Selling homeless people and fitting them with tracking devices sounds pretty controversial. So when I find myself walking into an old courtroom (now a function room in a Covent Garden restaurant) where the “sale” of two rough sleepers is being announced, I have a lot of questions.
The room is empty save for the artist himself, a PR and a burly security guard. It’s awkward - no one really seems sure of the correct social protocol for such an event. At last, the homeless people troop in and proceedings commence.
This is the Hornsleth Homeless Tracker project.
Kristian von Hornsleth, a Danish artist, is facilitating the “sale” of 10 homeless people. The group will be “purchased” by buyers and given tracking devices. Their “owners” will then have access to an exclusive app where they can track them wherever they go. Hornsleth describes it as being like a “real life Tamagotchi”. The buyers will also receive a gold-plated picture of their homeless person.
Although this whole project is being done under the guise of performance art, it has - quite understandably - provoked criticism and outrage. But the men being “sold” are sceptical of claims that they are being exploited.
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Darren O’Shea, who has been homeless for three years after the effects of PTSD saw his marriage break down, tells me: “We get criticised and abused every day anyway. But if this is drawing people’s attention then it can’t be a bad thing.
“Just walk around Piccadilly and Leicester Square and up Shaftesbury Avenue and count how many homeless people you walk past. I guarantee there won’t be less than 20. That’s just not right. How does that happen? With all these adverts on telly, ‘give to homeless charities’ and obviously it doesn’t get to us because we’re still there. They say it’s all admin costs, admin fees but homelessness is increasing year-on-year.
“Nothing else has worked. Every Christmas you get the Salvation Army with their adverts on telly every year, nothing changes. If it has to shock people into doing something about it, go for it.”
It’s more dangerous sleeping on the streets. Darren O'Shea, 'purchased' homeless man
When asked if he thinks the project is dehumanising, O’Shea says: “Not really. I’m a dot on the screen doing what I do every day anyway. It’s only one person who can see where I was an hour ago, it’s not as if he can actually come and track me down.”
Does he not find the idea of someone knowing his movement unnerving?
“Not really. It’s more dangerous sleeping on the streets.”
Hornsleth announces the “sale” of two of the men, who are required to sign contracts. Then he asks the rest of the group up to the judge’s bench and tips a pile of cash - £20,000 in used bank notes - onto the desk. This is their share of the profits, which they will receive in a year’s time if they stick to the rules. The artist invites them to touch the cash and “smell it”, before getting them to pose with it. I get the feeling Hornsleth is really hamming up his role. He seems to take great pleasure in telling the group he is off on holiday to Tuscany, playing the panto villain. Many of the participants jokingly put wads in their pockets, though all the money is returned by the end of the event.
Encouraging people who don’t even have a roof over their heads to kiss bundles of banknotes before taking it from them feels cruel to me. But some of them are getting into the spirit, laughing and joking as they pose for pictures and film cameras.
Hornsleth tells me they come to him with ideas on how to make the project more controversial: “When we told our guys the name of the project was Hornsleth Homeless Tracker, they said ‘no call it the Tramp Tracker, call it Hobo Tracker!’ Once you give them a platform, they’re full of ideas. When we show them our videos, we always think ‘is this too much?’ We’re scared middle class scum. They say ‘you should have made it much more rough! Show it how it is, tell them the story.’ Our videos are getting much more rough on our YouTube channel.”
I wonder what sort of person would actually want to pay thousands of pounds to be able to track someone wherever they go. Frankly, it sounds downright creepy.
So when I speak to Jacob Risgaard, the Danish owner of online department store CoolShop.co.uk and one of the day’s buyers, I’m surprised (and, in a way, relieved) when he tells me he’s not actually interested in tracking anyone. For him it’s about drawing attention to an issue he cares about.
He tells me: “We won’t use [the tracker]. The tracking isn’t that different to the way most apps track you on your phone, Facebook and Google know where you’ve been every minute. So if asked to hand over that data a year from now, I bet you 99% of the population would say yes - unless you have a secret lover somewhere.
“I’m really a bit boring, I know. The artist was a little bit angry with me about it but I wouldn’t gain anything from [tracking someone] at all, personally.
“For me it’s about trying to put focus on the homeless people, like now you’re talking to me about this issue.”
For me it’s about trying to put focus on the homeless people. Jacob Risgaard, buyer
He adds that he also told Hornsleth to put the golden portrait of “his” homeless person up for auction to make more money for the participants.
I ask if it would not be better to simply give the money directly to the homeless people, rather than taking part in such a controversial stunt.
“You could say that,” Risgaard admits, “and I agree. But if you look at the value of the publicity by being this controversial, they actually get much more than money out of it, they get focus on the situation they’re in and I think for them it might be worth more than getting an extra meal.”
While all those involved clearly seem to think what they’re doing is a noble effort to raise awareness, homeless charity Centrepoint is less than convinced.
Paul Noblet, Centrepoint’s Head of Public Affairs, say: “It is clearly a positive thing that a small number of people feel that they have been given a voice by the project, but the reality is that those who experience homelessness are not always heard and prioritised for government spending.
“Whilst this art project might highlight in the short term issues such as rough sleeping and sofa surfing, there is a danger that efforts to give a voice to the 150,000 young people who approach their local councils for help every year might be trivialised.”
Hornsleth has no problem with admitting the project is exploitative.
“Of course it’s slavery, we exploit them and they exploit us. And there’s another word for that: business. It’s not charity, it’s business.”
Has it ever gone too far?
“No, I think an art project can never go too far if you have the ethics with you, if you have the concrete idea. You can do anything you want if you can explain your story.
“My ethical code is getting rid of homelessness in Britain by any way we can do it.”
I’m not entirely convinced, but ultimately I suppose I have to respect that everyone involved is happy.
As I leave, newly-purchased Bryan Gilchrist’s message for critics of the project rings in my ears: “People give me money every day. This is a laugh. It’s good fun and I’m not doing anything different than I would be doing if I wasn’t taking part, except I’ve got a tracker. It only shows where I am, it doesn’t show what I’m doing or who I’m with.
“Come and talk to us. Come and find us. I’m in Piccadilly all day, come and see me.”