'get money, get it legally and get lot of it'? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour: he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933 (1)

The situation of George Orwell's beggar seems to be not that miserable at all and in comparison with present day workaholics and the new poor described by Zygmunt Bauman in his recent book 'Work, consumerism and the new poor', the beggar at least in the 1930s was given voice in Orwell's book. (2)

Orwell took refugee from his Etonian background and secured position in the Imperial Police and lived and experienced the underworld of beggars and tramps in 1930s London and Paris. His intervention into the gutter was lead by a desire for describing the reality of beggars, gaggers, chanters and mugfakers at first hand (3). In fact, one of realism's strongest doctrine for being true to reality was the self-experienced sensation. If you haven't been there you would not know!

And indeed his book has given us a document of reality seen through the eyes and language of one of this century's significant pre-dogma writers. Finally and maybe most of all the book gives an insight to better understanding of man's wish for freedom and the consequences it might have of failure, invisibility and exclusion.

Orwell's situation as observer and sympathiser in Down and Out resembles, if transplanted to present day society, both mass media strategies as well as artistic practices. To cut it short, there seem to be an urge for being involved with contemporary reality and focus on social issues such as homelessness, the new poor, immigrants and drug addicts as well as issues of more worldwide consequence like global economy, environmental problems etc. But when artists invite marginalised groups to participate and even involve in artistic practice and reflection, what actually happens and with which aims are this invitation given and taken? Are their acts in fact led by a wish to change the values and status quo of today's society or rather by a wish to change the concept of art?

Another homeless project- or photos of importance? In 1997 two young artists initiate the project Inside Out : photographs by Budapest's homeless. The idea of the project was given by the artists Dominic Hislop and Mikls Erhardt who invited homeless in Budapest to tell their own stories through photographs:

The Inside Out project began in July 1997. Between then and February 1998 around 40 homeless people living in Budapest were given simple colour disposable cameras and invited to take photographs of whatever they considered to be interesting or important to them in their everyday lives with the knowledge that their pictures would later be viewed publicly as part of an exhibition. The participants were approached on a fairly random basis in the City's Metro stations and homeless shelters. Through the support of our sponsors we were able to recompense the participants for their work (4).

The photographs as a whole give a kind of montage-orientation in the lives of people living in the streets, in public community houses and shelters. Followed by text passages from interviews done by the artists each of the different situations on the photos are commented. What we see is not the glossy colour prints by Richard Billingham committed to the artist's experience of his own proletarian background. Rather, the choice of photography as the media of expression for this specific social group points to an unhabitual structural coupling of that specific media and the homeless.

For a short period of time the homeless's search for cardboard boxes, copper and other rejected goods collected and sold to sustain a living, was substituted with a kind of mapping of one's own reality. A gesture which is both a subversive maybe unintended critique of contemporary society, combining defiance with elegy, and, at the same time, an optimistic grasping of everyday life practices and experiences.The desires and needs that formerly drove the homeless through the streets and community houses were transformed into communication and existential awareness.

The subjective dimension of the project co-exists with objective data, given in the catalogue, on the supposedly increased but incalculable number of homeless in Hungary: 'Estimating the number of the homeless is considered a problematic issue in both Hungarian and international literature. Difficulties arise from the definition of homelessness and also from the heterogeneity and geographical mobility' Though, as a kind of statistical postscript, the number of homeless in Budapest is estimated by the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service to be app. 15-20.000. The absence of exact figures on homeless somehow concludes a gradually non-existence of homelessness in the eyes of others; that is, in governmental policies and once more underlines the failure of statistical inquiry, which only reproduces data of the system to which it belongs (5).

The photographs were shown in a city gallery of Budapest and, during the opening, homeless were the audience, as well as the protagonists of the installation. Giving voice to the homeless was provided by the artists, but the plural voices to be heard were the homeless themselves. As the American collective Group Material's actions and exhibitions in the 80s, this exhibition did not follow 'real gallerY' standards and the curatorial policy was unorthodox. It refused to posit the artists as 'autors' of the project and the homeless as the unfitting. Neither Erhardt or Hislop were presented by their names in the gallery and, in the catalogue, they figure simply at the back cover as the persons conceptualising the project. The question of authorship was complicated even further by the way the homeless handed over the cameras to friends, family and others giving the project a transitory character of freedom and equality for all participants- whether professional artists, homeless or simply passersby.

The fact that the exhibition was shown in a public funded gallery, rather than a commercial gallery, may explain the openness towards a more publicly responsible programming of the exhibitions. The exhibition seems to ask - where is the place of the homeless in cultural production? The unneeded and unwanted were removed from the streets of London during Thatcher, in Budapest put into secure community houses and in Vollsmose, Denmark, locked up into stereotype housing estates. The seemingly well intended social (dis-)integration of a group of marginalised people has been persistent and, as a consequence this group became invisible and non-audible or simply described as a pitiful group by the mass media. The two artists1 invitation gave the homeless a conceptual framework. The installation and the catalogue expanded the initial private commitment to a cultural production defined by process and exchange rather than any normative doctrines, and focus our attention on a specific social issue that represents both failed policies and resistance to the conformity of society. The insistent interest in practises involving the real world rather than a traditional studio-bound way of making art connects the project to conceptual art practises but the actions and observations inherited in the project are activist in mentality.

Rebel with a cause The Centre of Urbanity, Dialogue and Information (CUDI) is a project run from an apartment in Vollsmose, a suburb of one of Denmark's larger provincial cities. CUDI is a multi-cultural and interdisciplinary experiment realised by governmental funding and with support from the Danish workers' organisation LO (6). The economic involvement of these benefactors necessarily question the interests they might have in the project, and if CUDI's political activities will be accepted, if they critise the policies they represent?

Already by its establishment back in the 70s Vollsmose was an architectural disaster like, at that time, many of the public housing estates built in Europe. Through the 80s and 90s the Vollsmose estate went through a process of becoming more and more overcrowded with people, whom the society did not know, where to place. But from being a place with almost no public awareness and attention, the estate recently found itself being the main subject for discussing the increase in law-breaking and moral decay.

In the Danish media police reports on the disorder in Vollsmose, and other similar estates in Denmark, described them as overcrowded prisons, being the nests for all kinds of crime, drug dealing and sexual promiscuity. The media1s sensational picturing of 'criminal elements' without doubt reaffirmed the residents' of their social misfitting in society. The media and statistics on the tenants' heterogeneous national backgrounds, altogether presented the residents of Vollsmose for a public fear of 'otherness' blown up by the media's coverage and finally resulting in public debates demanding protection and further exclusion of 'criminal' groups. Even though, the Vollsmose estate till now is without security entry systems and CCTV, but the local police surveillance has been increased, thereby indicating that the residents carries all blame of the supposedly huge crime in the area.

Simultaneously to this debate CUDI moved into the estate in the Summer 2000.

Their aim being that of establishing both a private (a home)and public residency (with exhibitions,visiting artists, urban projects etc) within the reach of anyone with the desire to engage it. As stated by themselves 'CUDI is a reaction to the media1s representation of reality that is in opposition to ethnic minorities. It is a reaction to the authorities' marginalisation of social loaded families. We want to change and displace existing social norms and structures to obtain more cultural visibility and democratic equality thereby strenghting the identity of the area'(7). The methods for doing this, involve practices in the expanded field of art, architecture and social activities. The centre was furnished and structured to meet these aims defined by the artists. A web site was established documenting the activities as well as giving space for the residents to posit ideas for future projects. A model for direct actions and virtual futurology was formed to unleash potentialities trapped in hegemonic structures and by the mass media1s manipulation of the identity of the site.

Until now several of CUDI's projects have confronted and involved residents in discussing the faults of a long-term and mistaken spatial policy and design of the estate. Symbolically the act of transplanting a lawn to the CUDI-residence, might be seen as a reverse demonstration of the anti-social spaces outside the individual private homes in Vollsmose. Following this the lawn is symbolically recast in the act of giving names and thereby direction to paths surrounding the parks. A process is enacted, and the site's transformation is all done by the help and intervention of the residents. Anyhow, one may ask whether this is once again an attempt - not made by authorities and planners - but by artists and local residents, to look to structural solutions (solving the residents' spatial disorientation around the parks) without giving any considerations to the social and economic factors of the residents' daily existence? Are CUDI's aims and activities merely echoing a tendency in recent rebuilding policies?

To put it briefly, social systems are systems of communication defined by language, media, cultural traditions etc. The concepts and practices implicated in these systems are in themselves not stabile elements within the social systems, but rather part of their respective and maybe temporal environment. For these systems to expand and couple with other systems, an intervention is necessary. The residents' act of making new paths and giving names to existing ones is, in other words, a way of opening a system of spatial design to a social system. This practice of constantly expanding established and maybe closed system of communication whether this is defined by differences in languages, professional expertise or other, provokes thoughts about the shifting relationship and potentialities between man and his immediate environment. CUDI seems to seek a way, in collaboration with the residents of Vollsmose, to expand the closed social as well as disciplinary systems, which keep us trapped in situations, where communication does not happen, but instead become a unilateral monologue of dominance and power. Societal change are in other words depended on intervention and an urge to communicate beyond normative borders of professional as well as of social and cultural significance.

CUDI's projects might serve both as political tools and as stimulants of imagination similar to the homeless project done in Budapest: linked together they delineate an utopian form of vision shared by the Situationists and Conceptualists alike. One which offers the multi-ethnic, the new poor and the homeless new ways of thinking about the environment in which they live, and, as a result offer new ways of thinking about changing the future.


1) Quoted from George Orwell (1983), Down and Out in Paris and London, Middelsex, Penguin Books, p. 154-55, first published 1933.

2) Baumann defines the new poor as a group excluded, because they do not possess the resources, that may adjust them to "the normative society". They have no consumer competence, no decent income and credit cards. They are non-consumers rather then "un-employed". The poor are totally useless and a bad investment for society, Zygmunt Baumann, (1999) Work, consumerism and the new poor,Buckingham, Open University Press. First published 1998, p. 83-98.

3) Gaggers - beggar or street performer of any kind;chanter - a street singer; mugfaker - a street photographer, George Orwell, op.cit., p. 155.

4) Inside Out,March 19 - April 12, 1998, Budapest Art Gallery, Hungary. See also www.c3.hu/collection/homeless

5) Ibid.

6) LO (Landsorganisation) is a labour movement established in 1898 by a housepainter. The movement is an economic and social interest organisation for several workers' groups in Denmark. Since the beginning of the movement, there has been a close collaboration between Lo and the Social Democrats.

7) See CUDI's website www.cudi.dk


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