BY VIRTUE OF
Spanning an eighteen story building in the center of Jacksonville, Florida, By Virtue Of is a collaborative, site-specific video installation by Chop ’em Down Films and Faith XLVII. The large-scale projection, made possible by Art Republic, adorns the city wall for a week, giving a monumental space to some of America’s most marginalized people; the homeless.
The black and white video is a culmination of detailed footage of hands filmed during interviews the artists conducted with those living on Jacksonville’s streets. Like books, the hands tell stories of what they have been through. Slow movements, delicate gestures and subconscious motions make up the scenes to the film – a match is lit, stones are organised, tattoos are shown, sand is filtered. Clenched hands narrate stories of power, or anger, while open hands intimate an offering, or a search for an altruistic embrace.
Every day people walk past the homeless in public spaces with a blind spot in their vision, failing to engage on a humanistic level. By bringing this imagery to tower over the city, the humanity of those who have fallen off of the system is impressed onto a space where they are often made to feel unwelcome.
Hands are incredibly expressive parts of the human body, and although they are able to display intimate and personal stories, they create a commonality between us in their pseudo-anonymity. In this project hands are used as a symbol of humanity.
The work is a critic on the capitalistic dream, which lacks institutional empathy for those not actively participating. Studies have shown that the majority of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, and are only one financial emergency or unexpected expense away from being destitute. The homeless comprise of the elderly, those with physical and mental health conditions, addicts, veterans and people who have simply had some bad turns and landed up not being able to afford their bills, with no larger familial or structural support system to help them out of the situation.
Faith explains, “One anecdote a homeless shelter gave me was of a situation where a parent of a sick child prioritized the medical bills over the rent, leading them to land up on the streets. Once you are sleeping on the streets, the cops can take you to jail for loitering and subsequently, once you have a criminal record it is very hard to get a job. So there is a downward spiral that people fall into with debt that causes this too.”
In any healthy society there should be wide range of services to assist and help people to live a humane and dignified life. The access to clean drinking water, education, healthcare and shelter should be fundamental priorities of any society and government. “One of the things that shocked me moving to the USA was the amount of homelessness and the lack of support for people in need. With tax cuts going directly to the rich, social services being reduced and the unaffordable cost of healthcare, one can see that homelessness in America is symptomatic of deeper fundamental policies that will become a much huger problem if the root causes are not addressed.”
In Hemming Park, opposite from where the installation takes place, it has been lawfully ruled that one cannot give food to a homeless person without a permit; a rule whose only purpose, it seems, is to drive out those who have nowhere else to go.
Catching passers-by off guard, By Virtue Of does not at first blatantly appear to be about issues surrounding homeless. Rather, the piece aims to subtly consider the deeper connections of humankind and the responsibility and empathy inherent within that relationship.