Vassar Today

Senior Project Engages Entire Campus

By Julia Van Develder

As part of his senior project in public art, Steffen Ringelmann ’04 created and installed four homeless figures (one pictured above) across campus one chilly day in April. Intended to “read” as the real thing, he hoped that once viewers realized the figures were “art,” they would reframe their initial reaction and engage the idea of homelessness in a new, perhaps more personal, way.

An American culture major with an emphasis in gender and media studies, Ringelmann has taken a number of courses on how the mass media “create” and perpetuate cultural norms and ideals. Public art, he believes, can be a means of expressing opposition to those norms and allowing an opening for public dialogue about important social issues. Homelessness, for example.

“I grew up in San Francisco, so I was used to seeing homeless people sleeping in doorways, or begging for money, all the time. And I learned to just walk right by and almost not even see the homeless people. I didn’t want to have to feel guilty for not giving them a dollar, or I didn’t want to make eye contact and have to feel personally connected. I just didn’t want any of that to register. I realize that this is so horrible in a way, and I’m admitting this about myself. So for me, the idea of placing these homeless figures on campus—on the beautiful Vassar campus, where everyone takes so much pride in order and cleanliness—was to bring up all of those feelings about homelessness and to get people talking about it.”

Part of each of the homeless scenes was a handwritten sign, asking for spare change. One of the surprises during the weeklong installation was that a lot of people either gave money or left food. “I didn’t anticipate this at all, but I think it was people’s way of supporting what I was doing, or agreeing with the ideas I was expressing.”