Exploring Unease and Haunting: Reflections on ‘Immersive Distancing: Carmen Argote and Zeynep Abes’ at LAAS

Jacqueline Piña Ascencio
August 26, 2021

As I entered through the front doors of the Los Angeles Convention Center for this year’s installment of the LA Art Show (LAAS), I already knew something special was about to happen. Each participating gallery space was set up with its own booth and its best and brightest works were proudly hanging on the walls. The event hosted a broad range of art styles. I could, for example, turn one way and see a display of brightly colored pop art, then another to see a booth filled with Renaissance-style portraits. The commercial event had something for everyone to enjoy. My favorite section, however, lay just behind the digital floor-to-ceiling waterfall installation by Luciana Abait. For just a few steps beyond it was this year’s ​​DIVERSEartLA program: a segment of LAAS that included art from across the globe and highlighted women and nonbinary artists whose practice intersects with art, science, and technology. Here is where the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center’s (CSRC) exhibition Immersive Distancing: Carmen Argote and Zeynep Abes, curated by Chon A. Noriega, resided for the weekend.

LA Art Show attendees view Immersive Distancing: Carmen Argote and Zeynep Abes with Abes’s installation of Memory Place (left) and Argote’s installation of Last Light, 2021. Photograph by Jacqueline Piña Ascencio.

Nestled in the corner, Immersive Distancing welcomed thousands of visitors throughout the three days the art fair was open to the public. One of the two installations in this exhibition was Last Light, a twelve-minute video by UCLA alumna Carmen Argote that combines photographs and footage recorded by the artist while she took long walks through her Los Angeles neighborhood. Offering viewers opportunities for introspection and healing during the pandemic, the video, which features soft voice-over narration by Argote, explores ideas of recollected thoughts and ongoing change. Exploring similar themes was Memory Place, Zeynep Abes’s first installation since she earned her MFA from UCLA’S Design Media Arts program. Memory Place was composed of three videos, Istiklal, Mama, and Plane, that document important memories of Abes’s native Istanbul. The artist employed photogrammetry, a software program used to render three-dimensional surfaces, to explore not only her memories but also the ephemeral quality of the memory itself. Each video presents a point cloud, which suggests the dimensionality of objects and people in the recorded footage. Neighboring pieces, the three videos worked together to invite introspection about isolation and nostalgia. 

As the CSRC’s docent for the exhibition, I was on site through every stage of the show: installation, opening night, throughout the weekend, and de-installation. I heard many viewers use the word “haunting” to describe their experience with the exhibition while others stated it was “chilling” or “creepy.” It is easy to understand why. The videos linger in the back of your consciousness, challenging you to decide whether to hold onto the encounter in its entirety. Perhaps the part of your brain responsible for memory will decide to retain only the vivid colors of Istiklal and not its accompanying sound. Or maybe it will keep the narration of Last Light and not the visual footage. Or perhaps you will be left with only the way the installations made you feel.

LA Art Show attendees view Carmen Argote’s Last Light, 2021. Photograph by Jacqueline Piña Ascencio.

Enhancing the visceral experience of viewing Last Light and Memory Place was the nature of each project’s production. Both pieces were created during the Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders, and as a result, the video expresses the unstable safety we collectively felt during the lockdown. In Argote’s Last Light, the artist presents eerie scenes of empty freeways, streets, and storefronts while narrating her walks through a vacant city. Argote used her iPhone as the primary means of documentation in order to illustrate her walking practice from various angles. In one segment she captured herself touching objects with a gloved hand. In another she recorded herself pressing a crosswalk button with her foot. It is in these scenes of active movement that the artist reflects on her own fear of the city, of the ever-present scare of the coronavirus lurking on surfaces that she once touched without hesitation. Argote’s own thoughts are given form in still images and video-recorded motion. Last Light offered viewers a chance to ponder their own impact on the spaces around them.

LA Art Show attendees view Zeynep Abes’s Istiklal, one of three videos in Abes’s Memory Place. Digital photograph, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

Abes’s Memory Place deals with a different kind of isolation. The trio of videos were projected onto different walls to create separate environments. The videos all begin with a tight shot that obscures any context or subject from the viewer. As the piece progresses, the camera seems to move backward, and as more data points fill the screen, the viewer is able to make out the subject of each piece. Abes incorporates sounds associated with each subject to effectively create a sensory experience that elicits an array of emotions and expressions. In Istiklal, the subject is a street scene from the artist’s native Istanbul. Beginning at the vanishing point, the video slowly pulls outward from the center to gradually reveal buildings and street carts that inhabit Istiklal Avenue. As more of the street is revealed, the viewer hears sounds that would be heard on the avenue: tram bells, people speaking, and the music of street performers. Areas within the visual field are not fully formed, however: the street surface is incomplete, street cars lack all their wheels, and chunks are missing from the buildings on either side. The artist explained that these omissions were caused when the software did not have enough information from the original recorded sequences to complete the form. In Mama, the single shot moves outward from the initial frame until the viewer sees a table laden with a variety of dishes and, finally, the half-realized face of Abes’s mother. An omission of data similar to that in Istiklal, the viewers reacted to this incompleteness with surprise and curiosity. LAAS visitors expressed feeling nostalgic and expectant at the beginning of the video, as they mused on their own memories of family gatherings, but those feelings quickly turned to “unease” and a sense of “haunting” when confronted with the indistinct face of Abes’s mother. Similarly, Plane triggers a sense of limbo. It depicts the interior of a plane in flight but the unusual stillness inside the cabin contributes to a feeling of nervous anticipation. In all, Abes’s visualization of memory captured people’s attention while creating a space for reflection.  

After de-installation of the exhibition, I was able to fully reflect on my own LA Art Show adventure. I knew I would feel grateful for the opportunity to participate in such a large-scale event; however, I did not expect that the whole experience to be so cathartic. From my first encounter with Last Light and Memory Place on a laptop screen, through helping set up two large-scale installations, to witnessing audience reactions and hearing their responses, I found the experience to be healing. Although for the foreseeable future art shows will be held at a lower capacity than in previous years, it is comforting to know that the will and drive for art to be created and presented still endures. The public’s reception of Immersive Distancing at the LA Art Show stands as an example of how art can invite intellectual digging and introspection. 

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.

Click to view Last Light and Memory Place online.

For more information on the artists’ inspirations and reflections, read our previous blog post here.

Watch a DIVERSEartLA Talk featuring curator Chon A. Noriega and artists Carmen Argote and Zeynep Abes (May 18, 2021)

For more information on LAAS, visit: https://www.laartshow.com/