Jacqueline Piña Ascencio
July 16, 2021
In anticipation of the opening of Immersive Distancing: Carmen Argote and Zeynep Abes at the LA Art Show (LAAS), July 29 through August 1 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, I offer a preview of the exhibition and some background about the artists and their work. The exhibition, curated by Chon A. Noriega for the CSRC, is part of this year’s LAAS DIVERSEartLA program, which will showcase women and nonbinary artists whose practice intersects with art, science, and technology. Immersive Distancing comprises two installations: Last Light, by established artist Carmen Argote, and Memory Place, by emerging artist Zeynep Abes. Both artists are based in Los Angeles and are graduates of UCLA, and both created their work during the first lockdown of the pandemic.
Argote’s installation features her Last Light, a twelve-minute video that combines photographs and footage recorded by the artist on her phone during long walks in Los Angeles. Her walking practice offered opportunities for introspection and healing during the pandemic. The artist’s voice-over narration explores ideas of memory and change as they relate to the city and to herself. Furthering her narration, Argote’s choice of ambient sounds creates a somber environment conducive to self-reflection for both the artist and the viewer.
The three videos in Abes’s installation, Memory Place, began with the artist’s desire to archive her fleeting memories of Istanbul. The videos, Istiklal Street, Mama, and Plane, were created with a program that employs photogrammetry to render scanned images in three dimensions. Each video represents a different memory and explores how memory can be altered through circumstances or time. The artist’s use of sound further enhances this capture of memory as they reflect the nature of the experiences themselves.
I spoke with the artists in June 2021 to find out more about the conception and creation of their work. While each piece, in its own way, will immerse viewers in the artist’s experiences, the interviews reveal why and how these stories are told. The interview highlights that follow have been lightly edited.
What were the biggest obstacles that you encountered while creating Last Light?
I don’t like to think of them as obstacles, but surprising experiences or moments that were uncomfortable. And not in a good or bad way, but more of a noticing of that pushing and pulling of a practice. The first major shift was the shared experience of the pandemic. When you have to stop and say, “You know the planned project is not really going to happen,” and you have to let go of this complete other project. That’s when you have to say, “Okay time to shift. Let’s make a film.” And I had never made a film before. Even then, I didn’t like to think of it as a film because I wanted it to reflect my practice. I am not a filmmaker, so I was approaching it as a medium that felt authentic in my own practice. That’s when I thought to myself, “You know, you have this phone. I have to think about this phone as a studio.”
That initial shift, when I had to change the medium, I had to have this trust, and be open to saying, “I don’t know everything, but we’re going to figure this out.” And that’s when this shift in the conversation started, where I said, “Okay, this is going to take form with walking.” I did not know what the work was going to be about, I did not know what the work would say or the script, but this is the material that I have. When I started working with the video editor, I said, “I am going to start walking this last light route.” It felt very important to just be outside when we were supposed to be locked down. I needed to see and feel what was going on.
I had to keep working to feel comfortable, and that turned into a series of drawings. That searching process continued on the paper surface. And that’s what became Hand Dog Glove, which was concurrent with the making of Last Light. This was a whole other drawing process that was happening in response to the conversation with the filmmaking process.
The last big uncomfortable part was the sound. Once we had the narration and the final pictures, we sent it to the sound producer, who had a whole other perspective. I had to learn how to communicate more, so that I could reflect the pedestrian perspective.
In every aspect of Last Light there’s walking, thinking, communication, processing, and learning the medium itself.
What were your inspirations for Last Light?
When I think of Last Light, to me it’s not a work about Covid at all. It just so happens that that was happening. For me, it was about my walking practice at the time. A lot of the material had already been gathered on my phone, and it was a way to be able to frame it, continue to work on it, and give it a form through film. It really is about searching and walking. One of my inspirations was this idea of construction. Being in motion as a way of processing. Digesting the collective changes, my relationship with the land, scale shifts, and the relationship between public and private. I was also noticing the lessening of boundaries and this constant push for progress, of when push comes to shove. At the same time I was thinking about the deconstruction of self. So, I thought about construction and deconstruction a lot.
The narration is about a lot of the stuff I had been dealing with at the time. I had been hospitalized a bit before going into the film process. And I was learning how to cope with unmet expectations, deconstructing expectations, and these belief systems. Much of the narration was also about feeling this unknown tension. It reminded me of the feeling I had right before the L.A. riots. And then the Black Lives Matter protests happened, and it felt like a continuation of the same conversation.
How do you see yourself connected to the themes of DIVERSEartLA?
I was thinking about when I am walking in this body, as a woman, at different times of the day, and how that feels. How that affects the dynamics in relationships. How I am perceived, how I am not perceived, and the questions that I am asked.
With technology, it’s using the phone as a studio. This movement in technology and how the presence of the hand is always present. How that functions as an object, and then how it functions with me and my uses for it. With science, I think of walking and the embodied philosophy inherent in it.
Let’s discuss the sound element of Memory Place. What would you say was your biggest inspiration for that?
The sounds are interesting because I am one of those artists that thinks of sound at the last moment, sadly. It’s a horrible habit. At the time, I was thinking, “I could very easily think of some sort of music that could go with the videos.” But then I thought to myself, “Okay, but I am really trying to immerse people and create this immersive experience of a memory, so I need sounds from home.” Which is another interesting aspect, because I dove into researching archiving sounds and how there are many projects in different cities, Istanbul included, where people are recording and archiving specific sounds of the city that are being lost. Whether it be the Red Tram bells, or the street musicians that you can no longer hear, these are the sounds that are being lost in the city. Sound is an invaluable and intangible aspect of the city’s cultural identity and should be preserved, especially in rapidly changing cities such as Istanbul. For the street video, I ended up going through a billion videos on YouTube that were taken on Istiklal Street and pulling sound bites that I thought created the identity of that very specific avenue. I also used musicians playing and little soundbites from my own iPhone, from some random videos of my dad. I really wanted people to be able to close their eyes and not see the video and just listen to the sound.
The same thing goes for my mom’s dinner table, where all the sound is from home videos. It’s my grandfather laughing, the clinking and clanking of plates . . . I come from a big family and these sounds ended up becoming crucial to re-creating the memory.
Photogrammetry is new to me. How did you come to use that?
Photogrammetry is a capturing tool that has been mainly used by architects and archeologists, and it is an easier way to create a 3D visualization of a place or person. I found out about it through my undergrad animation course. But my interest in archival art and preserving memory comes from my time working in my home city of Istanbul. I was working there the summer of the Gezi protests in 2013, and every night as I left work I saw the youth of Istanbul marching towards the city center to protest and painting beautiful graffiti on the city walls. Then every morning, I would see this artwork covered in gray paint, censored by the government. Social media became a crucial tool for the protesters. The images, videos, and music that were spread online became central to the resistance, while artists shaped the way the movement was perceived around the world. Seeing this process firsthand—artwork going up at night, being shared online, and then coming down by morning—piqued my interest in the relationship between state power and artistic resistance through various aspects of archiving media. I started to realize how the erasure of these historic moments could lead to oppression and how telling these stories could act as a form of advocacy, so I began documenting the streets. I eventually re-created all of the street art and graffiti that I had documented and placed it as augmented reality installations in the original locations. The installations could then be accessed through an app.
So that became ingrained in me. There is so much potential to use photogrammetry in archive art as it’s such an amazing way to capture something in 3D. That kicked me off into using photogrammetry for a bunch of different projects, until I came to use it for this thesis work. The versions I am using for these videos are actually called “point clouds.” When you process these images into the photogrammetry program, they create a full 3D surface representation of the object, but these point clouds are only a step to that final ending. I ended up using the point clouds because to me, visually, they resemble these faded pieces of memory. And the whole project was a means to find a way to preserve that memory.
How do you see yourself connected to DIVERSEartLA?
I have been working in media for a long time. I studied documentary film and ended up changing my MFA concentration to interactive media because I felt that one medium was not enough. Further, by the time I was graduating from undergrad school, there was this huge wave where VR, virtual reality, was becoming mainstream again. I dove into that because it felt exciting to be at the forefront of an emerging media, and artists and filmmakers were using it to tell stories. I ended up working as a curator in this field for a while. Then I was at Sundance, and then I was working at smaller shows around L.A., focusing on how artists were taking this new medium to tell stories. And while I was working as a curator, I focused on marginalized communities. So as VR was developing, a lot of us were already in it. We wanted to make sure that it started out as a safe, equal space. When I started my MFA, I found this community that was so vocal about representing equity. I am happy that I am in DIVERSEartLA, working in this new medium as a woman from Turkey. To me, this show feels very genuine. The intention is not “Let’s show diverse L.A.” It is to tell these stories that are very human, that everyone can relate to.
Jacqueline Piña Ascencio is a Chicana scholar and artist from Long Beach, California. Currently she is the 2021 Getty Marrow Academic Programs and Publications intern at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. She holds a BA in art history and graphic design from California State University, Long Beach.
Immersive Distancing: Carmen Argote and Zeynep Abes
Curated by Chon A. Noriega
LA Art Show, July 29–August 1 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA, 90015
Thursday, July 29, 2021, 6:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, July 30–31, 12:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.
Sunday, August 1, 12:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the LAAS website: https://www.laartshow.com/
Watch a DIVERSEartLA Talk featuring curator Chon A. Noriega and artists Carmen Argote and Zeynep Abes (May 18, 2021)