Tactical Response II: Art as social action

KRZYSZTOF WODICZKO
Homeless Projection: Place des Arts, 2014

October 8 – November 23, 2014

Co-produced by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal,
the Quartier des Spectacles and the Phi Centre,
in collaboration with St. Michael’s Mission for
La Biennale de Montréal (October 22, 2014 – January 4, 2015)

Projection on the facade of Théâtre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts (14:45 min). Courtesy Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Projection on the facade of Théâtre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts (14:45 min). Courtesy Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal.

[In recognition of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Projection taking place in the Place des Arts in Montreal through November 23rd, Shifting Connections offers an excerpt from the publication Tactical Response: Art in an Age of Terror (Agon Press, 2014) that gives a historical perspective to the artist’s work in the public sphere. (The selection has been edited and footnotes have been removed.)

In Poland in 1968, artists could not produce art with obvious political content but if they produced art with apparently no content at all the state had no argument on which to deny its presentation. Kzysztof Wodiczko (b. 1943 Warsaw) began to produce vehicles that moved through civic space – streets, parks, and walkways – that functioned flawlessly but ineffectively, moving only in one direction. It was in this futility that Wodiczko’s vehicles functioned not as objects but as actions, suggesting metaphorically the automaton-like function of the Polish citizen by operating with the same inflexibility. In this way Wodiczko succeeded in producing work that slid by the restrictions of the state but subverted in turn that system by highlighting limitation as a function.

He also recognized the blindness by which avant-garde artists fell in line with state systems. Not unusually, for the sake of survival, artists had day jobs, then created art in the safety of their studios at night and on the weekends. Many working artists accepted each work practice as effectively isolated from the other, while a few realized that the aesthetic work legitimized a system sufficiently secure to allow avant-garde art to exist relatively unchecked. Wodiczko chose to demonstrate the uncomfortable legitimacy each afforded the other. During one of our conversations, the artist demonstrated, in mime, Personal Instrument from 1969. A microphone, worn on the forehead, retrieved sound, photoreceivers in gloves isolated and filtered the sound through the movement of the hand, which was then perceived discriminately by the artist, perceptually confined by the sound-proof headphones. Since public speech was denied, Wodiczko highlighted the selective listening skills that were vital (under authoritarian restrictions) to a Polish citizen’s survival. By taking his work into state-controlled public spaces, Wodiczko, in the same gesture of resistance as protesters, registered dissent of a system that fostered one-directional critical thinking – listening over speech.

It was this double-sided interpretation (how a work operates in the world but also how it refers to the conditions of its making) that Wodiczko would come to share with Hans Haacke. Haacke working from an anti-art Duchampian strategy of context and Wodiczko developing a post-Constructivist campaign of social intervention had each extended the interpretation of a work of art to include the tension between what the art presumably shows in isolation (considering the physical boundaries of the work) and what it reveals in context (in relation to both the physical and conceptual time and space of its installation). […] Haacke’s works from the 1960s and 1970s investigating the impact of the physical properties of wind, water, and ice as well as his informational systems of the 1970s owed their aesthetics to the consequences of ephemeral processes (what wind does to a piece of fabric, how ice alters its form as it melts, how endless rolls of unwinding paper take up physical space). They also owed their multiple layers of meaning to pre-existing systems whether physical and environmental, or social and political. As Hans Haacke wrote in a 1967 statement:

A “sculpture” that physically reacts to its environment is no longer to be regarded as an object. The range of outside factors affecting it, as well as its own radius of action, reaches beyond the space it materially occupies. It thus merges with the environment in a relationship that is better understood as a “system” of interdependent processes. These processes evolve without the viewer’s empathy. He becomes a witness. A system is not imagined; it is real (Hans Haacke, for real, 90).

While Haacke was exploring systems of physical and informational exchange, Wodiczko was contemplating ideological impediments to systems of exchange.

It was difficult [in Poland] to find an artistic voice, which could interrogate ethical and political voicelessness… One was forced to listen directly but not speak directly. This sparked the formation of a peculiar culture of indirect listening, sharing it through veiled speech… I presented a person who made an art work out of the art of listening, switching on one part of a frequency and switching off another, reinterpreting what was happening without speaking (Critical Vehicles, 102-3).

It is with this notion of selective listening, veiled speech, and witness that we meet later the players in his mise-en-scène If You See Something… (2005) for, if we are sensitive enough, we will realize that it is the participants who interrogate us. By choosing to listen to these private conversations, we assume an uncomfortable position. Self-consciously, we become complicit in an act of voyeurism and thus subject to the question: what are we doing there? Pedestrian spying, easily dismissed on New York’s busy streets, becomes a question of ethical accountability in Wodiczko’s installation. Who has the right to speak? Who to listen?

Wodiczko not only represented metaphorically the voiceless individual; he also emphasized through his vehicles and his instruments what a citizen could and could not do in real time and real space, demonstrating his work in the public square. During the early stages of the culturally and politically relaxed leadership of Edward Gierek (1970-80), Wodiczko could expand his place as an artist in the public sphere abroad, exhibiting work in France, Germany, the United States, and Canada. With the aggressive crackdown following worker strikes in 1976, however, greater privileges relied on greater compliance to the system and so he made the difficult decision in 1977 to remain in Canada rather than return to Poland, exchanging his position of cultural traveler to one of political exile. Interestingly, his concern for speech rights and for the relationship of the individual to the state did not lose relevancy within the social and cultural systems of western democracies.

[…]

Wodiczko continued his vehicles in Canada to reflect on “the bureaucratization of culture” (Critical Vehicles, 78) that the Canada Council represented. These vehicles (Vehicle-Café, Vehicle Platform, Vehicle-Podium, for example, from 1977-79) continued their unidirectional capability. They soon took a very different form and preoccupation in the United States, however, where alienation was as significant for the homeless as it was for the stateless. There his vehicles became the mouthpiece of a neglected community and a visible protest against the political and economic systems that exclude certain communities from social advantages. Within the context of Reagan era economics, urban gentrification, and social profiling of the urban poor, Wodiczko changed his vehicles from contradicting state systems to creating systematic interventions highlighting non-existent programs. In short, they became useful.

Homeless Vehicle (1988-89) is perhaps the artist’s most contentious and least understood project, one which would benefit from the perspective of temporal distance but which serves the purpose of this text in terms of the development of the artist’s process of working in collaboration with social communities. In Homeless Vehicle we see a fusion of creative versatility and social practice to redirect attention from the work of art as dissent to the work of art as social action: in this case, the discussions and design collaboration with members of the homeless community to develop both a physical object and a conceptual design that would make their participation in the urban economy visible and self-directed. Although functional units or machines, Wodiczko’s vehicles mean nothing without the collective process developed to achieve them. In a 1992 interview [with Jean-Christophe Royoux] the artist explained how the design of vehicles for collecting and recycling bottles and cans “perverts an existing situation by rendering it somehow legitimate, but without legitimating the crisis of homelessness”(Critical Vehicles, 177). He added that the “operators” of the vehicles could suddenly take themselves seriously:

You see this in certain gestures, certain ways of behaving, speaking, dialoguing, of building up stories, narratives: the homeless become actors, orators, workers, all things which they usually are not. The idea is to let them speak and tell their own stories, to let them be legitimate actors on the urban stage (Critical Vehicles, 177).

The performative process of the Homeless Vehicle Project, so often considered only through the symbolic form of the vehicle itself, will become the primary trajectory of the Instruments and eventually part of the artist’s projections as well. Through the vehicles, Wodiczko addresses the “communicative economy of persons who themselves are the major critical vehicles of the present: the alienated inhabitants of our cities, and in particular contemporary urban nomads, immigrants” (Critical Vehicles, xvi).

Tactical Response_coverFrom Tactical Response: Art in an Age of Terror (Agon Press, 2014), 110-118. Copyright © Kathleen MacQueen.

Further reading:
Hans Haacke, Hans Haacke, for real: Works 1959-2006 (Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2007).
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Public Address: Krzyzstof Wodiczko (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1992).
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects and Interviews (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999).
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Krzysztof Wodiczko: New York City Tableau, Tomkins Square, The Homeless Vehicle Project (New York: Exit Art, 1989).