Interview with Krzysztof Wodiczko

Burcu Yançatarol and Krzysztof Wodiczko 

You are an invited speaker at the Public Space and Art Symposium. The title of your speech, ‘Art, Trauma and Parrhesia’, addresses an interesting link between art, parrhesia and public space. What is the function of parrhesia in public space?

Parrhesia is an Ancient Greek concept. In the Ancient tradition, Athenian tradition or in Greco roman period in Athens, there was a debate on who should qualify to be the animator of public discourse and democratic process. Parrhesia brings up issues about the conditions for the city residents to have access to the right of open speaking. Also what is at stake here is who should receive the priority or should be the first to exercise this right of free, open speaking.  And what should we expect from parrhesiastes?

Foucault brought the concept of Parrhesia in his Berkeley lectures. He actually, at the end of his life, was focusing on a very particular parrhesiastes: the cynics, the sect of philosophers who were exercising parrhesia in a most provocative and disruptive way. They were pointing to injustice or hypocrisy and calling authorities for accountability.

The issue here is how to extrapolate this concept of parrhesia into contemporary situations if that concept is still valuable. Because in Antiquity there was a very small number of people who had the right to parrhesia. There were politis,  people of rights.

You mean the right of access to free speech was centralized around the dominant discourse.

Yes. Slaves and women were excluded. Foreigners were also excluded to various degrees. Cynics were of foreign breed usually but somehow they were on the kind of a border line between having the actual right and being tolerated. Actually in every modern democratic system, just about everybody has the right to rights of free, open speech on paper.  There may be some restrictions when it comes to foreigners. Today, officially we have no slaves. Women gained their rights….Poor or rich, we are all supposed to have same rights. But in reality of course there are people who have small chance to be parrhesiastes, to be those speakers.

So how do you extrapolate the concept of parrhesia in the contemporary society?

Coming back to antiquity, there was a demand that the free-speaker, the most qualified, to be the free-speaker that could tell the truth out of his lived experience, speaking of the pain and of living through some injustice. So this free-speaker was the person to be trusted that he would speak the truth. So if that’s the case, then the issue is not only to have things to say out of your own experience of survival, pain or living through an unacceptable situation, but also to be capable of conveying and transmitting it clearly. So in early speech, the art of speech was not trusted because sophists were not trusted. However with time, the demand for some artistry of delivery also became clear because expression needs also form.

So if you combine those elements, then contemporary parrhesiastes should be the people who are least privileged, who have things to say which nobody wants to hear. From that group there should be born parrhesiastes who should reprimand society and address the situations of authority’s unjust treatment or misunderstanding. You, who work as a part of the intellectual force, media, myself and artists, should definitely provide help to create conditions for those people to develop their capacities to open up and speak. So it’s not enough to give somebody a microphone to speak. It takes time to develop trust, self-confidence and also various discussions among people about what to say and how to say it. It is also crucial to find the right form of expression, meaning the use of media, spectacle or may be events to transmit to large populations.

So the art of speech in contemporary society needs to take from and to be strategized somehow. And art has the potential to develop these strategies?

Before we say artistic art, like art world’s understanding of art, may be we could say ‘techne’ meaning the skills, abilities and artistry in developing right means, and also recognizing that one method of transmission is good for one situation and it might not be good for another situation. Right, the art of speech in contemporary society needs to be perfected and mastered. So there is an art in it.

So there is a tactical aspect to ‘techne’ that the cynics were perfectly aware. They were the ones who were experts of techne, knowing when to make a scandal or to disrupt proceedings, where to interfere with cultural events and insert their statements. Other commercial or sports events actually became sites for them to insert their voice in intelligent ways so that it would be perfectly delivered and received. So, it is clear that I’m purposefully using this reference to parrhesia. This means that democratic process has something to do with the development of the capacities of those potential speakers, the parrhesiastes, to transmit and the ability of others to open up and listen. You have to be parrhesiastes in listening too. So you need to create a public who would actually receive this and that’s a lot of work.

So how could the capacities of these vulnerable parrhesiastes be developed?

Aesthetic, cultural and political connection cannot happen without psychotherapeutic aspect because those who are the potential parrhesiastes went through so many traumatic experiences. Their capacity to transmit is limited by the very experiences they went through and the very experiences they should be transmitting. Not everybody will be ready to take that task but some may be ready to redevelop their capacity to communicate even if they were shuttered. Because they’re already surviving or they are already to become agents or are interested to act on behalf of others to help larger world and they see their own situation from larger perspective.  They are the healthiest survivors of unhealthy situation. So we have to count on those people first and working with them makes much more sense than working on behalf of them. Creating conditions for them to become artists in their kind of speech act makes sense.

There has been debate about public art turning into some form of a social aid and sacrificing its aesthetic values. What do you think about the notion of aesthetics in public art? And how does this relate to your practice?


The issue is not so much aesthetics but life. Life cannot be transformed into better without aesthetics.

That’s for sure. But the methods of working with people are different from the methods of working in your own studio and transmitting through your own experience as an artist which is also very valuable. But there is a difference. The difference of course is that the equipment, the artifice, the technique of transmission has to be developed and there is an art in that. There is a kind of design aspect here which needs to be elaborated on. We need some artifice, some mediated process in between. And art should be seen exactly in that area as an interface. So it’s very difficult to judge, criticize and analyze this kind of art. When you look at the object displayed out of context or a document of the actual event, it does not include so called preparatory stages. However, the preparatory stage is in fact as important as what the so called public event offers because without those stages there would be no event.

How does the process of working with the potential parrhesiastes work? What does it take for those people to be able to develop their capacity to speak and the others to come closer to listen?

We are in a world of rights. We have a public space which is designated for free exchange of positions, opinions and disagreements. So what’s wrong? Why do we need all of this? Why do we need to arm these people with this strange device? Why do we need to animate a huge architectural façade that enlarges the person 50 times and magnifies the voice with loudspeakers? Why do we have to engage media so that they will transmit it in live broadcast on television?  Why do we need simultaneous translation and to give people headphones to listen?  Why all of this? Why one year of recording and re-recording the voices of those maquiladora workers in studio? Why the whole process of self-selection, people coming and leaving and only some stay and continue working on the projects? The parrhesiastes… Why having a network of people who are directly born out of the process of production? Lawyers, social workers, organizations?   Why engaging family members, sisters, brothers, extended families to agree that those people should be a part of it rather than not? Why is the person deciding to speak and to enlarge herself such scale while she put her husband in prison for incest?

One of the maquiladora workers who participated in the Tijuana Projection sent her husband to prison.

She was afraid that the husband will come back from prison and kill her…She decided that it is safer to be exposed rather than to be hidden. Others decided that it is safer to be hidden. So the network comes. Its 8 people, then 15 people may be its 200 people that are born out of the process of production. There is projection crew, there is sound crew, there is editing crew, there are all of those curators, students, interns, there is a whole entourage, there is media people you have this incredible amount of people who are there as Brecht would say not without interest.

And this is the real public. This is what I call the inner public. The inner public is born out of the process and they all are parrhesiastes.

So everyone, who constitutes the inner public, is parrhesiastes in his own way of practice.  So there must be an outer public as well? What I understand from your division of inner public and the outer public is that the inner public challenges the outer public to be parrhesiastes?

Yes, the inner public is a self-selected group that has organic links with the city. So those people are also part of the festivals. The festivals bring people from outside the city to help. There is a larger network of people and people coming from other cities are also part of this. What I’m trying to say is that the inner public connects with the outer public. So we’re talking about one public informing the other public and media. This is how free-speech happens when it comes to people who are normally discouraged and have no confidence or faith that their voice will make any difference. Those, who lost their voice because of the very traumatic experiences, cannot transmit because when they hear themselves speaking they start crying, their throats are choked.

You refer to festivals a lot as platforms where inner and outer publics can co-exist and exchange.

Yes, making good use of festivals is quite advisable. Because no matter how much we think that festivals are corrupted or are like some safety valve to release tension, they carry some elements of original festivals like the Dionysian festivals in Athens where certain things, which were not normally allowed, could be said. Even enemies of Athens were allowed to be a part of these festivals. They received special immunity papers and they could come to be part of the festival. Somehow there was a competition there, agon, so the agonistic aspect of discourse was probably there. Risk is also a part of the festivals. Somebody can do something and disappoint or make the others nervous or upset.

So there are always things that cannot be controlled or planned?

Yes, some of these festivals are really controlled. Some of them are less. Some of them are being infiltrated by unexpected events when it’s too late to close because there is a lot of money already spent, organizations already involved. And then at the end, it proves to be positive. Because it brings up the issues that are normally hidden.

What happens after these festivals? The inner and outer publics interact and exchange. The voice is heard but does this come back as a positive change? Or how does the outer public respond to this?


Let’s start with the inner public. Because I feel that’s the main public. If there are people who can make sense of this project for their lives and for the lives of the others, if they feel that they make even small step or leap, I think there is already a possibility of success of the project. So if they succeed in doing this, it’s their success. If they fail it’s my fault. Because it means that I didn’t provide equipment for them. I mean they are supposed to believe that it’s my fault.

So as far as I know, there was some good use of the Tijuana Project by organizations. The film that was produced for this projection was used by them to encourage other people even if they are threatened by revenge of drug traffic or owners of maquiladora factories. People have a good intuition when the risk is worthy of taking.

Yes, I think taking the risk to speak up is a big part of your reference to parrhesia.

Yes. On the other hand, parrhesia suggests also that the rulers, superpowers and administrators of public space take risk as well. They also should pass the test of parrhesia by taking a risk and not shutting up the event or project. There are some very generous and progressive people in various administrations.

Speaking of administrations and political authorities…. I know that you are of Polish origin. You operated in different social, political and cultural contexts. It seems like to be able to execute one’s work in different social settings, one needs to generate different strategies to adapt and operate.

But there is a big difference between conditions under which I develop this kind of work and conditions under which I worked when I was in Poland under the previous regime. The level of unfreedom was much higher.

You mean the cencorship…?

Yes, much higher. It is true that I began doing this kind of work when I ended up outside of Poland in late 70s. But it is also true that I left non-democratic Poland in hope to find democracy somewhere else. I realized very quickly that it’s a complete mistake. Just because we didn’t have democracy we thought that the democracy was not given to us. Therefore we would find it somewhere else, without realizing that democracy is never given but it is something that you make through your work.

You do not enjoy democracy but you challenge the process by expanding the issue of rights and inserting more voices into discourse. It is also important to make more of a creative and positive conflict without which democratic process cannot grow or cannot even be sustained.  So when I realized my own mistake, it became a triggering point for my work. Democracy is, as Derrida used to say, to come. A venir. It’s the horizon you have to owe. You have to produce it by your very actions.

So how to do this as an artist and how to contribute as an artist became a big question.

In Poland, not to end up in prison, we could definitely use some allegoric techniques, indirect speech to refer to issues. We were kind of enjoying more liberal prison than our colleagues in any other countries in the Soviet Block.  So in that more liberal prison, as long as we didn’t get involved directly in political issues, we were quiet.

What did Canada or USA offer to change the ways you operated?

The difference was enormous. The possibilities in Canada or USA just asked for different kind of responsibility. It was not just sneaking some references through your work but there was also the possibility to confront the problems head-on. That also created an issue.

In USA, there is almost an obsession with free speech, because it’s the first right. In the moment when so many people were actually deprived of any opportunity or chance to open up, that really was a challenge. Another challenge of course was how to use artistic techniques and methods that are someway indirect to be helpful. In order to maintain direct speech you have to use indirect techniques.

To develop artistry in communicative media became a new challenge for me. How to understand this kind of art is also a challenge probably for those who really want to think about aesthetics in a traditional sense.


I will bring the issue to design a bit. Did your background in industrial design feed your current practice in different ways? When I look at some of your works like The Alien Staff or Tijuana Projection, I can say that the objects that facilitate communication express designerly approaches to structure and function.


It is very difficult for me to summarize it but without learning the methodology of industrial design and certain ideas and expectations we had in the 60s and 70s, I probably would have been a different person. It’s clear that industrial design was extremely social at least in our culture and our work in the industrial design field in the previous regime.

We were educated to infiltrate the industrial political complex and to really bring the issue of conditions of life and work as the primary objective of design against various political manipulations and legitimation processes of the industry. Social issues and design were interconnected.

To be a counterforce, I was actually working within industry, trying to transform the system to be more humane. Now, the connection was there but it just became clear my work would turn into an artistic project because I could not fully realize those objectives in industry. I tried very hard, but it was not enough. Outside of industry, I tried a little bit with my earlier designs like the instrument for listening, but I could only really develop this design as an interventional tool.

And I suppose that led you to interrogative design…

Yes, interrogative design is design for the world that should not exist. The world that needs emergency survival equipment to inform about the conditions that are unacceptable….. On one hand this kind of design is an emergency help, on the other hand it’s a medium to articulate things that people normally don’t fully understand. For example, while The Homeless Vehicle was articulating the conditions and helping people, it was also clearly saying that ‘it’ was not the solution. By exaggerating the emergency aspect and disturbing, it was saying that things shouldn’t be this way. So the other equipments that I developed for immigrants, various instruments and later projections, they all are result of my experience with The Homeless Vehicle. And The Homeless Vehicle would have not existed if I hadn’t had the industrial design background.

Design has to be seen as more of a constructive and deconstructive activity. It has to be transformative and critical. One option is to work tactically and to take advantage of certain freedom and possibility of transmitting your ideas through art system. Another option is taking a more socially engaged project approach. I don’t know how to call design that has various social and ethical dimensions. What I call interrogative is the disruptive consciousness raising functions. There are various ways to do it. But they are projects that are not for mass-production. They can still be manufactured and developed. They could have elements of production and distribution. What I’ve done so far seems to be a tiny bit of enormous things that designers can do. There are also many artists and designers who are working this way. Somehow it is not well covered by art criticism and art history at this point but sometimes they are suddenly recognized in Biennales or some large events. It is the surprise for more conservative art critics.

I’m also questioning designed object’s potential in public realm to spark conversation and clash things for the better cause. The object itself becomes the metaphor of some real thing. Or the mediator of transmission as the equipment you designed for the Tijuana Projection.


Yes, one will have to see the wearable equipment in Tijuana Projection not necessarily by the way it looks but by the way it’s designed in order to function. This is something that I once called scandalizing functionalism because there is a kind of structural realism in it. It has a structure appropriate for its function. But at the same time its mission is to respond to an unacceptable situation and make some kind of scandal out of it. To make a scandalist event to transmit an unacceptable situation, you almost have to alienate alienation. It has to be something bizarre. And without sense humor it’s very difficult to make a brave attempt to analyze the aesthetics of this kind of work because there is something absurd about the whole thing.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby say that this sort of design functions through ‘suspension of disbelief’ where the product is suspended between belief and disbelief. You know that it’s not an everyday product but you want to believe that it functions. I wonder if this could be turned into a methodology or articulated in a more strategic and structured way. Does interrogative design have a methodology?


Well, it is of course possible to systematically develop this theory. It starts with recognition of needs and focusing on those that should not exist. Then taking those needs seriously. Next step would be to start developing design response that is more of an emergency and temporary. So its central point is that this design is based on the belief that its exercise will contribute to the conditions under which it would be obsolete. Because it adds to some new consciousness and new understanding of the needs, in itself it will not resolve problems but it will alert with the contributions of people working in literature, film, journalism, in academic analytical and critical fields like urban geography, sociology ethnography.

We work with the hope that there will be no need for this kind of design. But there will always be something else because democratic process is in fact obsessed with neurotic aspect of democracy that always searches for unfreedoms, inequalities, traces of injustice even in the areas that seem to be fine. That’s a little crazy. So designers and artists should also join this kind of craziness. There is always something out there that indicates that there is some larger hidden problem. So uncovering this, exposing this is part of this interrogative design.

Why on earth is somebody operating some weird equipment? There must be some reason for it. That person is actually in charge of dealing with surviving, living through something that is unlivable and unacceptable and this equipment is actually living proof that this situation exists. It is the same with prosthetic devices.

One metaphor that I always think of about interrogative design is the bandage. Of course we should not have wounds. So there should not be a bandage. Unfortunately there are accidents, bad conditions and that means that we need the bandage. What if that bandage could also be capable of transmitting some truth of the conditions under which the wound occurs, of testifying to the wrong and unacceptable situations and conditions behind this wound?  Then, we will not be simply crying and having an empathy with somebody wounded, but will also learn something about the things that should change. May be the wounded person could also even speak through this bandage. It’s amazing how much people could learn if they could see the world from the point of view of the wound. That’s something to consider and this parrhesia, design and media art are interconnected. Because now it’s not possible to go to an agora, stand on some pedestal and tell the truth. It’s of course possible but you have to really have a microphone for sure, and a speaker. And then the question is what else do you need? There is a kind of breakdown situation. The breakdown situation is a performative situation. Design also has a performative aspect. That’s why homeless vehicle was not sufficient enough; it didn’t have enough communicative equipment.

You mean it was silent in a way even though it was mobile…

Yes, it caused lots of reactions and stirred up some discourse but it could have done better should it be equipped with more technologies, memory capacities and transmission capacities. That’s why I developed other equipments afterwards.

So the equipments that consist of more technology and capacity were a response to your experience with the Homeless Vehicle? How about the War Veteran Vehicle?

War Veteran Vehicle is more or less a response after years to the homeless Vehicle. By the way in Denver most of this war veterans are actually homeless. So it’s a vehicle which is more of a battle mobile station for firing the truth about their experience. May be it doesn’t have the same economical function as the Homeless Vehicle, but it has the capacity of trauma recovery and also the capacity of disturbing the numbness and silence of the city. So it has a clinical function besides its political function.

What was the difference between the design processes of Homeless Vehicle and the War veteran Vehicle?  I think the veterans were involved very much in the process.

Yes the homeless also. I learned a lot from homeless. There was a process of learning from them; proposing a lot of sketches, and being told that they are naïve. The choice of this war vehicle as a  projection station rather than a projectile station, was encouraged by responses of the veterans themselves. May be I brought the idea up but I would have not developed it if they hadn’t liked it.

How long was the process?

Seven months may be. Back and forth, coming and leaving.

Do you collaborate with NGOs or other institutions to contact these people and develop your projects?

Yes, of course, the Denver project would have not been developed without the help of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. And the organization called… The war veteran hospital was also very helpful. Several organizations were very crucial in this project. Even the city of Denver department dealing with the homelessness was very helpful.

Because it was some kind of an art festival, the project was developed specifically on the occasion of democratic convention. This is one case in Denver. The other case is the Liverpool project that was developed through this media-art organization called Fact with essential help of combat stress organization that is psychotherapeutic and social support organization for war veterans. The psychotherapist who himself was actually a war veteran was especially very helpful because he felt that this was a very valuable cultural and communicative project supplementary to the theraphy.

What was the reaction that you got for the projections?

Well again this inner public, the veterans themselves, were very busy generating the outer public. Two of them were interviewed on BBC and they also were very helpful in generating the outer public by interviewing and talking to people that came for the projection about the whole reason of this project. They were eager to continue, but there was no funding to push the project further because it was expensive and we needed art or cultural agency…

The role of institutions and official authorities in commissioning art or funding art projects is widely discussed in the art world. Since you bring up issues that are not to be talked about or ignored in the outer public, is it difficult to convince authorities or organizations to support the project?

The most difficult is when the organizers want to have in advance everything clear for what reasons they have to spend this money and all the categories of expenses. That’s the biggest problem because the project can be paralyzed by this. You work with people while developing the project and there can be major shifts in the projects that would be very hard to justify the expenses. So this is something that I see happening when more traditional administration taking upon itself the task of administrating or financing a project and using the funds that come from somewhere else for example European Union etc. They are so rigid because of the history of the way they had been distributing the public funds before. That doesn’t fit into artistic processes or cultural processes.