Krzysztof Wodiczko. Guests

Krzysztof WodiczkoGuests – opening

4.06.2009, 5 p.m.

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Goście/Guests, 2008-2009,

projekcja wideo/video projection, (szkic projektu/project visualisation), dzięki uprzejmośco artysty i Zachęty Narodowej Galerii Sztuki/

courtesy of the artist and Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw

krzysztof wodiczko. Guests
53rd International Art Exhibition in Venice

Pavilion Commissioner Agnieszka Morawińska
Curator of the Exhibition Bożena Czubak
Assistant Commisioner Małgorzata Osińska

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 V ehicles, 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 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.

Krzysztof Wodiczko
in conversation with
John Rajchman
(fragments from the
exhibition catalogue)

. . . 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.

KW: 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 forthem. 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.

JR: 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.

KW: 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.

JR: 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.

KW: 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.

JR: So we don’t fear or pity them. We come closer to seeing their situation.

KW: 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.

JR: 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.

KW: 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”. . . .

JR: 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.

KW: 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.

JR: And yet there’s a way you’re also very Polish.

KW: 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.

JR: So there’s a Polish way of not being Polish?

KW: 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.

JR: 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 ofpolitical and affective or existential situation.

KW: 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. . . .

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