Abolishing War: A Conversation with Krzysztof Wodiczko

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s work is powerful, politically charged and bears great momentum. Best-known for transforming architectural structures and monuments through loaded public projections, Wodiczko’s projects fight for the change he wants seen in the world – a global society free from the destructions of war. When the artist and professor was recently in London for the occasion of his exhibition The Abolition of War at WORK gallery and launch of Krzysztof Wodiczko, a comprehensive monograph chronicling his decades of work, we sat down to discuss his ongoing projects and the loaded topic of war.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, War Veteran Vehicle, Liverpool, 2009. Photography courtesy Robert Ochshorn.

Michelle Schultz: With your project War Veteran Vehicle - a transformed military vehicle that fires fragments of statements by soldiers and their families on the façades of public buildings – the highly personal and revealing testimonies make the subject quite vulnerable, and I imagine there are many barriers that need to be overcome to achieve this. Could you begin by telling me a little about the process that is involved and how you approach those that you worked with in the project?

Krzysztof Wodiczko: Well, those projects would not happen if I did not establish some trustful contact with the social workers who are trusted by veterans, homeless, or immigrants – places where people try to connect and try to help each other. I first present an idea, then they have to test me and I have to pass their test – they have to protect people with whom they work from people like myself, and from people like you. Then, the project and myself, we have to be tested by those who are potential co-artists. This is not easy – very often you start with rejection or destruction, psychologically speaking, of my presence and of the work. It is something coming from outside and invading them and maybe manipulating them. They must first properly destroy any doubt, and if I survive this, and the project survives this, then I show up again, and I am ready to be of some kind of service. In this process, the confidence amongst some of these people develops and they might make use of this project for their own lives, and for lives of others who cannot join the project because it’s too early for them, it’s too dangerous, too risky…

MS: Do you continue to keep in touch with the people that you work with in your projects? Are you aware of how the project has affected their lives, and the long-term impacts of it?

KW: For them, and for me, the thing in itself is the end of sometimes a year-long process of recording. Inevitably some ties develop, also among people who are part of the project who normally would not connect. So something is sustained – some of the projects continue in the sense that the network established by the project is still operational for awhile. So they help each other, but I am not part of it. My job is to disappear, it is their project. When it all somehow works for them, it is their success. If it doesn’t, it is my failure.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, War Veteran Vehicle, Liverpool, 2009. Photography courtesy Robert Ochshorn.

MS: Now, you have initiated the War Veteran Vehicle project in various locations, including Poland, Denver, Liverpool and most recently, Eindhoven. Do you plan to continue this work in other places?

KW: Yes, but not forever. Unfortunately, circumstances demand more work in this area because there will be an enormous amount of soldiers coming back, especially in the United States. In Europe, most of the people are coming back from so-called peace missions, but it is a normal war. And it is very important that they make sure that through their words they explain that it is a war, and what it means to be at war. Also what it means to be a family of those who come back from war, or who have left for war, or who are absent because they are somewhere fighting, and in what way those families are proper war veterans themselves.

MS: Yes, some of the most powerful statements come from the families of soldiers who have come back from war, as they convey how these veterans have returned home, yet are lost to them psychologically or emotionally.

KW: An incredible amount of people are victims or survivors of secondary trauma. Each time someone comes back, he or she re-traumatises seventy-nine people according to experts who work on this in the United States. And young people are blindly signing up for the army because there is enormous amount of propaganda, a certain image and a lofty sense of mission, duty, country. This is something veterans know very well. They were processed through this war machine and they know there is no relation between the way they were before and they way they are now. And they know how much they are resented by society. In fact, they are foreigners and they are homeless in their own country and in their own homes. When they came back, they didn’t really come back, they’re gone. And the chance that this will happen is very high in comparison to previous wars because most people will come back alive, rather than dead, because of better armour and medical technologies. The fallout of them being alive, in this way, is tremendous.

In Poland, half of the people who are speaking through the vehicle are women. In Liverpool there is one woman, but it is very significant as she is speaking about almost being killed by her husband, and the husband also says that he almost killed her and he doesn’t remember. These things are not only the facts, but the fact that they are being said by those people themselves, in the open, is significant. Speaking in a public space itself is an act of incredible shift – only one percent of veterans speak in public, and almost none of the families. It is also acoustically very powerful  – it reverberates and echoes and is reflected from the blank and blind façades of the buildings and monuments that have witnessed events in the past.

MS: So the buildings and walls you use are not only a physical or practical part of the project, but an important symbolic one as well?

KW: Yes, there is an extremely thick wall that separates those who know what war is, and those who don’t. So in a way, this is an attempt to shake the wall, and crack it, and maybe make a little a little break in it. In that sense, the wall is an important word here, and the façade is also an important word, and the monument is an important word – because walls, façades, monuments and memorials are obsessed with not only remembering and saying certain things, but also with not saying a lot of things, and forgetting a lot of things about the war.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, The Flame, Governors Island, 2009. Photography courtesy Michael Marcelle/Creative Time.

MS: Many of your earlier projects have a very utopian drive to them – an attempt to make the world a more cohesive place by overcoming communication barriers through technology. However, with War Veteran Vehicle the overriding message seems to focus on the impossibility of reintegration for these soldiers – do you think that there is a point where technology may actually fails, or simply can’t overcome certain disconnects?

KW: Well, you say it is about impossibility, but I still think it is about possibility. Technology here, can be understood as a kind of cultural prosthetic – one can develop a capacity to speak in the process of making use of this project and bring to the open something that is repressed, maybe even forgotten. I think that this does show the possibilities of communication, and examples where people communicate something that should not happen, they communicate things that should change, that are unacceptable, for them and for the entire world. It’s a critical projection, and it’s a brave projection. It’s an act of maybe an effective contribution to the democratic process. This is something else to consider – can these projects contribute to situations and conditions under which they will not be necessary? Their function is based on the hope that they will become obsolete.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, War Veteran Vehicle, Liverpool, 2009. Photography courtesy Robert Ochshorn.

MS: And this is what your new project, Arc de Triomphe – World Institute for the Abolition of War, is looking at more specifically, isn’t it? It is a functional and symbolic structure proposed to encase one of Paris’s most famous monuments that would work in a practical way towards world peace. Can you tell me a little bit about the ideas behind the project?

KW: War memorials, of which Arc de Triomphe is the primary example, are actually mobilising people towards the next war, and perpetuate the cult of war and cult of leaders and sacrifice. They are not saying at all what is the cost of those wars – how many people lost lives, how many families were destroyed and how many generations suffered transmission of trauma. The mobilisation of people towards war is a very simple technique, used since Roman times, that happens over and over again. It is very easy to detect the falseness and manipulation in it, but people are not educated and  textbooks don’t bring that information.

MS: So how is it that you propose we liberate ourselves from war?

KW: In fact, war should be made illegal, as much as slavery became illegal. Slavery exists, the slave trade exists, but it is illegal, which has made a world of difference if you compare to the eighteenth and nineteenth century slave trade. So while war, also, would happen here and there, it would be very different. The abolition of war, as something illegal used to deal with conflicts, requires change, a major shift of consciousness, and an undoing of relations to memorials. So we begin by creating an institute, and an awareness.

MS: Do you think there is a realistic possibility for the abolition of war in this century?

KW: It might not be finished in this century, but we are moving in this direction. It is a process. However, there is evidence that societies and nations can be without war. There is no evidence that people were inflicting mortal wounds on one another in an organized way before six thousand years ago according to all of the archaeological diggings. And Europe has done this actually with the European community – it’s pretty difficult to imagine war between Germany and France right now, something that seemed to be potentially there every year before, or Britain and France, or wherever. We have no wars in Europe – but Europe is engaging in wars somewhere else, so we have to really be careful about this – but still, we don’t have wars here and it is a big change in the planet already.

People are very skeptical or cynical about this because they say it’s being manipulated. Sure – but there is nothing else but manipulation all the time, it’s called politics, but it’s better to have this kind of politics than the ones before.