WHAT does it take to ruin your day?
The attitude of an employment counselor telling you that the odds of getting a decent job are, well, with your credentials, not very good? Or possibly it's having to stand in a line, a long line, to collect your social security check? Or worse, being menaced by a loaded gun in your face?
Situations like these can upset the balance of life for an average person, but they are part of the everyday struggle of homeless people in the United States.
Life on the streets can be "experienced" in a hybrid art-theater-audio exhibit called "The Etiquette of the Undercaste" at the Smithsonian Institution's Experimental Gallery.
The Etiquette of the Undercaste leads museumgoers on a highly stylized multimedia tour of what it means to be homeless. While artistic, it is not a sanitized view of homelessness.
Created by Antenna Theater of Sausalito, Calif., the exhibit involves an audio tape of original music, voices of actual homeless people, and the people who work with them. The tape guides the visitor through a maze of what seem like miniature theater sets in which the visitor is the star.
Antenna Theater founder Chris Hardman conceived the idea for the exhibit in 1980. It was the coincidence of the invention of the Walkman portable cassette player and his own dismay at the legions of homeless he saw on a walk through Times Square in New York, he says.
Etiquette of the Undercaste, he says, is designed to be a "social simulator" in which audio tape, played over portable headphones worn by the viewer, is synchronized with the theatrical experience of the exhibit.
This kind of exhibit is aimed at combating the phenomenon of "compassion fatigue when people can't look at yet another homeless story in the newspaper, or pass another downtown panhandler.
"This is a way to deal with guilt and responsibility," says Mr. Hardman. "The Founding Fathers expected people to be activists; for activism to be a big piece of the daily labor of the citizen.
"We should restructure the use of our time and responsibilities and recapture those behaviors and be involved in holding up the whole ship of state."
The approach to the exhibit is a Kafka-esque bank of giant file drawers. They are actually sliding morgue slabs, one of which opens for the visitor to lie down on. The drawer closes. The visitor, hooked up to the cassette player, begins the journey through an artistic maze by being told he has died.
The darkness of the closed drawer opens onto "rebirth," a sparkling vision of heavenly clouds in which the visitor spins a wheel that lands the visitor into a limited choice of families: Parents who are addicted to either cocaine, crack, heroine, or alcohol.
From there, the life of the undercaste unfolds in what would be a familiar hard-luck story, except that it takes on completely different dimensions in the new way of telling it.
The exhibit maze pulls the visitor through a dim world in which voices are hard to understand, but snippets of negative comments, statistics, and old conversations come through loud and clear, echoing continuously throughout the whole exhibit.
For example, if you are black and have no high-school degree, you really can't expect to get a job; if you conform and "play the game right whatever that is code for - you'll do well; life is all a "gamble," and one day maybe you'll "hit it."
This world is full of hard-edged, Cubist people. An insensitive job counselor's lips are wooden disks mounted on springs, making her message all the more surreal. A room full of turnstiles built in the shape of people blocks the passage to all-important soup kitchens and social-security offices.
A roped-off boxing ring has a life-size boxer made of black leather pillows that slowly moves toward the visitor, circling on suspended ropes until the visitor is pushed out of the ring.While all of this is a form of art, its impact is in the realism it conjures. Headphones are constantly pumping in the talk that informs the art.
In one shadowy room of the maze, while recordings of street people warn that you can trust no one, that you have to watch your back, the visitor turns to see something totally unexpected. It takes a few seconds to realize that a big-ger-than-life Cubist person is pointing a bigger-than-life gun at you.
"I watch people come out silent and not smiling ... with the headset they go into a world so introverted and entirely alone their faces seem flat. It's part of what that environment is like," says Hardman.
While the exhibit itself is a stark experience, the seed of hope is in the experience itself, he suggests.
Hardman's work makes an intelligent attempt at raising these issues. Considering that anyone coming to the exhibit must pass the real thing, the capital's familiar clutches of homeless people escaping the winter cold on steamy sewer grates, one can't escape the irony of experiencing street life in an art form.