In July of this year, controversial conceptual artist Kristian Van Hornsleth made headlines upon the unveiling of his latest piece, The Hornsleth Homeless Tracker Project.
The piece allows collectors to purchase members of London’s homeless community, who have been fitted with tracking devices which can be monitored via a private app.
"The Hornsleth Homeless Tracker is an ethical boundary smashing work, which fuses homelessness, privacy invasion, inequality and reality TV, with present day cultural decadence and interactive conceptual art.” - Hornsleth
The press release explains that the public will be able to - “follow the struggles of their favourite homeless characters” - across various social media platforms including twitter, Instagram and Tinder.
Speaking to RT News earlier this year in relation to the initial launch of his “project”, Hornsleth has claimed that 50 percent of the profits from the project will be divided among the subjects, provided they remain part of the project for at least one year and fulfill their contractual obligations.
The piece received much criticism and was widely condemned for dehumanising and exploiting a vulnerable community in which one in three persons are thought to have a serious mental illness. Homeless charities have spoken out against the piece, claiming it is burying real issues under avante-garde sensationalism.
Charities have also noted that the power dynamics at play between Hornsleth and his subjects make the project unethical. Despite these criticisms, much of the outrage directed toward the project quickly disappeared after its launch.
However, debates have recently re-emerged over the morality of this “ethical boundary smashing work”, after it was announced in October that the piece had added 100 new Silver Homeless, whose portraits can be purchased for £600.
Hornsleth describes the project as a melting pot of the many issues we see in the modern world on a daily basis, including homelessness, privacy invasion, inequality and cultural decadence. It is a cynical celebration of the absurdity and superficiality of modern life.
Speaking to CPH Post, Danish Media, he explains that -
The Danish provocateur explored similar topics in his 2006 piece The Hornsleth Village Project, in which residents of a struggling Ugandan village were offered livestock, on the condition that they changed their names to Hornsleth. This piece was described as a commentary on marketing, brand and western aid policy.
Obviously, both of these pieces are exploitative. Hornsleth not only accepts this, he embraces it. He believes that the artist and subjects are exploiting each other.
This attitude is an example of what makes Hornsleth’s work, and postmodernism in general, problematic. Cynicism, self-awareness and ironic detachment are all key elements of postmodernism. As a result, postmodernism is very good at pointing out flaws in society, but gives us very little in terms of solutions. The ideas put forward by his work, that - “There is no real contemporary culture, there seems to be only marketing” - and that everything is “business” or “reality t.v.”, are a deconstruction of the modern world that offer very little room for redemption.
Another key element of postmodernism is moral relativism. It posits that there is no such thing as objective truth, knowledge, or morality. Reality is constructed by the individual, and so varies from person to person.
The end result is that Hornsleth comes across as more of a troll than an activist. He seems to delight in responding to the criticisms of the public who “don’t get it” and appears to go out of his way to be as unlikable as possible.
In one video he invites his subjects to come onstage and touch and smell large wads of money. In another, during a photoshoot, he consistently prompts them to open their eyes wider, and to look angrier and “more homeless”. In light of this, his claims that he has the homeless communities best interests at heart come across as incredibly insincere.
Hornsleth’s work promotes an incredibly cynical view of the world. His ideas that “nobody can understand this topic like me” and “anyone who doesn’t like it doesn’t get it” are worryingly close to a - nobody’s opinions matter but mine - attitude. At best, his worldview is incredibly narcissistic. At worst, it’s completely nihilistic.
We’re at a stage now where we should stop pretending that this kind of edgy, “cool”, cynicism helps society in any meaningful way.
It’s no longer enough to just be cynical, ironically detached, and self-aware. At some point, we just need to stop doing bad things.