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Interview with Krzysztof Wodiczko: Making Critical Public Space by Elise S. Youn and María J. Prieto for


architect/artist: Krzysztof Wodiczko
interview title: Interview with Krzysztof Wodiczko: Making Critical Public Space
interviews compilation no: T-37
interview format: Text
date: April 11, 2004
appeared in:
interviewer: Elise S. Youn and María J. Prieto
photo by: Stills from Wodiczko's Tijuana Projection (2001) (top) and Hiroshima Projection (2001) (below) are featured here courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong of New York.


Interview Details:

Interview with Krzysztof Wodiczko: Making Critical Public Space

The projects of public artist Krzysztof Wodiczko give participants the opportunity to speak about their traumatic experiences. Through the animation of historic public buildings and monuments in cities such as Krakow, Boston, Hiroshima, Tijuana, St. Louis and Barcelona, his video projections create spaces for individual therapy and public reflection. In the conversation that follows, Wodiczko discusses his process of testing ideas and expressions (as speech-acts) in order to initiate a critical dialogue both within a specific marginalized culture, as well as with the greater community. In a concluding discussion about September 11th, Wodiczko also extends this critical consciousness to other fields, emphasizing the active role of architecture in questioning and engaging society.

Q: How do different theories of democracy affect your work, and specifically, how do your projects interpret Chantal Mouffe’s idea of the agonistic democracy, in which all members of society have an equal voice?

KW: In the process of doing my own work, I obviously reflect on the theories of Mouffe and others, or at the very least, they help me understand aspects of what I am dealing with. The paradox is that I do not learn from theory what to do, but at the same time, I do not stay away from it. This is because theorists and artists work simultaneously with similar issues.

That said, I think that the many fragments of theory concerning public space, democracy and public art are not necessarily all connected in one unified theory. Through my work, I can see these connections, but they are not systematically organized in my head because I am not a theorist.

When you refer to Chantal Mouffe, yes, I am extremely open to and inspired by some of the things she has said. But there are also many things to which she does not and cannot refer, because she is a theorist rather than a practitioner. Her approach belongs to the domain of political theory, or more specifically, to the theory of democracy. There could also be, I suppose, an ethical-political, as well as a psycho-political approach to democratic theory, although neither one is her primary focus.

I believe that the democratic process and public space cannot even for a moment be created if we do not include all potential speakers and actors in the discourse. We must be inclusive towards the participants – those who are perhaps the most important for agonistic discourse, but who are incapable of contributing to it. Their ability to speak and share their “passions” is incapacitated by the very experiences that they should be communicating. Before they can add their voice to the democratic agon, these actors must again develop their shattered abilities to communicate. They must do so for the sake of their own health and for the health of democracy. The process of unlocking their post-traumatic silence requires not only critical, but also clinical, approaches and attention. Thus, I must risk here injecting (even into Mouffe’s own theory) other concepts and ideas.

In my practical, artistic mind, I try to infuse (hopefully not confuse) the concepts of the agonistic democracy with ethical-political concepts from Foucault and psycho-political ideas from Judith Herman, a trauma theorist and therapist. Calls for “dissensus,” disagreement, passion and an inclusive adversarial discourse that acknowledges and exposes social exclusions (Mouffe) must be injected with a call for an ethics of the self and the Other in “fearless speaking” (Foucault). This would be combined with a call for psychotherapeutic recovery through “reconnection” that emphasizes the role of public truth-telling and testimony (Herman).

When you move into artistic practice, it is all about responding to what each project demands and then going further. In a sense, it is not about making or following theory; it is about creating a continuing practical work that asks new theoretical questions – a certain constellation of questions which may not have necessarily been brought together yet by philosophers and theorists.

Q: In the post-World War II “societies of control” described by Deleuze, power is said to exert itself internally rather than overtly, making it difficult to counter the deluge of information. We are relentlessly bombarded by media and images, so that it seems like the only way to engage people, or to raise awareness, is to shock people. Your strategy seems to involve using large-scale monuments and projections as a means of making a meaningful impact. How does your work intend to provoke people to think critically in this kind of society, to dialogue with each other, or to find solutions to what they are reflecting on? We are referring not only to the process of the psychological awakening, but also to the more practical notions of building a community or inciting people towards more direct action.

KW: Those who are speaking in and through my work are at the same time helping themselves move from private confession, through critical public testimony, and into action. Through this process, they begin to understand that what they have to say will change something. The very fact that they are speaking of something of which no one else wants to speak, and that they are using the authority and the phenomenological power of the architectural body, allows them to refer to the historical significance of these monuments as silent witnesses to previous and present events. The participants make a link between their present life and past events, hoping that these events will not repeat themselves in the future; they end up activating the concept of monitus, which means “warning”. They actualize monuments (monumentus), and they also become living memorials themselves, in the sense of moneo, or remembering. They testify and protest (from testis, “witness”). The testimonial is submerged in the life of the city, so there is a new and powerful presence of someone that both denounces and announces something, in an organic connection to a symbolic structure of some importance.

It becomes clear that if those people can say something, if the monument can speak, then perhaps the public in turn can also do something. There is some possibility of spreading the contagious process of unnerving, irritating, and interrupting the passivity and total silence of the city.

The silence of the city is the speech of the city, but no one hears that speech. Thus, the participants speak of that silence, while also questioning it. They themselves use it, some more than others, as a vehicle to reconnect with society, since they – during the long process of recording, rerecording, editing, and actually putting words to unspeakable experiences – use it as a therapeutic vehicle. Because they must also be animators of a monument, they create a comical and strange aspect for it, like a new dramatic therapy. The participants need a certain distance from themselves because they each become monuments and buildings. They see others in the same situation; they are not alone. They are unique, but also part of a larger picture.

This is a process of “reconnection” that artists, or an art of the animation of the monument, can provide.

There are other ways and techniques of reconnection that occur through therapy and in cultural work. One instrumental factor is that the projection is not only practiced and prerecorded over a long period of time, which is very important, but that it also has a live component: real time. In real time, there is the possibility of feedback, meaning that the public (whoever chooses to do so) might have the chance to speak back to the building through the projected person animating that building. That is what I am trying to test today. In the Tijuana Projection (2001), the speakers were able to add life – speech – once they realized that people were listening and looking at their faces and façades seriously. They put on the instruments and told the truth in open and “fearless” speech. They were able to face the listeners directly, and the listeners were also able to face them – both the actual faces of speakers, and the façade of the monument.

Today, in my projects for St. Louis and Barcelona, I am thinking about using a microphone so that when a person speaks back to the huge body of the building, the person animating the building or monument will be able to see the listeners through some kind of wireless or wired feedback transmission. An argument might therefore be able to take place, a wrestling with the monument.

Q: In your writings, you have referred to the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia, revisited by Foucault. Parrhesia is the idea of having a responsibility to tell the truth, to confess. You use this concept in your work to encourage those who have been traumatized to speak fearlessly. You have also talked about the importance of “fearless listeners” among those who do not necessarily have the obligation to speak, but who provide the forum within which dialogue can take place. In your experience, when a dialogue is established, is there something greater that gets created?

KW: Since all of the projections have been through monuments, in the context of cultural or art events, there is always something greater there. Even if it is not such a big event, anything that brings people to a monument will be recorded by the media, because somehow television, the press, the radio, and the internet cannot live without these historic, monumental public places. As long as there are a number of people outside looking at a monument, creating a spectacle, the media will be there, guaranteed. This means that maybe I can also use the presence of the media event as an opportunity.

Q: Jacques Rancière says that dissensus or disagreement in public assemblages is important for collaboration and dialogue to occur. He says that by appealing to a shared sensation or emotion, society can succeed at being both united and divided. In a similar way, it seems that your projects support both collaborative unity and social diversity with the intention of creating a new kind of critical public. We also know that you have previously drawn inspiration from Habermas’ notion of consensus, as well as from Mouffe’s theories of dissensus and agonism. So it seems like all of these concepts have at some point influenced your work.

KW: Yes, I am very interested in all of these concepts, although coming from Poland, a country that suffered from an authoritarian and Catholic pedagogy, I still don’t know how to deal with one concept which you have not mentioned - the idea of “conversion.” Chantal Mouffe took the idea from Kuhn, looking to the possibility of “conversion” rather than compromise as the result of agonistic discourse. At some point, she suggests, the adversary accepts a different kind of framework of understanding, rather than finding a middle-ground solution (the word “solution” in fact suggests dissolving discourse, as if democracy were a solvent for difference). Nevertheless, I think conversion can indeed happen. I can create the conditions for it, but I do not think it is possible for me to guarantee that my work will reach that point.

Q: What exactly do you mean by accepting a new framework?

KW: Accepting a new framework means that you suddenly realize that you are gaining access to a reality that has its own life. Part of this reality is that there are initial positions there, from the rest of the world. But in accepting a new framework you might suddenly start to see the world from the point of view of the Other. This is perhaps what Benjamin was hoping for, seeing the world through the experience and tradition of the vanquished, rather than through the history of the victors. Maybe it would be too simple now to think like Benjamin, but it is an interesting idea to see the city from the point of view of the wound, from the point of view of the real trouble, rather than looking at the trouble from above. One hopes this kind of conversion is possible, although it may be a stretch.

Q: John Rajchman defines Pragmatism as trusting in the world while also being critical of it, realizing that the truth is in the world. Bruno Latour, meanwhile, uses the concept of “things in the making,” or things in process – something to think about or to use as criticism – to describe the concept of Pragmatism. Do you see your work as connecting with any of these ideas?

KW: I think that the process of constructing a story or testimony, through the entire procedure of recording, rerecording and editing linked to the projections I do now, is definitely something beyond what participants can usually hope for – as long as there are no preconceptions. I do not want to know what a projection is about before it is over. Even afterwards, I may still not want to know what it is about, and would rather leave it in the hands and minds of the people who stay behind. At the same time, I have to take responsibility for my work. I don’t know if this connects with Pragmatist theories, but for me my work is a way of creating a “transitional” phenomenon and a kind of “potential space,” the “third zone” of which D. W. Winnicott speaks in his work on the “transitional object.” I consider this approach a very important step, quite beyond the Modernist approach, to protect the process, so that people start playing with and discovering why they entered the process in the first place. This is a more creative way of thinking about art, one in which the participants become artists themselves through use. And at that moment, the questions of who the artist is here – they or I – or whether the participants received this project from the outside world or created it themselves, need not even be formulated. Now, to what degree this psychological idea of development, “things in the making,” or the process of creating a situation for things to make themselves, or to “become,” fits Pragmatism, you are in a better position to answer than I.

Q: We see a real connection between your work and Pragmatism. For instance, you have said that when you start working on a project, you want to test it, even for as long as a year, to see how it can work in the most effective way.

KW: In these projects, it is really the participants who are doing the testing. What I am trying to say is that the participants are co-artists who test the degree to which the projects can be useful for them, and how they can further be useful for others. They use the project for themselves: they are both doctors and patients, which is the nature of the clinic. It is a kind of public clinic, all of this. Here we move into another link between the critical and the clinical, the proposition of Deleuze. This is a very elegant relationship in which the clinical can be critical in the sense that it detects and investigates symptoms. In the case of my work, the analogy might go even further, from the diagnosis to the actual healing. It could be that in my projects, as the participant-speakers examine the ill social body through their own problems, they may also want to change things.

It is interesting that Pragmatism is being reactualized here. I am not seeking to revisit it, but perhaps to look at it in a new way.

Q: Your work seems to be about locating philosophy as a practical and critical method of acting and experiencing. It is always about discussing the individual as a self-critic, with his or her thoughts and actions, and trying to make public spaces that engage this process.

KW: The approach you are referring to is more of an artistic rather than an aesthetic one, if I were to use that distinction from Nietzsche, because it is the doing, the making, and the announcing of something that is the vision. For artists, it is very significant to understand that there is much hope in art, in such a framework of thinking. It is not just about depiction or representation, but about passion, action, intervention and transformation – this is what art can do. It is good for the discussion of public art to recognize this idea of hope.

Q: Do you think this same kind of critical consciousness applies to architecture today as well – despite the current direction of architecture towards a reliance on the image, on designing with the computer, and on the absence of social responsibility on the part of the architect?

KW: Yes, today there seems to be too much of an emphasis on translating theoretical ideas into architectural forms as if they were sculptures. This kind of formal architecture is not about creating a situation for people to discover something new about themselves, nor is it about transforming the world around them or their own inner worlds. This is the connection I see among Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object, phenomena in design and architecture, and the Pragmatist tradition you are focusing on. The questions, “What is architecture?” and “What is design?” become newly formulated; they are no longer old questions. It has been a long time since I heard these discussions, but for example, fifteen years ago, everyone was interested in the idea of “nomadic” architecture. But the architecture did not move, nor did anyone really move thanks to that architecture, which was more a picture or sculpture of a movement.

This kind of questioning even gave rise to the idea of “nomadology,” written up during the late 1970s. Nomadology was part of a major psychoanalytical and political metaphor – a major critique of form – and an understanding of form and life as something very complex. And here it was being translated into buildings that were somewhat grotesque attempts to show themselves to be moving, repeating themselves in various places, or spreading. However, what these buildings actually did was barricade the space, contributing to the production of striated space against smooth space, and discouraging the possibility for people to somehow move through the striated space as if it were smooth. (The only exception to this was Lucien Kroll, with his “architecture of complexity.”)

It is important to preserve all of these crossings, to somehow create an alternative way for people to relate and communicate to each other – to move on with their daily lives. We have come to realize that these “new” structures were actually reproducing old ways in new forms.

Q: How do you feel about the symbolic content of this sort of formalist architecture, especially about the way an arbitrary form can be used to symbolize the collective, for example in the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan with the Twin Towers competition?

KW: This kind of architecture is a replacement – a substitute for many discourses that did not occur. As a “memorial” project, it could be seen as exemplifying the danger of closure, pre-empting the possibility of undergoing real mourning and preserving melancholia. If mourning is the process of thinking and of working through something – analytically reconstructing all of the conditions that fueled such a merciless, bloody act – all of this work is not being done. Instead, we are creating the conditions for sorrow, for a sense of loss, and for commemoration; but this is not really the conscious work of memory that is required.

In general, I think that closure in any memorial that does not invite us to do anything, but instead does something for us – or has already done something for us, completed our work, so to speak – is extremely dangerous, especially in our age, because the history of memorials is the history of the machines that only help bad things happen again.

Now, if a memorial could do something, it should probably create the conditions for the engagement of younger people, for new generations to deal with what has happened – or what is still happening – so that the same tragedy does not occur again. This is one issue, but the memorial of course still needs to gather people together and commemorate the event. I am not saying that one program should replace the other, but the complexity of the discourse around the question of how to commemorate is not there in the case of the rebuilding after September 11th. There were beginnings of all sorts of discussions, but somehow the architecture abruptly arrived and proposed something else instead: it became the substitute for the “working-through” process of mourning. This is not only a problem with September 11th and the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan; it is happening in other places as well. So the question becomes: if not this, what could a memorial architecture be instead?

Krzysztof Wodiczko is Director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies as well as head of the Interrogative Design Group at MIT. He has developed a series of public intervention and speech-act equipment, such as Homeless Vehicle (1988-1989), Alien Staff (1992), and Dis-Armor (1999-2000), as well as created over seventy projections on public buildings and monuments around the world.

Posted by agglutinations at April 11, 2004 01:38 AM


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