Dec 17, 2011

Materials for Protest and Memory

Los Angeles-based photographer Farrah Karapetian began making photograms in 2002 after a trip to Kosovo; an accident in the darkroom resulted in her first cameraless print. Photograms are photographic images created without a camera using photo-sensitive paper. Karapetian felt at the time that the photogram responded to her frustrations with the editorial assignment and the process of making prints.

The immediacy of that experience and the potential for experimentation made her stop using cameras. The resulting images bear a more tangible relationship with things in the world without the mediation of the camera apparatus; at the same time the technique abstracts the image, creating a haunted representational glow.

Her earlier photograms were more formal explorations of process, but as she began to apply her work to site-specific installations and re-enactments of news photographs, the one-to-one relation to material became a way of making the capture, printing and display a social sculptural act.

Accessory to Protest, her show of photograms and constructed negatives that opened December 16 at the LeadApron gallery on Melrose Place--a shopping-bag rich strip of high-end boutiques like Carolina Herrera, Diane Von Furstenberg, Helmut Lang, Vera Wang, et. al.--takes the everyday accoutrements of political demonstrations as a primary material and implicitly comments on the location of their display.

A pamphlet widely distributed in Egypt during the spring revolt instructed demonstrators on eight items of "necessary clothing and accessories" for participation in protests: goggles to protect against tear gas, a hoodie to protect your face, a scarf to protect your mouth and lungs, pot lids to use as shields against rubber bullets and beatings by security forces, thick rubber gloves to defend against tear gas cannisters, a rose as a gesture of peace, spray paint as self-defense, and shoes that enable you to run and move quickly.

Aestheticized and commodified through the act of exposure, processing, and display in a gallery on Melrose Place, the flyer becomes a questionable artifact of living history, and the photograms become documents of cultural contradiction, re-situated in a place where the demand for economic activity to drive job growth confronts the radical inequality pervasive in the existing liberal-democratic model.

As part of the Flint Public Art Project--the ongoing program to activate disused sites in the Midwestern city of Flint, Michigan through public art and urban interventions--Karapetian has proposed an installation on the Chevrolet brownfield site that would expose the memory of the former factories, whose outlines remain embedded in the landscape in the form of concrete foundations of demolished buildings.

She proposes to have workers and city residents engage in a series of tours of the site that would demonstrate the persistence of memory and the possible transformation of the site into a public space.

"The tours would have as their guide nothing, initially, but the stories and muscle memory of the people leading them. As these tours take place, a map of the stories would be made: who traveled down this hallway and at what time, who had a breakdown here and a laugh there, who was late to reach this point and whose office was he sent to for a reprimand. The maps would accumulate and intersect, re-writing the floorplan of the former factory. This would be a performance of memory that would write its own script."

"That script could have its own future: it could be recorded digitally, as a scan of the overlapping drawings and a transcription of the stories. This could be printed. If, as the Flint Futures Group develops and realizes one of its two proposals – Flintʼs Urban Riverfront or the Flint River State Park – the Group would like to see one of these maps made into a permanent part of the landscape, it would be very possible to integrate a full-scale rendering of the memory of former workers into the ground. For example, in the case of the Urban Riverfront, which calls for a containment of contaminants and a capping with concrete, the memory-made map could be etched with environmentally safe acid into the concrete, creating a two-dimensional path not unlike a labyrinth or a game of hop-scotch that would re-institutionalize the stories of local people into the land."

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