Bekki Perriman’s installation ‘The Doorways Project’ explores homelessness through spoken word and photography. Nina Muehlemann reflects on the quiet and cautiously assembled work in the Royal Festival Hall, that is part of this Unlimited research and development award.
The installation is tucked away on the third floor. As a wheelchair user, you even need staff to escort you up in a lift otherwise inaccessible to the public. Once I get there, the quiet, sunlit room is a welcome change to the hustle and bustle of the Royal Festival Hall’s ground floor.
But there is also something slightly eerie about this space: a disconnect. It feels forgotten somehow – as indeed are the people who Bekki Perriman’s installation engages. Listening to the stories of Miriam, Darren, Rafeik and Jessica, four people who have been interviewed for the piece about their experiences of homelessness, the open, empty space feels like a luxury. For all of them, claiming any space, no matter how small, for themselves, has been nearly impossible during their time living on the streets.
Bekki Perriman has her own experiences of homelessness, and nine pictures of doorways form the second part of the exhibition. Perriman connects strong memories with all of them that she shares alongside the pictures. They range from humorous: “I sold a Big Issue to Chris Evans, here”, to a happy memory about a cardboard house where she and a homeless friend ate pizza that a kind stranger had bought them.
But most of the experiences are shattering and disturbing: people chasing her away, leaving her without anywhere to go; people ignoring her when she felt helpless and vulnerable. And memories of violence.
The stories of Miriam, Darren, Rafeik and Jessica, too, often reflect how often, they have been treated as less than human. They are also often stories about mental illness; about a lack of support and understanding for those who struggle in society.
What makes the installation especially striking is the knowledge that in the current political climate, support and help is even harder to come by. What we see, almost daily, in the papers, are cries for help from vulnerable people who have had their benefits cut: who lose their housing; who cannot feed their children.
Very often, those cries for help come from disabled people. What Perriman’s exhibition reveals to us is what could happen if those cries for help are not being answered and people instead slip through all the nets, until getting a daily meal and a doorway to sleep in becomes such a struggle and the only focus, so that cries for help are simply no longer possible.
Just like Perriman’s story, the stories of Miriam, Darren, Rafeik and Jessica contain glimpses of kindness and brief moments of happiness; an unlikely friendship, falling in love in the most surprising and hopeless places.
They are also stories with happy endings; all of them found a way back into society from the streets. Yet this is not a comfort, because we all know dozens of doorways in our neighbourhoods where homeless people are trying to find shelter daily.
Perriman’s installation is as unsettling as it is moving, and a very important project. in a time where support and services for vulnerable people are being hit hardest by the cuts.
It is good to be reminded of the humanity, trauma, hopes and fears experienced by those who have all too often become invisible and easy to overlook.