Streetnotes 20: URBAN FEEL. Spring  2010
 

Streetnotes

 
 
Lois Ascher


Krzysztof Wodiczko:
Public
Space:
Commodity or Culture







Blocks like the [Westin] Bonaventure building claim to be perfect, self-sufficient miniature cities: But they cut themselves off from the city more than they interact with it.  They stop seeing it. They refract it like a dark surface.  . . .All around, the tinted glass facades of the buildings are like faces: frosted surfaces.  It is as though there were no one inside the buildings, as if there were no one behind the faces.  And there really is no one.  This is what the ideal city is like.
(Baudrillard 220-221)

The question of who controls public space is both complex and contentious. This is especially true in the limited open space available in the urban arena, where various restrictions create extreme competition between economic forces and the human needs of city dwellers. Chief among these needs is the freedom to move through public areas unrestricted by surveillance and physical barriers. Yet the competition over utilization of public space often pits the economic system of capitalism against these legitimate requirements of a fundamentally democratic system. When these two requirements conflict with each other, as they often do in urban areas, the question of which should prevail is inevitably raised: economic interests or human needs. The requirement for revenue derived from projects which add to the tax base of a city and fund important services increases the difficulty in resolving these conflicts. Yet if the city is to become a place beyond mere devotion to economic pursuits, a place where its inhabitants can live dignified lives, the effect of the built environment on the consciousness it creates in urban dwellers must be considered.

From 1981 on, projection artist and social activist, Krzysztof Wodiczko, has been utilizing public space as an arena to raise that consciousness of architecture’s ability both to mirror and create cultural values. His projections employ the building’s façade as a canvas to reveal hidden but powerful messages that formulate our attitudes on important social and historical issues. “Not to speak through the city monuments is to abandon them and to abandon ourselves losing both a sense of history and the present...,” Wodiczko believes (Public Address 87). His goal is to liberate the truths hidden beneath those deceptively innocent facades, to reveal the relationships that cultural, social and economic institutions have attached to them so they can no longer function as their agent. “I am not about revolutionary messages on walls,” he insists. “I want to analyse the relationship between the human body, the body of someone who lives here, and the social body and the body of the architectural and spatial forms around that body” (87). This essay will examine four of Wodiczko’s projects through which he investigates these relationships in Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Charlestown, Massachusetts.

In his 1987 projection onto the façade of the Los Angeles Westin Bonaventure Hotel (commissioned by the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art), Wodiczko provides a paradigmatic example of this conflation of architecture with culture. The five towered steel and glass John Portman designed Westin Bonaventure, completed in 1976, and famously criticized by Jean Baudrillard in the opening quote for its solipsistic isolation from the city continues,: “The glass facades merely reflect the environment, sending back its own image. This makes them much more formidable than any wall of stone…Everywhere the transparency of interfaces ends in internal refraction” (220-221). The isolation, facilitated by the disrupted connection between the exterior and interior, is perhaps a metaphor for the segregation between the affluent users of the complex and those who service it. Baudrillard continues his criticism of the truncated communication and abortive connections created by contemporary life that augment the deliberately architected inaccessibility of urban complexes like the Westin: “Everything pretentiously termed ‘communication’ and ‘interaction’ – walkman, dark glasses, automatic household appliances, hi-tech cars, even the perpetual dialogue with the computer – ends up with each monad retreating into…its self-regulating little corner and its artificial immunity…” (220-221).

That isolated immunity is critiqued by Frederic Jameson in his essay "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," for its violation of the very city fabric with which it seeks to connect. He condemns the structure of its “peculiar and placeless dissociation…from its neighborhood (Jameson 243), a dissociation in part reflected through the deliberately obstructed access to the Westin complex. The entryways, “downplayed to the bare minimum” (243), he describes as “rather backdoor affairs” (243). They are unannounced and admit one to floors which require an elevator to gain access to the lobby (243), deliberately creating a very disorienting atmosphere. The lobby, an atrium court topped by a sixth floor greenhouse glass roof, is one of the Westin’s main attractions. Although it is intended as a pleasure garden containing plantings, reflecting pools and fountains, access is heavily controlled by high security measures that prevent the intrusion of “undesirables.” Despite the fact that it is built by private funds and offering profit for the same private interests (including Portman himself), the hotel gobbles up public space and urban resources in areas that once served the poor, working classes, and lower middle classes as dwellings and unofficial community centers.

It is that disjuncture between private economic interests and public rights that Wodiczko’s projection engages.

Krzysztof Wodiczko  Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, 1987
Krzysztof Wodiczko 
Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, 1987
Public projection at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles
Organized by the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art
© Krzysztof Wodiczko Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York






He expresses this conflict through an exhibition of the exploitation of the hotel’s workers, who are most often drawn from the surrounding communities. By projecting images of human limbs in shackles onto the structure’s exterior surface, Wodiczko exposes the truth about the actual human cost which underpins this culture of privilege, exemplified by the building itself and its wealthy clientele. These projected phantoms invoke recognition of the consequences of putting public resources on the auction block of capitalism. “Dominant culture in all its forms and aesthetic practices,” Wodiczko suggests, “remains in gross contradiction to the lived experience, communicative needs and rights of most of society, whose labour is its sole base” (Wodiczko, Public Address 139). As with all of his work, the chains are both literal and evocative of the city’s role in impoverishing the public realm through self-congratulatory architectural exercises. In part, this impoverishment is permitted because urban space and its occupants are frequently viewed as commodities while those in power engage, in the words of William Wordsworth, in the ancient ritual of “getting and spending.”

Understanding this destructive dynamic, Wodiczko turned his attention to the question of homelessness. As they go about their daily business, most urban dwellers reluctantly encounter the homeless. It is an encounter beset by a subconscious recognition of the “legitimate” citizen’s own vulnerable circumstances. This creates an unease which demands expiation, a demand satisfied through the creation of a system of shelters where “undesirables” can conveniently disappear from our awareness. Krzysztof Wodiczko saw the homeless population in a radically different context. He viewed them as part of the “architecture” of the city, a mirror of that more ruthless, “real-estate” architecture -- “A monstrous evicting agency, imposing the bodies of the homeless onto the ‘bodies’-- the structures and sculptures -- of state architecture” (137).

Two of Wodiczko’s projects which reflect his understanding of that connection between the institution of architecture and the institutionalization of poverty are Manhattan-based. The first, involves an historic building, the Astor Building, purchased for development into luxury condominium lofts.


Krzysztof Wodiczko Astor Building, New York, 1984
Krzysztof Wodiczko
Astor Building, New York, 1984
Public projection at the Astor Building, New York
Organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
© Krzysztof Wodiczko
Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York





The floors to be redeveloped and gentrified were situated, ironically, above the New Museum of Contemporary Art, recently moved (1983) to 583 Broadway in SoHo, from its rent-free 6th Avenue exhibition space in the Graduate Center of the New School for Social Research. It was, in fact, the museum which organized the projection. When the initial condominium development failed, the renovated sections of the building remained abandoned and unoccupied during a period of increasing homelessness. Wodiczko observed this situation which he referred to as “very dramatic” (Public Address 111). He writes, “It was winter and I was living very close to the main shelter for homeless men…I saw many people living on the street trying to survive the bitter cold temperatures by burning tires…It was…a shock…to see one of the largest buildings in the entire neighborhood empty” (111). Wodiczko’s projection padlocks the building in two places. The top padlock refers to the habitable space deliberately unused during this period of a rise in homelessness which compelled segments of the urban population to occupy the street. Wodiczko added the bottom padlock upon recognition of a connection between the museum as art institution and the gentrification of its surroundings via art galleries and businesses whose intrusions into working class neighborhoods removed accessible affordable housing from the working poor. Architecture’s most basic function throughout history is shelter. What happens in a society, Wodizcko asks through his projection, when the vehicle for shelter becomes itself an agency of eviction—and how guilty are we of collaboration, however unintended?

A few years later in 1988, Wodiczko reactivated these concerns in his Homeless Vehicle design, a design which reifies his understanding that the homeless population is part of the architecture of the city. Their presence raises once again the collision between architecture as shelter and architecture as real estate, the latter transforming architecture into “a monstrous evicting agency,” (Wodiczko, Critical vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews 28), while creating homelessness as its by product. Although never intended as a solution to the problem of homelessness these vehicles, designed in consultation with homeless men, do provide temporary refuge for those unwilling to subject themselves to the institutionalized system of shelters.


Krzysztof Wodiczko Homeless Vehicle, 1988-89
Krzysztof Wodiczko
Homeless Vehicle, 1988-89
Mixed media
Pictured: Variant 3 of 5
© Krzysztof Wodiczko
Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York




They also function as the means of transportation for those who make their living in the collection of others’ refuse.

Restructuring the familiar shopping cart into these well-designed mobile vehicles helps to alter our perception of their owners from homeless derelict to fellow citizen. The transformation provides a counterpoint to the blind facades referred to by Baudrillard, whose “hidden,” self-reflective eyes; “frosted” building surfaces that obscure the soul beneath the skin; and silent retreat into self-absorption can insinuate themselves into their human occupants, numbing perceptions as they breed indifference. The transformations from shopping cart to vehicle and from derelict to urban dweller penetrate this indifference, transforming perceptions of the homeless population from object to neighbor.



Krzysztof Wodiczko Homeless Vehicle, 1988-89
Krzysztof Wodiczko
Homeless Vehicle, 1988-89
Mixed media
Pictured: Variant 3 of 5
© Krzysztof Wodiczko
Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York





Neighbors and neighborhoods are the subject of Wodiczko’s 1998 projection onto the Bunker Hill Memorial in Charlestown Massachusetts, a projection connected to counter-memorials. The counter-memorial deconstructs the traditional monument in an effort to reveal the truths hidden beneath its illusionistically neutral façade. While the traditional monument often silently validates establishment institutions and state authority, the counter-memorial opens a dialogue between itself and a traditional monument whose very existence authenticates the entrenched values of its fostering culture. Wodiczko understands this exchange of ideas to be a necessary force in democracy, whose survival depends on consistent vigorous discussion among its practitioners. In a dialogue with Patricia Phillips, published in Art Journal, Wodiczko refers to Michel Foucault’s use of the Greek term “parrhesia,” “fearless public speaking”(34), as a way both to produce a critical confrontation between an individual and a monument and to penetrate the silent assent of community. “Silence and invisibility are the biggest enemies of democracy,” Wodiczko comments, “If you cannot speak, none of your other constitutional rights can be exercised” (Wodiczko News Office Massachusetts Institute of Technology On-line Bulletin). In this he echoes Justice Louis Brandeis’ warning, inscribed on the walls of the Jury Assembly Room in the John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, that the “greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.”

The Bunker Hill Monument projection which took place on three successive nights in September, 1998, publically addressed the Charlestown Code of Silence, a silence that Wodiczko recognized as undermining the democratic spirit. Through the projection, Wodiczko hoped to provoke both that community and the general public to confront the silence which often renders crime victims invisible and, by extension, neutralizes agonistic democracy.  “It is in the shadows of mute monuments that speechless people dwell” (38), Wodiczko remarks in a later discussion with Patricia Phillips. Wodiczko’s Charlestown Bunker Hill projection was an effort to negate that muteness of the Bunker Hill Monument and the often accompanying speechlessness of people who dwell in its shadow.

He recognized the irony contained in the geographical connection between this heraldic monument to freedom and a Code which neuters the first amendment right to free speech: “The revolutionary battle of Bunker Hill,” he states in the Art 21 video that shows portions of this piece, “is somehow connected with the daily struggle of Charlestown residents who are living in the shadow of this monument overlooking the area in which someone was murdered” (Krzysztof Wodiczko: Bunker Hill Projection, Chapter 1). Tragically, that “someone” is most often a close family member.

The “code” is an unwritten but powerful law that prevents individuals in the community from speaking out when crimes against property, crimes of assault and murder are committed in their neighborhood -- even against their own family members. Between 1975 and 1992, for example, 75 percent of the homicides in Charlestown went unsolved in part as a result of the enforcement of this code (Walker). In Boston, in particular, the code was present in poor and working class Irish neighborhoods. The rational behind the code derives from a suspicion of outsiders in areas which have traditionally been composed of those who have had to struggle for their economic and constitutional rights. The insularity which often results from these struggles, regards institutions and their agents, including law enforcement, as the enemy. “You want to know why?”, defiantly explains one young male in Wodiczko’s projection, on the rational for the code. “Trust,” he responds. “I can’t trust ‘em and the people that are supposed to protect me are the same ones that kick my ass. Yeah you…down there with that badge on,” he continues as his image is projected from the façade of the monument. “You…say I don’t know. I tell you one thing I do know is that this is reality. And that’s the code of silence” (Chapter 2).

The silence enforced by the Charlestown Code doubly victimizes family members: once through the crime and a second time through the neutering of relatives’ outrage and grief. Wodiczko’s response to this neutering of the individual voice involved the projection of images of anguished family members onto the face of the monument. Each held a portrait of a murdered loved one, too often children: “This eternal flame burns in memory of Christopher King at age 20 murdered on August 26, 1986. It burns in memory of Jay King [his brother], murdered on April 7, 1991, age 27,” recites Sandy, one bereaved mother (Chapter 3).


Krzysztof Wodiczko Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, 1998
Krzysztof Wodiczko
Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, 1998
Public video projection at Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, Massachusetts
Presented by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, as part of its ICA/Vita Brevis series Let Freedom Ring
© Krzysztof Wodiczko
Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York




Another mother in the projection, Pam, said that the murder of her son had made her: “rethink freedom and how I took it for granted, [it] was earned by other people and I just always expected it to be here…if you want something you have to work for it and that includes justice” (Chapter 4).


Krzysztof Wodiczko Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, 1998
Krzysztof Wodiczko
Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, 1998
Public video projection at Bunker Hill Monument, Boston, Massachusetts
Presented by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, as part of its ICA/Vita Brevis series Let Freedom Ring
© Krzysztof Wodiczko
Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York



The tragic awareness generated through the combination of grief and the opportunity to express it provided by Wodiczko’s projection, reclaims some of the freedom stolen from the victims through the Charlestown Code.

Whether it is the façade of a luxury hotel, an historic residential structure or a monument to freedom, in the hands of projection artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, buildings are compelled to reveal their true messages. Wodiczko’s projections thwart the efforts to cloak the often tragic events hidden under misleadingly neutral facades, penetrating their surface to liberate the realities buried within. The voices that emerge from the core penetrate our hearts. It is only in that space, the space of the heart, that these truths become able to empower us to act in the reclamation of public space and, more importantly, to reclaim our own humanity.




Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. “America.” Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Ed. Neil Leach. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Jameson, Frederic. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” In Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. ed. Neil Leach. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: Bunker Hill Projection. Videorecording. 22 min. Boston, Mass.:  Institute of Contemporary Art, 1998.

Lee, Pamela M. “Public Art and the Spaces of Democracy.” Assemblage  No.35 (April, 1998): 80-86.

Phillips, Patricia C. “Creating Democracy: A Dialogue with Krzysztof Wodiczko.” Art Journal. Vol. 62. No. 4. College Art Association (Winter, 2003):  33-47.

Purcell, Sarah J.  “Commemoration, Public Art, and the Changing Meaning of the Bunker Hill Monument.” The Public Historian. Vol. 25. No. 2 (Spring, 2003): 55–71.

Video projection on the Bunker Hill Monument by Krzysztof Wodiczko in Boston, MA. Program 9: Power, Season 3, 2005. Art:21: Art in the 21st century.  <http://www.pbs.org/art21/series/seasonthree/power.html> (accessed November 15, 2009).

Walker, Adrian, Boston Globe. Editorial. December 19, 2005.

“Wodiczko's Bunker Hill Projection Opens.  News Office. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, September 23, 1998. <http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/1998/bunker-0923.html> (accessed November 15, 2009).

Wodiczko, Krzysztof. Bunker Hill Monument Projection.  Scenes 1 & 2.  Institute of Contemporary Art. ICA Video. 1998.

Wodiczko, Krzysztof. Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999.

Wodiczko, Krzysztof. In Public Address: Krzysztof Wodiczko. Ed. Phil Freshman.  Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1992.



 








 
(c)Lois Ascher
2010