Michael Rakowitz

ParaSITE(1997-) by Michael Rakowitz

The son of Jewish parents—one an American, the other an Iraqi immigrant—, Michael Rakowitz’s work considers both historical and current social problems that often relate to the Middle East and Iraq. The idea for ParaSITE, a portable homeless shelter, is derived from the tents used by nomadic Arab Bedouins, which Rakowitz studied during an architecture residency as a graduate student in Jordan. 

During a frigid winter in Boston in 1997, Rakowitz developed a homeless shelter that would inflate when attached to warm air from a building’s vent, similar to how the Bedouins set up their tents based on the wind patterns of the desert. Each low-cost shelter is custom-made for its sole occupant, constructed by Rakowitz out of inexpensive materials–Ziploc bags, packing tape, and polyethylene sheets. The title ParaSITE refers to how living parasites function in the natural world by depending on external resources to survive–in this case, outtake ducts from buildings that serve as the “host” from which they receive the warm air that heats and inflates them. 

He began with distributing these shelters to over 30 unhoused people in Boston and Cambridge, MA, and New York City, drawing attention to the misguided social policies that led to large numbers of homeless people in both cities during the ’90s. Although the artist intended the project to push for changes and hoped it would permanently solve homelessness, the problems are even worse in 2022. 

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