TOWNSMEN project

Work in progress on homelessness in Paris in 2020

conceived during a 6-months long artist residency at “Le Laboratoire de La Creation” in Paris, France

“In the context of a foreign city, I dare to romanticize and appreciate the vast amount of collective energy accumulated from every separate individual-
That had been one of the first concepts that firmly came to my mind when I first arrived in Paris in late 2019 in response to Julien de Casabianca’s invitation to become a resident artist in “Le Laboratoire de la Creation” – a contemporary art studio situated at the very epicenter of the city, a few meters away from the Louvre Museum and just above “Chatelet-Les Halles” – one of the largest underground stations in the world and a frequent home to many of Paris’s homeless.

As I was spending a lot of time in my little studio and working mostly by night, I was feeling quite disconnected to the city’s dynamics at first. And it was during that period of adjusting, when the many homeless on the streets outside became the main focus of my work (being, as they are, by default disconnected to same). Which meant I was choosing to look closely into something, which people seemed accustomed to avoid, (un)consciously and physically. And every city creates and deals with similar issues of inequality, consumerism, violence, misjustice and greed, in Paris homelessness has been on the rise for decades and so, it is one of the first things you find yourself presented to when entering the city, both, in the context of a Metro warning, and as an unavoidable scenery. So as tourists everywhere around me were doing their best to avoid the homeless in their Instagram picture frames, as an artist, I felt compelled to witness, mirror and reflect on the whole thing the way It is – true. And the truth seemed to be that the homelessness crisis in Paris, (with numbers of rough sleepers in the city’s metropolitan area having increased with roughly 84% in the proceeding 10-15 years) is only a speck of the humanitarian catastrophe our western world is causing globally and daily. The everwidening gap between rich and poor in this, otherwise well-functioning European megapolis, is so tangible here, that it almost takes effort not to think about the economic violence enacted upon the population and the state of exhaustion, the current EU civilization has reached.

While devoting time observing, taking pictures and thinking about these people and the various aspects of their lives (from the very routine to the extraordinary bits), I kept noticing how different most particulars about their living are in comparison to the rest of the city’s inhabitants. Their communication channels, their mobility, the difficulties they face, but also the kind of freedom of not thinking about time much, invisibility strategies etc. It was all so different and contrasting. And it was happening at the same time and public space as everything else, only somehow unnoticed. I dug into some researches from the INSEE* and the biggest annual homelessness census project in the city “Nuit de la Solidarite**”. The numbers are saddening and they are increasing. More people in Paris end up in a precarious street living situation each year. The relative estimated number of rough sleepers is 30 000 for the wider metropolitan area. One survey done on aids needed was pointing out that 11% of homeless people interviewed in the counting said they do not need anything and confirmed that they choose this life and wouldn’t live in another “within the system” way. 11% here meaning about 400 people out of the 3641 counted in the census in 2019 within the borders of the city. How curious! The utopia of choosing freedom. I had began thinking about the significance of public space and questioning on the ethical side the norms and policies in relation to it, implemented through urban spatial planning, and in our current circumstances, at the birth of what seems to be the age of civic disobedience and mass rebellion such a choice of living could easily be considered a very solid statement and act of civic rebellion. I thought about how these people’s way of life, in its exceptional nature, is breaking somewhat the centuries long chain of society’s domestication that everyone else is pretty much contributing to. After all they are obtaining their physical space and happening their life in what is the opposite of isolation, for everyone to see and be discomforted by.

I decided that I would like to depict these people in a glamorous way. I wanted to give them this definite “cool” sense, as if they’re somewhat floating above all the botherings of the rest of the citizens. The mere thought of that was comic, but that was okay because in artwork, I have always liked to think that highlighting a playful aspect of an otherwise tragic scene is discomforting enough to not be disrespectful and still manages to draw attention and provoke thought on the same problematic***. So practically my plan was to develop an own pop art & culture-inspired visual approach. Work from the images of real people I’ve encountered on the streets but stylize them to very clean and defined characters and create a series of appealing flashy public artworks, from the kind that tourists tend to take selfies to, and in this way cause an opposite effect****, address peoples ignorance and challenge it.

Though they belong to the same disadvantaged group, I had no intention of generalizing or comparing one person to another. The truth is that some of these people are only good and full of light, while others have made some questionable decisions which led them to lead a life on the streets. Some are violent and some – peaceful, some are suffering and some are happy. With the language barrier in mind investing my days and creative energy in the exploration of this particular group of Parisians (and non-) has been a truly human experience.

*“Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques” – France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies **tr.: “Night of Solidarity” ***coming myself from an Eastern-European country, that’s still recovering from the damages of communism and the chaotic, soaked with corruption 90s, where approaching things from their comic side often seemed as the only good way to approach social topics ****opposite to the reaction street people actually cause to tourists and other passers by which would normally be indifference, avoidance and even repulsion

-Elena Nazarova; 2020

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