Encounters with the Material: Krzysztof Wodiczko and Site-Specific Media Art
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Encounters with the Material:
Krzysztof Wodiczko and Site-Specific Media Art

Since 1981, Krzysztof Wodiczko has been crafting site-specific outdoor projections, artwork that has drawn attention to a viewer’s surroundings in order to provide a critique of the public function of often overlooked monumental architecture.1 His work addresses these overlooked structures in hopes of compelling viewers to connect their relevance to ongoing social and political problems. With the widespread use of outdoor projections in urban environments (often referred to as “urban screens”) and a growing interest in mobile technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), that allow for the superimposition of visual imagery into people’s field of vision, Wodiczko’s work is a prescient encounter with technologies to visualize information away from the immobile screens of desktop computers and televisions. While urban screens and mobile technologies are being mined for their entertainment and commercial potential, Wodiczko’s projects, by contrast, are distinctive for their critical address of the experience of our built environment. Building off of research on site specificity in art, this essay identifies his media work as a cultural practice that opens an investigation of three interrelated aspects of site: its social and political meaning, its disciplinary function, and its materiality. By opening [End Page 173] an encounter with the materiality of site, work such as Wodiczko’s is a critical address of the virtual in our current cultural condition. This analysis challenges how mobile technologies are characterized today as technologies that speak to the heightened expansion of the virtual into the experience of the physical environment.

Wodiczko has been making public art since the 1960s. His work has explored many different forms, spanning art objects and interventionist public performance to image and video projections. Since the 1980s, he has become widely known for his image and video projections onto public monuments and the facades of urban architecture. Using-high powered projectors, these projections consist of imagery that examines or reveals the social, cultural, and/or political significance of sites. In his initial work these projections consisted mainly of static imagery, but his more recent work makes use of moving images.

In one of the more provocative readings of Wodiczko’s work, Dick Hebdige suggests that Wodiczko seeks to cultivate a feeling of the uncanny as a political tactic in his artwork.2 The uncanny arises out of his art objects, because he takes everyday objects and transforms them into something altered, unexpected, haunted. With his Homeless Vehicle, for example, Wodiczko turns a shopping cart with its familiar use by the homeless as a mode of transport and habitation into a striking militarized vessel “as if transplanted from another dimension.”3 Hebdige quotes Patrick Wright’s characterization of it as “unlike anything that has ever existed before, and yet deliberately engineered out of resemblances to things familiar.”4

Though he diverges from Sigmund Freud’s celebrated examination of the term, Hebdige draws on Freud’s concept of unheimlich, or the uncanny, in his study of Wodiczko’s art. For Freud, the uncanny object “proceeds from something familiar which has been repressed.”5 The repressed in Wodiczko’s work is the social antagonisms and conflict surrounding the original object, what Wodiczko refers to as the “problem issues”6 that are of topical concern in his artwork. With its reimagining of the everyday shopping cart, the Homeless Vehicle casts an indirect light on the rampant homelessness and social displacement that Wodiczko observed in his visits to the United States.7 The raw materials for his projects are those overlooked everyday objects that are open secrets about the failings of society.

Unheimlich is key to understanding Wodiczko’s site-specific projections as well. For Freud, places and built environments can also be unheimlich. The term unheimlich derives from the German word heimat, which refers to one’s hometown or birthplace and the feeling of closeness and connection to it. Thus, a common [End Page 174] definition of unheimlich is the experience of one’s hometown as a haunted, unfamiliar place. Freud quotes the Grimms’s German Dictionary about the close connection between unheimlich and heimat: “At times I feel like a man who walks in...


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