East Los Angeles College artist-in-residence Farrah Karapetian crouches down as she adjusts her model’s jeans, rolling it up to reveal a pair of bright red sneakers. She goes around to the rest of the models and rearranges their riot shields and helmets. One model still wears around his neck a pair of big headphones he was using to listen to his iPod.
Soon, Karapetian says, these hoodied college students will look just like riot police towering over protesters. For the final touch, Karapetian coaches her models on how to stand upright, with their chests puffed out and shoulders rolled back.
When Karapetian, a photographer who captures only the silhouettes of her models using a special technique called “photogramming,” is done with them, they will be transformed, their red sneakers and rolled up jeans resembling big heavy boots; they are no longer college students but riot police.
This week, Karapetian’s new exhibit, “Los Angeles Times” opens at HOY SPACE, an experimental room at ELAC’s Vincent Price Museum where artists are invited to create installations from scratch. They have the freedom to do anything they want, even punch a hole through the wall, says Karen Rapp, the museum’s director.
Prior to Karepetian, artists filled the venue with everything from a painted memorial using spirals to denote soldiers and civilians killed in the Iraq war; to a menagerie of random, throwaway objects that come together to create new meanings and order.
Karapetian enlisted the help of ELAC students for her project. She held two workshops with the students, one to create the pieces for her exhibit, and another to help the students create their own photograms.
She came to ELAC wanting to make something that would “describe the community it was made in, involve the community in its production, and be situated in that community when it is installed,” Karapetian told EGP.
She sought to recreate protests in East Los Angeles. Many of the students who attended her workshop, however, had never participated in a protest, but a slideshow of photographs from past protests resonated with them, she said, especially those from the 1970 Chicano Moratorium.
But the subject matter was not just about the past for many of the students, whose campus last fall was the site of an Occupy ELAC encampment. The spirit of protest that came out of the recent Occupy movements around the country and the uprisings around the world, still hangs in the air and is very much alive in the students’ minds.
Karapetian said her process is part of the art she is making. “If I do this at any number of schools, I will learn about the issues that concern pockets of young people in diverse communities as much as they will learn about the role of social unrest in effecting political and artistic change,” she told EGP. She hopes to continue this project at other college campuses around the country.
The technique that Karapetian uses has an element of unpredictability. She does not use a traditional camera, but rather turns a whole room into one, to capture her images and develop them into photograms. Everything that Karapetian and her models do is done in complete darkness. As she unrolls and cuts large sheets of photographic paper, hangs them on the wall and instructs her models on how to pose in front of them, they shuffle carefully across the room, count their steps and call out to each other.
In between actual art-making, the students while away the time telling funny stories about their trips to a haunted amusement park, their fear of the dark, and ultimately, their increased freedom to express themselves and to socialize when the lights are off.
Karapetian enjoys using the abstract format of the photogram’s silhouettes, which emphasizes the language and vocabulary of what she is trying to capture. The aura of a riot police officer is easily evoked with a shift in stance and the adoption of just a few props like riot shields, batons and helmets. The effect is so powerful, even skinny, unthreatening college students will find themselves feeling like a riot cop, as some of the students in her workshop remarked.
“Los Angeles Times” runs through Aug. 17 at HOY SPACE, located at East Los Angeles College, 1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park, CA 91754. An artist led walkthrough of the exhibit is being planned.