paraSITE homeless shelter
(American, born 1973)
1997. Polyethylene, 42" x 36" x 11' (107 x 91.5 x 335 cm)
Michael Rakowitz addresses history, current events, and pressing social problems with his art. With his paraSITE homeless shelters, he aims to offer some relief to people living in the streets and to agitate for policy changes that would permanently solve the problem of homelessness. Each shelter is custom-made, and the design process begins with a conversation between the artist and the occupant. One occupant was an avid science-fiction fan, who requested that his shelter be shaped like Jabba the Hutt. Another wanted plenty of windows so that he could remain vigilant against potential attackers. After finalizing the design, Rakowitz builds the structure out of materials including Ziploc bags, packing tape, and, for his later models, sheets of polyethylene, a common plastic valued for its toughness, lightness, and flexibility. Like parasites in nature (including certain plants, insects, and fish), the paraSITE shelters need resources extracted from an external source in order to function. They attach to the air outtake ducts of buildings, which serve as the “host” from which they derive the warm air that heats and inflates them.
One of the most common forms of plastic known for being tough, light, and flexible. Made of synthetic materials, polyethylene is commonly used in plastic bags, food containers, and other packaging.
An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.
Shelter as Social Protest
When Michael Rakowitz first introduced paraSITE, many of its users saw it as a from of social protest and shouted slogans like, “We beat you, Uncle Sam!”1
Design Meets Policy
Rakowitz envisioned paraSITE as something that ideally would become obsolete. “These shelters should disappear like the problem should,” he has said. “In this case, the real designers are the policymakers.”2