The Prophet’s Prosthesis: An Interview with Krzysztof Wodiczko

Krzysztof Wodiczko is widely known for his large-scale projections on public buildings, which have been “illuminated” worldwide. Born in Warsaw, where he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1968, Wodiczko immigrated to Canada in 1977 and now lives in New York City and Boston. He is a professor and head of the Interrogative Design Group at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and recently received the Hiroshima Art Prize for his achievements in contemporary art and his contribution to world peace. A book on Wodiczko’s work, Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews, has recently been published by MIT Press.

Alien Staff, 1992–96. View showing the cylindrical containers that display “relics” of the operator’s personal history.

Wodiczko has created a body of work consisting of “speech act equipment” that addresses the issues of alienation and displacement. He has designed portable communication devices for those who don’t have a voice of their own in public or who have been silenced. His instruments make use of technology as a way for aliens, immigrants, or strangers to communicate their experiences, demands, and needs and to explore the political, psychological, ethical, and metaphysical implications of displacement and the nomadic experience. Among his equipment for the displaced are devices such as vehicles for the homeless and the “Xenology series,” which includes Alien Staff, Porte-parole, and the Ægis.

The Alien Staff is a walking stick equipped with a monitor and a small loud-speaker that resembles a biblical shepherd’s staff. The screen shows the face of the staff’s operator in pre-recorded video sequences that reveal personal experiences and create a “double” presence. The middle part of the staff, the “Xenolog” section, consists of cylindrical containers for the display of “relics” relating to the operator’s history. Today, there are about six or seven alien staffs “at work.” On occasion, they appear in groups of two or three but mixed in with other equipment such as Porte-parole.

Porte-parole is an instrument that contains loud-speakers and a small video monitor that covers the mouth of its wearer. The “real” act of the wearer’s speech is replaced or doubled by an audio-visual broadcast of pre-recorded and edited statements and stories.

Alien Staff, 1992–96. View showing the cylindrical containers that display “relics” of the operator’s personal history.

The Ægis is a piece of equipment designed to represent dual—and often dueling—truths (the Ægis was the protective cloak of Athena, bearing the head of Medusa in its center). It is composed of a set of two wing-like screens enclosed in a backpack, which can be activated by the person carrying it by means of a staff. The screens unfold in response to verbal cues—a given word or phrase designated in advance by the wearer—which are delivered by either pressing on the staff or speaking into the voice-recognition-capable microphone embedded in its tip. These cues, received by a sound-recognition system, trigger a pre-recorded video that shows the different “faces” of the wearer on the screens, speaking and arguing in response.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Projection, 1988.

Christiane Paul: In your recent works, Alien Staff and Porte-parole, you continue to address issues surrounding the alien, the immigrant, the stranger. In the age of the “global village,” did you consider the effects of global communications, or did you focus predominantly on the general experience of being an alien or stranger?

Krysztof Wodiczko: There appear to be two disconnected worlds, the world of the explosion of communication technologies and the world of the explosion of cultural miscommunication. There are all these enthusiasts of technology who advocate the liberation of the world through digital technologies and there are crisis zones, such as Yugoslavia, where people need these technologies, at least in the most difficult moments of the crisis. Instead, people were sending blankets. The equipment was needed before the actual conflict exploded. People have to learn how to open up and communicate before they become manipulated by some psychologists/ideologists and politicians and are molded into opposing camps to kill each other.

The Alien Staff project was my response to the situation in France in 1991–92 and in Europe in general. At that time, there was an explosion of xenophobia: Le Pen and the victory of the “xenophobic party,” and the xenophobes in Belgium; there also were a lot of hostile feelings toward foreigners in Germany and Italy. My response to this climate was informed by an earlier project, which was a mobile communication network, and the vehicles I previously designed for the homeless in New York. Unlike the previous homeless vehicles, the new ones were equipped with a vast array of communications tools and were designed to be operated by those homeless people who communicate well. There’s a relatively large group among the homeless population that has some background, education, or experience in media. I was hoping that they could provide an alternative image of the city from the point of view of their experience and pain—from the point of view of the wounded.

The idea was that they would create programs that could be heard and seen: programs necessary for their own survival, for resistance, for communication, necessary for self-protection against the police or hostile groups; but also cultural programs that facilitated an exchange among various alienated groups. The project strives to establish a complicated constituency, which would be based on the recognition of its unstable character and all the differences and antagonisms involved. The next step could be that the homeless would form constituencies and have representation in city councils for example.

The most important parts of the project were the alarm system, the use of the Internet and telephone system, as well as walkie-talkies or beepers, and sometimes even satellites, Xerox machines, and CB radios. Some of the technology was already available to the squatters: photos of the homeless vehicle’s pre-prototypes, not even the working models, were taken by one of the squatters who actually had a fully equipped photo lab in one of the abandoned buildings. The buildings often had electricity and telephones, and the squatters were actually restoring and renovating them and sometimes saved them from destruction.

Alien Staff, 1992–96. View of three examples, composed of a monitor, speakers, and cylindrical display cases.

CP: Devices such as the Alien Staff or Porte-parole give strangers a voice by making it possible to pre-record a speech which can then be activated. On the one hand, these devices bridge psychological gaps and offer new possibilities of communication; on the other hand, the communication is ready-made which creates a form of double alienation. The alien has a possibility to speak out but probably can’t communicate what he/she wants to say in a specific situation because the speech is pre-recorded.

KW: My experiences in New York helped me to design the Alien Staff device, which will become more performance-oriented in the future. I abandoned the idea of heavy-duty equipment in favor of something very simple that can be operated and used by a single person and that facilitates the development of virtuosity, performance, and storytelling. At that point, the process of alienation becomes interesting because whatever is pre-recorded in the Alien Staff can be questioned in direct communication.

I’m not necessarily defending this instrument as good for every immigrant or stranger. I’m working on a new project now which might be directed more towards other groups, because there is no single category of “stranger” or “homeless person.” There are so many different kinds of people with diverse beliefs, abilities, psychological conditions, and histories of external conditions that contribute to their way of living; so no single piece of equipment can respond to this. On the contrary, there should be many different devices. The walking stick was designed for people who are somewhere in between speechlessness and virtuosity of communication. They would like to speak and have certain abilities to speak. They know languages and gestures—they are what Julia Kristeva called “baroque.” But they need an artifice to fully realize their abilities because they are afraid to do so otherwise. They have important things to say but they never really try to say them because they can’t find words. So the process of de-alienation, the process that is needed here, has something to do with all the preparations that have to be made before the equipment can be used in public—the gathering of all the memories, the recalling of events that sometimes have been repressed or maybe even expelled or replaced by some half-truth and intermediate stories. Users of the Alien Staff have to examine all of these aspects in the process of recording in front of the video camera. Video cameras can tape anything—as the Germans or Russians say, paper can take anything—particularly if the person who speaks is addressing somebody behind the camera who is sympathetic, who wants to hear. If the immigrants or strangers are allowed to tell the same story in several languages, the story will be different every time it is recorded and the same story will turn into a completely different one if it is recorded again the next day. The materials that have been collected this way can later be edited with the participation of the speaker, which constitutes another construction process. Statements, speeches, and expressions can be finalized and words might reach the level of Dada truth. They can be squeezed or liberated, as in Futurism or in concrete poetry, but in a new, cross-cultural way, where all of the divisions between languages start with questions, such as what one was, who one is, and who one becomes. These boundaries are not stable but fluctuating and ideas overlap.

It is possible to use video in order to create a certain representation of this unstableness. Ideally, the strangers who went through this process are armed with a new confidence and distance from their misery, they suddenly have created doubles of themselves. This double now contains all of the things that no one wants to hear and that couldn’t be expressed before, so the operator of the walking stick is relieved of this incredible load. Once it is externalized, the operator is ready to open up to anybody else, in any place—whether it’s a domestic environment, the work place, the streets and parks, or public transportation systems. Suddenly, the operator becomes a mediator between the speaking stick and anybody who will approach, not necessarily in order to speak to the operator but in order to listen and see what this object is, this third part, this in-between.

City Hall Tower Projection, Kraków, 1996.

CP: The object becomes a device to explore one’s own strangeness and to externalize it in a medium which is a process that again entails alienation.

KW: And this new alienation is needed in a way. The performer must also become alienated from the staff. Alien of the alien, a kind of double alienation: “Don’t listen to this, it wasn’t really like this, I now realize it was different, we went through this so many times and now I find this aspect much more important, just listen to this part.” Or someone might ask what is displayed in a container—there are those Plexiglas containers for relics in the central part of the staff—and the operator might just reply, “It’s none of your business.”

There also is a connection between the relic and what was videotaped. The process of finding the object that is meant to be exhibited in the staff is a process of exploring things that are hidden. By being exhibited, these relics are becoming exposed—they are supposed to be hidden but are brought to light. Sometimes it takes a long time to even find these relics because they are so well-hidden, they are so precious. Immigrants usually bury them in some hidden location or they leave them with friends. There is a process of construction at work here, a recollection of events and the reconstruction of ties with the past from a new, healthier point of view. This transcends an attitude such as “I don’t want to talk about this because it’s shameful” or “I’ll be hiding this, it is something my friends and family in my old country should never know because I’m supposed to be successful, I’m supposed to be a victor here, not vanquished.” The immigrants who use the Alien Staff are often resentful at first—it forces them to reveal awful secrets—but by going through the process step-by-step they sometimes realize that after resentment and perplexity comes a new awareness. One of the immigrants went back to her home country and presented the Alien Staff there; everyone hated it, it caused complete rejection. The reaction was, “We don’t want to hear this. How dare you?” And at the same time, the immigrant confirmed her identity, by saying “What do you know? Who are you to tell me?” There is an incredible process of communication involved but it is not going to happen for everybody. Some people rejected the project and never came back, they were not ready; others rejected it and then came back or sent their friends who came back to use it. It is difficult to say what exactly the result will be or if people are ready for this kind of instrument.

Alien Staff, Detail of the cylindrical containers with their “relics.”

CP: What’s the difference between the old and the new generation of the Alien Staff?

KW: In order to increase the level of adeptness developed by the immigrant in recalling the stories, I decided to ask George Smith, a Ph.D. student at the Media Lab, to help me. He came up with the idea to use the “electric field sensing” system on which they were currently working; it is in fact a quite advanced version of the instrument which the Russian inventor Leo Theremin developed. The sensing system is embedded in the center section of the walking stick and responds to the gestures of the user. There are several containers in the new version of the staff, which can now be taken out for closer examination of the content and can be discussed with anyone approaching; in the old version, people had to bend down to look at the content. Now there are electric sensors between the containers, so when a hand comes close to this zone, it triggers a response. This kind of interactivity requires a fairly complex computer program because a certain type of gesture has to be assigned to a certain type of manipulation of the story’s content, both acoustic and visual.

The “baroque” personality of the immigrant has a lot to do with the ability to use gestures, which in fact has a whole tradition. There is a tradition of migrants, wanderers, gypsies, aliens, or even magicians whose survival depended on their talents and knowledge in using gestures or singing, making sounds, performing magic or tricks. The performative aspect often guarantees the performer’s survival, without it they might die—as long as the pianist plays or singer sings, they can’t be chopped into pieces. Some storytellers might want to have a more performative instrument than a walking stick, so this new version allows for a story to evolve according to the choice of container.

Alien Staff, View of operators interacting with the public and relating their personal histories as encapsulated in the cylinders.

CP: So the objects in the containers are now connected to their respective histories.

KW: Yes, and it requires a pretty complicated development process. You have to select and organize the content, connect an object with a particular story and also decide what the relationship between the gesture, sound, and the visual effect shown on the monitor on top of the stick should be. It requires different levels of development as well as technological literacy. The programming process is very slow and to be honest, I am a little frustrated. It has something to do with a larger dilemma: how can artists develop an experimental project in tune with a scientific and technological research experiment? The agendas overlap but they often don’t match.

Coming back to the most recent model, I learned a lot from it. The new model comes with a built-in transmission system and an antenna which is a symbol of hope. It symbolizes the possibility that singular units could actually speak with each other across the city and maybe the world, that each single operator could communicate with a base that could store an enormous amount of information in computers with powerful memory. The base would be run by someone who could be called a Xenologist, an expert on the law and ethics of displacement. The user of the instrument would be a performer who is disseminating information on the basis of what’s happening in her or his mind, opening up a world of displacement and complexity, undoing all those preconceived notions of identity and community.

Alien Staff, View of operators interacting with the public and relating their personal histories as encapsulated in the cylinders.

CP: In your own work, the agendas constantly overlap. The work addresses political, psychological, and ethical issues, it exists in the realm of art yet it transcends the boundaries of this realm. Do you see your works predominantly as artwork? To what extent would you like to see them integrated into the non-artistic, socio-economic world? In other words, do you want the Alien Staff to be mass-produced?

KW: Today, we always assume that a design or prototype must lead to mass production, but this is a modern way of thinking. David Harvey used to call this “flexible accumulation capitalism.” A smaller number of units with some variety can also be understood as production, it doesn’t have to be mass-produced—it could be an experimental implementation, it could be a cultural project that is industrial design at the same time, performative industrial design. Cultural agencies all around the world are giving money to public projects. Public art projects should be understood as a possibility for financing all kinds of projects including media projects.

Of course, these media projects are often “temporary,” time-based, but we don’t know exactly what temporary means; it could mean years. The Alien Staffs, for example, have been operating for years in various parts of the world, not on a continuous basis but on and off. A project like that could be more systematically developed, for example in connection with cultural and psychological projects, or maybe in cooperation with institutes such as the Institute for Psychology and Crosscultural Communication in Stockholm or the Centre Françoise Minkowsky in Paris—a big center providing assistance to immigrants and refugees that is run in 45 languages. The support could also be provided by a public art organization, like Public Art Fund in New York or Artangel Trust in London. It could be a combination of all of these institutions. I don’t see why this approach should be unrealistic.

Porte-Parole, The device as worn by the operator, with the video monitor replacing the human mouth and showing a pre-recorded speech.

CP: That’s what I meant, your project belongs to all of these different realms but people often tend to categorize it. They want to make a distinction between an artwork and a scientific project.

KW: Not all of the funding institutions and audiences completely understand what I’m doing. The French Ministry of Culture, which helped to develop and paid for the Alien Staff and Porte-parole prototypes, understood maybe half of it. They fund cultural programs but only over a short time frame. Nevertheless, as experiments the projects were well-funded, and it was enough time for me to learn a lot. At the V2 organization in Rotterdam, two or three of the instruments were used for only four or five days and there were about two weeks of preparation. The person who is running a clinic for immigrants in Rotterdam and is an immigrant herself evaluated the project and stated in public that what I had done in two weeks was something they couldn’t achieve in a year in the clinic because from a medical, psychological point of view, I had turned the immigrants into “both doctors and patients.” In just a short period of time, the immigrants had gained enormous confidence and were pleased with themselves. I was invited to explain the project on a television program, which makes a lot of sense since I think that the mainstream media should become an extension of my “small” media where the operator or speaker works together with the monitor. I had asked the operators to come to the television station with their equipment, so you had both the speakers and their small screens and the show’s host on the television screen. The program was a talk show, and because of a number of coincidences—festivals, events, problems with immigrants or skinheads—it made national news and everything connected. Without this little piece of equipment none of this would have happened. Mass media picked it up because it already was media.

Homeless Vehicle, 1988–89. Mobile living and transport unit that Wodiczko designed for the homeless in New York City.

CP: Your works address issues of interactivity on various levels and technology is the enabling factor rather than the focus of the communication devices you design. These devices address a specific need and at the same time explore the very nature of communication technology. How would you describe the role technology plays in your works and the improvement of communication you are striving for?

KW: It still is a modern assumption that design should offer solutions to problems, which, in general, may not be a bad expectation. Modern design is often supposed to resolve a problem but in reality it becomes a facade behind which the actual problem is hidden so that there is only a superficial answer to it. There seems to be a similar expectation with technology: each new gadget and new system is supposed to resolve some problem. Those who work on scientific or technological research have some playful ideas, they are working on applications for those ideas in order to sell them or connect them with the expectations of the industry or consumers. The basic idea is to further improve the existing world. In fact, both technology and design—technology as a technical opportunity and design as the relation between this opportunity and the world of needs—can reveal and clarify needs that should not exist. They both have the potential to expand on our access to the complexity of the present world rather than just projecting into the future.

Technology and new media and design could articulate and expose the problematic world in which we live and at the same time provide emergency service and help to people who really need it. With media and technology we can achieve two things at the same time. We can do cultural work and provide access to the circulation of power for those who are least likely to have it. That way we provide emergency help and transform the understanding and awareness of the world. Those who are marginalized, displaced, and misfortunate could in fact become agents of this new and prophetic way of understanding the world. They can provide an image of the world from the point of view of those who are in trouble and a vision of a better world. There are a lot of things we could achieve if the cultural world would connect technological design and artistic research in the same place at the same time. Most of the time we are dealing with disconnected organizations and institutions. Of course I don’t want to advocate a new monstrous institution that will bury all of these possibilities in a bureaucratic machinery.

Porte-Parole, 1993–97. Operators wearing the device and interacting with the public.

CP: Which is the inherent danger of large-scale collaborations. On the other hand, all of the realms you mention won’t be able to survive by themselves, an interdisciplinary approach is needed more than ever.

KW: And not in the name of the arts but in the name of life.

Christiane Paul is the publisher and editor of Intelligent Agent, a print and online magazine on the use of interactive media in arts and education, (