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Immigrants are the Protagonists in Krzysztof Wodiczko's Projection in the Polish Pavilion
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Guests, 2009, video installation, 17,17 min., dzięki uprzejmości artysty, Fundacji Profile i Zachęty Narodowej Galerii Sztuki/
courtesy of the artist, Profile Foundation and Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw.

VENICE.- The protagonists of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projection in the Polish Pavilion at the 53rd International Art Exhibition in Venice are immigrants, people who, not being ‘at home’, remain ‘eternal guests’. ‘Strangers’, ‘others’ are key notions in Wodiczko’s artistic practice, be it in the projections, the V ehicles, or the technologically advanced Instruments that enable those who, deprived of rights, remain mute, invisible and nameless to communicate, gain a voice, make a presence in public space.

The projection, created specially for the Biennale, transforms the space of the Polish Pavilion into a place where the viewers watch scenes taking place seemingly outside, behind an illusion of windows, their projection on the pavilion’s windowless walls. The individual projections, the images of windows projected onto the pavilion’s architecture, open its interior to virtual, but at the same time real, scenes showing immigrants washing windows, taking a rest, talking, waiting for work, exchanging remarks about their tough existential situation, unemployment, problems getting their stay legalised. The slight blurriness of the images reduces the legibility of the scenes taking place behind milky glass. Wodiczko plays with the visibility of immigrants, people who are ‘within arm’s reach’ and, at the same time, ‘on the other side’, referring us to their ambivalent status, their social invisibility. Both sides experience an inability to overcome the gap separating them. The Biennale visitors are ‘guests’ here too, of which they are reminded by the images of immigrants trying, from time to time, to peek inside.

The project, dealing with the multicultural problematique of alterity, concerns one of the most burning issues of the contemporary world, globally as well as in the EU, where a discourse of acceptance and legalisation is accompanied by often restrictive immigration policies. The author worked with immigrants based in Poland and Italy, but coming from different countries of the world such as Chechnya, Ukraine, Vietnam, Romania, Sri Lanka, Libya, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Morocco.

In his Venice project, Wodiczko combines the unique experience of his earlier indoor projections, staged in galleries or museums, which opened the otherwise isolated art world to the outside world, with a performative nature of his outdoor projections which allowed participants to animate public buildings with images of their faces or hands and the sounds of their voices.

. . . The projections, showing eight windows and an elongated skylight, open a view of what goes on outside—behind the windows, which, at the same time, separate us from what can be seen outside the opaque glass. More fitting here than the, automatically presenting itself, metaphor of the picture as a window seems John Berger’s wall-safe metaphor: “not so much a framed window open on to the world as a safe let into the wall, a safe in which the visible has been deposited.” Wodiczko’s projection is more about the visibility of the invisible, and even more about seeing and, perforce, non-seeing. On the one hand—our seeing the immigrants behind the windows, their faces fading in blurry images, and on the other—their own inability to see those who are looking at them. The “guests” of the title can be located on both sides of the windows, with their ambiguous play of opening and closing, connection and separation by an invisible and yet view-blocking border. Another ambiguity is the very figure of the guest.

A guest, a visitor, is someone who evokes ambivalent feelings, curiosity and suspicion. The Greek word xenos means a stranger, a foreigner, a guest, but also a host. In Kant’s project of “perpetual peace,” hospitality is the right of a stranger. “Making the strange familiar” was the fundamental goal of Wodiczko’s Xenological Instruments, from Alien Staff (1992), through Mouthpiece (1993), to Aegis (1998) and Dis-Armor (1999). The Alien Staff, doubling the immigrant user’s presence (live and on the display of a small monitor), was meant to be a dialogic device. The philosophy of dialogue was taken further in the Mouthpiece (Porte-Parole), which equipped the wearer with a communication gadget, allowing him to speak “through somebody else’s mouth.” An immigrant himself, Wodiczko, after Julia Kristeva, explained the instruments’ meaning by citing the “metaphor of inner strangeness, the being in-between . . .” Strangeness, attributed by the famous emigrant to the “stranger in ourselves,” connected, by means of the Freudian heimlich/unheimlich, the “our own” with the “not our own,” the familiar, intimate, native with the suspicious, strange, disturbing.

In the Venice projection, like in the preceding installation If you see something… (2005), the category of strangeness is manifested in terms of relationships, of the way we construe the Other. The installation at New York’s Galerie Lelong, clearly set in the context of the policies of Bush’s America, referred to the reproduction of strangeness through relationships of fear and suspicion. Immigrants, filmed behind milk-glass windows, spoke about harassment, dramatic experiences and draconian laws enforced in the name of the war on terror.

In both projections we have to do with sometimes very personal narratives, with an individualization of the immigrant’s “fate,” attested to by his presence on the other side of the glass. In the New York piece, with a projection on four narrow vertical windows contrasting with a darkened interior, the immigrant figures in the cramped space of the windows seem to be far more “on the other side,” in a space of psychosocial alienation. In the projection in the Polish pavilion in Venice, the large, wide windows (the projection “screens”) on three walls and the ceiling create a stronger impression of an opening, a blurring of the line separating the inside from the outside. A line that, in Derridian terms, does not seem to exist in itself, but still maintains a tension between that which it separates from each other. A tension that in Guests is both less explicit and more complex, due chiefly to the polyphonic structure of the installation, which engrosses the viewer with a number of actions taking place alternately or in several windows at once. The picture of immigrants that emerges from the projection is devoid of any stigmatization, we watch workers performing their duties efficiently and competently: a Lebanese intellectual, a V ietnamese poet, students. Besides narratives about the immigrants’ difficult, sometimes actually hopeless situation (a Chechen refugee living in limbo for years, waiting in vain to be granted refugee status) we see scenes with Vietnamese women dancing, besides the xenophobic behavior of Polish and Italian youths in street episodes we hear the conversation of women working for organizations providing legal and social aid to immigrants. The whole scenario is a result of the artist’s many hours of meetings and discussions with immigrants in Rome and Warsaw, which eventually caused him to revise his original idea of presenting the situation of Polish and Eastern European workers in Italy. The current situation, the tensions surrounding immigration issues, the restrictive regulations being introduced by the EU member states in an attempt to seal their borders, the dramatic situation of illegal immigrants caused by, among other factors, the global crisis and a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment all that directed Wodiczko’s attention towards the experiences of immigrants crossing Europe’s borders.

In the end, the Polish pavilion has been transformed into a place that offers an insight into Europe’s relationship with strangers, with foreign guests—and which does so in a paradoxical manner, defying its surroundings: the Giardini with their clear division into national presences. The pavilion’s darkened space with several simultaneous projections forces the viewer to cruise between the individual pictures. The scenario, written for several windows, the dramaturgy of the scenes and episodes constantly changing, makes it impossible to perceive the whole from a fixed position. As the viewer is surrounded by images, his experience of time and performative involvement suddenly become important. Already in his earlier projects Wodiczko laid emphasis on performativity. In his projection on the dome of the Tijuana Centro Cultural (2001), the women protagonists interrupted pre-recorded statements to speak live in response to the audience’s reactions. In the Venice installation, the simultaneity of several projections activates and contextualizes the space between them—a space meant for the viewer, who now enters a stage previously reserved for the artist.

The darkened space and moving pictures of this video installation can refer us to the experience of cinema—a place where a sense of immersion in the image blurs the distinction between the viewer and the visual representation, where the viewer experiences himself as the place where images are actually located. The mechanisms of identification, perfected by the masters of cinema, encounter resistance from the images themselves in Wodiczko’s installation, and that despite the viewer’s immersion in the illusory world of video-space. The figures behind the windows are too poorly visible, often beyond recognition. Despite their natural size and close proximity to the viewer (almost within arm’s reach), they are separated by an insurmountable distance. This play with visibility (and invisibility), preventing the viewer from identifying with or dominating the picture, was already present in the artist’s earlier projects. In Hiroshima (1999), the testimonies of the victims of the nuclear blast were accompanied by close-up images of hands, still or gesticulating just above the surface of Ota river at the foot of the ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome. As Rosalynd Deutsche put it, “The projection also helped the human victims speak by highlighting the supplemental language of their gesturing hands while withdrawing their faces, a withdrawal that may have been prompted by practical considerations but that also protected the speakers from the grasp of vision with image, vision that knows too much and so betrays the speaker.” The artist employed a reverse procedure in the Poznań Projection (2008), where blown-up images of homeless people’s heads emerged high above the viewers’ heads inside the city hall’s clock tower. This time (despite an excess of visibility), the overlapping voices of the speakers made it impossible to understand what they spoke about, preventing not only empathy but even a narrativization of their experiences. . . .

A metaphor of the contemporary homo sacer can be seen in the blurry figures behind the pavilion’s windows, the indistinct silhouettes and moving shadows on the verge of visibility. The figure of the refugee, so hard to define politically—as Giorgio Agamben writes—is a “liminal term”: “. . . by breaking the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality, [refugees] put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis. Bringing to light the difference between birth and nation, the refugee causes the secret presupposition of the political domain—bare life—to appear for an instant within that domain. In this sense, the refugee is truly ‘the man of rights’ . . . the first and only real appearance of rights outside the fiction of the citizen that always covers them over.” If, according to Agamben, “refugees represent such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation-state,” Étienne Balibar locates the sense of disquiet in the ambiguity of the distinction between the “stranger” and an “enemy”: “the equivocal character of the stranger as virtual enemy, but also conversely the tendency to identify the enemy with the stranger in general, or the cultural stranger.” This reproduction of the stranger, or the treatment of strangers as enemies in daily life, in social and legal practices, was a major reference for Wodiczko in a project that tried to respond to an anti-immigrant hysteria incited in the name of “national security.” The installation’s title, If you see something . . ., repeated the words of a media campaign begun in 2002 in New York under the slogan “If your see something, say something. Don’t keep it to yourself.”

Both in the 2002 New York installation and now in the Venice one, the Others, strangers, are situated outside, behind windows; themselves being poorly visible, they are unable to penetrate with their gazes the opaque glass preventing access to those who are inside. The production of strangers is, as Balibar writes, above all a matter of borderlines. The fundamental issue lies not in the “relationship between the construction of the stranger . . . and the status of the ‘citizen,’” but in the “inversion of the relationship between the ‘border’ and the ‘stranger/foreigner’”—the “other human,” citizen from a different state, belonging to a space separated by borderlines. It is borderlines that define who is a stranger and, despite the dislocations taking place, the dispersion and multitude of modern borderlines, they maintain the power to include and exclude. . . .

Involved in the project shown at the Venice biennale were immigrants in Poland and Italy, two EU border states that have been seeing a strong influx of arrivals from the East and the South. Those whose testimonies have been used are in a vast majority people from outside Europe, or least from outside the European Union (with the exception of Romania, which, however, for now remains outside the Schengen zone). The figures outside the windows are not our EU neighbours, but illegal aliens. . . .

Venice Biennale | Chechnya | Ukraine | Vietnam | Romania | Sri Lanka | Libya | Bangladesh | Pakistan | Morocco |

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