Krzysztof Wodiczko (1983)

“Krzysztof Wodiczko,” Parachute, no. 32 (September – November 1983), pp. 45-46.

Krzysztof Wodiczko
The Ydessa Gallery, Toronto April 9-30
“Public Projection” on the South African War Memorial, Toronto April 9 and 19

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s work turns on the word “projection.” On one hand, “projection” is idealist, that is to say, ideological. It is what a museum with a neo-classical facade, for example, projects as a universal value for art while obscuring that institution as an active ideological force. On the other hand, “projection” is taken in its active sense when Wodiczko projects images on a building with a slide projector. He uses a projection to combat a projection. Through this practice, Wodiczko turns the building in on itself and makes the monument into a spectacle. This spectacle portrays the social relations of the institution that its “facade” covers. Thus a particular institution’s architecture, according to Wodiczko, is shown to be an embodiment of an apparatus of power.

Wodiczko uses high-powered slide projectors to project a single or multiple images on a building or monument for a particular length of time on one or successive nights. Usually these are images of a body (hands or bodies in business suits) projected on a variety of institutions, aligned so that the building itself becomes an anthropomorphic body. While different types of buildings have served as backdrops, Wodiczko generally has subjected cultural institutions to his projections. More recently war memorials have been used as the sites for projections: a missile on a Victory Column in Stuttgart, a hand and knife “suiciding” a war monument in Toronto; but it has been the institutions and not idealized public monuments that have set up the structure of this work.

Wodiczko’s tactics and strategy are dual. He opposes particular institutions and the authority of architecture in general. Thus when he projects a body on those buildings, on the one hand that body represents the hidden social relations of that institution, and on the other hand the body serves as a metaphor for the authoritarian power of architecture itself.

While the artist projects the image in order to bring to the surface those social relations, he sets himself in relation to that institution through his presence in front of it. “Only physical, public projection of the myth on the physical body of myth (projection of myth on myth), can successfully demythify the myth.”[1] But it is not simply a question of demythifying myth as it is of an actual intervention and mediation, within the so-called public domain. “In the power discourse of the ‘public’ domain, the architectural form is the most secret and protected property. Public Projection involves questioning both the function and ownership of this property.” Through the method and means of intervention these projections combine the features of photo-montage and agit-prop.

The presence of the artist acts as a caption or commentary to the silent image and institution. His presence is necessary to that mediation between the institution and an audience or accidental public. The artist is one of three “bodies”; the “body” of the building, the images of the body projected on the building, and the body in front of it. He is not a representative; he, like anyone else, is acted upon by what Foucault calls the “political technology of the body.” Rather, by his presence, he is contingent to those power relations while trying temporarily to embody them in the institution by an analysis of its architecture.

In order for the work to succeed as an analysis of the institution behind the architecture, the artist cannot be merely supplemental to the projection. The projection itself is not enough: the artist adds to that image through dialogue with its audience. This dialogue brings to the surface the specific social relations of a particular institution that the artist has analyzed prior to the projection as a means of determining the images of the projection. What surfaces on the building usually, though, is only a symbolic appearance, which may lead to something more as a symbolic enactment. For instance, during the projection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (August 27-29, 1981) this statement from the exhibition of photo-documentation at The Ydessa Gallery could not have appeared: “Information about the projection was available in the AGO for its employees, and was announced in The Globe and Mail and posted in the ‘artistic’ parts of the city. During the fall of 1981 the Art Gallery of Ontario was suffering from serious economic cutbacks. This provoked both public and internal debate on its priorities and its cultural role in the province.” Instead, beneath an image of a flying dollar sign and over the portal, we see a projection of a hand-shake, the agreement presumably of business man and Queen Street artist whose torsos flank the door like columns. Quite pointedly we have an image of the collusion of art and business that the edifice it-self represents. The concrete social relations implied in the statement, nonetheless, do not really appear in this symbolic generalization, as arresting as the image is. And yet the artist continues to stand to that representation in front of the gallery, and that is the value of the work. His position there is more one of a dialogician than dialectician. It is more valuable for what it sets up for discussion than what it analyzes on the surface.

Apart from the artist’s presence, these projections pose a problem. As symbolic appearances they are not really specific analyses. Like a projection each is an application, and like a projection it can fall to its own idealizing. Does it perhaps partake of the power it denounces? Or is it outside power as a critique? What are its power stratagems?

Wodiczko uses this quotation from a Foucault interview (“Truth and Power”) to serve as a “motto” for his publication on his projections:

It’s not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power) but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.

We in turn have to detach the power of truth from critique which has become a dominant ideological force in its own right. In the application of Foucault’s dis-course on power to architecture, is it really true when Wodiczko writes:

We feel desire to identify with or to become part of the building. We recognize the familiarity of our body and that of the building. We feel a drive to “complete” the building and we desire to be “completed” by it. We sense that there is something about us which is incomplete, and which can only be completed by a full integration with the building... more dangerously, we will allow ourselves to become intoxicated and seduced by its structurability to embody, and to artistically grasp our intimate, unspoken drive for the disciplined collaboration with its power.


In the process of our socialization, the very first contact with a public building is no less important than the moment of social confrontation with the father, through which our sexual role and place in society is constructed. Early socialization through patriarchal sexual discipline is extended by the later socialization through the institutional architecturalization of our bodies.

We might ask, like Brecht, Who is speaking here?” and “for whom?”. Some of us might object to that universalization of patriarchy in the manner that Deleuze and Guattari opposed the Oedipal in their book Anti-Oedipus. Are we putting a patriarch wherever Oedipus was, in a manner even Foucault would oppose? (A psychoanalytic and power discourse cannot be combined under the name of Foucault.)

This “institutional architecturalization of our bodies,” as an extension of Foucault’s “disciplines” (see Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, 1975, English translation 1978), is re-projected onto the building as a pathetic fallacy: the building becomes a body with the projection of businessmen’s bodies on it, and as a total image uniting body and building becomes the Father, as an authoritarian figure. And as the Father it is the source of all ideology: “the building constitutes an effective medium and ideological instrument of power.” Foucault has lent a poetic assonance to Wodiczko’s analysis (he has lent an authority as well), but in the end, when claiming “the myth must be visually concretized and unmasked,” Wodiczko ideally projects his own myth on the building, as a rhetoric of critical effectivity. Is Foucault’s power/knowledge coupling applicable without severe restrictions to its generalizations?

What was positive in the interventions in their particular sites became a negative factor in the exhibition. The unmasking of power became the mask of critique, which perhaps marks the limitations of the original interventions. While the projections had an element of agit-prop, in documentation they are in essence a reportage/photo-montage art. In exhibition, however, we are not lead to any didactic or documentary conclusion. Instead we find photo blow-ups and appended labels. The documentation is not transformed or thought out for the gallery other than its presentation mimicking a neo-classical facade. The distance of this documentation from its “object” and from the body and speech of the artist (as the distance of the exhibition from the actual projections) is repeated within the documentation itself in the relation between image and text. That is, text here plays the role of a critical power/authority. Opposed to the institution, it enacts its own power relations in a manner that the artist’s intervention in the site wished to dispel. What are we to make of a statement on a card beneath the photo-documentation of a projection at the Museum of Natural History in Regina (March 26, 1983): “It is stated in the text carved on the wall of its facade that the museum is dedicated to the pioneer. Regina has a large native population and has a history of social and racial co-frontations.” What authority binds that statement to the image or each statement to the other with the artist absent from the gallery? What authority other than the artist and the critical attitude of this work.

When Wodiczko calls his public projections “symbol-attacks,” he admits that they have the value of symbols. But a symbol is asked to do a lot: “This will be a symbol-attack, a public psychoanalytical séance, unmasking and revealing the unconscious of the building, its body, the ‘medium’ of power.” The emphasis here is on the word “public” which becomes a question of property. Once again it is here, beyond the for-mal elegance of the projections, that we find the work’s value: that the artist physically stands to that property and calls forth its representatives—its ideological agents as well as its guards—from behind its idealized representations. (They do not necessarily appear if the threat is not specific enough or if he has been invited to make the projection.) The artist names a power relation and effects it by his presence more so than by a projected image. He opens it to public discussion.

The value of the public and the political is not necessarily the same in all these projections. The choice of site inflects this relation. The latest projections on war memorials are an art that wants to be public beyond the art community, although it wants to represent an issue for others through the artist’s known work. It wants to be doubly political: by intervening politically in that public sense, and by taking care of the “politics” of the social relations of art—its forms, strategies and tactics. It is this latter sense that informed the earlier projections on cultural institutions. Beyond inflating the ideological impact of those institutions by confronting them too seriously on an ideal level, these interventions pointed to the localized and institutional politics that the everyday social relations of art involve. And yet even here the artist still wanted to generalize these relations in order to display the universalizing “effects” of that institution for others beyond himself, and perhaps beyond that specific art community. This is to use the other to hide behind those universalizing effects while being opposed to them. The two directions of the projections—a political art for art and a political art for others—face the same contradictions that divide the art community on the subject of political art.


1. Quotations are from K. Wodiczko, “Public Projections,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, VII :1,2, 1983. The same text is reproduced in Künstler aus Kanada, Stuttgart, 1983.