New York

Krzysztof Wodiczko

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Xenology: Immigrant Instruments, 1992– , is an ongoing project that powerfully combines the high-tech and the political. Over the last four years, Wodiczko has designed two “instruments” that enable users, immigrants from various countries, to tell their stories: an “Alien Staff”—a high-tech “biblical shepherd’s rod . . . equipped with a mini video monitor and a small loudspeaker”—that shows various sequences from prerecorded interviews with the bearer recounting his or her experiences; and a “Mouthpiece,” an object that encircles the jaw with a small video monitor placed directly over the wearer’s mouth, showing the lips moving in sync to a prerecorded narrative. Presenting a panoramic view of “the immigrant experience” (xenos is the Greek root for “alien”), Wodiczko’s recent installation comprised four television monitors, hooked up to “Alien Staffs” mounted on the wall, both showing videotaped interviews of immigrants, as well as photographs and a video montage of immigrants, “staffs” in hand, standing on street corners, riding the subways, or in front of public buildings in their newly adopted countries. The staff is itself composed of clear containers that display old passports, working papers, green cards—all the legal accoutrements that chart the various phases of immigration. (One interactive “Alien Staff,”activated by the censors around it, was included in this show.) This device, at once symbolic of otherness and of connection, is identical in each of the video passages, but the problems and characteristics of the individual subjects remain vivid and particular as the sequences unfold before us.

Collectively, these testaments to those who have abandoned or fled their homelands read as a modern-day version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the immigrants are cast as strangers on the road. The staff elevates them to the status of pilgrims, while the strangely disfiguring mouthpiece gives visual force to their struggle to be heard; suddenly, we cannot help but attend to the strangers in our midst. The indifference, the protective barrier that separates the inhabitants of large cities from each other, briefly dissolves during the random interactions with the passersby attracted by these devices. These encounters are all the more intense for being transient and impersonal: each recognizes the other’s strangeness and overcomes—during the moment of acquaintance—the sense of discomfort that accompanies a confrontation with the seemingly unassimilable. Wodiczko does not simply document alienation; rather, he strongly suggests that, in some form, it is the very fabric of contemporary society. His instruments, which are meant to eradicate it, to establish channels of communication across internal as well as class boundaries, paradoxically become symbols, physical embodiments of all that separates us from each other.

Wodiczko’s subjects are surprisingly willing to establish a connection with others, for all the difficulties they may have in crossing cultural boundaries. They are often astonishingly eloquent, even passionate. Smiles and special pleas abound. In the video montage of these scenes, the stories and statements reflected and blended into each other, so that, as a whole, the work seemed like an endless lament.

Wodiczko’s installation was a magnificent achievement, at once poignant and precise, portraying immigration as emblematic of the rootlessness at the heart of modernity. Migration emerges as the sine qua non of survival: everyone is always on the move, unsure of their destination, and never far from the maddening crowd. But in dramatizing the problems of immigrants with such high-tech elegance, Wodickzo raises a question that remains unanswered: To what degree does the barrage of electronic images in industrial societies actually exacerbate our sense of isolation?

Donald Kuspit