The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

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FEB 2014 Issue
Art In Conversation


Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Ann McCoy met with Krzysztof Wodiczko at De Robertis Pasticceria & Caffe in the East Village—which has functioned since the ’80s as his studio and office—to discuss his video projections on statuary and some of the psychological aspects of the work. The artist was leaving the next day for Northern Ireland to stage a projection project using public spaces developed with survivors of the Troubles, the sectarian violence reignited after Bloody Sunday. His project includes Catholics, Unionists, Provos, Protestant paramilitaries, former prisoners, and civilians. McCoy and Wodiczko discussed his Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, Union Square (2012), and Out/Inside(rs) (2013) created for an exhibition in cooperation with the DOX Centre in the Czech Republic.

Ann McCoy (Rail): I want to focus on your video projections on portrait statuary as opposed to the buildings, although I know that you anthropomorphize architecture. The 2012 piece I saw of yours was Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection where the voices and faces of traumatized war veterans were projected onto the Abraham Lincoln statue in Union Square. In Out/Inside(rs), videos of young Roma victims of racist attacks are projected onto busts of Czech cultural icons. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, Domenico, an outsider, delivers a speech on scaffolding built around Rome’s Marcus Aurelius statue, and then dies by self-immolation. Domenico says we must go back to a point in history where we made a mistake and start over, as though he could update Aurelius’s Meditations. When the projections on your statues speak we are also given a revisionist view—as you say, “Unconscious perception is replaced with a critical one”; the disenfranchised are given a voice; and our view of the monument and history has been altered. The fact that your narratives also feature traumatized women is impressive. Why did you choose Lincoln? Let’s start with that.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: First of all, because Lincoln is a very prominent historical figure, so the monument has some prestige, authority—so the projections would probably be taken seriously. There aren’t that many monuments in New York City that can serve that role; it is not a very good city for monuments. This one is good because people can come close to it at the middle-ground distance and scale, most appropriate in relating both to humans and monuments.

Rail: So the viewer can enter the loop, as they say in theater?

Wodiczko: Yes, in the theater of life and as on the stage. It is intimate on an urban scale, but at the same time it is still monumental. The Lincoln film, directed by Steven Speilberg, was released the same week as the projection. Lincoln as a president, soldier, politician, and military leader was exposed, so there were two monuments already in place. It was on the occasion of Veterans Day, and it was important to bring experiences and views on war from ex-soldiers into the public space of New York City. Lincoln was a soldier in one war and later went through Civil War battlefields; we see it in photographs. He must have seen a lot, must have lost a lot of friends. He was the one responsible for the worst war in American history in terms of number of people killed and wounded, six times more dead Americans per capita than during the Second World War. He must have seen an enormous amount of war trauma fallout. We also know that he was suffering from melancholia. We don’t know exactly what kind of emotional battleground he was suffering because he was assassinated soon after the Civil War. He did not have a chance to write his presidential memoirs, so we didn’t get that sense of the psychological impact of the war on him, his guilt or sense of deep responsibility for the bloodiest war. I was thinking there’s some similarity between the veterans themselves as monuments, and that statue. So I thought that animating this silent, frozen, seemingly post-traumatic figure of Lincoln would be a good way for the soldiers to animate and perhaps re-animate themselves, to share their war experiences through this statue. All of those aspects have to be put together to try to answer your question, “Why this statue and not another one?”

Rail: I’m interested in projection, in projective identification, and the transferential aspect because Lincoln is the carrier of projections. He’s heroic, the father of the nation, and he presided over splits such as North versus South. Lincoln is a complex dual figure. His “our better angels” address implies he also acknowledged inner demons.

Out/Insid(ers), 2013. Copyright of the Artist. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong.

Out/Insid(ers), 2013. Copyright of the Artist. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong.

Wodiczko: Yes, and with many of the veterans as well, you can see how much guilt and doubt there is, and a continuing process of rethinking what those soldiers possibly did wrong. They painfully recall all the details of their war experience in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan: Did they contribute to the death of their colleagues? What was the toll of their warfare on civilians or family members? There is always that kind of ethical philosophy going on, that existential philosophy in a very deep sense.

Rail: You have veterans looking at their role in the dark side of the war, but we rarely see this in our leaders. John Kerry no longer bears any resemblance to the young soldier who asked the Senate in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Wodiczko: We romanticize war, and monuments are part of this process; the romantic vision of war, the sense of mission and lofty sacrifice, the pleasure of dying and suffering for a leader. This has been replicated through war memorials, including statues. Why do we need them? Are they necessary companions to our imaginary life—maybe everybody would like to be like this statue?

Rail: Some of this idealization changed after World War I, because young men charging into war encountered mechanized warfare, mustard gas, and tanks. Think of the Polish cavalry charging the tanks, it’s heart wrenching. The Dada artists were certainly a reaction to this horror, as were the artists around the Anti-Kriegs-Museum in Berlin.

Wodiczko: Yes. [Pauses.] It’s true, but what I was trying to say about those statues is that they are inanimate, yet they are trying to be animated. Many people, especially war veterans and their families are in this state, in between animated and inanimate, definitely ex-soldiers and their families as they suffer post-traumatic stress. With the use of audiovisual projection technique they can make use of those statues as their symbolic existential companions, as metaphors that concretize “monumental” aspects of their existence—as their monumental “doubles.”

Rail: I was thinking about acquisitive projection, where someone takes on aspects of another. This could happen with the veterans as well as the viewers.

Wodiczko: Yes, I think this is quite important. Also, the specific task of doing it for the public and for the veterans themselves is very meaningful. And their families and friends came to see and hear themselves, or part of themselves, being projected through the monument and re-interiorized this. What they said through, and now hear from, the statue becomes more legitimate to them because it became part of an official monumental public space. The whole Union Square, everything there is a monument, everyone there is listening and watching. What they were trying to say is actually now public, it has its own kind of symbolic, even political, strength put together by them and by me and with the help of the statue. They can live with what they lived through in a different and more open way, more connected with the city and society.

Rail: In your writings, you talk about giving a voice to the voiceless and the healing aspect of making traumas public through projection because people are able to bring disassociated parts of themselves back into themselves, which I think is important.

Wodiczko: Yes. Through this kind of project they can make the statues speak on behalf of themselves by animating them, but to animate the statues they must animate themselves first through this process of recording, re-recording, thinking, discussing, and consulting with others. Those who couldn’t make use of the project never came back again after the initial meetings. This is a self-selection process. Using a Judith Herman expression, the veterans and their families are the “speechless monuments to their own trauma.” The aim of this self-animation (perhaps even re-animation) is to help them in transforming themselves from speechless monuments into speaking monuments who can publicly share their war and post-war experience in emotional and articulate ways.

Rail: That is a fascinating point I hadn’t thought of.

Wodiczko: When it came to the moment of being filmed, they somehow became actors. There was a photograph of the monument next to the camera. They had to imagine that there were tiny people standing there below themselves as lofty monuments below “their” pedestal. They had to assume the posture of Lincoln. They had to stand still, move their hands in a certain way. They had to develop performance skills; the statue became a kind of instrument they had to learn to play. Like actors in the Greek theater who were wearing masks they had to learn how to play the monument as part Lincoln and part themselves.

Rail: Projection occurs when contents that are below the threshold of consciousness are projected on another person. The projection needs a hook upon which it can be hung. When the soldiers see the Lincoln statue, perhaps some buried heroic part of themselves is pulled out of the unconscious.

Wodiczko: I’m not sure about what you just said. I don’t think they had any kind of theistic image of themselves being heroic.

Rail: A lost archetype, a kernel of it buried in the unconscious; the unconscious contains compensatory images.

Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, November - December 9, 2012. Variable dimensions. New York. Commissioner: More Art. Copyright the Artist. Courtesy the artist and More Art.

Wodiczko: No. Not to my observation, nor was there any evidence of this in what they said, or how they said it. I think they were very much anti-heroic, actually putting into doubt the whole idea of heroism. This was particularly true with Vietnam veterans because they had enough time to develop their capacity to speak over the years of silence and drug addiction, homelessness, and alcoholism. Those who survived this took part in this project, the ones capable of saying more. The new veterans were mostly talking about their lack of capacity to speak and share emotions; they were in a much more traumatized state. The returning soldiers told what would happen in years to come to those who just signed up, because those who returned went through the real war, not fantasies about it. But there was no sense of heroism—we could maybe say it’s a tragic heroism, in the Shakespearean sense—by way of suffering tragic and contradictory feelings. With the veterans, none of them have any kind of pride in achieving something. They are immersed in thinking about what went wrong. The lesson that they want to project to younger people is to think 10 times before signing up, because you’re not going to be a hero even though the propaganda and drum beat is making you believe you will be.

Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, November - December 9, 2012. Variable dimensions. New York. Commissioner: More Art. Copyright the Artist. Courtesy the artist and More Art.

Rail: There always seems to be a huge split between the military leaders and the soldiers as cannon fodder. Even Aurelius who spent eight years on the Danube with his campaigns never mentions the battlefield, only Stoic philosophy. You find very few leaders writing about the suffering of the troops.

Wodiczko: True, because the leaders assume a strategic distance. The soldiers are tacticians; the leaders are strategists. There is a big difference. Tactics are an art of the weaker, of the one who is trying to survive. The soldier must kill in order to not be killed. For the general, the issue of how to win the overall battle with a certain number of casualties is already preconceived. I was in the military, not as a leader but as a lower-ranking officer. On that level you simply try to create the best tactical conditions so fewer soldiers are killed or injured. But on the level of the generals, we are talking about 2,000 or 20,000 soldiers killed—numbers not people. At the level of the section or platoon commander, losing one soldier may be worse than losing one’s own life. One lieutenant, speaking through my projection project in Poland, said he was happy that when disarming mines with his unit, it was he who lost his leg instead of any of his soldiers. Of course his family has not been happy about it. Some of those veterans probably were lower level commanders, directly responsible for the lives of several people. One of the veterans, speaking through the Lincoln statue, said that he is planning to go to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and ask his dead comrades in arms for forgiveness. For over 40 years, he has had nightmares about the fact that he could have, in some way, prevented their deaths. This is not something Napoleon or perhaps even Lincoln would think about, being so busy with strategy and grand politics. In my projections/animations, through the statues of past victorious leaders, the veterans perhaps try to teach today’s generals and political leaders what they don’t care to think about.

Rail: I keep thinking of your El Centro Cultural project in Tijuana which was part of InSITE2000. My sister-in-law, a border commissioner, knew of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. She insisted I come to Tijuana and view your piece. It was the first time that I had seen these voiceless women given visibility, and by a man! Political art is usually impersonal, distanced, and lacking feeling. Here, it couldn’t have been more personal. You had these mounted video cameras inches from the women’s faces—an incredibly intimate process—capturing their innermost feelings and then projecting them outward. Your Tijuana project helped to move the public dialogue forward, giving the women who were raped and working in dangerous conditions in the Maquiladoras a voice. It is hard to see El Centro Cultural in Tijuana without the afterimage of their faces. It is hard to see the Lincoln Statue in Union Square without hearing the veterans in our minds.

Wodiczko: That’s very unusual for me to hear such a direct relation, because most people who talk, teach, and write about my work have not had a chance to actually witness my projects.

Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, November 8 - December 9, 2012. Variable dimensions. New York. Commissioner: More Art. Copyright the Artist and More Art.

Rail: My brother founded the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, so it’s our hometown, and the plight of these women was a concern. I was thinking about the piece Out/Inside(rs) that you did in the Czech Republic. Roma youths are describing traumatic attacks on them by skinheads in Varnsdorf, and you are projecting the videos on historical busts of Czech artists, historians, politicians, philosophers, etc. The busts are roughly human scale, suggesting viewer/speaker equality, like an intimate conversation.

Wodiczko: Using Walter Benjamin’s expression, the city is a massive museum of the “history of the victors.” Whether through smaller or larger scale statues, monuments, and inscriptions, only those who “succeeded” are inscribed in the city’s symbolic narrative. So the traumatic history of veterans, returning soldiers, and their families is not inscribed in official city statues and monuments. My obligation as an artist is to help inscribe the memory of this “tradition of the vanquished” into the city’s symbolic spaces dominated by the “history of the victors.” Disturbing and interrupting the continuity of silence around their experiences may help to stop perpetuating the culture and cult of war and wars themselves.

Rail: You write a lot about how this idea of taking the unconscious perception and replacing it with a critical one can make viewers uncomfortable. How did people respond to the projection on the Lincoln statue?

Wodiczko: The fact that they didn’t leave and instead stayed for a long time, and the fact that there was an electricity suggests there is something about the project that got to the bones of people, because those monuments are already in our bones. We are in some respect like these statues because through our cultural heroic upbringing we became war memorials. We are part humans and part statues. This is a two-way projection and identification: we are inhabiting them, they’re inhabiting us. Through my projections there is someone else (such as a war veteran) projected onto the statues who unexpectedly inhabits it. We have to accept such a person as the uninvited roommate. It is a difficult, but most informative, cohabitation.

Rail: This uninvited roommate, an interesting image.

Wodiczko: The projection/animation I do creates a condition for accepting that there is someone else living in these historic city statues, not just us. In this way, even if briefly, we may profoundly connect with these projected others, and this experience may go deeply into our bones. As some viewers are aesthetically and psychologically drawn into this process, they may stay longer at the site of projection and it may be too late for them not to listen and not to make an impossible attempt to identify with those who speak and animate the monument. One may try to learn but one may never fully understand the monument animator’s experience. One can only try to get a bit closer to it. The objective of this project is to decrease our emotional and cultural distance from the veterans and their families (who are veterans in their own right). The other objective is to recognize the impossibility of identifying with their experience. This kind of project temporarily transforms the civic statue or the civic monument into a cultural prosthesis to be used by the alienated and speechless veterans for their benefit, and for the larger benefit of a culturally numbed and deaf public. The statue is a cultural prosthesis that both inspires and requires a developmental communicative process. It demands and helps in learning new skills of speaking, finding words and expressions to share publicly unspeakable experiences. It does so with the help of para-theatrical and media techniques of the methods of testimonial monument animation.

Rail: Psychologists write a lot about splits. Certain contents or experiences are split off, this happens with trauma. If these split parts can be reintegrated, a healing takes place, a new adaptation and mode of being.

Wodiczko: Ani Buk one of the psychotherapists at the panel discussion War, Trauma and Public Art at the N.Y.U. Kimmel Center
pointed out that this type of animation of a monument makes it clear that the monument represents the past that cannot be changed, a kind of frozen past. But through the projection one can animate this past, not to change it but to live with it in a more active, creative, and animated way rather than be incapacitated and imprisoned by it. Those veterans who saw themselves speaking this way in a public space and critically interpreting the world in which they live, may see themselves as being “outside of themselves” and a part of larger society and its history. It creates the possibility of moving on with life. By publicly telling the truth of their unacceptable experience they may inspire, develop, or reinforce their wish and will to contribute to new public consciousness toward the larger change—perhaps toward the future world free from wars and war veterans. Perhaps this is the aim of the kind of art I do? Not art therapy, but art that has a social, critical, and therapeutic effect and a psychoanalytic dimension.

Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, November - December 9, 2012. Variable dimensions. New York. Commissioner: More Art. Copyright the Artist and More Art.

Rail: There are many advances now in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans; everything from service dogs to rapid eye movement therapy, to revisiting the traumas. Therapists say not only are these traumas not repeated, but veterans are able to move into a new space; perhaps this is what your work does.

Wodiczko: This type of project shifts the psychological and social perspective. One can see one’s traumatic experience from a new revealing angle and new informative distance.

Rail: You were born in Warsaw at the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, correct?

Wodiczko: Yes, I was in many ways born in, and of, the war and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I was born of a Jewish mother in Warsaw outside of the ghetto, just before the outbreak of the uprising. My mother’s Jewish family, except for my mother and myself, were killed in the Holocaust. We were hiding from the Nazis and helped at great risk by non-Jews. My father, a non-Jew, was rounded up and taken along with masses of other Poles to the Nazi labor camp, often of blurred difference to a death camp.

My generation and the generation of my parents were and are in fact war veterans. I remember too well the fallout of war. I grew up in it. It was my bread and butter, the air I was breathing. It caused indescribable damage: physical and human. The knowledge and memory of experiencing the impact of such a devastating war is worth preserving for the future because people can’t really imagine in advance what war, war trauma, and cross-generational war trauma are. As one among many from my generation, I am a war veteran, a veteran of war veterans—of the war of my emotionally destroyed parents.

Rail: They are discovering that trauma goes down through generations and is embedded in the genetic code. Being Irish, I see how 300 years of ethnic cleansing affected the Irish psyche.

Wodiczko: I heard five years ago that 85 percent of children in Iraq were experiencing post-traumatic stress. Cities and people are completely destroyed and children are witnessing this. The trauma will go on for the population of Iraq for the next 50 years. Ours is a very large army, many soldiers were deployed several times. If seven to nine people are traumatized by every traumatized soldier, we will have millions of people living with secondary trauma in this country for at least 25 years, perhaps more. What is the role of artists in this social and cultural condition if not to break, or at least to shake, to crack the wall that separates these who know what war is and these who do not?

By telling this truth through this project, returning soldiers can disrupt and challenge the uncritical perception and celebration of war, and the hypnotic fascination by heroic images and icons and monuments to war. Culturally speaking, that is an important step that might prevent people from blindly supporting and signing up for war.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

All Issues