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This Woman Is Pretending to Be Poor as Art

The playing poor trend is now an art project. Meet Tania Bruguera, who's becoming an illegal immigrant for a year.


Tania Bruguera at a performance.

Earlier this week we criticized the Global Poverty Project's Live Below the Line campaign, in which people try and survive on $1.50 in food per day, for being pointless. Global Poverty Project CEO Hugh Evans then responded to our piece, arguing that Live Below the Line wasn't "playing poor," but was instead "symbolic action." Perhaps that debate can provide some context to the work of artist Tania Bruguera, whose next project is to live for a year as an illegal immigrant in New York City.


Though she's shown her past work at various revered art institutions around the world, Bruguera will live for the next 12 months in an apartment in Corona, Queens, with five illegal immigrants and their six American-born children. She will work minimum-wage jobs and attempt to scrape by without health insurance. In other words, she'll live as millions of people in the United States—legal or no—already do, she'll just be doing it for art's sake.

One thing immediately setting Bruguera apart from her immigrant roommates is that her project is being supported by $85,000 in grants from various arts organizations. With that money, Bruguera has founded Immigrant Movement International. The group operates out of a renovated storefront and seeks to "blend politics and art to empower immigrants." The only problem is that most of the immigrants in Bruguera's neighborhood aren't really interested in an art project.

They ask for English classes, jobs and legal help—services outside [Bruguera's] training. "They don’t want any art at all," Ms. Bruguera said. They want "very concrete and mundane things," she said. "This is what their life is."

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Bruguera told the New York Times that another whiff of reality came when she discovered that her new local gym didn't offer yoga classes. With such a cultural divide between Bruguera and her new surroundings, perhaps it's no surprise that her roommates and neighbors have no idea what she's doing: "I explained to them four times what I’m doing already," she said. "They don’t get it. They’re not very excited."

I'm not sure you can blame them. Though Bruguera intends to be in Queens for a full year, which is far longer than Live Below the Line's week of poverty, it's still difficult to understand what purpose her presence serves, and her new community's reaction to her "art" should be some indication of that. Her roommates aren't "mundane," they're practical, and to expect anything more out of them makes the whole project seem more exploitative than benevolent.

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