The protagonists of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projection in the Polish Pavilion at the 53rd International Art Exhibition in Venice are immigrants, people who, not being ‘at home’, remain ‘eternal guests’. ‘Strangers’, ‘others’ are key notions in Wodiczko’s artistic practice, be it in the projections, the Vehicles, or the technologically advanced Instruments that enable those who, deprived of rights, remain mute, invisible and nameless to communicate, gain a voice, make a
presence in public space.
The projection, created specially for the Biennale, transforms the space of the Polish Pavilion into a place where the viewers watch scenes taking place seemingly outside, behind an illusion of windows, their projection on the pavilion’s windowless walls. The individual projections, the images of windows projected onto the pavilion’s architecture, open its interior to virtual, but at the same time real, scenes showing immigrants washing windows, taking a rest, talking, waiting for work, exchanging remarks about their tough existential situation, unemployment, problems getting their stay legalised. The slight blurriness of the images reduces the legibility of the scenes taking place behind milky glass. Wodiczko plays with the visibility of immigrants, people who are ‘within arm’s reach’ and, at the same time, ‘on the other side’, referring us to their ambivalent status, their social invisibility. Both sides experience an inability to overcome the gap separating them. The Biennale visitors are ‘guests’ here too, of which they are reminded by the images of immigrants trying, from time to time, to peek inside.
The project, dealing with the multicultural problematique of alterity, concerns one of the most burning issues of the contemporary world, globally as well as in the EU, where a discourse of acceptance and legalisation is accompanied by often restrictive immigration policies. The author worked with immigrants based in Poland and Italy, but coming from different countries of the world such as Chechnya, Ukraine, Vietnam, Romania, Sri Lanka, Libya, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Morocco.
In his Venice project, Wodiczko combines the unique experience of his earlier indoor projections, staged in galleries or museums, which opened the otherwise isolated art world to the outside world, with a performative nature of his outdoor projections which allowed participants to animate public buildings with images of their faces or hands and the sounds of their voices.
[…] The projections, showing eight windows and an elongated skylight, open a view of what goes on outside — behind the windows, which, at the same time, separate us from what can be seen outside the opaque glass. More fitting here than the, automatically presenting itself, metaphor of the picture as a window seems John Berger’s wall-safe metaphor: “not so much a framed window open on to the world as a safe let into the wall, a safe in which the visible has been deposited”. Wodiczko’s projection is more about the visibility of the invisible, and even more about seeing and, perforce, non-seeing. On the one hand — our seeing the immigrants behind the windows, their faces fading in blurry images, and on the other — their own inability to see those who are looking at them.
The “guests” of the title can be located on both sides of the windows, with their ambiguous play of opening and closing, connection and separation by an invisible and yet view-blocking border. Another ambiguity is the very figure of the guest. A guest, a visitor, is someone who evokes ambivalent feelings, curiosity and suspicion. The Greek word xenos means a stranger, a foreigner, a guest, but also a host. In Kant’s project of “perpetual peace”, hospitality is the right of a stranger. “Making the strange familiar” was the fundamental goal of Wodiczko’s Xenological Instruments, from Alien Staff (1992), through Mouthpiece (1993), to Aegis (1998) and Dis-Armor (1999). The Alien Staff, doubling the immigrant user’s presence (live and on the display of a small monitor), was meant to be a dialogic device. The philosophy of dialogue was taken further in the Mouthpiece (Porte-Parole), which equipped the wearer with a communication gadget, allowing him to speak “through somebody else’s mouth”. An immigrant himself, Wodiczko, after Julia Kristeva, explained the instruments’ meaning by citing the “metaphor of inner strangeness, the being in-between…”. Strangeness, attributed by the famous emigrant to the “stranger in ourselves”, connected, by means of the Freudian heimlich/unheimlich, the “our own” with the “not our own”, the familiar, intimate, native with the suspicious, strange, disturbing.
In the Venice projection, like in the preceding installation If you see something… (2005), the category of strangeness is manifested in terms of relationships, of the way we construe the Other. The installation at New York’s Galerie Lelong, clearly set in the context of the policies of Bush’s America, referred to the reproduction of strangeness through relationships of fear and suspicion.
Immigrants, filmed behind milk-glass windows, spoke about harassment, dramatic experiences and draconian laws enforced in the name of the war on terror.
In both projections we have to do with sometimes very personal narratives, with an individualization of the immigrant’s “fate”, attested to by his presence on the other side of the glass. In the New York piece, with a projection on four narrow vertical windows contrasting with a darkened interior, the immigrant figures in the cramped space of the windows seem to be far more “on the other side”, in a space of psychosocial alienation. In the projection in the Polish pavilion in Venice, the large, wide windows (the projection “screens”) on three walls and the ceiling create a stronger impression of an opening, a blurring of the line separating
the inside from the outside. A line that, in Derridian terms, does not seem to exist in itself, but still maintains a tension between that which it separates from each other. A tension that in Guests is both less explicit and more complex, due chiefly to the polyphonic structure of the installation, which engrosses the viewer with a number of actions taking place alternately or in
several windows at once. The picture of immigrants that emerges from the projection is devoid of any stigmatization, we watch workers performing their duties efficiently and competently: a Lebanese intellectual, a V ietnamese poet, students. Besides narratives about the immigrants’ difficult, sometimes actually hopeless situation (a Chechen refugee living in limbo for years,
waiting in vain to be granted refugee status) we see scenes with Vietnamese women dancing, besides the xenophobic behavior of Polish and Italian youths in street episodes we hear the conversation of women working for organizations providing legal and social aid to immigrants.
The whole scenario is a result of the artist’s many hours of meetings and discussions with immigrants in Rome and Warsaw, which eventually caused him to revise his original idea of presenting the situation of Polish and Eastern European workers in Italy. The current situation, the tensions surrounding immigration issues, the restrictive regulations being introduced by the EU member states in an attempt to seal their borders, the dramatic situation of illegal immigrants caused by, among other factors, the global crisis and a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment — all that directed Wodiczko’s attention towards the experiences of immigrants crossing Europe’s borders. In the end, the Polish pavilion has been transformed into a place that offers an insight into
Europe’s relationship with strangers, with foreign guests — and which does so in a paradoxical manner, defying its surroundings: the Giardini with their clear division into national presences. The pavilion’s darkened space with several simultaneous projections forces the viewer to cruise between the individual pictures. The scenario, written for several windows, the dramaturgy of
the scenes and episodes constantly changing, makes it impossible to perceive the whole from a fixed position. As the viewer is surrounded by images, his experience of time and performative involvement suddenly become important. Already in his earlier projects Wodiczko laid emphasis on performativity. In his projection on the dome of the Tijuana Centro Cultural (2001), the
women protagonists interrupted pre-recorded statements to speak live in response to the audience’s reactions. In the Venice installation, the simultaneity of several projections activates and contextualizes the space between them — a space meant for the viewer, who now enters a stage previously reserved for the artist.
The darkened space and moving pictures of this video installation can refer us to the experience of cinema — a place where a sense of immersion in the image blurs the distinction between the viewer and the visual representation, where the viewer experiences himself as the place where images are actually located. The mechanisms of identification, perfected by the masters of cinema, encounter resistance from the images themselves in Wodiczko’s installation, and that despite the viewer’s immersion in the illusory world of video-space. The figures behind the windows are too poorly visible, often beyond recognition. Despite their natural size and close proximity to the viewer (almost within arm’s reach), they are separated by an insurmountable distance. This play with visibility (and invisibility), preventing the viewer from identifying with or dominating the picture, was already present in the artist’s earlier projects. In Hiroshima (1999), the testimonies of the victims of the nuclear blast were accompanied by close-up images of hands, still or gesticulating just above the surface of Ota river at the foot of the ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome. As Rosalynd Deutsche put it, “The projection also helped the human victims speak by highlighting the supplemental language of their gesturing hands while withdrawing their faces, a withdrawal that may have been prompted by practical considerations but that also protected the speakers from the grasp of vision with image, vision that knows too much and so betrays the speaker”. The artist employed a reverse procedure in the Poznań Projection (2008), where blown-up images of homeless people’s heads emerged high above the viewers’ heads inside the city hall’s clock tower. This time (despite an excess of visibility), the overlapping voices of the speakers made it impossible to understand what they spoke about, preventing not only empathy but even a narrativization of their experiences.
[…] A metaphor of the contemporary homo sacer can be seen in the blurry figures behind the pavilion’s windows, the indistinct silhouettes and moving shadows on the verge of visibility. The figure of the refugee, so hard to define politically — as Giorgio Agamben writes—is a “liminal term”: “… by breaking the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality,
[refugees] put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis. Bringing to light the difference between birth and nation, the refugee causes the secret presupposition of the political domain — bare life — to appear for an instant within that domain. In this sense, the refugee is truly ‘the man of rights’ . . . the first and only real appearance of rights outside the fiction of the citizen that always covers them over”. If, according to Agamben, “refugees represent such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state”, Étienne Balibar locates the sense of disquiet in the ambiguity of the distinction between the “stranger” and an “enemy”: “the equivocal character of the stranger as virtual enemy, but also conversely the tendency to identify the enemy with the stranger in general, or the cultural stranger”. This reproduction of the stranger, or the treatment of strangers as enemies in daily life, in social and legal practices, was a major reference for Wodiczko in a project that tried to respond to an anti-immigrant hysteria incited in the name of “national security”. The installation’s title, If you see something…, repeated the words of a media campaign begun in 2002 in New York under the slogan “If your see something, say something. Don’t keep it to yourself”.
Both in the 2002 New York installation and now in the Venice one, the Others, strangers, are situated outside, behind windows; themselves being poorly visible, they are unable to penetrate with their gazes the opaque glass preventing access to those who are inside. The production of strangers is, as Balibar writes, above all a matter of borderlines. The fundamental issue lies not
in the “relationship between the construction of the stranger… and the status of the ‘citizen’, but in the “inversion of the relationship between the ‘border’ and the ‘stranger/foreigner” — the “other human”, citizen from a different state, belonging to a space separated by borderlines. It is borderlines that define who is a stranger and, despite the dislocations taking place, the dispersion and multitude of modern borderlines, they maintain the power to include and exclude… Involved in the project shown at the Venice biennale were immigrants in Poland and Italy, two EU border states that have been seeing a strong influx of arrivals from the East and the South. Those whose testimonies have been used are in a vast majority people from outside Europe,
or least from outside the European Union (with the exception of Romania, which, however, for now remains outside the Schengen zone). The figures outside the windows are not our EU neighbours, but illegal aliens. […]
[…] Krzysztof Wodiczko: There’s a long history in my work of involvement with strangers. Today the whole issue is coming back as urgent. In the early 1990’s when I worked with Swiss strangers it was during a time of an outbreak of European xenophobia. I’ve done lots of work in this area but until recently had thought or hoped that the situation was changing. But I now see we are witnessing the return of a whole wave of xenophobia within the context of the European Community. So the question is: what is the cause of this? And what can we, as artists, do about it? It is clear that strangers are coming from outside the EU and that Italy is one of the European countries most affected by of an influx of undocumented immigrants who are coming via Greece and Ireland, seeking employment or simply trying to move on to Germany. Sometimes they come from Turkey or from African countries and then fall under the rules of the Dublin convention that forces them to register in the first country they arrive in, where all the procedures leading to work permits must be done. The further they go the more impossible it becomes for them to get aid from various governmental or non-governmental agencies. This is in addition of course to the old issue of the Roma people who are 3rd or 4th generation of residents of Italy who have no work permit. Because they have no permit to work they have to survive outside the law where they are blamed, abused, provoked.
John Rajchman: So part of what makes this a European problem is the actual laws, the whole legal structure; and the existence of these workers “outside” can be used to raise questions about the laws themselves. Maybe artists can have a role in allowing us to see these laws not so much in terms of their justification or enforcement, but rather in terms of the modes of existence they
suppose or institute. There’s something direct affective, what you call “existential” about their situation, which you are helping to make visible. It has to do in particular with the concrete work they do, and the ways they are at once distant from and near to us, strange and familiar. That is a problem that, aesthetically speaking, is often associated with theatre or theatricality; and in some way, your piece is a kind of theatrical montage of affects concerning this relation. It has to do with seeing and being-seen, with proximity and distance, of course, but also with the ways those things are in turn connected with affects like fear and pity.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: That brings up a kind of unintentional functional role that these strangers might play and the possibility of reinforcing these functions and creating conditions in which they could become actors in a democratic process. It is clear that for the most part these conditions are not possible for them. They survive by being quiet, invisible, smiling all the time, in always being kind. They’re kind because they don’t want to ever get into trouble. Maybe this is a self-defeating attitude in the long run because they should be the ones to speak up, to open up and let us see the world from their point of view and so stimulate and instigate a kind of questioning of the process both political and legal of the European Community and the role of national in it. Of course it’s never easy; but in creating conditions in which their voice can be heard various cultural and artistic processes may be of help. The political and educational work that is already being done by various organizations could include artists and cultural animators. These strangers would then be able to say something, to actually speak, rather than others speaking about them or on their behalf.
John Rajchman: That’s right. Documentaries or media treatments of their situation is often about them without them actually speaking, or speaking freely, fearlessly, outside of the frameworks of mere tolerance or therapy. Which brings me back to the theatrical side of your work—the sense in which it involves an enactment in which we are brought into existential contact with them. We had been talking about this earlier — the role of the public in Venice, the ways it is invited to relate to these guests, these strangers, to listen to them, to allow them to speak themselves. There seems to be an element in your set-up which helps fee us from the traditional affects, the famous Aristotelian catharsis of fear and pity. We often see a mediatic, it not a governmental, campaign to incite fear with respect to these people; and at the same time, they often just help up for our pity, our tolerance. Entering your piece, we are involved in a different kind of catharsis, a different kind of theatre, which involves an element of distanciation. It think this an affective problem you’ve been treating in a number of different ways in your work—for example in your projections, but also in your vehicles and instrumentations.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: It’s different with the instruments and the equipment, the prosthetics I designed for and with strangers. That’s a way of giving them a possibility of developing their capacity to speak. And also for who are strangers to them to become close and to open their ears without so much fear, out of curiosity and entertainment. So it’s a kind of performance. That’s one possible approach. Another is to take advantage of the prestige of historical symbolic structures like monuments that bear witness to events and stand for their authority. There it’s a matter of appropriating these structures or creating the conditions for strangers to do so. The vehicles and projections as it were ‘arm’ strangers so that they can speak a bit more freely, and also help us to be a little less fearful in listening to them. But in an interior piece like this one it’s a different situation for the audience since they are actually inside something. They’re not facing an external presence of the strangers. Through the fog of the windows the viewers are put in a space in which they turn back toward their own interior, their own inside. They’re put in a situation in which they must in fact acknowledge the way they see the world from inside themselves. So its this other interior that’s opened up such that they don’t simply exteriorize these strangers; they don’t really know who they are and yet they’re very close to them, which produces a disturbing, yet strangely familiar situation. For in fact, in our lives, they are very close to us. They wash our clothes, they take care of our children, they cook, they clean the windows in our offices, they see us and we see them, and yet there is a wall between us and them. We see them from our side of this invisible wall, but they also see us all the time, even if they never tell us what they see. The problem is to create conditions for these people to say something through this wall, to break it to some degree. But you mention fear and pity, and I add here identification.
John Rajchman: Yes. I think we could even say dis-identification — a theatre of dis-identification. And yet we remain quite close to these actors, to their real situation. One might even use Brecht’s old word “alienation”. Within the more classical proscenium theatre, Brecht wanted to be precisely anti-Aristolean — in his epic theatre, in breaking with our identification with the characters, one would come to see their real social situation. But your creation of an interior condition is rather different from the classical stage; and the characters for the most part are real workers, real strangers, speaking without script.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: Exactly. There’s a kind of dis-identification. The aim of this material projection is actually to make it difficult to identify with situations and those people and yet to listen to them and understand their concrete stories, the concrete conditions of their lives, rather than to think of them as people with no stories, no history of their own, and therefore to think they don’t exist. I just want to let them tell the story. Those with no history have no choice but to tell their stories, and in this way to testify to a wrong that is outside of the usual narratives. They become something like historians, critical historians — they testify, they bear witness. This testimony is not confession but a kind of public testimony. Therefore we can learn something from them without necessarily identifying with them.
John Rajchman: So we don’t fear or pity them. We come closer to seeing their situation.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: Yes, we might fear them less the more we learn about them but also there is another issue we were talking about: tolerance. I mean a stranger can say being tolerated is better than nothing; but tolerance is also a way of taking a superior position from which to look at others.
John Rajchman: Spinoza was opposed to pity on just those grounds. Nietzsche too. We are so gratified by our easy compassion for the suffering of others that we never in fact really see them or listen to them.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: It’s not about us being higher than them or them being smaller but of them speaking to us, teaching us something. The foggy window through which we see them and yet don’t see them, and vice-versa, translates something of this disturbed identification. We see these guests doing their work, renovating the scaffolding, and suddenly they see us eating breakfast, taking a shower, but we don’t know if they’re even interested in us or if they know anything about us. In the piece you’re both in the situation while at the same time breaking with it — that’s the “alienation effect”. […]
John Rajchman: Venice of course has a long and complicated history as a great cosmopolitan city. It was the site of the first European biennale, the start of the global biennale fever we see today. In some sense it was more “international” than “transnational” in its conception, more like the 19th century situation of competing nation-states. And of course your piece is going to be in the Polish pavilion in which you are maybe yourself a kind of “dangerous guest”! Earlier in Venice, after all, you represented Canada.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: For the issues of what’s happening in the world around us, the national identities in those pavilions are somewhat dubious. When I visited Venice during the winter, without the Biennale, it was an incredible experience. Those pavilions were in a fog, in the night, in the cold, some of them with partially opened doors with the cold wind blowing through the chained gates. Polonia, Romania, Germania, Italia — it was like a graveyard of national identity, a catacomb of national identity. In this context I was reluctant to bring up the issue of Polishness. It was difficult for me because I feel like I have abandoned my nation to contribute to a kind of deconstruction or redefinition of Polishness. That’s why I couldn’t do the kind of thing Hans Haacke did with the German Pavilion for example.
John Rajchman: And yet there’s a way you’re also very Polish.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: Of course I’m Polish. I lived in Poland for 33 or 34 years straight and if after I went to many countries and lived in so many other places, so did many other Polish people. I am not alone. What does it mean to be Polish? To be of Poland? But also to participate in undoing oneself as Polish? That’s the way to be Polish. Because in my continuing process of questioning my identity, Polishness remains at the core — that’s anyway my Polishness. I am Polish in the way my Jewish mother was very Polish at the same time so that everything was very Jewish, but also in a Polish way. My father was a Czech Protestant. He had doubts about Poland all the time. He was very critical, very involved in transforming Polish culture as a musical conductor and director.
John Rajchman: So there’s a Polish way of not being Polish?
Krzysztof Wodiczko: And a Hungarian way, an American way? Sometimes when I’m called Polish, I feel like I’m about to be deported to my old country, or worse, to Poland, the stereotype or clichés. But when I call myself Polish, it’s in a different manner. I feel in such a case free to provide my own definition of Polishness, however convoluted and unstable — to issue to myself my own passport, through my own immigration office, a passport with my own singular or multiple intellectual, artistic, social, historical, geographical, ethnic entry and exit visas, stamped with my own temporary and permanent resident permits.
John Rajchman: In a strange way, that’s also something that your undocumented guests are telling us about. They’re also pointing to a kind of deconstruction of national identity, but in a very different kind of political and affective or existential situation.
Krzysztof Wodiczko: Yes, I think these guests who are making this project on the other side of the windows will be doing something like this. I feel that this is what makes the pavilion Polish. For me politics is a matter of creating a public space — a space where people bring meaning, and share and recognize each other, include each other, but also undo their identities, argue and question — that is politics. If you don’t make these efforts, you return to the old situation. It’s the same with art. […]
[…] But what exactly is a border? Frontiers and limits, boundaries and screens, borders are, as the philosopher and political theorist Étienne Balibar has noted, essentially polysemic: they have different meanings for different people. An art critic or an art-lover traveling, say, to see the Venice Biennale experiences the Italian border in a radically different fashion from an
unemployed person crossing it in pursuit of work. In these two cases, “the border becomes almost two distinct entities, which have nothing in common but a name”. Borders are, moreover, not merely physical entities that regulate the flow of people between different countries; they are also internalized, invisible divisions that structure people’s imagination of themselves, especially their sense of who they are in relation to “others”.
One of the key aspect of Balibar’s compelling analyses is precisely his insistence on the intimate connection that exists between the geopolitical and legal dimension of the border and its symbolic and imaginary functions. As Balibar has put it, “individuals represent their place in the world to themselves by tracing in their imaginations impenetrable borders between groups to which they belong, or by subjectively appropriating for themselves borders assigned to them from on high.” State borders have a particularly important function in this regard in that they serve not only as instruments
of geopolitical division but also as tools of internalized distinctions, as demarcations of national identities, collective and individual.
The way in which “the people of Europe” function, collectively and individually, is thus inseparable from what may be called the inner life of the European borders. This term refers to the fact that borders tend to be interiorized, that they live, so to speak, inside us; but it also suggests that borders themselves have their own, historically overdetermined imaginary existence. The European borders have been inscribed by their historical past that continues to live on in them and determines their functioning. The duality inherent in any border — its double function as a frontier between two territories — is, in the context of modern Europe, underwritten by at least two other dualities: one linked to Europe’s not-so-distant colonial past, another to its post-Second World War political history. The first duality, due to the fact that the borders of the modern European nation-states emerged in the moment of, and in relation to, Europe’s colonial expansion, is the political and symbolic distinction between the “citizens” and the “subjects” of the state — in other words, its “others”. The second, stemming from the Cold War division of Europe into Eastern and Western “blocs,” is the distinction between the “democratic” and “advanced” West from the “non-democratic” (read: “totalitarian”) and “retarded” (never far from “barbaric”) East. The political self-understanding of the European Community, is still caught
up with these divisional mechanisms that were part and parcel of, on the one hand, Europe’s colonial past, and, on the other, the Cold War. Thus the “inner life” of modern European borders has to do with their function as instruments of hierarchy and exclusion, at once political and subjective, between “citizens” and “subjects”, between “self” and “other”, hierarchy and
exclusion that may involve different peoples at different moments in time but that nonetheless continue to perpetuate a dual regime for the circulation of individuals, or what Balibar has termed a “world apartheid”.
It is exactly the inner life of the border that Krzysztof Wodiczko’s installation Guests at the Polish pavilion in Venice represents. By means of internal projection, Wodiczko rearticulates the walls of the pavilion as the liminal zone, at once real and imaginary, wherein the migrant laborers are shown to reside. Behind the translucent glass of the windows we see the silhouettes of these men and women at work and we hear some of their conversations. It is as if they were working right outside of the building, at times literally at and on its borders — washing the windows, hovering on the suspended working platform — though they are actually projected on the walls from the inside. The projection thus creates a sense of a visual boundary, a layer of “in-between,” a strata of experience neither inside nor outside the space we occupy. It is, as the nature of the tasks performed by these people makes clear, the marginal strata of low labor, the realm of those jobs that nowadays very few want to perform — construction work, street
cleaning, window washing, kitchen scrubbing, taking care of the elderly, or simply waiting to be picked up, at random, for any kind of work available on a given day. It is, then, a space of actual experience which the installation seeks to locate, but also — because of the eerie quality of the figures hovering, like phantoms, behind the milky screens — a de-realized, dream-like space which is more difficult to socially situate or ascribe. Whose space is it?
One can say that it is the space of those who inhabit it, though perhaps not only in the most obvious sense of representing the position in which this type of labor situates those who perform it, but also in the sense of conveying these individuals’ subjective experience of their position. One is reminded of what Balibar had to say of the poor who travel in order to find work, and
who, having to cross and re-cross the border repeatedly, whether because of visa requirements, family visits, or deportation, experience the border as their imaginary home, the place in which they await a life, or live a non-life, a kind of negative space, a viscous zone of spatiotemporal suspension. Something of the kind can be seen in the visual threshold that Wodiczko’s installation fleshes out: a thickened, viscous space of the migrant workers’ subjective experience of their situation, one that makes clear their sense of entrapment on the margins (in their socially marginal roles) — and their anger about it. The aggression in the gestures of the window-cleaning women who appear in the skylights — an aggression that seems to be directed at the windows — hints also at their positional discontent.
At the same time, the eerie membrane of half-articulated images projected on the windowless walls and ceiling of the Polish pavilion may well be seen as a representation of “our” own subjective space, as the pavilion visitors’ own internal projection. As such, it visualizes the place in which “we”— the hypothetical viewing subjects—tend to imagine the migrant workers, the zone of exclusion to which “we” relegate “them” as “others”. It is, as the installation suggests, an ambivalent sphere, both because of the uncertainty inherent in its location — neither inside nor outside — and because of its ambiguous status as a subjective boundary, at once impervious and porous. The ghostly silhouettes of “others” that, fluttering behind the windows/screens, surround us from the sides and from above articulate the borders of the subject and, at the same time, evoke the potential menace they pose: the menace of encroachment, of trespassing, of “illegal” border crossing, which suggests these borders may become permeable and threatens the subject to become an involuntary host.
What, then, does this staging of the border as an ambivalent intersticial space do to the avowed subject of the installation, to its guests, the nomadic performers of odd jobs, the workersstrangers? It locates the foreign worker in the space of representation, that is, on the register of the imaginary understood as both cultural sphere — the sphere of the image-stream — and the domain of psychic functioning. In doing so, the installation suggests that this imaginary register of the strangers’ existence is inseparable from their economic and social functioning.
It is in revealing the complex implications of this fact that the import of Wodiczko’s installation resides. If it offers us to see some typical episodes from the foreign workers’ lives, it is not only to make evident the difficulty, misery, humiliation, and confusion that are part and parcel of their marginal civic existence, but also to explore the function of the margin as both a cultural and
psychic form of representation that affects their social functioning. In this regard, the installation is at once diagnostic — it shows how these cultural and internal forms of representation help define the contours of migrant workers’ social life — and critical or utopian, in that it shows how these contours may be re-imagined or redrawn.
Key to this dual aim of the installation is its strategic use of visual ambiguity. The nebulous quality of the space in which the figures appear, as well as the figures own unintelligibility, epitomize Wodiczko’s strategically ambiguous approach. You can hear the individuals featured in the scenes, you may even recognize the languages they speak, but visually they remain deliberately elusive, under-described. They come forward and retract as if avoiding to be grasped, or else as if they were simply unaware of being seen (though some are also shown trying to peek inside) . They could be seen as visual negatives but, if they are, their negativity
performs an ambivalent function. It may be seen to underscore the status of these figures as negative projections, the visual “others” of the absent selves, or else as images of an eviscerated subjectivity, portraits of a migrant as the mere contours of a self. Conversely, negativity may be seen to convey a kind of resistance to representation, whether it be the strategy of those who are
shown or of the artist who is doing the showing, a refusal, that is, to produce the migrant person as a visual spectacle or a visual stereotype, a deliberately ambivalent evocation of otherness as a stereotype, which is in itself an ambivalent formation as Homi Bhabha has compellingly shown. […]
In his Venetian installation, Wodiczko returns to the problem of alterity which, though still featured in terms of urban experience, situates itself within a broader territory, specifically in relation to the question of national borders. What does, then, Wodiczko’s vision of “altered” border accomplish? What does his house of migrant dreams propose? These questions return us to this work’s poetics of ambivalence and its effects. To put it shortly, it seems to me that, through its visual poetics of ambiguity, the installation sketches the outlines of a new politics and ethics of ambivalence. It is a politics and ethics of open borders, but not in a sense of
obliteration of distinction and abdication of boundaries, political or subjective. Rather it is a matter of reconceiving the border as a sphere of critical conversation and exchange — not of people, goods, or currency, but quite simply of ideas, a zone of communication that would not preclude a discursive confrontation. Thus the reversibility suggested by this work, should not be understood as a matter of mere swapping of nationalities but as an aspect relevant to the deeper question of how identity is imagined. It is not, in other words, a question of getting rid of the self/other distinction in the processes of personal or collective self-definition, but rather a question of how the relation between the two may be recast. […]
Krzysztof Wodiczko born in 1943 in Warsaw, lives and works in New York City, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Warsaw. A multimedia artist, art theoretician, university professor.
Since 1980 he has carried close to 80 projections in several dozen countries on different continents. Using transparencies and video streams, shown in galleries and museum spaces or projected on building walls and public monuments, charged with political and social meanings, the projections dealt with the issues of human rights, democracy, violence and alienation. Starting with the Town Hall Tower Projection (Cracow, 1996), the artist began animating city monuments and public buildings with live sound and image(Bunker Hill Monument, Boston,1998; Atomic-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, 1999; Centro Cultural Tijuana, 2001; façade of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, 2005; Kunstmuseum, Basel, 2006, Adam Mickiewicz Monument, Warsaw, 2008, et al.). The artist is currently preparing a Creative Time-commissioned project for Governors Island, New York City). Another public projection is being planned for the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna in 2010.
He is the author of a series of vehicles and instruments reflecting his critical-utopian strategy. In the 1970s, he made allegorical projects — the Vehicles, commenting on the limits of freedom in the political space of 1970s Poland. In the successive decades he continued working on instruments and vehicles designed for the homeless, immigrants, and war veterans: Homeless Vehicle (1987–89), Poliscar (1991), Alien Staff (1992–97), Porte-Parole (1994–97), Ægis (2000), Dis-armor (1999). His War Veteran Vehicle was presented in August 2008 during the National Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado.
He is currently working on a responsive illumination project for the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a memorial commemorating the abolition of slavery in Nantes (France), and a project for the Port of Dublin, commissioned by the Fire Station Art Centre.
Krzysztof Wodiczko has had solo exhibitions at, among other places: MIT Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Mass.; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź; Fundació Tàpies, Barcelona; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California; La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, California; Galerie Gabrielle
Maubrie, Paris; CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw; Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; Bunkier Sztuki, Cracow; De Appel, Amsterdam; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima; Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston; Galerie Lelong, New York. A solo show is being planned for 2009 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and in 2013 at the Museo
Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
He has participated in numerous international contemporary art exhibitions, such as Documenta 6 (1977) and Documenta 8 (1987) in Kassel, São Paulo Biennale (1965, 1985), Paris Biennale (1969, 1975), Sydney Biennale (1979, 1982), Lyon Biennale (1993), Venice Biennale (1986), Whitney Biennale (2000), and Gwangju Biennale (2000, 2004, 2006).
He has also participated in theme exhibitions: Présences polonaises, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1983; Les Magiciens de la Terre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1989; Where is Abel, Thy Brother?, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, 1997; Design for the Real World, Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2002; The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere — Creative Disruptionof Everyday Life, Mass MoCa, North Adams, Massachusetts, 2005; Cold World Modern, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2008.
He has taught art and design at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and the Warsaw University of Technology; the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris; The California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, California; The Cooper Union School of Art, New York; The University of Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut; The New York Institute of Technology, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, Canada; The Ontario College of Art, Toronto. He is currently director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, head of the Interrogative Design Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and professor at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities.
His essays on public art have been published in anthologies of theoretical-critical writings, such as Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Art in Theory: 1945–1995, numerous periodicals (e.g. October, Art Press, Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, Assemblage, Grand Street) and exhibition catalogues: Public Address, Walker Art Center; Instruments, Projections, Vehicles, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona; Projekcje publiczne 1996–2004, Bunkier Sztuki, Kraków; Krzysztof Wodiczko. Pomnikoterapia, Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warszawa).
The extensive bibliography of publications devoted to Krzysztof Wodiczko includes, inter alia, the following titles: “Conversations About a Project for a Homeless Vehicle”, October 47, Winter 1988; Krzysztof Wodiczko: New York City Tableaux, Tompkins Square and The Homeless Vehicle Project, New York: Exit Art, 1990; The Homeless Vehicle Project, Art Random, Kyoto: Kyoto Shoin International, 1991; Krzysztof Wodiczko: Instruments, Projections, Vehicles, Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, 1992; Krzysztof Wodiczko: Public Address, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1992; Krzysztof Wodiczko: Art Public, Art Critique, Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1995; Krzysztof Wodiczko. Sztuka publiczna, Warszawa: CSW Zamek Ujazdowski,
1995; Krzysztof Wodiczko, Amsterdam: De Appel,1996; Krzysztof Wodiczko, The 4th Hiroshima Art Prize, Hiroshima: Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999; Krzysztof Wodiczko: Critical Vehicles; Writings, Projects, Interviews, Cambridge, Mass., London, MIT Press,1999; Krzysztof Wodiczko, Projekcje publiczne: 1996–2004, Kraków: Bunkier Sztuki, 2005; Krzysztof
Wodiczko. Pomnikoterapia, Warszawa: Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, 2005.
He is a laureate of the Hiroshima Art Prize (1998), the Kepes Art Prize (2004), the Katarzyna Kobro Prize (2006), and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture (2008). He holds honorary doctorates from Maine College of Art (2004) and the Poznań Academy of the Fine Arts (2007).