The Fake Homeless Man

City Desk IconA new piece of public art has been slightly creeping people out on the 39th and Berger Street corner of the Art Institute campus. Near the sidewalk, sitting on a waist-high granite ledge, is what appears to be a homeless person, dressed in a torn ski jacket, Cleveland Browns sweater, jeans and a pair of worn combat boots. As people pass by or even just stop to wait for the light to change, the figure starts hurling invectives and ranting about current events in disjointed, confusing language. Underneath the yelling and ragged clothing is a fiberglass figure which began its life in a local amusement park over forty years ago.

The sculpture is the project of Jeffrey Cottman (MFA ’09), who found it while looking though a disused storeroom in the school’s studio building late last year. Beat up pretty badly and looking very worn, the figure had a couple of labels on the inside- one for the city’s Hav-A-Land Gardens Amusement Park (closed in 1974) and Rogerston Amusements Corp. Ltd. How it ended up in a basement room at the Art Institute is anybody’s guess. After some research online and making a few phone calls to collectors, he was able to secure a copy of the following entry in Rogerston’s 1965 equipment catalog for third-tier amusement parks and attractions:

Colorful Character – Item#T-38409
Looking to add a little verisimilitude or reality to your park’s dowtown[sic], wharf or old west area? Then order our Colorful Character figure! Can sit on any bench or wall. Seems to just sit there, but when passersby activate the hidden electric eye, he’ll talk up a storm! We can provide the recordings, but instructions are included for recording your own (great for reminding folks about your concessions area). Requires outdoor electrical hookup. Made of reinforced FibraBond (C). Lap padded for sitting, or photos for the kiddoes! Available in: Hobo, Drunken Sailor, Old Prospector.
Cost: $850

Cottman got to work fixing it up and received permission from his graduate advisor and the campus grounds department to install the piece (titled “Communication”) in mid-September. It uses the original electric eye triggering device, but the young artist took the opportunity to use newer technology for the sculpture’s innards- a digital playback device, smaller and louder speakers, etc. For the piece’s recorded rantings, Cottman enlisted a friend to read the text of entries from popular conservative news and forum site freerepublic.com. After the hidden electric eye is triggered, there is a slight delay and the digital files then playback to startled pedestrians.

The sculpture is set to be taken down at the start of December, then installed at the Institute’s Sheff Gallery, for a student show in early 2008. Police will no doubt be relieved, as they have been called out to deal with the ersatz homeless man five times since the sculpture’s installation.
- RJ White

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One Response to The Fake Homeless Man

  1. November 16, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    This arises troubling memories of the hideous Fake Orphanage scam of 1982. Animatronics were just coming into vogue then, and the general public hadn’t yet developed the ability to discern between human babies and android babies. Dozens of barren women were crushed upon learning they had “adopted” — for a hefty sum! — bundles of wires and circuit boards rather than bundles of joy.

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