City, Arts and Public Spaces: Mélanie Perrier and Barbara Formis

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by choreographer Mélanie Perrier and art philosopher Barbara Formis.
Keyword: PARIS versus SAN FRANCISCO : SDF versus Homeless
The homeless people are very present in the public spaces of the city of San Francisco. Mélanie and myself have been noticing this presence as a certain way to occupying the public space by way of performance art and methods of exhibition. Above all, we have been noticing a split between the American homeless and the French S.DF. A certain number of differences can be drawn. Above all, the terminology. In French, we name those people without a home S.D.F which is the acronym for “Sans Domicile Fixe”, which literally means: “without a fixed residency”. In English, they are called home-less, people without a home. We can see straight away that the French terminology gives a certain mobility to the homeless person and opens up to the possibility of having access to a house, a shelter. The S.D.F does potentially have a home, but this home is not one, but multiple, is not here but everywhere. On the opposite the homeless is deprived of the possibility of having a home, he or she is in a state of wandering, lost, without a place to go to. But, we can also notice that, opposite to what the terminology suggests, the S.D.F. is far less mobile than the homeless person in San Francisco. The American homeless has a chariot, several bags, big plastic bin bags: the home moves with his or her body. The homeless is like a snail. The chariot is part of his or her identity. The SDF is not a nomad, even if the terminology would suggest a certain geography, a certain appropriation of the space by the fact of moving. But the SDF makes possession of the public space as if it was a private space, he or she makes physical separations (walls made of paper, limits), the home becomes a shelter, usually fabricated with daily objects and shared with others. The SDF considers the public space as a domestic space. On the opposite, the homeless has a stronger sense of the public space, because walking and moving is the habitual way of using the public space, the homeless will excel the possession of the public space (by walking into a red light without noticing the cars forced to stop to make the homeless person pass). In comparison, the SDF is less visible, his or her existence is separated from the public space, by the usage of physical limits. Once that he or she stops asking for money, the appearance of his or her body diminishes. The homeless seems to be constantly in a situation of exhibition and performance, the SDF seems to be more aware of the limits between the scene and the stage, between what is made to be visible and what is not, between the private and the public space.
Does this differentiation between the SDF and the homeless has something to do with cultural identities, differences between the usage of public space between the US and France? This is the question that we would like to ask to the group.