Ustedes (Them), 2020. Multimedia installation and live performance, Governors Island, New York City. Project commissioned by More Art. Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon

Monumental Trickery: A Conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko

In a career spanning more than 60 years, Krzysztof Wodiczko has made statues, buildings, and monuments almost magically come to life. His photographic and video projections and installations have appeared on the Whitney Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Bunker Hill Monument, Berlin’s Lenin Monument, Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, and a myriad of other buildings and monuments in countries around the globe. Wodiczko uses advanced technology, but he prefers not to be called a “new media” artist; rather, he views his work as rooted in layers of artistic and literary tradition.

Though varied in form, scale, and scope, Wodiczko’s work has always maintained a laser-sharp focus on amplifying the voices of those marginalized by society—refugees, the homeless, soldiers suffering from PTSD, and victims of domestic violence. An ensemble of works shown in New York City last year kept the conversation current. At Galerie Lelong & Co., two replicas of the Lincoln Memorial engaged in spirited debate, their opposing faces animated by projections of individuals hashing out the politics of immigration and gun control. Meanwhile, at Madison Square Park, a Civil War memorial commemorating Admiral David Glasgow Farragut was animated with the faces of refugees who, with disconcerting candor, recounted their stories of why and how they left their homelands. Ustedes (Them), a project at Governor’s Island that opened in October 2020, further amplified the voices of refugees with speakers attached to small drones. The subject of immigration is personal for Wodiczko, who was born in Warsaw three days before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, grew up in Soviet-controlled Poland, and came first to Canada, then the United States; he knows firsthand what it means to create a home away from home.

Jonathan Rinck: You’ve done hundreds of projects over the years, and it seems that the one constant is your use of often very advanced technology. Why is that?
Krzysztof Wodiczko: “Communication media” may be a better term than “technology.” Media and technology are actually very ancient; for example, God spoke to Moses, but Moses didn’t know how to speak, so he transmitted to Aaron, and Aaron became his spokesman, his mouthpiece. God also gave Aaron the staff to make signs so that people would believe him. So, Moses was well equipped with two pieces of communicative technology. This corresponds to some of my projects, including Mouthpiece (1993) and Alien Staff (1992–96). It’s an ancient thing. I don’t really like the terms “new technology” or “new media,” because we’re in a continuum, and we still need cultural and communicative prosthetics. Without these aids, without a microphone, we are incapable of asserting our communicative rights—the First Amendment would not operate if we didn’t have communication media. If there is some kind of new equipment available, it is a link in the chain in that history.

Alien Staff: Xenobàcul, Paris, 1994. Mixed media and video, 68 x 16 x 15 cm. First in the series of “Xenological Instruments,” designed for immigrants to let themselves be heard in public space. Photo: © Krzysztof Wodiczko, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

JR: This reminds me of what you said at the closing reception at Galerie Lelong for “A House Divided…,” when you discussed the concept of animating a monument as an ancient motif. Perhaps the most familiar instance is in Ovid’s story of Pygmalion.
KW: There is a very good book called The Dream of the Moving Statue by Kenneth Gross, which explores this theme in history, poetry, film, opera, and literature.

JR: It seems that your work has moved from the artifices of the 1990s like Alien Staff to focus on projections onto structures. Is that a correct assessment?
KW: I was always projecting, long before Alien Staff, but they were mostly slide projections—still images. As communicative equipment developed, I started to use video. With the advent of video projection, I could project moving images on buildings and monuments at a large scale and with sound; this didn’t exist before. It meant that I could let people speak through the monuments, and that was a major shift.

JR: Why do you so frequently project your work on pre-existing monuments and structures?
They’re symbolic environments. Monuments are built in the name of significant events. They themselves often become witnesses of significant events, and we re-narrate them. After September 11, the George Washington Monument at Union Square in New York transformed completely into a monument appropriate to the situation. There was a mixture of pride and solidarity with all those who died, and there were statements written on the sidewalks around it. I’m bringing it up because it’s a historic monument; there’s always a sort of projection, a dialogue going on with those monuments, and we re-animate them.

Arc de Triomphe: World Institute for the Abolition of War, 2010. Rendering of project to convert the Arc de Triomphe from a war memorial into an institution acting on behalf of the abolition of war. Photo: © Krzysztof Wodiczko, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

JR: Regarding the living quality of monuments and the fluidity of how we perceive them, or “project” onto them, I can’t help but think of changing views regarding Confederate monuments.
KW: These monuments were projections already. They were projecting something reactionary onto the Civil War and onto the leaders of the Civil War. Lee didn’t want any monuments. He was completely clear; they lost the war, and he didn’t want to glorify it. Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, also said there should be no glorification or celebration of victory. But afterward, people didn’t want to accept and acknowledge that it was over. They continued the Civil War with other means, like the building of monuments.

Should we destroy these monuments? Some of them might not be worth keeping. But enough of them should be kept in order to keep us thinking and discussing the matter, and so we can project onto them all of the information that was purposely omitted, like the recognition that this was the bloodiest war in American history, per capita, and also the biggest refugee crisis of the 19th century. You don’t see any of this. So many monuments are cover-ups for what’s missing. They’re replacements for thinking, and this is why it’s absolutely necessary to project into them.

JR: I suppose the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is an example of the type of monument that gets it right?
KW: Yes, and even this requires further work. It’s an excellent monument because it avoids all those clichés; it’s a place for thinking. But we also need to acknowledge the suffering of the Vietnamese people. We need to acknowledge the cost of the war from both sides.

Monument, 2020. Digital color video and sound, 25 min. Photo: Courtesy Galerie LeLong, New York and Paris

JR: When I saw Monument in Madison Square Park, which projects onto a Civil War monument, I was struck by just how many refugee voices you were able to include in 20 minutes, by the variety of places they had come from, and by how compelling and difficult their stories were. I was also glad to have seen it in person because I could see other people’s reactions. Passersby would consistently stop in surprise, and many seemed to linger, often responding audibly to the video. The placement of your projections always seems considered, so I’m curious: Why Madison Square Park, and why project these faces onto the statue of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut?
KW: It was an opportunity, in a beautiful park in Manhattan, to give a voice to people of whom nobody knows much, people who don’t have access to media, and whose image can be misconstrued because of political resentment. I realized that there is this Civil War memorial, and I thought the real heroes of civil war are refugees. In any civil war—no matter how noble the cause, according to at least one of the sides— the so-called “civilians” are the ones paying for it; but they’re not really “civilians,” they’re all war veterans. In this case, the refugees are a tiny percentage compared to those left behind in their own countries and in camps, where people might live for 10, 15, or 25 years, so we’re talking about a kind of vanguard as Hannah Arendt said in her famous essay “We Refugees.” They represent the masses—more than 70 million people are displaced by civil wars today. These refugees speak on behalf of all of those who cannot speak, and they have witnessed so much.

I also thought that maybe this was the time to de-romanticize Civil War memorials. Those memorialized witnessed so much; they might have suffered post-traumatic stress since they carried the responsibility for every lost soldier. I feel that being placed on a pedestal is not what this admiral would have wanted. It’s known that Lincoln suffered from melancholia. He was once a soldier, during the Black Hawk War, and had seen things on the battlefield that during the Civil War were documented through photography and seen by the public for the first time. For Admiral Farragut, it’s not that different; he was a colleague of Lincoln. So, those were two reasons: one was the opportunity for these people to speak in the middle of the city, and the other was for the monument, at least for a moment, to become more intelligent about itself.

JR: Your recent public project on Governors Island, Ustedes (Them), which continues online, is the second in a planned series that debuted in Milan with Loro (Them). Here, you’re also amplifying refugee voices, but instead of projecting onto a monument, you’re using drones equipped with speakers and small video screens. This seems a significant and interesting departure. What led you to go from projections to drones?
KW: They are not that different from the instruments and equipment that I had designed previously for immigrants and homeless people, because they’re still communicative tools that have some magic in them, like the staff that Aaron received—so it’s a media trick to arouse curiosity. And it allows those who are speaking to develop their voice and engage with public space, as my projections do. In that sense, it’s a continuum. But there is a specific difference: drones fly. There is an additional reference here to a fear of strangers, as if they were invaders coming from another planet, who want to land. There’s also something comical about this—it’s tragic and comic at the same time. This apparatus is used to surveil nomads, strangers, and foreigners from the sky; but now it’s reversed, so they are watching us.

There is another reference here as well. They are presented as flying creatures, and so they belong to the history of other flying creatures, such as angels. They’re messengers between the heavens, or something superior, and the ground. And, of course, they know something. They are messengers telling us through speakers what they know, and this heavenly reference becomes earthly. They talk about what they’ve experienced on the ground in other places.

A House Divided…, 2019. 4K video projection on sculpture, figure: 98.4 in. high each; pedestal: 27.5 x 94 x 95 in. each. Photo: © Krzysztof Wodiczko, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

JR: At Madison Square Park, some of the stories told by the refugees were very difficult; these individuals went through serious trauma, like witnessing the murder of family members by Saddam’s police. And they told these very personal stories in a public space.
KW: Specialists who work with trauma know that there’s nothing so painful that it cannot be shared with others. Here, it becomes a jump from private confession (a clinical, therapeutic kind of discussion) to public testimony, which is a good way toward a healthier life, as the therapists say; especially Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk, whom I know and who have written books on the subject. This person becomes an agent who’s no longer only thinking of her or his own overwhelming experience but also seeing it as part of a larger issue. And that becomes useful, because it might change public policy.

JR: How do participants respond? Do they attend these showings?
KW: Yes, absolutely. They also attend test runs. And, of course, they bring their children. It’s important that the children see their parents as culturally ascending, contributing to this country with their experience—not as objects of our protection, but as participants advancing our culture, which was born more than 400 years ago with those first refugees. They are not just seen as victims or survivors of catastrophe; they speak to the monument of their success.

Ustedes (Them), 2020. Multimedia installation and live performance, Governors Island, New York City. Project commissioned by More Art. Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon

JR: Would it be fair to say that your goal would be to make your work obsolete?
KW: Yes, so there will be no need for these projects, hopefully. All of this trickery, all of this magic, all that I do with media—the aim is to allow these people to speak and for people to listen. It’s worth considering how we can help to create the conditions under which this kind of work is no longer needed.