Art professor Michael Rakowitz went to Istanbul last October to draw eyes on water bottle caps. He wasn’t vandalizing the products or satisfying a doodling urge, but preventing littering. Fourteen years ago, he started constructing shelters out of trash bags for homeless people in a project called paraSITE. Then in 2004, he held a cooking class for kids called Enemy Kitchen, teaching them how to make Iraqi food using recipes from his mother, who is an Iraqi Jew. This winter, he’s launching a food truck of the same name, where Iraqi cooks and veterans of the Iraq War will prepare and serve food to Chicagoans. North by Northwestern sat down with him to talk about the role of homeless people as designers in the paraSITE project, the inspiration for Enemy Kitchen and how popular his 2-year-old daughter was in Turkey.
On getting started with the paraSITE project:
MR: [The homeless people] were telling me, well, you know you’re using black trash bags in this model, don’t use black trash bags, we don’t have privacy issues, we have security issues, we want to see potential attackers. And if we are going to do this project with you, we want to be seen. We finally want to be seen, we are already invisible. We have too much privacy. So I started to use clear plastic, or really bright plastic, and I started to respond directly to their designs.
On inspiration for Enemy Kitchen:
MR: What I was always aware of was how great a cook my mom was and how the kitchen became a space of conversation. So accompanying this handiwork is conversation, and I was really into that. I was interested in the way in which kids were never asked what they thought about the war. And I was interested in that lack of voice, of opinion. And what I also knew was that the high schools that a lot of them were attending were told not to discuss the war in classes, because it was potentially too sensitive an issue. There was this silencing of the situation. There was this amazing moment where three or four weeks in [to the class], this girl, whose family is from Puerto Rico, walks in and goes, "Why are we making this nasty food? They blow up our soldiers every day and they knocked down the Twin Towers." And this other kid, who was African-American with relatives in the Caribbean goes, “Oh, come on, it wasn’t the Iraqis who knocked down the Twin Towers, it was Bin Laden.” And then this guy at the stove, whose family was from Mexico, goes, “It wasn’t bin Laden, it was our own government.” So in this moment you had the entire spectrum: misinformation, the mainstream belief and the conspiracy theory. But I wasn’t interested in doing anything to teach them, I just wanted to know what they thought. It was just so messy that it seemed like everyone could have a point of view and I just wanted to have that registering in the class. It was a beautiful experience. They were fearless.
On his project in Istanbul:
MR: When I first went to Istanbul, I saw all these blue plastic bottle caps that were littered throughout the city and they came from the bottled water that everybody was drinking. They were roughly the same size as an evil eye. [Evil eyes] are basically, in the Middle East and in places like Turkey and Greece and any of those places where there was Ottoman influence, good luck charms to ward off evil, to ward off bad things. My mother had made sure that I always have either a blue stone every time I leave the house so I’m never without it. The bottle caps were the same blue, they were the same size. I asked a curator what people do if they find [an evil eye], and she said if you find something like this, you pick it up; and if you have it and lose it, you replace it immediately. You hold onto it. So I’m seeing all these bottle caps, and I’m wondering how can I make it so people won’t get rid of them. So I started labeling all the bottle caps with a white circle, then a light blue circle, and that’s all it needed to turn it into this thing that people wouldn’t throw away.
On turkey and babies:
MR: When we went [to Istanbul] the first time, my wife Lori and my daughter Renée, we had such a blast and Turkish people love babies. I’m doing all this research there and trying to make connections with people and there’s nothing that’s a better icebreaker than a baby. There’s something really right with a society that loves children that much. We could only get two things done a day because people kept stopping us on the street, wanting to come over and kiss the baby and talk to us. When I leave [my wife and my daughter], and I go and I do things on my own, which is not very often, it’s like the countdown begins as I get in the taxi of when I can come back. It’s really great to be doing these things, but I want them around.