Interview with Krzysztof Wodiczko

Melanie Crean: I know from your website that you refer to your work as “Interrogative Design” and I wondered if you could elaborate a little bit on what that means.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: I can try. This Interrogative Design has to do with responding to the needs that should not exist in a civilized world. Unfortunately they do exist. It is a scandalous situation that they exist. Therefore the design of response to such needs should also make a scandal of their existence. These designs have multiple objectives.

One objective is to respond to the needs that should not exist as an emergency matter so that it will help some people to ameliorate the conditions of life and help them to survive.

The second objective is to articulate the situation and conditions them selves to people who do not have such needs. By disseminating an understanding knowledge and emotional contact with the needs that should not exist, such projects and design hopefully will contribute to an increase of consciousness about such unacceptable situations and conditions. Then with the help of media and all of those who exaggerate and further amplify the visibility of the scandal behind such project, actions will occur that will make such design obsolete.

This is the utopia of this project. It is a kind of horizon to which some project is moving. So it’s temporary characters are a very important part of such utopia. It must be temporary. We might say that it is the wrong thing to do to respond to needs that do not exist because it might legitimize something. I feel it is important to really articulate needs with design in order to really make these unacceptable circumstances a legitimate problem. So it’s not legitimization of the crisis but through presentation of the crisis as legitimate problem, an attempt to solve that problem.

The Interrogative Method will attract while scandalizing. In order to scandalize it cannot be boring. Therefore I would call this kind of design Scandalizing Functionalism. Finding a form that best articulates the function in order to expose that it is a scandal must come into account.

There are critics of the design I propose, but if we follow their logic, then they would also have to oppose bandages. In emergency hospital situations bandages are often used. According to the reasoning behind the logic of the moralizing approach referred to by these critics; bandages should not exist because there should not be wounds. However since there are wounds, we should bandage them to heal them. My proposal is to add to the bandage another function not only as an emergency measure trying to heal but also the capacity equipped with the ability to transmit, articulate and speak under what conditions that the wound won’t happen. Therefore the community design aspects are very important.

MC: That’s an interesting circularity that the designs are created to make themselves obsolete if the discussion happens and people start to solve problems. Then the design, if its successful, is no longer needed.

I have a question about some of the instruments: I have seen some of your projects referred to as “Prosthetics for Communication.” I don’t know if that’s a fair term. There are pieces like Aegis, the Equipment for a City of Strangers. Can you talk about the motivation behind some of these designs, just to further your last answer. Are they meant to promote discussion, or the idea of healing in the user, or a change in the people who are interacting with the user?

KW: The prosthetics contain a part of such an Interrogative Design project: creating equipment for people who are silent, marginalized groups who have lost faith that their voice will make any difference, who need to develop or redevelop those capacities because of the qualities and conditions under which they live.

If we are able to transmit the messages and help the capacity to communicate, we would really be extremely inspired by assisting those who we could learn allot from about the very systems that need to be changed for all of our lives. The objective of equipment that I design for strangers, immigrants, homeless, war veterans, and women who survive abuse and neglect and for children (like high school students in Japan) whose voice is never been heard and who never get a say in questioning the way society operates and questioning their own fortunate future in such a society.

M: I wanted to move on to the different vehicles which help people speak. You’ve previously done many projections on buildings which seem to give a voice to what architecture might testify to if it was allowed to speak. Can you talk a bit about how you have used architecture to convey issues of power and perform speech acts in these works?

K: In early projects in which I animated the facades of monuments in public places with iconic projections I was trying to teach those buildings about the events that were surrounding them in the present time, and make some link between their memory or revealing some contradictions between what they were intended to say and what they were hoping for ideally, and the situation that contradicted their hopes today.

In them there is not so much a critique of architecture or monument that counts, but the possibility of appropriating governmental structures with prestige as historical witnesses to the events by those who are themselves silent monuments of their own. Here people, who are the same people who may be operating the instruments and prosthetic devices I designed, may also use the monuments and facades as equipment.

When people talk about public they talk about spectators or a crowd who comes, whether invited or passersby, who are forming this audience. I like to stress the importance of something that I call “inner public.” They are in touch with the people who choose to take part of the project, and are becoming in the process co-artists in the project. It is they who become authors of what they say, they are the ones who are actors, and they are the ones who are the first public. In a sense they start listening to themselves, and they recognize themselves as if they were people other than whom they really are. In this process of healthy alienation as Brecht would like, it actually turns them into people as actors and characters and scriptwriters and they share allot with their families and friends and colleagues. They have to consult them for example if it makes sense to do this. They have to calculate the risk very often, of doing it very often, whether it is safe or not.

For instance, one person who put her husband in prison was expecting him to come out of the prison soon, and she was afraid that he was going to kill her. So the question is: was it safer to become visible through media or stay hiding. She decided that it was safer and important to be in the public in the open. She consulted many people in making the decision. Then there is the editing crew, projection crew, curators, people who film and organizers of festivals where specific projects are produced. There are of course media people and social workers (without whom this project would never happen), as they are the people between the project and those that bring their lives to the project. They bring trust and light to the project. Then there are a number of people who are generated by the project from within. Lets say 8 or 10 people, and then this number multiplies to maybe 200 people. These 200 people are part of the project and people will come to the projection because of them. It creates a kind of buffer zone between this core public and the outer public. There is a kind of intermediate public, who Brecht would say is, “not without interest.” So this is what I have to say, but I have to pose this question and ask this question. When people say, “What was the response of the public?” it means that they have no idea what is really happening here in the social plane and the discourse in that space to which the project responds and which the project generates.

Only 1% of war veterans speak in public. Almost none of the members of their families and people closest to them do. A small number will decide to take advantage of the project that I propose. That small number actually is a big number in comparison to total silence. The sickness of the war occurs between those who know what war is and those who don’t. The number of those who know what war is, is enormous because of secondary trauma. Each soldier coming back from war (more or less traumatized) will re-traumatize perhaps 7- 9 more people. Those people who are recalled several times back re-traumatize and traumatize more. So probably the entire population is traumatized by this war If you consider all of the families who have social ties to the troops, soldiers, those in the National Guard and Reserves. Many of the veterans will break their social and familial ties and become homeless. Working with war veterans is a serious matter. We will be suffering this war for generations as much as we suffered from the Vietnam War. Probably more so because of the wounds. There are more people coming back alive from war than ever before because of military technology, medical technology and armament.

Therefore there is enormous sickness mentally and psychologically of people who will be making lots of damage to their own lives and the lives of others. Taking this into account the responsibility to produce any project with war veterans becomes a responsibility to an entire society. So from this point of view, it’s a different game because of the scale of the problem. Now in terms of the method of work, this created need to make much more of a direct kind of technology. So I have been transforming war vehicles from those meant to eject projectiles into those which emit projections. Replacing the projectile battle station in those vehicles. This in itself says, life after the war is a continuation of war with other means. This continued war breaks the wall between those who know what war is and those who don’t. This wall is actually physically the equivalent of blank walls and blank facades of monuments. Blasting the truth of their experience against those walls, using the vehicle which is their war vehicle adapted to the new warfare is part of the project. The relationship between the vehicle as a very aggressive type of prosthetic device and what is being projected: this time words and explosions. It actually looks and sounds as if the as if the vehicle is actually really firing the truth and shelling the cities with the truth which is an important interruption and wake up call. A painful process of piercing the hole between those who know what war is and those who don’t.

Keeping in mind that the wars from which they are coming from are taking place in cities. Public space is usually the most fearful place for war veterans. They are afraid to show up in crowds in public places and roofs of buildings because that is usually where they were attacked. That’s where the snipers were. They are the ones who have to attack and defend themselves against the nightmares and post traumatic emotions.

These elements are born of the specific needs in response to the specific situation of war veterans. This kind of advanced armament brings up the relation to the conditions from which they are coming which, are really foreign to us. Like the homeless and the immigrants they are coming from a totally different environment that is hard to imagine for the civilians in our cities. So when they continue the warfare in front of us with the use of the equipment, the reference to their own experience comes across more clearly and for them it is much easier to speak. The project makes use of the same kind of weaponry which they used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MC: The last question is about peace. I was reading in an interview with you about the Hiroshima Art Prize, where you described quite eloquently, how working towards peace involves sharing the unspeakable, defending others rights to speak and to engage in discourse that can sometimes get messy. The death of speech is the death of democracy. I wondered if you could elaborate on the idea that creating peace is not always a peaceful process, that sometimes it’s a very difficult and messy process.

KW: Yes that sounds exactly like what I would say.

M: I am thinking about the situations like the mosque in New York that that people are trying to build but this interesting pastor in Florida opposes. There very tense exchanges that bring up the right to protest and the consequences that this type of speech can have.

K: One has to make a distinction between kind of bad open speech and good open speech. Not every moment you open your mouth and exercise your first amendment guarantees good results. The issue is not that people speak what is in their stomach and heart and mind. The issue is how we are talking about their speech; reprimanding and discussing whether that was a right thing to say or not.

In general all of this is quite healthy. However it doesn’t mean that I endorse every act of speech.

There is a kind of bad parusia or good parusia and Greeks in Antiquity kind of already knew about this. So one has to reprimand someone who is saying stupid things in public. I am sure that this is all fine, but I don’t want to get too involved in the very core of this debate in our discussion. It is clear that I am on the side of building this cultural center in the center of our city.

Democracy has to be a communicated process. What I am trying to say through my work is also that not everybody has equal capacity, ability and luck to participate in this discourse. We all have the right but not have the same access to the right. Therefore we should try to compensate for this lack of symmetry and be on the side of communicative arts. Artists, media artists, and performance artists, there are many people who could work with those who need inspiration and assistance. Media artists could learn a lot from the communicative arts about the terms of what ever role and impact our work could have in the democratic process. It’s not simply our role to provide tools and equipment but to work together with those who wish to become themselves artists in speech, artists in survival and in transformational action, in the process of becoming agents for change.

There is an artistic aspect in democratic process that’s an expression and it is protected in the 1st amendment. It’s right there: the seed of the kind of art that I would like to continue and that I advocate. Though I do not expect that everyone should or will follow this path, but there should be room for artists to work together with non-artists or with artists that are kind of existential artists in the process of transforming and interested in ameliorating their conditions of life for themselves and also acting on the behalf of others. Those fearless speakers, as Foucault or somebody who translated Foucault wrote, those “free fearless speakers” the new Parusiasties are our colleagues. We could work with them. I try.