Friday, October 31, 2008

Response to Events

Kegan Refalo

Invisible Inc.

The gallery exhibition was remarked by attendees as being haunting and eye-opening. The gallery was filled with a mob of people weaving through the clothed mannequins suspended from the ceiling, which brought to life the photographic narratives on the walls. Invisible Inc. was the final presentation of a collaborative project between Will Connelly and myself. Connelly was the eye behind the camera and I was the hand behind the stitches. We came together to reveal the underlying meanings of fashion. Fashion is more than a superficial decoration of the body according to media and trends. Fashioning one’s visual presentation is a semiotic charged practice that people engage in everyday without awareness of their participation in a larger social system. The everyday rituals of dress are embedded with the social and cultural norms of a person’s environment; the choices of an individual situate her/him/hir in racial, gendered, class and subculture appositional communities. The semiotic meanings of fashion were explored and communicated in this exhibition, with specific emphasis on gender and class.

The show was made up of three separate series. The first one was “Zewi Ze’s,” which focuses on gender identity. The setting is an expansive open field with a sapling with hollowed out eggs hanging from it. The models interact with each other, the tree and the grassy landscape. The eight photograph series is accompanied by a written narrative describing the journey of the two models to find a social space free from the constraints of the binary sex-gender system. Both of the models identify as genderqueer, which is a gender identity under the umbrella of transgender, where the individual identifies as both a man and a women, neither a man nor a women or the spaces in between genders. The title of this series “Zewi Ze’s” use ze a gender-neutral pronoun, sometimes preferred by genderqueer people. The models were each wearing a suit. One of the suits was brown, felted wool, tailored in a classical Italian style accompanied with brown, straight-leg cords with contrasting pocket details. This outfit is specifically gender neutral; the body inside the garment adds the gender or in the case of this a genderqueer model maintains the gender ambiguous neutrality. The other suit in this series was a navy, wool, jacket with brown and cream plaid silk, piecing and piping accompanied with brown, herringbone pants. This suit is made from elements of 16th century, Japanese armor with a Dior influenced silhouette. This suit is a deliberate amalgamation of a traditional masculine garment with a feminine silhouette and flamboyant design elements.

The second series was called “Formal Service.” In this series of five photographs, the models are enacting the ritual of eating a meal a formal meal. The setting is a dark and eerie room lit with candles; the meal critiques fine dinning by serving the guests canaries, mealworms and crickets elaborately arranged on the plates. The models uphold social dinning norms, but the setting turns the ritual in its head. The garments in this series work to further the critique of formality, because neither model is wearing a shirt. Instead both have formal wear tattoos on their torsos that use the characteristic lines and forms of a tux shirt, a bow tie, suspenders and a neck tie to communicate the social significance of these garments without their textile presence. The tattoos were handmade temporaries; I made them using a modified lithography process on moisture release paper. The models were also wearing custom made, wool, black and gray, dress slacks with top stitching details. The slacks acted as accompanying pieces to the formal wear tattoos.

The third series was titled, “White Collar Exposure.” In this series of five photographs, the models are attending a cocktail party. The setting is a dimly lit room, which acts only as a neutral backdrop for the glowing martinis. The models are wearing custom altered suits that have been cut away to expose their tattoos. The body art is original and personally significant to the individual models. The models are also wearing white gloves and theater masks. The models interact as a group, in pairs and individually posed to reveal their body art. The masks act as a reminder that professionals must hide their full identity to be successful in the white-collar job market, while the gloves take a symbol of formality to also represent the professional distance maintained in the workforce. People that see each other everyday are never come in contact with one another; they are stranger’s to one another, covered and confined by their suits. This series works to reclaim the personhood of workers. The suit becomes the frame for the body art, a visual signifier of the individual’s identity. The suit becomes a window to the layers of the person’s individuality instead of the defining caricature of her/his/hir uniformity.

The tile of the show, Invisible Inc., has a lot to unpack. The word “Invisible” is in reference to the layers of meaning implicit in fashion that are over looked. It highlights specific themes in different series. In “Zewi Ze’s” it represented the invisibility of transgender people as a minority population that lives as second-class citizens without protection against discrimination or violence. It highlights the invisibility of the gender queer identity even within the transgender communities because it is outside of the binary sex-gender system, and lastly it acknowledges the lack of fashion that caters to transitory bodies and shifting identities. In “Formal Service” it reveals the how the fabric of a garment is rendered irrelevant when specific class-charged signifiers are employed. The models did not need fabric on their torsos because the lines were enough to communicate the formal attire and the class status signification. In “White Collar Exposure,” the invisibility of white-collar professionals, who often have body art under their suits and are forced to keep it hidden, is addressed. Also the loss of respect for body modification by majority culture; the loss of an awareness of the tribal roots of body modification, where the markings on the body were a social symbol of class status equivalent to the modern suit now used to obscure it. The use of “Inc.” communicated two main concepts. The simple association with tattoo and body markings, and the influence of institutionalized social norms that are ingenerated in our lives yet go unnoticed. The power dynamics of othering minority populations and subcultures and then producing a consumer culture that denies their existence. When a person attempts to purchase clothes for their body and their manner of embodiment and there is no available garment it is a form of social erasure and discrimination. Invisible Inc. was a project of putting the people back into the garments and consequentially discussing how personhood is simultaneously enabled and made invisible by the fashion system.

This exhibition was my first attempt to visually articulate the ideas and critiques I have concerning the fashion system, and to combat the lack of awareness our everyday participation in this system. Previous attempts to orally articulate the ideas in my head were often lost in translation. Often my audience was at sea level and I was speaking from a mountainous altitude based on my specialized studies and life experiences. Without common ground nothing was communicated. I was pleased to find that the exhibition enabled common ground to be established. The images and garments communicated complex ideas in an easily digestible form, thus when people came to me to ask questions or discuss a concept communication was possible and both participants moved forward in common understandings. This exhibition was not only a valuable lesson on collaboration and problem solving, but also a successful integration of two mediums, two peoples visions and complex theory with visual arts.

Republican National Convention Protesters Speak Out

The presentation by the students and community members about their experiences at the Republican National Convention was overwhelming. The abstract knowledge that somewhere in America cops are brutalizing American citizens and abusing their power is very different from peers and close friends detailing these abuses. The RNC was a politically monumental case of government sanction violence against American citizens. The numbers of riot cops, the pre-convention raids, the brutality of their actions and the charges filled against the protestors, set new precedence, especially because it was the first time the patriot act was used against American citizens. Many protestors were arrested under the charge of conspiracy: conspiracy to incite a riot, conspiracy to resist arrest, and conspiracy to commit terrorism. These charges were trumping up disorderly conduct arrests to felony offences, which enabled longer jail holding, higher bail and more police license for abuse. Americans are currently on trial as conspiring terrorist for organizing demonstrations and direct actions to voice their criticism of the government. This is a scary reality.

One point that struck me as particularly interesting was the fact that possessing a handkerchief soaked in lemon or line juice could inspire a conspiracy to riot charge and arrest. Twelve square inches of citric infused fabric became contraband because of its social significance. Lemon and line juice help ease the painful burning of mace and pepper spray, common weapons used against protestors, so prepared activists will soak their bandanas in the juice as a precaution. Handkerchiefs, also known as bandanas, have been adopted many activists because they are a utilitarian accessory that can act as a face mask, eye protection, bandage, snot rag, hair tie and head covering. The bandana, an American symbol of the working class, has been made into criminalizing contraband. Why? At what point is it necessary to pre-soak you bandana because police spraying the crowds is a given and sanction response to citizens taking their critiques to the streets. At what point is the cycle fulfilling its self. We would never fault a backpacker for being prepared for the worst-case scenario and yet it is criminal for a citizen. The Twin Cities prepared for the worst with record numbers of riot cops and funding new tactical equipment to prevent citizens from interacting with elected officials. Activists, anarchists and enraged citizens are not the kind of people worthy to talk with the body of people that governs them. And in recent days not even our veterans of the Iraq war.

Interestingly enough, during the election campaigning of the 2004 election, activists did find themselves granted access to political representative. Groups of activists dressed in business suits and had professionally printed signs and literature, which was mocking the candidates and revealing their corruption in subtle clever ways. These groups were able to have presence on the streets and hand literature to a typically unreachable demographic. The groups employed garments and social signs of class status to meet their aim. Police used social stigmas and stereotypes to legitimize their actions. Both instances are interesting examples of how the social significance of garments directly affects political resistance, awareness and direct action tactics, and the safety of the participants.

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