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Yuni Kim had been thinking about masks. As she approached the end of her fourth year at Penn and a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in Design with a minor in Consumer Psychology, and the start of a fifth year towards earning her Master of Integrated Product Design, she was thinking about the way technology obstructs honesty. And, perhaps, how it can facilitate it. She saw a listing for Krzysztof Wodiczko’s course Interrogative Design: Cultural Prosthetics and became intrigued. “I was really drawn to the class and began researching his work,” she says. “And one of his topics that really interested me was this concept of candid speech and the obligation to speak the truth for the benefit of everyone.”
She joined a group of both undergraduate and graduate students in his Spring 2023 course, which was organized around readings, discussions, and a project presented first as a concept in the midterm, and then at the final review. “My other studios would be based around designing an ad, or designing a project,” she says. “But this class revolved around the social space and the public space. It was different, and very flexible.”
That difference is a signature of Wodiczko’s work. Born in Poland and now based in New York City, Cambridge, and Warsaw, he has for decades engaged in an artistic practice of transforming urban architecture, from museums to monuments, by projecting images of those who comprise surrounding communities upon them—making masks for them, as Oscar Wilde might have it, that tell the truth of who the city serves, and should. A parallel practice involves his creation of therapeutic devices or, as he himself calls them, “cultural prosthetics,” which not only allow wearers to participate in culture more fully, but in their invention show the culture what it lacks.
“I never wanted to be an artist,” says Wodiczko, currently a distinguished visiting professor of fine arts at Weitzman. “I always wanted to be a designer.” In Poland in the 1970s, he worked for the national electronic and optical industries and was a member of the non-governmental Industrial Design Association. "My colleagues and I were trained to infiltrate the authoritarian system and try to make it more human by working critically and analytically," he says. "Industrial design in this context was a kind of avant-garde group of people trying to teach and educate the administration and engineers how to recognize and creatively attend to unacknowledged human needs.” That relationship to power stayed with him as he began teaching. “I continue to be a designer but under the name of art,” he says, teaching design students “how to become a facilitator agent, a co-agent who also helps other people to become agents [of change].”
Wodiczko means to teach students “how to become a facilitator agent, a co-agent for someone who also helps other people to become agents [of change].”
The class, Kim says, “inspired me to look into this current social phenomenon where a significant number of teenagers are facing mental wellness issues. But they’re not being candid about what they’re feeling and not really communicating those issues with other people.” As the studio progressed, she began wondering if there might be a technological response. “But not a traditional, one-to-one conversation tool,” she says. “I just wanted to get rid of the obstacle there might be in someone’s journey towards being honest.”
By mid-semester, Kim had conceived a sharable helmet which, she said during her presentation, might allow the user to “transfer thoughts to other people” via a voice recorder. Wodiczko, and his Teaching Assistant Jacob Weinberg (MFA’23), encouraged her and the rest of the class to think larger, in terms of conceiving what he called “different symbolic orders” of design, and to think smaller, in terms of utilizing the students and resources around them as resources and sounding boards. And, finally, to think longer, or beyond the artificial limits of finishing a project by the end of the semester. “The issue is how we un-finish well, so you can take aspects of it later in whatever plans you have in your study or work,” he told the students. “Each of you is a historian or theorist in your right. As Nietzsche said, one should have the kind of past that one deserves. So the question is: What kind of tradition should we recall, seeing it from which point of the present and horizon of the future?"
As the semester comes to a close, Kim’s project has changed form. “It’s a lounge chair that is kind of shaped like the side of your face,” she says, another form of mask which she’s printed and is now ready for assembly. “It’s tall,” she says. “You sit in it and record what you want to say. And then another person can sit and listen to what you said.” It’s at once a piece of technology, a furniture design, and, she says, “an experience.”
Not unlike the studio itself, which in Wodiczko’s conception is pedagogical tech, an architectural framework, and something shared. The studio, he says, is not about the finished project. “We’ll reach past forecasting toward the aspects that must be experienced, and the concept will be informed by this. There must be some kind of projected image of what can happen next—so people can take it later to push it forward, or keep it reserved as an archive of their experience ” In the end, he says, students’ ideas must “be articulate enough and experienced enough to be real. So they will remember this.”