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Experience the hell of being homeless _ in a museum

"Etiquette of the Undercaste" is not a polite exhibit. It is raucous and crude, loud with a schizophrenic overlay of voices. Outraged or spaced out, cool or hysterical, these voices speak the lines society has assigned them in the drama of the homeless, the imprisoned and the ultra-poor. They are street survivors, street casualties, jaded public servants:

"My name's Swamp Rat. My friends gave it to me. By the time I got used to that, there was no need for my real name."

"Who is smarter? The girl that gets paid for it or the one that gives it away for free?"

"I just pulled my gun and put it to his head . . ."

"Okay, got any medical problems? Heart seizures or heart problems? Are you a regular drug user?"

"What you learn here, you're gonna remember, or you're gonna have a VERY BAD TIME."

The din, compounded by screeching sirens and squawking radios, seems wildly out of place at America's museum of museums, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The same can be said for the pulsing strobes, the grim passageways and the stylized figures that menace the viewer at every turn.

Then the 30-minute "social simulation" is over; the maze is run; the earphones are gently reclaimed by a museum docent. For a moment it is hard to re-enter the imposing gallery where men and women dress in pleasing colors, speak softly and carry clipboards. For a moment the only vantage point is the cavernous brink of alienation. The distance across seems impossible _ as absolute as the void that separates homeless people from working folks who focus hard on pretending not to see what they see, hear what they hear, smell what they smell.

Inside the maze, avoidance is neither desirable nor possible. Voices on the audio tape ring painfully familiar to anyone who has walked the streets of urban America in recent years:

Excuse me, sir, excuse me ma'am, uh, could I speak to you for a minute? I'm part of the homeless, and uh, I was wonderin' if you could help us out with a little change?

For want of a more precise label, "Etiquette of the Undercaste" can be called performance art, although in this case the audience of one is simultaneously the sole performer. Once engaged in the experience, viewer/participants find that their own responses are part of the display, and perhaps the most illuminating part. Mirrors are used sparingly and judiciously within the labyrinth. It isn't easy to confront one's own expression after 15 minutes of fight-or-flight stimuli. You've seen that haunted look before, of course, around the eyes and mouths of homeless men and women.

Chris Hardman, the California artist and director who conceived "Etiquette," sees the nation's uneasy conscience about the homeless as an entry point for his artistic message to hit home. "There's a coldness and a hardness that has happened, and I think people hate that in themselves," he said. Hardman was in Washington for the opening of the show, and I spoke with him after viewing the exhibit.

The idea for "Etiquette" came to Hardman after a walk through New York's Times Square in the mid-1980s. He was struck by the fact that homelessness no longer seemed to shock, that communities were growing resigned to the presence of the visibly poor. "I just felt that we were seriously embracing the idea that we are going to have poverty on the streets," he explained. "I felt that it was a moral turning point. People were asking: "What kind of society are we going to have?' "

One reason, he decided, was the widely shared belief that poverty in America is merely a low rung on the open ladder of upward mobility. When Hardman looked to the streets, though, he saw many people who were disadvantaged from birth. His interactive maze reflects this environmental determinism, hammering home his belief that the luck of the draw in large measure determines our social and economic opportunities.

The title of Hardman's exhibit conveys this as well. "Etiquette" suggests cultural tradition and the idea that poverty is a well-established social form. "Undercaste," as opposed to the popular but misleading term, "underclass," contradicts the assumption that middle-class status is achieved through hard work alone.

"Caste, for me, has a finality," Hardman said.

Viewers enter the exhibit alone, wheeled into a dark chamber on a morgue drawer. From then on they follow taped instructions, passing through poverty's stages of life as vividly rendered by set designer Ronald Davis.

At one point, a menacing leather figure circles in a boxing ring, while the tape urges: "Get in the ring . . . Jab! Punch! Hit 'em in the head!" (One young docent told me he broke his watch while reacting to this part of the exhibit.) Viewers lie down again at several stages, first in a crib, then on a prostitute's bed and ultimately on a park bench, where the outline of a reclining figure drawn in black tape recalls the chalked outlines sketched by police at homicide scenes.

This bench is the last stop for an old man whose victory for the day is measured by how long he can wait before hitching a lift on the Night Train. His recorded voice conveys both fatalism and a touch of bemusement:

"This lifestyle is not me, but I'm HERE . . . I can drink this bottle, no problem, okay? I can han'l it. I looked at the bottle and I'm saying to myself, "Well, Howard, if you take that drink, you know where're you're goin.' "

Hardman is aware of the ethical questions inherent in rendering the misery of others as art, in this case as a literal museum piece. From Picasso's Guernica and the Great Depression photographs of Dorothea Lange to "Etiquette of the Undercaste" and other contemporary efforts, such works overcome the preconceptions of viewers by speaking to them at symbolic levels.

Abstraction is inevitable, but Chris Hardman can live with that. "This is the only way I have to push on the society," he said. "It's a work of art, that's true. And that's what validates the possibility that I get to discuss things."

In the process, the homeless people recorded in interviews with Hardman and radio commentator Duc Qui Nguyen also get to "discuss things." One young man engaged the dialogue this way:

Nobody cares whether we live or die, basically. Only rich people worry about whether they're gonna live forever and ever and ever. Why would I worry about livin' forever and ever and ever, ya know? I'm havin' too much trouble worryin' about livin' from day to day."

Maria D. Vesperi is an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times.