On Friday, as part of our Graduate Institute of Design, Ethnography and Social Thought bi-weekly workshops (I’m a GIDEST fellow this year), Krzysztof Wodiczko shared his past and contemporary work, and framed that work through a theory of “inner” and “outer publics.” In 2006, as part of our Media Space | Public Space project, my friend and colleague Liz Ellsworth and I invited Wodiczko to join us in an exhibition we organized in one of the LMCC’s downtown temporary galleries. I honestly hadn’t paid much attention to his work since then, and I was tremendously grateful to be reintroduced to it — and reminded of its power, which of course is never without controversy.
In a paper Wodiczko circulated in advance of the workshop, he describes his work as creating the conditions for communication, confrontation, and exchange “through the use of especially designed performative communicative instruments and through the appropriation of architectural and spatial forms as dynamic screens…” These instruments and projections frequently give voice to representatives from oppressed, disenfranchised, invisible populations; these brave volunteers share stories of trauma and healing.
Wodizcko argues that, in approaching his work as “public art,” most people adopt an “external perspective” — focusing on the work’s impact on spectators, those who witness the work upon its formal public presentation — rather than considering how the project comes into being through a long-term process involving myriad participants — “active agents,” co-creators — who coalesce into an “inner public.” Looking inward, rather than outward, allows us to appreciate the “psychologically developmental, therapeutic, educational and performative procedures of these works.” His primary concern, he argues, is “the meaning and the value of the project to those who choose to speak, perform and address the public through it…. The measure of a project’s success is its capacity to inspire, assist, and protect the development and transmission of the public voice and expression of those who choose to take part in it.”
In the paper, he describes the long, fraught process by which he pitches a project to city and potential local sponsor organizations; describes the project to potential participants; and, with his partners, wins (and occasionally loses) the participants’ trust and instills in them a sense of ownership in the project. Those participants ultimately, in many cases, use the project as a “transitional object” — a site and scene for testimony and therapy. “Becoming a public speaker,” he suggested later on, allows the participants to “get outside [themselves]” and thereby heal. That healing also extends to other peripheral inner publics: social service workers, participants’ family members, etc. Yet the therapeutic effects don’t end there. As the project is being installed and is eventually formally exhibited, various outer publics, intentional and accidental observers, become witnesses to the participants’ testimony and feel compelled to stay and listen, to engage in “fearless listening.” “Viewers are reluctant to walk away from such a blast of truth. Perhaps they feel obliged to stay because what is said is difficult to hear and because it is painfully true.”
In the workshop, the conversation that followed Wodiczko’s presentation was particularly exciting. Radhika Subramaniam, Director of the Sheila Johnson Design Center, served as a respondent. She acknowledged how Wodiczko’s work connects the intimate and the monumental, and how it uses technology as both a prosthesis — an extension of one’s communicative organs, in a McLuhanesque sense — and a prop: a crutch without which the participants might not feel compelled, empowered, sufficiently secure to share their stories. And while Wodiczko’s primary allegiance and concern is with the “inner public” participants, Subramaniam suggested that the primary benefit for the outer public is not, as is so often tritely argued, “raised awareness” about various social issues: abuse, homelessness, PTSD, etc. Instead, witnessing these public airings in public space, she argued, offered a first “ear cleaning,” as Murray Schaefer might call it: a rehearsal, an introduction, which opens the possibility for future instances of “fearless listening.”
My colleague Nitin Sawhney asked a beautiful question about the role of designer as ethnographer — about how Wodiczko’s site-specific, participatory, longitudinal work “in the field,” in preparation for a project, might allow for insight that traditional ethnography doesn’t afford. Wodiczko acknowledged that while he is, in part, an ethnographer-designer, his role as a stranger is equally critical: because the participants “know I’ll disappear” — they know he’ll eventually leave town — “I become a confessional.” Another colleague, Julie Napolin, then noted how Wodiczko transforms public space into the clinic — a huge psychoanalytic couch, if you will.
A perfect note to end on.