There Is Always the Street
For six years, the Homeless Museum of Art (HOMU) has unflinchingly mocked the contemporary art world and held openings in its spunky live-in art installation, HOMU BKLYN. Filip Noterdaeme and his partner Daniel Isengart talk about the project's past and future.
- Recorded at HOMU BKLYN on May 29, 2009
Daniel Isengart: Two years ago, we announced the closing of HOMU BKLYN. But that didn't stop you from continuing your work.
Filip Noterdaeme: It was a concession to our landlord who had threatened to evict us if we continued to use the rental apartment as a public museum. His threat notwithstanding, we continued to have intimate, private openings for invited guests every now and then. In addition, I staged some public performances and sent provocative open letters to powerbrokers from the art world like Klaus Biesenbach from MoMA and Ruby Lerner from Creative Capital.
DI: Your latest public performance, Mission on the Bowery, last October, was sort of a turning point for you. Can you describe the performance?
FN: I set up a HOMU booth between the entrances of the New Museum and the Bowery Mission homeless shelter on four consecutive Sundays. Seated at the booth, which was modeled after Lucy's psychological advise booth in the "Peanuts" cartoons, I engaged in conversations with anyone who approached me, mostly visitors from the New Museum and homeless men from the Mission. In addition, I handed out copies of open letters I had written for the occasion, one pair of letters per week.
DI: What were the letters about?
FN: The letters reflected the absurd realities and contradictions that are shaping the New Bowery. Every pair of letters expressed juxtaposed positions. For example, I wrote the first letter to the Amateur, urging him to take the leap into the professional art world, and the second letter to the Artist, advising him to become an amateur. Another pair of letters addressed Lisa Philips, the Director of the New Museum, and Jesus. To Miss Philips, I wrote that she should consider following up her planned "Younger than Jesus" exhibit with a show called "Holier than Mary" that would showcase art by virgins. As to Jesus, I simply asked for his blessing so I could name myself the Jesus Christ Director - an ironic reference to Miss Philips's newly acquired official title, the Toby Devan Lewis Director - named in honor of Miss Devan Lewis's 64 million dollar pledge to the New Museum.
DI: You have used the HOMU booth once before at the Armory Show. How was it different this time?
FN: At the Armory, in 2005, I was a harmless parasite in a safe haven, and I had a relatively easy game of it. I was entertaining art insiders and my act was perceived as a welcome diversion from business-as-usual. On the Bowery, I was on the street, where I got the cold shoulder from the New Museum and spent a lot of time listening to homeless men who were desperate for attention - something that turned out to be quite a challenge and made it hard for me to stay in character.
DI: There was an incident with an associate curator of the New Museum...
FN: Amy Mackie. I knew her socially and she had expressed some interest in my action when I announced it. But since she never stopped by the booth, I ended up addressing one of my open letters directly to her. In the letter, I argued that the new New Museum had fallen short of its promise and urged her to follow the example of the late Marcia Tucker and start a vanguard museum of her own.
DI: How did she react?
FN: At first, she behaved like a good sport, but when a New York Times reporter got involved, she recoiled. I suppose there was some pressure from above: the New Museum's press office wouldn't even allow her to publicly respond. Subsequently, Amy broke off all contact with me, not returning my e-mails and literally fleeing the room when I tried to approach her at a party.
DI: She must have been scared to lose her job if she fraternized with you.
FN: One would think that an institution that hails itself as progressive would have the strength of character to engage in an open dialogue with someone who playfully probes its weak spots, but no: it was easier to ignore the unpleasant disturber - or to isolate him. It was all very disconcerting to me. I felt like I was fighting a corporate giant like Halliburton or something, not a museum. My mask of the Museum Director may have cracked when I found myself face to face with the homeless, but the New Museum's wire mesh fašade only stiffened when I tried to rattle it.
DI: Looking back now, how do you feel about the whole experience?
FN: It was simply one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had, and probably my best work to date. Once I set up shop on the Bowery sidewalk, everything took on this heightened meaning as I proceeded to draw parallels between the extremes that surrounded me: The Lehman Brothers banker telling me of his fear of being laid off and the homeless amputee in his dilapidated wheelchair who shouted at me that he wanted to die, the "HELL, YES" sign on the New Museum's fašade and the painted slogan "Jesus Said, 'If You Catch Them, I'll Clean Them'" on the hood of the Bowery Mission's Outreach Truck, permanently parked right across from my booth. Even the titles of the current exhibits at the New Museum ("Live Forever" and "To be Someone") became ominous in the light of my performance. In short, everything seemed to highlight the divide between the neglected and the so-called progressives I had set to point out. The day after I wrapped up my action, the New York Times published an excellent article about it, which was quite gratifying.
DI: A couple of months after your outing on the Bowery, we held another opening at HOMU BKLYN.
FN: Yes, there had been several requests by acquaintances and art insiders to come and visit the Museum and I agreed to hold an opening just for them. But it all felt a bit like a repeat performance - aided by the fact that the visitors had been primed and kind of knew what to expect. During Mission on the Bowery, anything could happen: I was fully exposed and vulnerable to potential harassment and aggression. It was extremely challenging but also much more thrilling than holding court in the safety of my own home, lying in bed and playing cat and mouse with a captive, committed audience. After the opening, I went through a phase of soul-searching and ultimately decided to take my museum director act back to the street with a performance series I will call ADMIT ONE.
DI: Is this going to be any different from what you did on the Bowery?
FN: Yes. On the Bowery, the booth functioned as an outpost of my Museum. This time, I will boldly declare the "street" to be the Museum - and the homeless its living art. The booth will function as a ticket booth, and I will be selective as to who will be "allowed" to visit the Homeless Museum. People will have to sit down at the booth and interview with me before I issue (or deny) them an "Admit One" ticket.
DI: Will you charge for admission?
FN: The Homeless Museum of Art will proudly remain free of charge.
DI: Where will you set up shop?
FN: Locations will vary. For example, one day I may not feel like taking the subway and select a spot somewhere in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Essentially, through my performance, I will turn my immediate surroundings into the Museum no matter where I set up the booth. I have done this before: at the Armory Show, where I "pocketed" the entire art fair; with HOMU Cribs in Kansas City, where I recreated HOMU in private homes; and with HOMU BKLYN in my apartment. Now, I am appropriating the street in general.
DI: Obviously, you will do this new street action again in character.
FN: Yes, I have grown rather fond of the museum director. He allows me to do and say things I would never dare to without the mask - or, as it were, the fake beard. Incidentally, this is not the first time that I am using an alter ego to express myself. I started doing that in my grad student days at Hunter College, back in the early 90's. At the time, I presented myself as "Marcellus Wasbending-Ttum, Homoplagiarist."
DI: Can you describe him?
FN: I played him as a slightly mad artist who lived according to his own rules and always seemed to misinterpret his surroundings. I would go around in hunting garb with my pet Dachshund in tow as if this was completely normal for anyone attending a "Hunter College." To perfect the image, I donned a fake beard - the very one I have been using for the Museum Director - and smoked a pipe. I also declared the men's bathroom as my studio and exhibition space, claiming it was the only place for "real exchange."
DI: How did the faculty and students react to that?
FN: My co-students were a bit spooked because I never played it straight. My professors were totally at a loss. I would ask them things like, "Can you teach me how to create a masterpiece?", citing this as the only reason I had enrolled in their Master of Fine Arts program.
DI: Did any professor ever come up to you and say, "Come on, cut the crap"?
FN: No. No one dared to break my fourth wall. I once saw a report in which one professor noted that he couldn't decide if I was a "con man or a genius." My work was heavily influenced by appropriation practices, which were all the rage in New York City's art scene at the time. As a matter of fact, I also moonlighted as a ghost painter for two appropriation masters, the artist-duo McDermott & McGough.
To make a long story short, the Chair of the Art Department, Sanford Wurmfeld, eventually accused me of plagiarism. I appealed, but to no avail. There was even a petition on my behalf by fellow students. But, evidently, the faculty couldn't wait to get me out of there, and [laughs] the Homoplagiarist got expelled for plagiarism.
DI: How did you handle the situation?
FN: At first, being expelled felt like a victory over the system. I had pressed a sensitive button and the bomb went off - only that it went off right in my face, and I had to deal with the consequences.
DI: What were the consequences?
FN: I felt really ostracized. I couldn't figure out a way of capitalizing on my enfant terrible status, and the stigma of the rejection literally chased me into the artist closet. Disappointed that an allegedly progressive art school, which I saw as representative of the contemporary art world, had nothing but contempt for what I did, I turned my back on it all and decided to become a museum educator. It took me a very long time, more than ten years, to gather the strength to go public again with my art. But, this time, I was going to really rub it in and literally glorify "outsiderdom."
DI: This connection that you are making between art and homelessness - can you trace where it stems from?
FN: I think a part of me has always felt homeless because of my complicated upbringing. My father was a career diplomat and we kept moving from place to place, residing in fancy embassies where nothing was technically ours. Then, in my teenage years, I discovered art, and felt like I had finally found a home - a place that was not bound to time and space, a place where I thought my eccentricity would be accepted and embraced. In fact, I did enjoy an early commercial success when I started out as a visual artist in Belgium. When I got kicked out of art school in New York some years later, it crushed my hopes for a career in the contemporary art world, and I picked the museum world as my new home. Working for many years at the Metropolitan and the Guggenheim Museum, I slowly learned how to tune into works of art, unlocking their mysteries like doors that would open into another world where I felt more at home than in what we call reality. But the established museum world also proved somewhat treacherous, and I eventually decided to create a museum of my own. I chose homelessness as my theme because it felt like the least likely subject for a museum, plus I really felt an affinity for the homeless: having observed them for years and even volunteering for a shelter at some point, I found their fight for survival and sometimes uncanny showmanship much more compelling than most of what I would come across in the contemporary art scene that seemed increasingly obsessed with fame and money. Eventually, the concept of homelessness took a new meaning for me when I applied it to the cultural climate of the time. By then, I had spent ten years working inside the museum world and seen enough to build a whole new repertoire of parody and institutional critique. HOMU became a mouthpiece that allowed me to shamelessly point my finger at the cultural establishment and urge everyone to laugh with me. But now of course, as we find ourselves in a recession, my critique of the self-inflated art world - its lack of imagination, its infatuation with corporate values, and its real estate deals - has become somewhat superfluous and all too easy, which is exactly why I decided to challenge myself anew and hit the street.
DI: You are going back to your project's roots...
FN: I have reached a new level of freedom where I am able to comfortably deal with complex philosophical and ethical questions regarding homelessness without feeling defensive. I think it is crucial we move beyond the obvious when dealing with homelessness and look to art and philosophy for a better understanding of it - many great philosophers, including Novalis, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Levinas, have addressed homelessness as a complex issue that concerns us all. When I started the HOMU project, I got a lot of negative reactions because of people's associations with the word "homeless." For a while, I shied away from emphasizing too much on it and kept pointing at the double entendre of the project's name. Now, I am not afraid of going there anymore. I know that declaring the homeless as living art is an extreme provocation - I am literally appropriating people in the name of art - but I am not doing it to exploit or fetishize them; I am doing it because I see them as living symbols for the otherness from which we have become estranged and which we are increasingly vilifying. It is precisely this "otherness" that I am missing in the contemporary art world. As performance artist Penny Arcade once said to me, "An artist is always speaking from the edge of society - unless he is co-opted by the mainstream." In light of this, I think I will have a more interesting '09 summer performing on the streets of New York City than ogling self-conscious contemporary art at the Venice Biennale.
DI: I can cook you a Venetian meal to come home to after your outings.