Beyond Muscle Memory: An Interview with Farrah Karapetian

Artist Farrah Karapetian’s oeuvre locates emotional weight in the physical making of her often politically rooted subject material. In the case of Muscle Memory, featured in our Fall 2015 issue, Karapetian’s focus, as indicated, is the muscle memory of U.S. Armed Forces veterans and their relationships to their weapons. With clear resin, the artist created three casts each of the veterans’ typical sidearm (P226 Sig Sauer) and rifle (H&K416), produced multiple photograms from those, and then orchestrated the veterans into military postures, where they would remain stock-still with their prop weapons while 1:1 scale images were rendered behind them.

In this interview, Lamar Dodd School of Art Galleries Director Katie Geha—who worked with Karapetian during her recent artist-in-residence stint at the Dodd—engages Karapetian in an in-depth discussion of the physical and philosophical practices that go into making her photograms.



Katie Geha: How do you choose the objects that you work with?

Farrah Karapetian: I don’t, or at least if I choose to work with an object, the identity and nature of that object are choices inherited primarily from the people or places that move me.

In the case of the body of work I call Accessory to Protest, the eight objects I worked with were listed on page four of a flyer distributed in Egypt before the protests that ostensibly brought down Hosni Mubarak in 2013. They were described as the accessories one might need in order to perform the act of protest, among them a “sweatshirt or leather jacket with a hood” that “helps shield your face from tear gas” and “spray paint so that if the authorities attack us, we can spray paint the visors of their helmets and the windshields of the armored trucks, blocking their vision and hindering their movement.” I was fascinated with this list and this document in general, which seemed like already a false artifact of the Arab Spring even as protests continued. How can one really instruct a populace in the art of civil disobedience, even with a checklist of accessories?

I remade the document itself as a photogram at life size so that it might be experienced more phenomenologically, text and all. A potent part of that process was remaking the objects—banal, every one of them—as clear sculptures to be used as negatives that would conduct light and therefore translate volume onto the photographic picture plane. Remaking the objects as negatives is a mimetic act and a first step of intentional encounter with the subject. It is also the first photographic act, insofar as the objects are remade according to the logic of light and truth. Photography is of course understood to be the province of truth, even when staged: what was staged was, in the end, actually there at some time. I disagree, though, that truth is the endgame of the photograph or that a photograph should be understood as so tightly tied to its referent. If a product of my process is a photogram of a sneaker, that photogram was made by placing a clear resin cast of a sneaker onto photographic paper and exposing that sneaker; that clear resin sneaker is a cast of a real American sneaker; that real sneaker is a guess at the kind of sneaker that is drawn on the flyer; that depiction on the flyer is a mass-produced print; the drawing in the mass-produced print was presumably made by a person; that drawing was motivated by the idea of a real sneaker—or even an actual one; and presumably, somewhere down that rabbit hole, an organizer of Egyptian protests did indeed wear a sneaker and find it helpful. So where in that sequence of representations is my photogram? Very far from the referent, and that distance refigures the notion of truth.

For each body of work I make, the sculptural negatives I use come from a similar place of election because of how they pertain to the body of the subject that interests me, whether it is the H&K 416 (rifle) and P226 Sig Sauer (sidearm) of the veterans I worked with in 2013 for my Muscle Memory project, or my father’s drum set, which I remade in skeletal steel and glass in 2015. These objects are all already like sculptures: elected and pastiched by their users to suit them, triggers for those users’ own muscle memories, and now triggers as well for me.

KG: So you chose these objects as indices of the person or persons who used them, but you seem to very much be invested in the process of re-presentation. You could just as easily photograph the sneaker, but instead you remake the sneaker (in effect creating a sculpture) to then create a photogram, which inherently displays the process of making. You often choose to depict a variety of banal objects that are clearly objects in the photogram, yet there is also a sense of transcendence in the photograms you produce—or, at the very least, a sense of transformation. The result of this remaking does not seem to be another banal thing. How do the process and banality relate to one another, or do they? How important is transcendence?

FK: I can promise process; I can’t promise transformation and transcendence, although they are what I am looking for in the work and what I hope you experience as a viewer. When I say that, I think I’m using the word “transcendence” in light of Kant rather than of some spiritual or romantic philosophy: maybe an artwork can play a role in the way we encounter and constitute objects; maybe it can help us see them as objects at all. It is difficult to see things and people and spaces and events when we interact with them every day, especially because of the multiplicity of stages upon which our politics play out. As 21st century citizens, we encounter the politics of self, family, workplace, city, nation-state, and globe every day, sometimes before we even leave the house. This is especially true because the documentary photograph, which used to be reserved for specific sites of viewership, comes at us through multiple devices that are always on our person. The influx can render each of us immune to complexity, gravity, and certainly any kind of sustained relationship to the subject.

So, what I do with a subject needs to surprise me; I need to have a chance to interact with it and let it evolve. Photographing a sneaker would be acquisitive, rather than participatory. In essence, I rejected documentary photography a long time ago, not because I don’t like it, but because it purports to be so truthful and is always not. I remember a photograph of my mother that I made as an undergraduate that everyone in my class, including my professor, Gregory Crewdson, loved. She was sitting at a restaurant near an open window. She is overweight, and I caught a moment at which her face communicated despondence. Outside the window, a young, thin couple walked by arm in arm. The narrative constructed for my classmates of loneliness and jealousy was utterly untrue of my mother’s actual condition, but true within the network of juxtapositions inside the photograph. I hated that. There are a million ways, as an artist, that I could have tried to address my resistance to that problem. I developed a process that is a-factual but that strives to be responsible to the logic of its source material.

I follow the lead of that source material, trying to adhere to its form, its scale, its posture, its positioning, and its palette, because each of these contributes to how the source material actually purports to function in the real world. This has translated not only into issues of scale and into the process of casting itself, which is quite photographic, but into the way I display my sculptural negatives in the gallery by oftentimes borrowing from the display conventions appropriate to the original source object. I showed the resin guns for Muscle Memory in a vitrine not unlike those I had just seen at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts’ armory, and I bought real cymbal and drum stands, and a real kick pedal, for my drum set. I think I even left the bar codes on the latter. The point of showing those negatives alongside the photograms is essentially a) to make the viewers more literate, to enable them to look back and forth from the picture to the thing and consider the processes through which the photograms were made, and b) to reinsert the objects into the world and test them against our instincts for reality. Do you want to play the drum set, even though it has no skins and even though its cymbals are made of glass? The objects have come out of a protracted period of alteration, but have also remained at their core what they are. I try not to influence them as much as to pay attention to them, and I trust such attention to them influences me as I let go of the objects’ identity and begin to improvise and riff with their shapes and shadows on paper.

It’s not always just with respect to objects that this happens, of course, unless images and memories are objects. For a few years leading up to the work I did on Accessory to Protest, I was working mainly from mediatic imagery. I would see a picture in the news and think, “I can do that. Photography can do that.” What I mean is that what was depicted in the news photograph could actually be reenacted by photographic processes, because of the way paper and light behave. So, for example, when a freeway in Northern California slid off its armature in 2007 because of a fire, I saw pictorial space sliding through real space, much as a large piece of photographic paper slides out of its chemical bath. I remade that scenario in a piece called Freeway Collapse. I had been thinking a lot about the difference between real space and depicted space, and this was a chance to test that boundary. I made work for the next few years with this difference in mind, which meant that a lot of what I made involved both an architectural structure and a picture, oftentimes combined so as to be comparable.

This process made me think about ways that pictures are actually part of the real landscape, and I began thinking about relief sculpture, such as exists in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. What kinds of images did they find important enough to put on public buildings, and how did the subjects of those relief sculptures become so naturally integrated into the shape of the architectural frames? When I saw an image of riot police in Kyrgyzstan being stoned by protesters in 2010, I thought, “Wow, their bodies are forming the kind of triangle that might have been on an ancient pediment.” I ordered riot shields and helmets off the Internet and asked friends to come and reenact the scenario. In this case and in that of the Freeway Collapse, then, I wasn’t making sculptural negatives, per se, nor focusing on an object; rather, I was focusing on my original encounter with a picture that then bore my elaborate process and became a new kind of photograph.

The endgame in each case is to know the thing better than I did before by getting into and then past the thing.

KG: It strikes me in particular that there is a kind of circular movement through an idea or an image or an impression, that often the start point is a photograph and the end point is a photogram (or a photogram placed in relationship to a sculptural negative or other object), and that there is certainly a photographic thread linking the movement. You often mention a “subject”: maybe I’m just confused, but what do you consider to be the subject? Real and depicted space? How figures might reconstitute images from memory or the historical record? Photography itself?

FK: Yes, there is definitely a circulation from a conventional notion of the photographic to another such notion, reimagined and remixed. What begins with an image—found online, in print, or in the memory of a person or institutional memory of a site—ends with an image or an image-object that is an artifact of artistic process rather than of political process. This doesn’t disavow any potential politics of the final product, but I think, just to be honest, once I’ve started working with a subject it becomes, for me, more about how to make the work than about an integrity to the original source. In 2009, I made a photogram based on a Z-Backscatter scan of a U-Haul with an illegal immigrant inside. At international borders, at least in America, at the time, these scanners were used to check for contraband and could indeed see inside an entire vehicle as they now see inside our bodies at airports. I made this photogram in response to the relationship between the photogram and the X-ray, and having made it doesn’t make me an authority on illegal immigration. Having made that work does, though, give me a familiarity with the image, allow me to spend time with that image and its components as I rework it with my hands and eyes, and then rework it with other people—fabricators, models. I told the model to just face me and look at me—not pretend really to be inside the truck; I wanted his address to be at the viewer of the final picture, and I wanted him to seem alone and awkward in that van, rather than as if he were engaged in some provocative narrative of escape. He and I and any helpers spend far more time reimagining the original source image than we would have had it remained a fleeting news item we saw as temporary consumers of information.

One of the challenging aspects of the proliferation of images online is that our concern for any one image tends to be fairly fleeting; I’m not talking about a sense of guilt or liberal responsibility, but about any kind of concern. We may pore over the Instagram accounts of people we want to stalk out of passion, but we spend time with a very large number of images rather than treasuring any one. My work allows me to get inside a part of one and wiggle around until I have a foothold and can go somewhere else with it.

My work also resists reproducibility, on purpose: a photogram is a unique (uneditioned), highly detailed print, and the scale of each one is pre-determined. Re-translating a photogram into a jpeg results in a loss of the potential of a viewer to experience scale along with the many other choices I have made. This resistance to reproducibility stands in pointed contrast to the nature of Instagram and jpegs in general. For instance, I was recently in Cuba, and this guy wanted to thank me with a gift toward the end of my stay there. He offered me a photograph of his baby. It was one of maybe five or six wallet size shots in a small plastic album with clear sleeves of the sort I might have used to collect prints in as a child to remember a birthday party or a class trip. These were clearly the only prints he had, and I refused the gift. Now, had he emailed me a jpeg, I would have felt no such concern for accepting it as a token of his friendship. The value differential there is interesting.

KG: Yes, it is . . . but I wonder if the photo held that much value to him, or if you were projecting because the photograph was a singular physical object rather than an image made up of data that proliferates widely. Or maybe because the man felt the value of the photo, and that was palpable to you, it was that much more important for you to accept it. I’m not suggesting you were wrong to refuse it, only to suggest that value can be really subjective or at the very least significantly based in the relative uniqueness of an object. (For instance, a painting sells for a whole lot more than a videotape.)

Anyway, again: what is the subject? You keep mentioning it but it still seems too vague to me.

FK: Struggle.

KG: Ha! Good answer. Recently I was on a trip and I stumbled upon a free screening of the first Jurassic Park movie. What I didn’t know then but I now understand. . . . it is a beautiful movie! And now I’ve been spending the better part of the night looking for a screenshot of the dinosaur lit by data from a computer. The image really struck me for an obvious reason: the “then” as imagined in the replica of the dinosaur already feels antiquated in comparison to the “now” of data—the film came out in 1993—and yet somehow the image is still prescient.


Is this what you mean by taking “struggle” as your subject? Is it the struggle to reimagine events? To invite live subjects, say for instance the veterans in Muscle Memory, to reenact a very real moment in their recent past?

FK: No, I don’t mean that. I was joking, in a way, and trying to encapsulate the last eighteen years of work as if it could possibly have one subject, and if it does, it is certainly not “war”, nor “protest” nor “abstraction” nor “figuration.” It is not the veteran or his gun or the photogram or me making the photogram. Subject is a medium as much as mediums are mediums. A person can become a subject around which one turns one’s feelings, and around which one turns one’s politics, and around which one develops new techniques and formal languages. The figurative work I make tends to come from the place of having identified a particular person whose struggle with a memory or a loss is evocative to me of my own feelings, even if I have never experienced what they have before. I usually leave the person behind during the process, while I work on negatives and smaller, more abstract prints. Even so, I am still turning their experience around as a metaphor for my own. I am still not saying, “I had a hard day,” or “I am so mad about authority figures in my life!”; instead, I am saying, “This yield sign is literally going to yield, sculpturally,” or “These riot cops are going to be stoned to surrender by the force of the people rising against them,” and meanwhile, I am also working on formal issues like, what if the sculptural apparatus supporting the photograph performed what the photograph is supposed to say (i.e. the yield sign literally, physically yields). So my subject is struggle because I struggle, daily, as a person, and so do you, and my subject is struggle because the process behind realizing anything can be a struggle, and also because events of both myopic and global scales always come to some kind of a head and are sometimes worth representing as such. Some artists take the opposite tack and try to represent the distance of contemporary life by making ironic work or work that reflects the distance; I want to smack distance and divested irony in the face and tell them to get out of my neighborhood. That’s what I mean by struggle. It’s who I am and how I am.

On another note, with respect to the idea of dinosaurs . . . sometimes I think nothing would actually happen if we didn’t imagine it wrong in the first place. I mean “imagining wrong” with respect to the disparity between what we imagine we will accomplish and what it turns out we’ve accomplished. This came up for me regarding your comment about the dinosaur’s face lit by the data of a computer screen. You mentioned a mix-up between “then” and “now” insofar as “now” can actually feel antiquated and “then“ can feel prescient if slightly off. In one sense, what we make or use now is always less advanced than what we imagined then, because of course it exists now, so what’s next? Before, it was always imminent—in fact imminence was its essential condition. We imagine overreaching, and then once we’ve reached, even if we achieve what we thought we would, it is missing the “over” part of the “reach,” because it has been realized, and so we must imagine a new “next.”

(Another aspect of this is that fiction often precedes reality; in fact, during the filming of the ’90s Jurassic Park, I think archaeologists discovered the remains of a real dinosaur that the filmmakers had invented—the Utahraptor, which in the movie is basically a really tall velociraptor. That’s just a funny and extreme example, though.)

Part of the way this manifests in representation is that there’s nothing really interesting about a future too far ahead of us to relate to our current needs; aliens aren’t interesting unless they require our resources, even, and they are never sympathetic characters unless they live among us like ET because they, unlike people who seem very much like us but may have slightly better tools, have an entirely different system of resources that we can’t imagine ourselves into. Aliens and dinosaurs aside, what I was relating that to is the very lived experience we all have of advancing to a next level of practice basically because we’re too silly to imagine we’re not already there anyway, in some fashion. For example, overreaching is as natural a part of growth as is a child triumphing over a boulder just to turn around a month later and realize it’s a little rock.

Abstraction—and the question of my subject—actually relates to this idea of the alien as well. You know, you can have an Ellsworth Kelly that is very much derivative of the shapes and colors of a pack of Marlboro Reds or you can have a completely non-objective painting, and both are about painting—the latter more ruthlessly so. Photography’s relationship to abstraction is usually understood as being more on the side of the human character in the futuristic sci-fi film: it is close enough to reality that we search for our experience in it. That’s why people always ask what a photograph is of, or why people always ask me what my exact relationship to my subjects is: even though I work with photograms, they still assume a one-to-one correspondence of a real world to the happenings of the picture plane.

When I started taking pictures as an undergrad, I used what was around me—my friends, and then elements of the landscape—to begin to understand what it was to make a picture photographically. What it was to me was (a.) a fascinating monitor of the way I saw, over time; and (b.) a way to bypass the problem of depiction en route to abstract umph. I had always drawn well, and I hadn’t known how to get over the hump of drawing well in order to actually find out what I was interested in, what subjects I would live with, how I would live with them, how the way I would live with them might change over time, and the significance of how I chose to live with them. Art, like writing, is not significant because of what it depicts; it is significant because of how it depicts. The “how” is the content of the work; not the “what.” When one is a child, learning to draw realistically, the focus seems very much on the “what”; it took photography to get me past that.

The way that changed was actually that I found I wasn’t making portraits of people or places; the subjects weren’t precisely interchangeable or disposable, but they were useful to me in ways that weren’t essential to who or what they were. The more I realized that, the more I narrowed down the ways they were useful, which was abstractly: in terms of lines, gestures, color, scale, and then more largely, poetic narratives, perception, and the nature of being, the nature of looking itself. I found, though, that no one could read a photograph in those terms because photographs were too alien to people’s training. By way of contrast, think of the way that even if you were not trained in painting, you can still read the way a painter pushed his or her brush by looking at the painting. The painter did something—an action verb—that a viewer understands because any viewer has pushed a pen around a paper, and the viewer’s hands implicitly grasp as parallel such choices with paint. These kinds of moves in photography—changing structures and conventions within the medium—are more opaque. It is just as possible when making a photograph to take its grammar or tools and use them otherwise than how they are conventionally used, but this happens so succinctly that the average—even often the very informed—viewer can’t read how it’s done. It is alien, and not in a sympathetic way.

By the time I eliminated cameras from my practice, my pictures had begun to look nothing but formal. There was no subject other than photography or myself, my own way of looking. This wasn’t satisfying either, because I was not trying to create a solipsistic world; if the significance of an artwork is in how it translates its subject to the world, in what kind of proposal that then makes about human encounter, I was being exclusive. When I began to photogram, I allowed the subject to appear again as itself, because finally I had a medium through which I thought people could follow traces of my process as clues. You can see pins photogrammed where the work was pinned to the wall during its exposure, which is a clue as to the one-to-one scale of the rest of the image. You can see scuffs where objects have literally abraded the paper during exposure; you can also see whites where they touched the paper, blocking all light, as opposed to other areas, which have color in a variety of shades depending upon, again, the physical relationship of the object to the paper. So finally, the work didn’t feel alien anymore to me; the final product related very much to my concerns, both immediate and those that evolve over the long-term of a project or within my practice in general—yes, the bodies and stories of people, places, and things around me, which can be the subject of the work—but the work didn’t end there as would a documentary photograph. It related also to the way I handled and processed those bodies and stories over time in my studio, and it related very immediately to the gestures I and they made in the darkroom at the moment of exposure, as well as the gestures the light and paper made generously in return.

So you can say my subject is photography; you can say my subject is process; you can say my subject is any one of the things my pictures has depicted. But all of those potential subjects are too easily dismissed; we understand what we mean by them already—even “process.” When I said my subject was struggle, I really meant it to apply to all of those things: yes, the things my pictures depict are usually people, places, or things that have gone through struggle and faced the question of surrender. (This applies to ice melting as much as riot cops being attacked.) Yes, artmaking or photography as a practice and my process in particular can parallel those processes of struggle. Yes, my life—and yours and everybody’s—is a constant push and pull of inaccurate longings for what we might do and what we actually do.

I suppose then that the real subject of the work is the position it takes, largely, on the act of beholding as 21st century citizens. How do we put pressure on the fissures of contemporary representation and contemporary life—its distancing mechanisms, its tendency to oversaturate? My answer is not mimetic and it is not dispassionate. I do not distance and I do not oversaturate, simply to communicate those conditions. Instead, I use the body as my guide, rendering the photograph physical, present, and unique.


Katie Geha is the director of the Dodd Galleries at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia. She is currently writing a novel on art and intimacy.