Philagrafika: Doing Time/Depth of Surface

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The spanish artists María Jesús González and Patricia Gómez have been busy. Their exhibition Doing Time | Depth of Surface, which will run from January 28 – March 17, 2012 at The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, is powerfully important collection of work, which makes clear the unique way print can raise the stakes when making work about memory, history, and place.

González and Gómez began collaborating in 2002 while they were completing their Fine Arts degrees in Valencia. In his final role as Artistic Director, JoséRoca invited them to complete a long term artist residency at the ruins of the Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia. From the Philagrafika description:

The artists, neither of whom  has exhibited previously in the U.S., have a collaborative practice grounded in printmaking; utilizing a modified version of a technique known as strappo, they work primarily to preserve the surfaces of buildings—the veritable “skin of architecture”—by detaching  a wall’s paint with glues and fabric and transferring that surface paint, in its entirety,  to a new canvas. In Philadelphia, they will work at the now abandoned Holmesburg Prison  before it is demolished, creating large-format “printings” of drawings, paintings, and graffiti  left by former inmates on the walls.

The artists’ prints are a physical archive of the prison cells—including paint, drawings and markings left by the inmates who lived there.

Holmesburg prison was built in 1896 following the widely replicated wheel and spoke plan designed by John Haviland for the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829. It was in use for nearly a century, finally closing its doors in 1995.

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This project grew to become much larger than the extraction of the singular room monoprints, growing to eventually include a great deal of photography (comprising almost all the photographs in this post), a surveillance video piece, a sound performance, and below is the wall installation created out of 150 smaller ‘skins’ sampling the graffiti from a host of cells.


 Follow the jump for many more images and an interview with the artists!

The following seven images provide a striking expository photo-essay of their process.

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Here you can see them applying the fabric being coated a glue that will be used to pull the room-sized monoprint.

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The toxic nature of much the building materials in the prison set-0ff a storm of red tape that almost completely stalled the whole project, in the end the artists had to dress like reactor core workers. I can only imagine what this must have been like in an un-airconditioned building during the warmer months.

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The finished print is laid out in the prison below. In it’s final installation the fabric is arranged in a curving over-lapping form on the floor, evacuative of a casually dropped article of clothing.

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I took the opportunity when meeting the artist’s at the opening reception to suggest a brief interview, and they were thankfully willing to comply. This was a more gracious gesture on their part than it might seem, you see english is their second language and to my shame (as my high school spanish teacher, Señora Dafeldecker can attest): Solo hablo un poquito de español. With that in mind, our interview is brief but I hope you will find their comments as generative as I do.

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The artists hard at work on the project.

Printeresting: How did you arrive at the final installation of the fabric print at Moore? By laying the fabric in a particular arrangement on the floor, you confront your audience in a way that creates many questions about history, memory, and art. 

González and Gómez: We had already installed other big prints in a similar way in the past. We like the way the rigid surfaces of walls, that once closed and defined an space, become something opened, soft and flexible, something that is able to be crumpled or folded and adopt different shapes, because in that way it reminds us much of a skin, it speaks about the skin of architecture and it is something that can be archived.

The skin of the architecture that was in contact with the lifes of the people who lived in, means that on wall’s surface is where the historical and vital information is contained, and this information is what we are interested in capturing.

By laying the fabric in that way, the work results much more enigmatic and better emphasize those ideas, more than installing the print flat extended on the floor or hanging on a wall, which result more literal.

This installation is also in relation with the last moment of the intervention process, the moment when the fabric is finally detached from the walls and falls like a corpse or shred on the floor.

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A former Holmesberg guard reading from an archived guard logbook, the recorded audio from this performance became an audio component of the Doing Time/Depth of Surface exhibition.

P: The story of the making of the piece is quite compelling. I was struck by all of the ‘red tape’ that prevented you from starting work on the project for two months after you arrived. Thankfully you were able to turn this set back into an opportunity to expand the piece in many ways. Still I think as an artist it must have been frustrating and scary to have to wait to begin the project. Would you mind saying a little bit about that process, and how you were able to do research and work while waiting to gain entrance.

 G&G: Yes, it was very frustating because this waiting process lasted months and during that time any attempt to prove that there would be no harm whatsoever either to us or to other people in the site due to our work and so that the legal concerns were disproportionate to the actual issues, were useless.

At one point we thought that there was no way we could carry on with the project as originally planned.

Nevertheless, during the time where we were banned from entering the prison, we researched about the site in libraries and archives and institutions such as the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the Library Company, the City Archives, Urban Archives, Samuel Paley Library, Temple University, Philadelphia Historical Commission at City Hall… We also did research at Eastern State Penitentiary, trying to get closer to the origins of the panoptic system which was the model that -with many variations in each case- was used in the other prisons where we worked before. This way the project expanded towards other types of information which gave more depth to the original project.

We also conceived a sound piece, an idea which came from our first visit to Holmesburg when we found the log books of the guards, who had to report in writing what had happened in their respective wards. Many other alternatives were discussed; some of them were actually carried out, in addition to the original print, for the current presentation at Moore College of Art and Design.

P: This is the third prison project you have worked on, are there other types of buildings you are interested in? Or if you prefer, what are you working on next?

 G&G: We didn’t lose interest in prisons, we have already worked in three and our interest has grown with every new project. More than notice the similarities between them we have learned more about their differences: their different history and stories, architecture and cities, different kind of abandonment…

Moreover, we have lived very different experiences in each case, and all that has been reflected in the outcoming work.

In Valencia we encountered an empty space, where the only thing that could tell something about history were the walls. In Palma de Mallorca we worked together with prisoners and in Holmesburg we had the opportunity to approach to guards and the official system.

So, if we had a new chance to work in another prison, we think that we would encounter new issues to deal with and it would be worth a project.

But it doesn’t means that we are thinking now of a prison for the next project. For us it is not necessary to work in a prison, the most important thing would be that the site is interesting in its history, as well as in its architectural characteristics or traces, and that it is worth capture them before disappearing.

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Here are some further shots of the installation of the smaller ‘skins’. I found this work to be quite striking. When looking closely at the catalog of imagery you cannot help but think about the lives spent in prison, when combined with the beautiful physicality of the prints the work as whole has a distinctly haunting quality that left me in a state of complete contradiction; a very real appreciation of beauty and a more than vague sense of complicity in the fate of those incarcerated.




 All photographs (with the exception of the installation shots of the smaller ‘skins’) are courtesy of the artists and Philagraphika.

We look forward with hope to seeing what Philagrafika may do next.


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