Architecture, Design, Action: Krzysztof Wodiczko on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Krzysztof Wodiczko, Professor in Residence of Art, Design and the Public Domain, with text

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Professor in Residence of Art, Design and the Public Domain

Your interests lie in a critique of the historical preservation of power through architecture, and the potential of collective memory in shared spaces, so I’d love to begin by discussing your thoughts on the current racial justice protest movement and calls to challenge the monuments adorning public spaces. How can individuals with a social art practice use their work to fight against systems of racial oppression?

Monuments are a powerful symbol in the public domain; they are major cultural machines. They reproduce and perpetuate a certain idea of culture. And it’s not only about who is commemorated, but also how it is remembered—it’s what Walter Benjamin calls the “history of victors that keeps erasing the tradition of the vanquished.” Knowing this, it’s not a surprise that monuments are objects of attack. They’ve perpetuated white supremacists’ ideology and their related view on history. For too long we heard calls to remove sculptures, and nothing was done. In the context of more regular violence and injustice against their communities, Black leaders, activists, and community members had no choice but to take actions into their own hands.

The question now is what to do next. How do we come together with the Black Lives Matter movement to create a collective memory project? How do we keep informing, honoring, and venerating key leaders and communities in those works? It’s an active and participatory memory project—the exact nature of participation needs to be proposed and arranged collaboratively with members of the movement.

I’m having this conversation a lot in my own practice. The architect Julian Bonder and I designed the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, the former epicenter of the French slave trade. This memorial reclaims the banks of the Loire and serves as a new space of collective memory. I also work on existing monuments that are implicated in the history of racism, war trauma, domestic violence, and mass displacement; I use them to project an alternative history that honors and gives a voice to living war veterans, refugees, immigrants, and people of color.

My projects involve the stories of these people, so of course the Black Lives Matter protest movement is in my heart and mind. Isn’t the destruction of monuments to white supremacists an act of spatial justice? Of course it is. The symbolic built environment is as important as housing projects. Urban and design projects fighting against systemic racism are noble and I admire them, but we should not forget about statues and monuments, which perpetuate a certain regime and ideology of power. For ages, artists and architects have been profoundly involved in designing such ideological symbols. It is now time for us, and for Black community members and activists as well as civic institutions, to work together on new, collective memory projects.

Understanding this project in relation to social progress and movement, it’s essential to work with people, not just on behalf of people. How can we become close colleagues and friends and collaborators with those communities? We cannot simply propose monuments and memorials that will remain as stable fixed monoliths.  That’s why I’m bringing participatory, interactive media up, and calling upon artists and designers to see themselves as agents in this process.

Likewise, students are thinking more about their own future—and not in the textbook sense, but really considering what artists and designers can do to inspire, promote, and amplify the voice of social change, and how to be an agent for that voice. What will bring you into a neighborhood or into conversation with a community rather than putting you behind a desk, or alone in the art studio? I’m not against more traditional studio-based and commission-based work; in fact, very good projects can be done in that space, but at this time, like any period of revolution, it’s just not enough. Alternative artistic and design practice—including temporary and non-commissioned work—is needed. It’s important to remember that the struggle of Black Americans in this country is singular. The movement for Black lives is the most important and urgent topic. At the same time, we are also learning a new framework to think about other marginalized groups.

What are your thoughts on the call to topple monuments that’s happening around the world? What do you think should be done with the statues of known racists?

I am discussing this matter with my colleague Kirk Savage, a historian of Reconstruction-era Civil War memorials, and we both believe that the more significant question is not what to do with the statues, but how to remember—and carry forward—the movement that has toppled them. How do we heed the protesters’ call to action and use these empty or defaced monumental sites to continue the struggle against systemic racism? We hope that communities will commemorate the very process of protest and advocacy that has brought about the disgrace and removal of these statues.

Many of these sites have already witnessed an explosion of creative commemoration. The monochrome setting of the Lee Monument in Richmond has been transformed into an amazing patchwork quilt of paint, slogans, placards, and projections. The fencing around the White House became a huge spontaneous memorial now being archived by the Smithsonian. These creative interventions document the Black Lives Matter movement but also inspire others to carry it on.

For that reason, do not erase the graffiti; do not clean up ruined monuments. These ruins have now become indispensable objects of our collective memory—transitional memorials in the development of anti-racist democracy.

Whether the statues stay or not, whether they are replaced or not, the sites of disgraced monuments can live on and flourish as interactive spaces of collective discussion and action. Designers have a role to play in this new phase of commemoration. They can work to create effective gathering spaces and to facilitate dialogue as well as reflection. New media technology can connect one monumental site to another across the country or globe and bring social movements together to share insights and strategies.

If we forget the activism that has brought down these markers of white supremacy, we will have lost the opportunity this moment has created. New strategies of commemoration that encourage the spontaneous expression and collaboration already on display at these sites can point toward a future in which monuments do not demand obedience but inspire social justice.

What’s the link between design and protest?

Everything I said responds to protest; my work stands for protest. Pro-test; “test” is from the Latin testisa witness (to something wrong), and “pro” is to move forward, to pro-ject (demand or propose something better).  Protest and design (and monument) are related. Monument (from moneo, mementowarning) should help us to beware and do something so the past injustices will not repeat themselves. There is a rich relationship between design and all kinds of protests—designers and artists can be useful, inspiring, and make protesting more effective and safer for those involved. You see this extension in digital media, in the way the process can be disseminated beyond the actual event.

In Barcelona, for example, during anti-globalization and other massive protests, the Guerrilla Fashion Group—part of Las Agencia movement—incorporated skills and knowledge from various fields of design and art, including fashion, graphic design, multimedia, industrial design, and performance art to make protests safe and more effective. They provided cultural and technical assistance—and prevented the protests from being too quickly destroyed by “forces of order.” I’m in favor of those projects, and am happy to see new designs such as the ones developed to fight back against facial recognition software used by those who want to control and arrest protestors. The Hong Kong protestors have been an inventive force in new media protests and I think we have a lot to learn from them in how to protest safely and intelligently. My own interest in projection technology is inspired by the use of some of the projections that these protesters used to anonymize themselves.

One technique that has been used recently in the US is where white protesters are on the front line as a way of preventing police from violently attacking POC demonstrators. It’s a kind of “white screen” protest design, and there is a room there for designers to contribute. Showing solidarity and using one’s privilege to fight back against racist profiling is a good way of thinking about design projects. Hopefully this conversation can happen again in the next academic year, because there will be more things done in terms of design and art’s role in protest. Right now, it’s a fantastic moment with incredible potential.

How could the Master in Design studies program (MDes) be a part of this conversation at the GSD?

The conversations surrounding racial justice have been a wake-up call to changing the way we will teach and learn at the GSD, including the MDes. I’m interested in thinking about Johannes Itten’s introductory course in Bauhaus, “Unlearning”—albeit with a different, present day agenda. It’s an important way to approach systemic racism: Learn how to undo it through design, while also “unlearning” it ourselves, since we are products of our still racist cultures. Perhaps there is something to be learned here from the Bauhaus. I think we all agree that at the GSD we also need to collaborate with other disciplines and fields of knowledge at Harvard and beyond. The situation is too urgent and complex to work on alone.

This could be a special opportunity to look at MDes as a unique intellectual and critical resource, and also see how MDes can exchange experience and thinking with the rest of the school. It can be a two-way system, for research students to work with studio culture in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning, as well as with philosophy, history of design, real estate, and other disciplines. Of course, it’s important to develop projects that take students outside of Boston and the US, but we must also nurture projects that engage with our territory and culture in the US, especially those projects focusing on the marginalization of Black communities, including in the Boston area. Students must learn to see evidence and symptoms of racial segregation in urban areas, and work collaboratively with community activists and researchers, cultural geographers, and urban anthropologists, among others. We have the resources here to work with all sorts of figures beyond the academy, but we need to go further in realizing these connections.

We must be open to the possibility that we might require a different structure altogether. Actually, we’ve already been considering this kind of idea in MDes—that students should be involved in discussing the way their final projects can go, and whether we take a new approach to the discussion and choice of thesis topics and method. In terms of immediate changes to make to the GSD’s pedagogy and structure, I—along with all our faculty—was extremely impressed by the Notes on Credibility statement. It was clear, cogent, and considered, with actionable consequences. I was inspired reading the demands, and wholeheartedly thank the students for opening this door and the discussions that will follow.

Krzysztof Wodiczko is professor in residence of Art, Design and the Public Domain at the GSD. He is renowned for his large-scale slide and video projections on architectural facades and monuments.