Beggars Saturday & Persondesign – social- mass media/Drottninggatan/Sergels square, Stockholm

On the first of July, we launched a fictitious company called Persondesign. The company was presented as authentic, but it is part of an art project by Reich-Szyber. Important starting points for the project were our own encounters with beggars and the simplifications in the on-going debate. We wanted to highlight the issue. And the people.

The business idea behind the company Persondesign was to remove the disgraceful aura from begging and making it into a job as others, while the company would make a profit. Through advertisements, including the newspapers Metro and Situation Stockholm (a monthly magazine sold by the homeless), people where sought out who were prepared to beg for something they considered necessary (or wanted to give to others). The salary was 100 SEK per hour and in addition the beggar could keep half of what was received while begging. The other half went to the Persondesign. With these conditions we arranged Beggar Saturday, August 25th at the lower part of Drottninggatan in central Stockholm, between 11am to 3pm.

Here is an account of the main results.

 •35 people in the age 17 to 73 years participated, of which 19 were women and 17 men. Mean age was 38 years. Each one had a personally written placard showing what it was they begged for, an armlet and a beggar-mug with the company logo. The location of Beggar Saturday is a shoppning area in Stockholm, throughout which from 90 – 140 thousand people pass an ordinary Saturday in August.

We do not have statistics on how many people walked the street this particular Saturday, how many people that were giving or just passing by. ”Beggars service hosts” wearing high visibility vests explained the project in words. All participants also had data to share, in the form of a small sheet of paper with text. Reactions were many. And different.

 •Who begs and to what reflect society’s norms.

– Nine of the participants wanted to give to others, or change the world (Help the poor and sick children, homeless, save the world, Syria, The Baltic sea, etc.). – Eight begged for a product or service for themselves (New glasses, Prada Shoes, new windows, and more). – Seven begged for money for the rent. – Six wanted money to travel or study. – Two wanted money to political messages (overthrowing the government, criticize consumption). – Three of the participants begged for survival.

As we process this information our impression is that it is most effective to beg for something that appears to be specific for the donor (a dentist visit, a winter jacket, a pair of shoes, a gift for grandma). To be perceived as a credible middle-aged diligent man is good. To be perceived as a young, happy woman with a bright future is also good. The two groups, that were clearly without any begging success had a beggar message touching homelessness or poverty.

 •It does not pay to be poor when begging.

The person, that those who walked past gave the most, was a 60-year-old man who in three hours managed to collect 421 SEK to fix his teeth. In second place was an 18-year-old woman who in four hours begged theamount of 298 SEK (gift for grandma). A trip to Spain (Female, 18 years, 4 hours, 250 SEK) also belonged to one of the peak performance. Most effective was a middle-aged man who begged for a new winter coat (55 years, 2 hours, 245 SEK). Among the ten beggars who got the least, but in many cases put in the most time, the average age was higher, more of them were women, several of them had ”foreign appearance”, could be seen as ”socially excluded” or ”looked like a poor person”. Here we find the Romanian couple that left their two daughters home and moved to Sweden with the belief that they would find work. The job offer showed to be false. Now they had no money to return home, or food, but lived as homeless with begging as a source of income. On their placards, it said (truthfully) ”I need money to survive”. Together during 8 hours they collected 54 SEK.

 •Beggar Saturday was a resounding loss.

Together the Persondesign’s 35 employees begged and collected 3254 SEK. The working time was between one and four hours. A total of 90 begging hours where set. This provides an average of slightly more than 32 SEK per hour and beggar. Many chose to work four hours. In addition to this salary of 400 SEK many of the beggars received an additional amount of 100 SEK due to undergoing a 1 hour long preparatory beggar education. Half (1577 SEK) of what the beggars received went to the organizing company. The total cost of the Person Design arrangement was 96 000 SEK (salaries, advertisements, etc.).

•How does it feel to help or prevent the other’s distress?

Beggars Saturday became a bewildering experience for all of us who participated. Many new human encounters and perspectives came up for a few hours. Thousands of passers related to what happened, and carry this experience further. We will continue to work with Beggar Saturday in other forms.

Beggars Saturday is part of a three-year art project about trust, shame, guilt and revenge. It is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

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Why Beggar Saturday and Persondesign?

Who are these people located in the cityscape, with the classical gestures of begging, the outstretched hand, the crouching position, the praying eyes? For what are they begging? Where do they come from? Are they organized? Is begging a job?

There’s an ongoing debate in Sweden about the new poverty, the dismantling of welfare. Where is our limit for your poverty? What would make you crouch and stretch out your hand? What kind of gestures is required in our society to get what you need? Would you beg for something you feel you lack in your life, in an organized manner?

 Welcome to try to be one of them.

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The idea of a small company, run by young entrepreneur from Småland – the epicentre of swedish entrepreneurs – providing street begging as a business concept, is primarily based on two grounds.

One is the ideologically driven model, almost a mantra, for performing arts, which we have heard of the last ten years. What is constantly repeated is the idea of  the artist as Entrepreneur. This attitude and mental paradigm regarding performance and funding of all cultural forms such as goods and services in a market, is obviously affecting the setting of our society and the social life in large and small.

Everything can and should be objectified, quantified, marketed, financed, and eventually sold as a wrench and/or carpentry services for the summer cottage. In a fully economized worldview a business idea that offers a street begging service, isn’t any remarkable phenomenon. The thought experiment to apply a market-oriented commercial model on alms praying and need, allowing so to speak the entrepreneurial template to overflow wider areas of our relationships to each other, can possibly reveal, for us all, something about the contemporary life.

The second ground for Person Design as the ”front” for the art project is the simple fact that, no matter how praiseworthy or socially critical works are, in say a theatre or a white cube of a gallery, they do not make any impression on the general public. They are, so to speak, in a ”safe space” where cultural practitioners perform, and where their audiences have come to see them and (almost) always are a part of a common view, a consensus. The moment the work enters the public arena; a completely different impact is recognized, in the meeting with a public that by definition not only consists of culture- and art consumers.

Whoever acts as a sender is obviously incredibly important to how the phenomenon is experienced. Street Begging as a business started by a couple of middle-aged artists contra a young entrepreneur from Småland will be interpreted fundamentally different both by the media and the wider public.

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 Empathy and Guilt

The project is based on the fact that we felt confronted by the Romani beggars that in for hours at a time sit around Stockholm sidewalks.

We tried to identify the behaviors and feelings appearing for and in as a result of a meeting with such a woman or man.

Almost without exception, while being out on town, we actively tried in various ways to ignore the beggars and look away (this was especially evident in meetings inside subway cars), and soon after such an encounter we felt a vague sense of discomfort.

This feeling we have since identified as Guilt.

To relate in an active and authentic manner, as a fellow human being, to a genuine  or a faked deficiency and signs of deep poverty, requires a lot of thinking.

-In social psychology we find the following conceptual model, that we very well could apply to what we seem to feel about any street beggars: ”When we see another person’s suffering, it can also cause us pain. This mechanism constitutes our powerful system of empathy, and gives rise to thoughts that we would do anything to relieve the other’s suffering. If, for any reason, we can not help him/her, or even fail in our efforts, we experience feelings of guilt.”

Am I ok and need not give because I already give to Save the Children, Doctors without Borders and WWF each month? Why do I feel this brief moment of an unidentifiable guilt? To whom? The woman who sat against a wall with her knees folded under her for several hours? Myself ..? These questions raised the need for a different approach to the beggars, but any attempt at this was right from the first moment predetermined and socioeconomically completely skewed – we, the Swedish middle class artists funded by the taxpayer to create ”innovative and essential performing art, especially for those who can not directly access and/or have the funds for it”, in a meeting with a woman from Europe’s rock bottom, nevermind the linguistic confusion, class distinction, or the inbalance of power.

We not only felt guilt for not having given money.

We felt ashamed, too, actually unclear to whom. Probably to ourselves, while shame requires an audience to whom I blush and turn away with my eyes …

We have dealt with this feeling in different ways, mainly by pushing it away with rationalizations about the Romani beggars being part of a trafficking-like nefarious activity, and anyway do not get to keep the money we are willing to give them.

The beggars taking part in Beggars Saturday August 25 all express a plea for money, but their descriptions of what the money will be used to, differ. Whose life story affectes me the most? What standards/values am I bound by when I help another human being? What purpose is ”better” than another? Do I feel guilt?

Bogdan Szyber + Carina Reich

May 2012

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