How much is a life worth? How much is the life of a homeless person worth?
This question is at the heart of a divisive art work from Danish professional provocateur Kristian von Hornsleth who aims to “privatise homelessness” by selling homeless people to buyers for over £25,000. For this money, the homeless person’s owner can track them 24-7 online, will be able to see video updates and they also receive a gold portrait of their “homeless”.
Reducing human beings to numbers and nouns and turning them into a “real-life Pokémon Go or human Tamagotchi” has unsurprisingly proved controversial – but, Hornsleth says, that’s the point. Now he has your attention, he wants you to think about what is more shocking – his project or the fact that people are homeless in 21st century Britain.
The Big Issue: Why did you want to create a project that focussed on homelessness?
Kristian von Hornsleth: It’s a mirror of the perversion of society. Firstly, you have surveillance. We are all being surveyed by Google or NSA and so on – when I put trackers on the homeless that is a mirror to the perversion of surveillance. Secondly, there’s a bit about celebrity, reality TV stuff – I’m putting a mirror to that and making homeless guys reality TV stars. Thirdly, there the whole idea about deregulation and privatisation – it seems to be the only trick you know here in Britain to solve problems. When I’m privatising the homeless I’m mirroring that perversion.
Homeless people often seem invisible – people walk past them on the street without noticing. Is your aim to make them very visible?
We’re giving them a platform and a voice, and they seem to really catch on and find it exciting. We have given them have mobile phones, they’re uploading videos of what they experience, some of the horrible stuff they are witnessing. They tell us stories. They’re using us as a platform for their communication and we’re using them as a platform for our communication.
Some people will still think your project is tasteless.
We have to fight for the right to listen to each other. We can disagree in a courteous way. We’ve been turned down by five major galleries in London because the project has bite and nobody wants to get bitten.
How much is a person worth? Is it £24,989 [the price Hornsleth was selling participants for at the time of the interview. The price has subsequently risen]?
Yes and no. It’s a number – and it’s growing. We put the price up the more media we get. It came from 200,000 Danish kronor, when it’s converted it comes to that strange number. And I thought it was funny, why would it be such a definite number?
After this project is done there will be no more homeless in Britain. I promise.
How is the project going to benefit the participants?
Not to offend you in any way but this project is not charity at all. Of course, they take 50 per cent after we are through the first year. A lot of journalists ask, “How much to they get?” They never talk about homelessness, the problems in social structures, they only want to know about the money. Do you not respect these homeless people enough to think they can negotiate their own deal? Most of them are perfectly ok with the deal we made with them.
The charity Centrepoint have said you “risk burying a very serious issue beneath avant garde sensationalism” – what is your response?
Sensationalism, the shock effect, the provocation, the raised eyebrow, it’s like another colour on your palate when you do art. When you do performative art in the public space you need to scare the hell out of people before they get off of their fat asses.
Is it hard to shock people anymore?
No. But it’s hard for people to admit that they’re shocked. Everybody is so cool but deep down they’re really shocked because most people live normal quiet lives and they hide from the big problems in society. When I started this I had never spoken to a homeless in my whole life. Isn’t that embarrassing? We have a joke amonst the film crew – “the middle-class scum, they don’t know what’s going on”.
They can put men on the moon but they can’t take a man off the street
Is the shocking thing here less about your project and more about the reality of homelessness in Britain today?
When I came here in 2009, when I saw thousands of homeless people around I thought, that doesn’t match with my image of Britain. A great country, great fun, interesting people – why would they be so unintelligent not to solve that problem? They can put men on the moon but they can’t take a man off the street. Everyone is fighting to get ahead, to make another dollar. What happened to common sense and brotherhood? That is why we make a statement.
“Mark is growing a beard to look like his hero Jeremy Corbyn”
Can art change anything?
I’ve done projects like this before. In Africa I made 100 people change their name to my name in exchange for livestock. Not to brag but afterwards the whole aid industry in Scandinavia changed. A lot of new projects were started where people could buy a physical goat, a physical house a physical tool, to be sent to Africans so there were no more middlemen.
What do you hope to achieve this time?
After this project is done there will be no more homeless in Britain. I promise. Of course, we want to make money, it’s a business project, but the main issue here is awareness. If you can look at a problem in a new, strange way there might be people with power out there who say, that’s true – why would you have tens of thousands running around doing nothing? Why don’t we make them into citizens so we can tax them and make them buy all our shit? It’s free floating capital in the street, why not?
What do you think about Hornsleth’s Homeless Tracker? Email firstname.lastname@example.org @BigIssue