When George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020, his last moments recorded by a bystander on a camera phone, it was not an unusual event. Black people in the United States have been murdered with impunity by police for hundreds of years. What was extraordinary was simply that, due to the availability of digital media, the event was recorded and immediately disseminated so that millions could witness this banal act of evil. The video of his death, which seemed to condense the worldwide oppression of everyday people by the forces of authoritarian control into nine painful minutes, set off a wave of protests across the United States and around the world by people – many of color — who felt compelled to rise up and reject the oppressive structures imposed on them by unjustified power. Some demonstrated in the streets for democracy in the face of authoritarian violence, choking on tear gas. Others threw paint, scrawled words, or added dunce caps made from traffic cones and KKK hoods onto monuments to colonialism and white supremacy, demanding their removal.
Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport’s exhibition of new works entitled Uprising, at Catharine Clark Gallery through December 23, chronicles and responds to these protests against autocracy and exploitation present and past. By culling and reworking images from the internet, Oropallo has created still and animated works that memorialize these battles against tyranny. Rappaport’s music and soundscapes offer atmospheric context to and (sometimes ironic) commentary on the video pieces. Some of the works portray protestors directly, others the traces and results of protest.
In each of the five inkjet prints (Denver, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Portland, and Venezuela), we see a protestor from each of these locales wearing various kinds of masks, including one that’s highly stylized called the Guy Fawkes or Anonymous Mask, designed to cloak the identity of the wearer. Despite their geographical distance, there is a unity to their garb and stance. Wearing or carrying brightly colored objects, they could be preparing for a costume party — were they not engulfed by the toxic fumes of tear gas. The frames around the prints are made of yellow firehose, another common means of forcible crowd dispersal. Bold, attractive colors lure us in only to confront us with an experience of horror.
Rebellion takes this premise further, adding movement, sound, and an aleatory synchronization to a group of similar portraits. On five digital screens, still photographs of individual protestors, often clad in brilliant colors, appear, each for a period of seconds. However, since each screen shifts at a different pace, the combination of images on all five screens is constantly changing, never repeating. Rappaport notes that it would take a hundred years for any single combination to repeat. This produces the sense of a seemingly infinite collective of freedom fighters always ready to appear from within the cloud of tear gas. Tear gas – a substance banned in warfare yet routinely used by governments against their citizens – is the fundament of this piece. And though viewers do not (thankfully) experience the choking, burning sensation that tear gas victims describe, the addition to the still images of slowly swirling gas suggests something of the experience of being surrounded by toxic chemicals and struggling to breathe. In fact, the sound emanating from a speaker nearby is a recording of someone breathing through a gas mask. (In
the gallery, sound bleed from another video, sadly, diminishes the effect.) Standing before Rebellion, I was reminded not only of Chris Marker’s 1962 short science fiction film La Jetée, which similarly explores the uncanny line between still and moving image, but also of the (barely) futuristic television series Black Mirror, in which human consciousness can be trapped forever in inanimate objects. Like those imprisoned souls, Oropallo’s portraits cannot rest. However, the message here seems more hopeful. By transforming a millisecond of protest – doomed to be physically quashed seconds or minutes later – into a continuous swirling, breathing loop, Oropallo implies that the endless struggle for human rights continues.
Yet, protesting present injustices also requires challenging the inherited narratives of the past, which are usually presented to us as stories of glorious conquest (for the few) without the concurrent displacement and suffering (of the many). In Carousel, a large acrylic print on wood, we see a composite and overlapping image of myriad statues of uniformed men on horseback, splashed with paint and otherwise defaced and hanging from the pulleys that were used to remove them from their pedestals. These monuments to Confederate generals were, in response to sustained protest, finally removed from their plinths. In this work, these rainbow-spattered monuments appear to hang from the sky. Or rather, they appear part of an absurdist carousel, in which Confederate generals are transformed into impotent riders on horses going nowhere.
Uprising builds on the concept in Carousel but takes the form of a wide single-channel video loop displayed across three screens, with the two side screens angled forward to create a feeling of peripheral immersion. Here again, we see defaced Confederate statues and other monuments to oppression from around the world. These seem to dangle from the tops of the screens — from pulleys, appearing and reappearing at different points across the rounded panorama. The music evokes the calliope used in classic carousels interwoven with the snare drum of militarism. Rappaport notes that the repetitive melody is meant to evoke a sense of both play and menace; it is also – intentionally – an earworm that is difficult to extract.
Reckoning, a single-channel video on a single screen, is similar to Uprising in form and theme, but here the people in the defaced monuments, seated or standing rather than on horseback, pile one on top of another, layer after layer, their combination creating bizarre hybrid monument-creatures. The sense of continually emerging monstrosity is exacerbated by the soundtrack, which again incorporates the martial snare along with other unidentifiable synthesized sounds.
Portraits of Protest is composed of headshots of a diverse range of dictators and colonizers, from Franco to Columbus. In each acrylic print, the found image of a monumental face bears traces of protest paint, sometimes appearing like tears. As a painter, Oropallo’s interest is partly in the paint itself and, once she printed the found images, she lifted each print up to allow the ink to drip, adding to the transformation of each statue’s visage into a stained abstraction. She notes that she is not taking a particular stand on any of these figures but is, rather, documenting and aesthetically memorializing the acts of defacement that occurred. (I did wonder about the inclusion of Abraham Lincoln alongside King Leopold II, who was responsible for the murder of 10 million people in the Congo.
In the back room of the gallery, we find One World, an installation of 35 screens, each about the size of a postcard, arrayed in a grid and accompanied by a stereo soundtrack evoking the early heyday of jazz. The screens display an asynchronous succession of collaged and superimposed images of postcards and tourist photographs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, starting with its construction in 1968 and ending, inevitably, with September 11, 2001. Before its destruction, the World Trade Center, was largely regarded as a monument to global capitalism rather than a symbol of the nation and its citizens. Only after the 9/11 attacks was it transformed into a site of national mourning, the horrifying deaths of
innocent people that day becoming intertwined in our consciousness with the destruction of the buildings themselves. In One World, while the towers always remain at the center of each screen, the Statue of Liberty – a symbol whose meaning contrasts with that of the towers – appears to dance around them. This juxtaposition reminds us that the nostalgic, idealized image of the towers belies what they actually stood for and asks us to consider precisely what we are mourning when we mark September 11th every year.
Only through sustained efforts, sacrifices, and sometimes violence can monuments to power and exploitation be taken down. By placing images of protestors and the fruits of protest within the space of the gallery, Oropallo and Rappaport preserve these efforts, amplifying the calls for justice that power seeks to suffocate.
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Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport: “Uprising” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through December 23, 2021.
About the author:
Jaimie Baron is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Alberta and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. She is the author of The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History and Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. She is the director of the Festival of (In)appropriation and co-editor of Docalogue.