Necessity is the Mother of Invention: How have Modern Notions of Necessity Influenced the Way We Live?

By: Madeline Walsh
May 5, 2014

Today, necessity has become a malleable concept. The idea of “home” is known as a universal human need. Yet, it has an array of associations depending income, status or circumstance. With the launch of iconic, cookie cutter suburbia, the notion of home is often dictated by a master “American Dream” template. Media depictions of ‘home life’ also inflate expectations and ignite a hunger for frivolous “necessities.” People with the money to live modern are living in excess, while people who are living sparsely do not have  money to cover basic needs. Artists such as Andrea Zittel, Greg Klohen and Michael Rakowtiz explore the true cost of freedom in the restricting world of necessary excess.

Andrea Zittel A-Z 1993 Living Units Photo: Andrea Zittel
Andrea Zittel
A-Z 1993 Living Units
Photo: Andrea Zittel

Andrea Zittel builds bare bones living structures. The contemporary artist’s company A-Z Administrative Services, produces living units, vehicles and furniture with streamlined designs for necessary functions. Zittel’s minimal yet multi-functional living units pick apart daily routines and react to their surrounding environments. The works are heavily inspired by 20th century modernist design and architecture, best exemplified by Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. Zittel’s living units comment on necessity’s link to the idea of “home,” and how excessive consumption can be confining. The floating island, is another of Zittel’s eye-opening pieces that discusses the trappings of modern necessity. Zittel designed and helped construct a concrete island off the coast of Denmark, that supported her one month isolated stay. Much of Zittel’s works uncover the social phenomenon that push people into consumerism as well as isolation through lifestyle. Although we consider ourselves a modern society, are we actually living according to modernist values? It is interesting to note the focus on resourcefulness, everyday rituals and minimalism in Zittel’s projects. These are often fundamental features of homeless communities.

Kloehn and his Dumpster House, 2013 New York City, NY Photo: Home Harmonizing
Kloehn and his Dumpster House, 2013
New York City, NY
Photo: Home Harmonizing

NBC Bay Area featured Oakland artist Greg Kloehn for his “public art” that turns trash into shelter. His fascination with makeshift street dwellings sparked the project. In the Summer of 2013, Kloehn converted a New York City dumpster into his first living space. As public art, the houses contextually build upon the landscape by repurposing its existing elements. Each house is just big enough to accommodate its owner and provide a safer place to sleep. As seen in the clip above, each home is mounted on wheels and constantly drifting alongside its owner through the city. This creates an active dialogue between the house and its surroundings. The physical conversation is an extended commentary on homelessness.

Gregory Kloehn, House Photo: Gregory Kloehn
Gregory Kloehn, House
Photo: Gregory Kloehn

The houses literally open the door to a new interpretation of “public” artwork. Unlike monuments or murals, these pieces do not stimulate the public in a traditional sense. The miniature houses develop discussion, contextualize issues and are relatable. Kloehn’s project calls attention to the frequently ignored homeless population and presents a call for action. Oakland residents can get involved and volunteer to build more houses. The homes show how art can contribute to, engage with and better a city or space.

Kevin Cyr, "Camper Kart," 2009 Photo: West Collection
Kevin Cyr, “Camper Kart,” 2009
Photo: West Collection

Kevin Cyr makes a similar observation about mobile habitats and autonomy. With his “Camper Kart,” Cyr conflates ideas of consumerism with poverty. The cart is stocked with camping essentials like a camping stove, lantern, cooler and cassette player to ensure comfort. Cyr borrows visual language straight from the street to make a firm statement about the trappings of excess. “Camper Kart” taps into the irony of the cart, symbolic of consumer culture, and its frequent use among homeless people. Like Zittel’s work, the cart focuses on the freedom that comes with frugality. The socially charged visual language also references the Arte Povera practice of using found objects to challenge institutions and culture. But why does “Camper Kart” have a stronger impact off the streets than on it? While both Kloehn and Cyr’s work highlight a larger issue, they are only temporary “fixes.” This was an obstacle Michael Rakowitz encountered with his paraSITE project.

Image of Bill S’s paraSITE Shelter Cambridge, MA Photo: Michael Rakowitz
Image of Bill S’s paraSITE Shelter
Cambridge, MA
Photo: Michael Rakowitz

Michael Rakowitz began paraSITE as a student in MIT’s Visual Arts department. While overseas in Jordan, Rakowitz studied Bedouin tribes and nomadic culture. This sparked his interest in developing transportable architecture. Back in Boston, Rakowitziz noticed a similar drift among Harvard Square’s homeless. These people often relocated in search of important resources, namely heat expelled from HVAC vents. Rakowtiz’s paraSITE prototype was given to Bill Stone, a homeless man living near MIT. After earning Stone’s trust, Rakowtiz gained invaluable feedback on his work. As the project grew, there were more customized orders that featured elements catering to each person’s lifestyle and needs. For example, a Jabba the Hutt shaped tent was created for a Star Wars fan. Later tents had more intricate and included windows at different heights for safety, and pockets for storage and display of personal possessions.

Mario Merz, "Uncreal City, Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Nine" 1989 Guggenheim Museum, New York City Photo: Guggenheim Museum
Mario Merz, “Unreal City, Nineteen Hundred Eighty-Nine” 1989
Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Photo: Guggenheim Museum

Structurally, and thematically, paraSITE is similar to Arte Povera’s Mario Merz. Arte Povera began in 1960s Italy and focused on using nature and everyday life as art to question institutions. Merz was a pioneer of Arte Povera and his works remain highly relevant today. Among Merz’s best known works is his igloo series. From a literal standpoint, the igloo is a “transitory dwelling.” But, instead of melting away, the igloo remains constant with relocation. So, Merz customizes and explores the possibilities within the igloo by working in different locations. Each igloo is typically made of materials native to the artwork’s site. For example, Merz used eucalyptus leaves on an igloo for his 1979 Australian show. Other igloo details include historical quotes, stacks of newspaper or physical changes in size. Merz’s 1989 work at the Guggenheim in New York is aptly named “Unreal City.” The title reflects on the surreality of the contemporary art world, the unconventional museum architecture and the construct of metropolitan life.

Image of Joe H’s paraSITE Shelter, February 2000 New York City, NY Photo: Michael Rakowitz
Image of Joe H’s paraSITE Shelter, February 2000
New York City, NY
Photo: Michael Rakowitz
Sketch for Artie & Myra’s paraSITE Shelter, April 2000 New York City, NY Photo: Michael Rakowitz
Sketch for Artie & Myra’s paraSITE Shelter, April 2000
New York City, NY
Photo: Michael Rakowitz

While Rakowitz’s tents offered a small comfort to those with a life of few, his work was hardly a solution to the larger issue of homelessness. Many of the inflatable homes were seen as emblems of socio political resistance and of human resilience. Although the tents were considered to be an act of whistle blowing, they did little to improve homeless peoples’ lives. If we evaluate our chosen lifestyles and actual needs independently, we may find that home cannot be prescribed as something that is one size fits all. This is also true in finding solutions for homelessness. It is crucial to reassess actual necessity. Too often we are pushed into choosing from a preordained model of excessive living. As these artists discovered, simplicity is key.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *