Creating Democracy: A Dialogue with Krzysztof Wodiczko

Article excerpt

Krzysztof Wodiczko: For me, a central question is, where are we today regarding democracy with relation to art? How can art influence and be influenced by the process of democracy? I believe that the examination of democracy and public space is a project that should continue.

Patricia C. Phillips: A critical issue, generally, but with particular relevance for your work.

Wodiczko: We are in the challenging moment of having to reformulate new forms of democracy influenced by circumstances and concepts we have never seen before-a multitude of them have been developed by political thinkers and activists all over the world, and artists, too, should find their place in these debates. Democracy is one of the most challenging, if problematic, opportunities. We still seem to have difficulty embracing the great potential of this project in society. Now there is global displacement and uneven development worldwide. There are conflicts of religion, power, and the diminishment of rights. It is a time of major social and economic change. There is the constant threat of serious conflict in many places. The world seems to be populated with enemies and adversaries. How can we proceed with such feelings of fear and hostility?

Phillips: Rosalyn Deutsche, who has written critically and eloquently on your work, suggests that democracy involves the recognition, if not perpetuation, of difficulty and disagreement. In fact, it is constitutionally unsettled.1

Wodiczko: Democracy is always unfinished. It should never be understood as completed. We accept the idea that democracy-and the public sphere-is a phantom, a term that Bruce Robbins introduced in a collection of essays he edited.2

Artists are in a special position to contribute to this exploration of new forms of democracy, by creating work that is challenging and disrupting. Artists have the opportunity to continue the avant-garde tradition, which has always engaged public issues. They should try to make sense of this tradition without being imprisoned by it.

Phillips: Phantom is a striking metaphor for the errant nature of democracy.

Wodiczko: Public space is where we often explore or enact democracy. In the 1970s, there was a growing interest in public art, public space, site-specific art because of the rapid transformation of cities. Eventually, site specificity was replaced by other concerns, but it was an important stage when artists began to focus on context. Art could be geographically specific, formally and visually specific, or socially specific. Artists began to consider the implications of an intervention in one area when similar events were happening at the same time in other places. In the 1980s, there emerged influences from critical urban geography and the ideas of uneven development, urban struggle, and cultural resistance. Artists began to think critically about art-the position of their practice-in relation to development in a city and the lives of its people. Questions of representation also emerged. How should a particular social group or stratum be represented? More artists became directly involved in the lives of the inhabitants of cities.

Of course, there always exists a theoretical environment that influences artists' activities. I entered this public space with a set of references that are important to an understanding of my own work. This began in the early 1980s with Claude Lefort's theory of democracy.3 Lefort proposed that democracy is founded on public space that should be, essentially empty. This emptiness does not belong to any individual or group, but should be available to anyone who can bring meaning to it, recognize others in it, and instigate and perpetuate dissemination and debate about rights. Lefort's position is a Utopian concept. he describes an ideal, nonexistent public space, which in reality is not empty but controlled and barricaded by speakers, commercial and political, who speak at the expense of silent others. …