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Krysztof Wodiczko: Speaking Through Trauma and Animating Public Spaces

September 29, 2020


There is nothing more painful than painful experiences not shared.”

For Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection (2014) Krzysztof Wodiczko engaged with dozens of American war veterans and their family members to explore the traumatic consequences of war. The artist interviewed a total of fourteen participants, recording conversations about war experiences, the difficult return to civilian life, loss, and guilt. These interviews were then edited into a video that was projected on the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square Park.

Since the 1980s, Krzysztof Wodiczko has pioneered the use of new technologies to bring attention to situations of marginalization, over the years engaging with issues of immigration, worker exploitation, homelessness, political dissent and censorship, the after-effects of war, among others. Projection may be his most recognizable form, wherein an image or series of images — and more recently, video and sound — are cast across the faces of government buildings (Krakow’s City Hall, the St. Louis Central Library), cultural institutions (the Whitney Museum, Basel’s Kunstmusem), and monuments and other official public spaces (Trafalgar Square, London, Bunker Hill Monument). Utilizing the built environment as such disrupts public silence over neglected or unrecognized social and cultural issues, exposing systems of injustice, exclusion, and alienation — all of which are implicated in our notions of patrimony and historical memory — literally recasting symbols of national identity in a different light.

Testimony has become a key component of Wodickzo’s projections — how do you communicate and create a space for the story, and quite often the trauma, of another? How do you transform the unspoken to the said aloud, move from unheard to listened to, unseen to highly visible? By putting audiences face to face, albeit virtually, mediated by technology, with real stories and real individuals; by animating and reclaiming public space.

Produced in 2012, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Project explores the traumatic consequences of war. Wodiczko engaged with dozens of veterans and their family members, whom he met by reaching out to more than thirty veterans’ organizations over the course of several months; he interviewed a total of fourteen US veterans of wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, filming their conversations about their experiences of war, the return to civilian life, loss, and guilt. These interviews were then edited into a 23-minute-long video that was projected on the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square Park, historically a site for protest and demonstrations, on thirty-two consecutive nights. The voices, faces, and gestures of the participating veterans created the illusion that the commemorative bronze by H.K. Brown, which had stood silently in the Park since 1870, had come to life. The veterans, speaking through the mouth of Lincoln, made their experiences starkly public. Abraham Lincoln resonated powerfully at the time with the recent American withdrawal from the Iraq War. Interviewed veterans included Joan Aiken, Lyndsey Anderson, Joseph Avellanet, Roman Baca, Walter Baldaccini, Carl Cannon, Luis Crossman, Marie Delus, Trent Love, Nelson Lowhim, Blake Ruehrwein, Sarmiento, Carlos Tarraza, and Carlos Zambrano.

Even after years of intimately interviewing people, the process is a delicate one, as Wodickzo discusses in our book, More In The Public Eye, excerpted here, dissecting the challenges and goals of Abraham Lincoln; it’s a project for which the very idea of projection itself, of broadcasting, is key. As ever, Wodiczko asks, who do we listen to, who do we allow to speak and how?

It’s not necessarily comfortable, I noticed, for people to sit and talk on camera. They often prefer to hear some of the questions before we begin. At first, they can’t figure out what I want — what does he want me to say? So I’m not sure if it’s comfortable for them. But at the end, when we talk about the value of this project, they are ultimately grateful for this discomfort. There is an element of effort expected on the part of those who are being interviewed, who are supposed to address something we seldom hear, but which ought to be said.

Maybe “comfort” is not the best word. Another would be “trust.” Without trust, there is no possibility that those people will open up and put all the energy and effort into the sometimes-painful process of recovering details from their experiences and repeating them. Before they can decide if they want to be a part of the project, they have to have room to share with each other without my presence, [to share] their doubts and fears about the whole thing. During all of this the project is always in danger — it might never happen, because it’s so fragile. We have to develop trust.

Let’s start by acknowledging the people who participated in the project. Because without them, there is no project. They are the ones who should feel some benefit from speaking about painful experiences, rather than hiding them. Every therapeutic process relies on various techniques and situations through which people are encouraged to feel more confident, in which they learn how to open up and share their painful experiences. There is nothing more painful than painful experiences not shared.

But sharing with the larger public is something that I have less opportunity to do, unless it’s a cultural project, like the Abraham Lincoln projections. This ability to not only share that painful experience but to do it in public space, with people they don’t know, is connected to a healthier life living with trauma, according to some trauma therapists. It’s not enough to tell the truth; it’s important to make it public. And to perform it, to bring emotional charge to it — not just drop simple facts, but actually speak about your own feelings in the public space.

To hear yourself speaking to other people and to see and hear that people listen to you, that’s an additional possibility that this type of work, this projection, provides. So it’s not just that I speak as a veteran, but also that I hear myself speaking — it’s recorded and projected through the statue, through the monument — and that I see other people listening to me. I become a speaking monument to my own trauma, which is what I need.

It’s a complex phenomenon, the monument. We don’t really know exactly why we need monuments. Many philosophers and poets have tried to clarify this, but we don’t have a good theory for it. But the word monument explains a little bit of its own function, because it has something to do with warning [it comes from the Latin momentum, from monere, “remind”]. Reminding us again, with an exclamation mark — “be mindful of something!” “remember that things happen!” — that great things happen, but that terrible things can happen as well. So there is that expectation attached to monuments, especially statues, because they are erected to commemorate leaders, people who contributed to some important change, or who protected people from wars, or performed an exceptional duty for society. They’re very useful if they can be used for relief, not just for those who erected them. So the question is, how do we make useful monuments? Every person who tells a story that has some meaning for new generations is operating like a monument. People are monuments. Memory and monument are obviously connected. Even the word “memorial” makes that connection.

What is difficult and creative is to recognize that it’s actually the person who has things to say whom we don’t want to hear. So the statue is saying something that is not welcome immediately, something to be learned. In that sense the usefulness of the statue becomes clearer the more we listen to this kind of animation. In fact, the whole trick of those projections has only one purpose: to create conditions for somebody to speak and somebody to listen. The projection’s primary purpose is acoustic, to communicate through language and speech; the visual part, the visual theatricality is very important to create conditions for speech. So its goal is another theatricality — the use of voice to convey emotions.

You could see and hear the difference between the veterans who had spent years working through their traumatic condition and who managed somehow to be more prepared, to take full advantage of this project and to animate themselves further, and others who were in an earlier stage, having just returned from war. They were really like the sculpture itself; you could tell that they were very wooden, very limited, their story was very dry. But the important thing in those cases was that they actually knew that, that they were speaking about their own incapacitation. There was some level of public testimony about their own (in)capacitation that was formulated through the monument. That’s an achievement. Because for someone who cannot even say “I love you,” for the monument to say such things is frighteningly clear. In that sense both sides — those who were more prepared to animate the monument and the others who were not quite ready — were becoming ready to become speaking monuments.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.