December 2, 2005

Artist Wodiczko Lectures on 'Dis-Armor' Project

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When Krzysztof Wodiczko, renowned artist and professor of Visual Arts at MIT, heard that in Japan, it is sometimes said that it is easier to know what someone is thinking by looking at their back, it inspired him. With this saying in mind, Wodiczko commenced the “Dis-Armor” Project. Wodiczko and a team fashioned a technological device which the subject, in this case a Japanese, female, high school student, wore in public. The device, called “Dis-Armor”, had both a facial piece and a vest. It projected the images of her eyes onto two television screens on the back of the vest, and a microphone relayed her speech to a speaker underneath the screens; it allowed her to talk through her back.

Wodiczko showed a film clip, where this girl walked into a corporate office building wearing “Dis-Armor” and conversed with two men in the cafeteria, during his lecture in Goldwin Smith last night, titled “Public Art and Fearless Speech”. He was brought to Cornell as a speaker for the College of Architecture, Art and Planning’s Dean’s Lecture series. Wodiczko is most famous for creating large-scale slide and videos which he projects onto the facades of well-known architecture and monuments in urban settings.

The topics of his projections address controversial issues such as immigration, homelessness, and the oppression of women. His art has been displayed all over the world in places ranging from Warsaw to New York City. In 1998, Wodiczko was awarded the Hiroshima Prize for his contribution as an artist to world peace.

In the beginning of the presentation, Wodiczko referenced Ancient Greece as a sort of model for his work.

“In Athens in the time of Greek and Roman democracy, public space allowed for open speech,” he said. “It requires special political, ethical and psychological abilities on the part of the speaker.

The Greek speaker must speak honestly from the depths of his own experience, be open to criticism and then change for the better.”

Wodiczko stated that the importance of honest speaking lies in its ability to cause change. “There was an ancient call for an effective agent, a provocative, democratic speaker,” Wodiczko said. “He should spread and disseminate contagious seeds of democratic contest, disrupt the authorities, call for accountability. These issues need public space.”

Wodiczko said that public space has a broad definition.

“Public space can be created, not only outdoors, but indoors,” he said. “It can be for a minute, a day, or a year, any suitable time or place. Is this space plazas, shopping malls, the internet? Maybe it is in the back alleys, the dark places we fear – the pockets of the city.”

In most cases, Wodiczko uses prominent monuments as his forum.

“Monument in latin derives from the verb, to warn,” he said. “It is a warning. So why not speak through a monument and take advantage of its prestige? Through a monument there is the possibility of communication.”

Wodiczko’s videos serve to give life and a message to inanimate monuments, and to generate discussion.

“The person becomes a monument herself,” he said. “At the same time, historic monuments do not speak, move, or respond to circumstances. We animate them by projecting our lives and events onto their body.”

The videos Wodiczko projects onto the façade of well-known architecture calls for subjects to call upon personal memories and share them with the world in what could be up to 50 times their actual size. These memories relate to provocative social and political issues which are often ignored.

“People must recall painful memories and live with the trauma in a creative, proactive, transformative way. Public truth-telling is the transition from private confession to public testimony.”

A notable example of Wodiczko’s art was his work in Tijuana. During the lecture, he spoke about the hundreds of factories in this Mexican city that chiefly employ teenage girls because they supply the cheapest labor. Wodiczko used the dome of El Centro Cultural as the location of the project. “El Centro Cultural is in the center of the city and has a big sphere,” he said. “It is an icon of the city. The technology was a wearable television station. The cameras were directed at the face with lights and a microphone so the face always fits the spherical façade.”

Aside from the iconic quality of building, it also has social significance.

“The women took over the building and decided to show their lives,” he said. “The Centro Cultural had no room for them inside. They were speaking of instances at work, home and the city. There is so much violence, drugs and gangs.”

One of the women featured on the massive dome spoke about watching policemen beat her friends. Another told the story about taking a substance called “La Brocaine” because she was on the 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift at the factory. The drug caused her face to burn painfully and her skin to turn black. The company doctor offered no help except for aspirin, and told her she did not deserve medical leave.

Another recent project by Wodiczko took place in Poland. In Warsaw, there is a Greek-style building with columns and a pediment. In Ancient Greece, some architecture was built with columns in the shape of women, called “caryatids”. Wodiczko and a group of women who participated in the project liked the idea of projecting their images onto the columns so they would appear to be holding the roof up, like the caryatids.

“This suggests the possibility of protecting themselves as a pilaster for the idea of female figures continually supporting some structure,” he said.

The women spoke about incest, suicide and heartache, being extremely honest and emotional in their testimony. Wodiczko acknowledged the great amount of trust his subjects place in him and the reason for it.

“There are plenty of guys out there trying to make art for money, and media people looking for sensational stories,” he said. “One should not interview, one should not attempt to understand the other person. It is not group therapy; it is a leap they have to make. The better question is how do they do it?”

Overcoming a psychological block and fear of this sort of truth-telling is a central part of Wodiczko’s work.

“Fear of speech is actually a problem,” he said. “It is not enough to give someone a microphone because they will not speak. “Without the development of the process, you cannot turn a silent person into a fearless speaker.”

The fearlessness and emotion of the speakers and the large-scale, dramatic way in which the art is presented are crucial aspects of Wodiczko’s work. Fine arts student Ben Shattuck, ’08, said that he did not think these features came across during the presentation.

“The strength of the work lies in its presentation, it being by nature public art,” he said. “So by whittling it down to a talk in a small auditorium with just his computer, I think some of the impact of his work was lost in the transfer. It took the art out of its context.”

However, despite the significantly smaller scale of the presentation, Shattuck was still struck by Wodiczko’s art.

“I heard about this from my drawing teacher, I had never heard of him before so I did not know what to expect,” he said. “It is only speculation, but I think if I actually saw it I would be impressed.”

Archived article by Bekah Grant
Sun Staff Writer