Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Krzysztof Wodiczko
from the Kitten issue
Pataphysics: Could you tell us something about the formation of the original idea for the Homeless Vehicle?
Krzysztof Wodiczko: It was four years ago when I started to think about the possibilities for this type of emergency tool. The situation in New York since I moved here in '83 has dramatically and increasingly become worse. The cutbacks for public housing since '81 have been about 80%. So for New York City from year to year there has been a very visible, a very clear increase in the number of homeless. But somehow it was not very clear to people that the homeless are products of the same transformation of the city which were also contributing to the so-called revitalization, beautification or re-development of different parts of downtown. Something needed to be done to make the situation clear - to say this was a legitimate problem. Those who are doing better, who are not homeless, see the homeless situation as being something that can be avoided, a waste. I would call the vehicle a new type of 'spleen,' perhaps a postmodern 'spleen' - using the term used by Baudelaire and elaborated by Walter Benjamin, meaning a shock-absorbing mechanism that allows people to live between those homeless, and maybe even be very close to them, but without really recognizing them as people and asking who these people are - on most occasions not even recognizing that they are people who are working, day and night, heavily working, and trying to not only resist but also earn meager income to survive. They are the workers of the city, who are using tools. In other words, among the large population of the homeless there is a significant group of them, not very large in number, but very visible, high-profile people who are strong and who are capable of working day and night collecting bottles and cans. Their position in the city regarding the city by-laws is legal. The law encourages people to return bottles - the bottle law. So I realized that the best way to really make the situation clear to the non-homeless would be to help this group, which is already quite visible, by providing them with a tool which would not be associated with stolen objects, such as shopping carts, but something that would be especially designed for them, and through the increasing presence and mobility of this object it would become both communication and the transport; a vehicle that would articulate the real conditions of work and life and the resistance of this group.
P: What do you consider to be the influences on the design of the object?
KW: I don't see any influences. I might see ironic relationships. For example, an ironic relation to Constructivist or Productivist design. The vehicle is operating on the ruins of a city that has failed to supply and respond to basic things. In this sense it is not a postmodern vehicle, it is a contemporary post-architecture. To a degree it ironically resembles the postmodern forms of the realist-citadels, such as Battery Park City - that is, the citadels of the realist state that are pretending to be cities within the city. These 'cities' are defending themselves from the city. The cities are defending themselves against nomads - nomads who are not coming from outside of the city, but are the product of the city. So that's why, not without some sense of humor, it resembles some of those buildings except that it's positioned horizontally. In fact it has proved to work very well in Battery Park City itself. The guards of this citadel couldn't remove it from the territory for many reasons. The first reason was that the vehicle was legal - it was collecting bottles. Secondly, because it was neat, it was a very precise design, and thirdly, because it was an object for which they could not find a clear definition - in other words the object was somewhere in-between. Something useful, maybe being tested, and something disturbing - something that was defensive. There was no action against it on the part of the confused Battery Park security system.
P: Why in some of the depictions of the Homeless Vehicle, using slide projections, have you chosen to use that particular style of drawing - the ghostlike, faceless and hooded persons?
KW: Those drawings were the first representations of the project; now there are plenty of photographs of the actual vehicle. In New York people are quite faceless.
P: So that was a representation of an existing situation?
KW: I lived exactly in the very center of homelessness in Lower Manhattan. I lived by Battery Square Park which is the very center - the battle zone - the place where the homeless established their residence. It is the largest settlement and that's from where they were evicted. That was where they were dispossessed. The people there are the type of people who are capable of doing this resistant work. They have a certain look to them because they have to protect themselves - most of them do not want to be recognized.
P: Is there a contradiction between these people not wanting to be recognized and then you coming up with these new objects that will make them infinitely more recognizable?
KW: I designed the vehicle initially in a completely different way. Then as a result of conversations with potential users I changed everything - quite radically. Only after conversations with the users did I realize how ignorant I was about their needs, which are quite complex. The contradiction you just mentioned is in fact a contradiction of their lives, or refers to the contradiction of the whole situation. They want to somehow be private or hidden, but at the same time it is very dangerous for them not to be seen. The group I'm working with choose to be visible, not in terms of their faces maybe, but in terms of their presence and increased mobility. So when they have a vehicle that is acknowledging this, they seem to be very pleased. The object itself is something for their lives - they have some kind of architecture which communicates their relation to the rest of the city. They are more legitimate members of the community. Legitimate inhabitants or citizens.
P: You don't see any significance in the notion that they might have a certain physical freedom without the object, like other people can, so that they can change and adapt to different conditions and things? Someone with a wealthier lifestyle might be able to just buy a new car or change fashion whereas with these objects there is a certain reduction of their lifestyle.
KW: They suggested that this should be a legitimate object. Some of them used the term 'consumer object,' and I think what matters is that they would like to see the middle-class, the non-homeless, recognizing this object according to the way consumers look at every new object. People on the streets, the homeless, are asking questions and these questions are typical of those asked in front of new objects, objects which they have not seen before - What is it for? Who is using it? How much does it cost? Why is it designed this way or that way? Why this detail? Under what circumstances will it work? This is a kind of phenomenon of consumerism. They respond to the new object in quite a systematic way, and gradually they might realize that firstly, this is not for them, and secondly, that it is for somebody else who has specific needs, and those needs are clearly articulated with the vehicle. That there is a need for this kind of object at all might be quite astonishing - they realize that things have really gone this far. Of course, you know this is not designed for every homeless person, only for a particular group of people who would possibly use it, but it is done for the entire situation. In other words, this particular group of users, through their visibility, is capable of presenting the problem with this vehicle very well and communicate very well with the non-homeless since those who are collecting and recycling - the collective personality - is usually quite public. They are performers in a way. There is some element of performance which is already there in the way they live.
P: How important is it to be exhibiting the Homeless Vehicles in art galleries?
KW: I am taking advantage of the privilege of being an artist, that is, having a right to exhibit in the middle of the city, the right to have an exhibition. In a strange way artists have more right to speech than many other groups, so I am simply using this as a way of presenting the concept and some documents, hoping that I might get some more financial support. But also to connect different groups for the moment of the show, or at some particular moment during the show, inviting people who don't usually visit galleries to organize meetings. And these galleries, on occasion, can generate extra money through these shows, money with which I can produce one or more of the vehicles. So I am simply taking advantage of my status, although I would not neglect the gallery public because there is no significant difference between masses of viewers being transmitted through galleries in SoHo and the people who are going out and gazing at the city. This is definitely true about New York. It is not true about Paris in a small private gallery; it happened to be true in the case of the Pompidou because the vehicle exhibited there was seen by crowds of more than a million people. It was presented on the ground floor next to the main entrance. This is not a bad way to present documents, videotapes, and the objects themselves, to inform about the situation in the city. But obviously I would prefer to have much more of the objects produced and used in groups rather than sporadically with individual vehicles. The individual vehicle looks too much like a work of art. I would prefer that it didn't look so much like a unique object. I would prefer that it had a clear sense of a collective group configuration because in this way the vehicle groups would claim the territory and claim the right to space, to the city, and it would also better the users. They would feel much more secure using them. The individual user is very vulnerable, may be attacked by other homeless people, the vehicle might be stolen, or maybe taken away and sold for its value as scrap metal.
P: Are they any less vulnerable with these vehicles?
KW: It is very hard to say that there are such things as 'homeless culture' or a 'society of the homeless.' This homeless population is in fact made up of every possible group ideology, including people who would be stealing things and people who would be violent and people who would be very peaceful. There are those who are taking drugs, and those who are curing themselves from drug addiction or who never take drugs or drink. There are some people who have some family backup and a middle-class background, and those who have absolutely no connections or family ties. There are people with PhDs and there are people who work eight hours a day, skilled workers who just cannot afford to pay the rent. There is a great misconception about the homeless so-called 'community' or 'society.' I'm saying these things because very often people say that these people are not too precise or elegant, and that is not true. I've connected with many homeless who already build vehicles with great precision, and that proves that the art of nomads is the art of jewelry, of metalwork, as Deleuze and Guattari suggested in Nomadology: The War Machine.
P: You talk about your reluctance to see the Homeless Vehicle being mass-produced…
KW: Well, it is also its relation to the social aspects of production and design and use, which is very important. To give it to anyone cannot be a strategy for the vehicle. The vehicle cannot be a gift. It should be developed with the help and participation of the users, and everybody involved. The homeless are people with great skills, some of them have a technical background and they would be happy being employed producing, maintaining and helping other homeless operate them. If you consider the amount of money wasted on shelters in which no-one wants to live - the conditions in shelters are worse than prisons or military camps. If there was any money which could be devoted to this it would be good, but the cities are building shelters in order to shelter the problem of the homeless, not the homeless themselves. So the vehicle is directly against those politics. Though here is another problem: how to generate enough money to start that homeless manufacturing workshop. The homeless are capable of generating some money but the city is doing everything it can to prevent them from their own autonomy or self-reliance. For example, the homeless formed from a group consisting of residents of Battery Square Park who started to live in an abandoned school not far from the park. They organized a cultural festival with educational services, and renting space to other institutions with legal services, press, media services, just about everything they needed to help themselves. The city evicted them from that building - forced them out. When they saw my vehicle whilst visiting the exhibition (where it was presented together with a slide installation presenting the homeless involved in some kind of ironic city insurrection), they started laughing at the installation and enjoying themselves, and they suggested that they would be glad to open a workshop. This response was a cultural stand. Unfortunately they could not regain access to the building but they have very strong legal representation and possibly they will reinstate their cultural festival…
P: How many of the Homeless Vehicles are in actual use?
KW: We are working very hard on changing them as a result of tests - the vehicle is pregnant with strife. Outside of this one there are two more vehicles and they were used in Philadelphia and in New York and there are several vehicles being developed. One conforming to another, then I produce two to see how they would work in a group. That's how much money I've managed to generate. People think there are hundreds of them, because of the media. But there will be more. I would be glad to produce hundreds with a couple of users, because this would create the atmosphere that there are thousands because of their mobility. People ask me what would I say or think if this was a solution to the problem; my response is, fine, go ahead, imagine that this is the solution. Imagine hundreds, thousands of Homeless Vehicles penetrating the city in every direction, crossing boundaries and establishing different camps, occupying space. If that's the image created by these vehicles, well that's okay. This is a combination of a crime story and a science fiction. This is a fearful vision that can invite thinking. Rejection of this vehicle is one of its objectives. But of course, that cannot be and should not be the solution. In any case no city will accept these vehicles even as a proposal. I write many letters to the authorities and I never receive any response.
P: The idea of the Homeless Vehicle actually functioning as an image ties into your work with projections?
KW: Yes that's true. This is a form of projection on architecture except it takes place during the day and night and is also mobile. I don't know whether this is architecture though. In a sense it is, assuming architecture is not only a physical object but a form and relationship between form and circumstances giving the object meaning. I think it works very well, but I don't know if it would work for very long because the conditions are a very important part of this project. Ideally, I would like the situation to change in those cities to the point where the vehicle would be absurd, not needed as a utilitarian and symbolic emergency tool.
P: With both the Homeless Vehicle and your projections, there seems to be a concern to define things, to bring them out into the open or the public spaces. Is this purely about definition? What is the difference between the act of definitions?
KW: I think there should be more different projects. My attempt is to contribute to the communication in the city. The communication of critical courage. The communication for which there is no place right now. It is clear that in the process of the transformation of the city - the fragmentation of different groups, isolation and the creation of ghettos, evictions, the destruction of community ties - there are more and more difficulties for people to communicate. The barriers are being built between more or less economically successful neighborhoods. Big real estate citadels defend themselves against the lower-income parts of the city. There is also an eviction of history as part of gentrification. Parks and so-called public places or more precisely pseudo-public spaces are becoming privatized. Parks and monuments are becoming sculpture gardens for condominiums. The redesign of these spaces is a defensive strategy against different social groups who cannot now communicate with each other and prevents less prosperous people from using space. In this situation art is a critical practice. In the urban context artists find their place in the building of new communication or rebuilding communication. This general agenda needs very different, specific, forms of activity, whether they are performance pieces, counter-design projects, or projections. Whatever the work, it doesn't matter, it should be an ongoing process to question what is happening in the city and engage the architectural forms of the city and space itself into the purposes of communication, so the issues of the city, the issues of life, and experiences of the city are projected on the urban structures. Right now the image of the city, the city itself in terms of gentrification, is the city of legalization - an attempt to destroy any possibility of contradictions. Of course, in New York it is very difficult for the forces of gentrification to succeed, but they are trying. In other cities they are very successful at building fantasy land. Presenting an unproblematic environment of glorious harmony according to middle-class visions of life and the world. Art must act against such well-managed visions and fictions.
P: In regard to the projections maybe we could talk about the process that is involved with actually doing the projections, and also the relationship to the environment say, for example, with the swastica projection on the South African Embassy…
KW: Well that particular projection was complicated because I needed permission to even unpack or bring equipment to Trafalgar Square. I projected a intercontinental ballistic missile wrapped up in barbed wire underneath the lion. Turning this into some kind of monstrous launching facility or maybe some organ pointed down. Anyway, we did that and I had this equipment in the middle of Trafalgar Square and I found that there was this demonstration going on in front of the South African Embassy - it's still going on today, the situation hasn't changed. The trouble is that the projection did not change the situation either, but it harbored itself into the memory of the city to the point where in one of the local magazines the projection was selected as one of the most important events in the city - and my name was not even there! It was the name of the photographer. It was a very good picture because it showed why it carved itself into the city's memory - it was because of the media too, not only the thousands of people who saw it but because of the photographers who came from different newspapers. The way I did it was very secretive because I did not have permission to do it, I only had permission to project onto the Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square. During the test I projected a spot of light just to measure the angle and also the size of the image, and then as quickly as possible I did the second projection which was onto the South African Embassy. For a while the police didn't notice, I guess because it looked very natural up there. Then people started to point it out and laugh.
P: What was the length of time it was projected for?
KW: It looked like it was many hours, but it was two hours before the police came.
P: The police stopped it?
KW: When they came I knew they were going to stop it so I took the slide away before they did. They told me that there had been complaints and that if I did it again they would arrest me. Then the policeman told me privately, 'I think what you have done was in very bad taste. He brings up the issue of taste? It shows that on occasions one must not have taste, because the occasions themselves are tasteless. After this there was an official diplomatic protest not sent from the South African Embassy across Trafalgar Square to the Canadian Embassy, demanding explanation about the activity of a Canandian artist, meaning myself, since I also had an exhibition in Canada House.
P: Did you respond?
KW: I did not respond because it was not addressed to me, it was addressed to the Canandian Government, but I was informed without seeing the actual Canandian response that the contents of the response simply disconnected me from the Canandian Government saying that it was the activity of an individual artist, and that it was in no way a protest. The going back and forth across Trafalgar Square was, I guess, a lesson in some kind of democracy…
P: Then there was your eye projection on the parliamentary building in Bern…
KW: With this projection the organizer wanted to know what I was going to project. Because they wanted to know, I needed to invent something that they could accept without looking at. So I thought of the human eye. There were no reservations; they didn't know that the eye would be changing its direction of gaze from the First National Bank of Canton to the Bank of the City to the ground where the Swiss gold is located and then to the sky and the mountains, to the fresh air of a Calvinist sky. In the end it was very good because people were laughing. When people laugh I know there is something good, because as Walter Benjamin said, speaking of Brecht, the vibration of the diaphragm provides a better condition for thinking, then the vibration of the soul. Laughter is a good vibration. It is a revelation of something, which might be known in some way, but it's one thing to think about something or fantasize about it and another to see it
P: Considering the logistics of your work are there projects you conceive of that don't get realized?
KW: Not really, I always work on things for that moment. I cannot really have things prepared, because there are so many factors involved - I cannot even list them. You know there is no public space, there is only pseudo-public space. But I think that it's possible to make the public space public; for this we need actions right through the city. There are so many factors here that I have to take into account, working towards this effect, that very often things don't work as well as I would like because of different social strata to the site of the projection to be mixed with those who are already there - this might not work if for some reason the media campaign is not done properly. The city is also television, radio and press. There is a complex connection here between media and architecture. Architecture, of course, is also communication media itself. And there is also rental of equipment, the amount of money the organizers can spend for all the preparatory work, previous visits and research and interviews and conversations with those who are working critically on the city, who are studying the city, who are researchers, who are active, and those who are dispossessed of a voice and a shelter, living literally out in the space of the city.