To design an exhibit in Miami University’s Cage Gallery that reflects the experiences of the participants in the Over-the-Rhine Residency Program and serves as a tool for agitational propaganda regarding race- and class-based issues.
The exhibit was an entirely collaborative design by Brittany Drapac and Michelle Kirby as part of a fourth year studio led by Tom Dutton and was open to the public from November 7-30, 2007. Assistance from: BJ Lohr and Justin Losego (graffiti); Drew Shreiner (wall construction); and Steve Clark (set-up, layout, and lighting).
At 40′ wide, 14′ deep and 14′ tall, the CAge Gallery has three walls and two sliding cage doors. Usually, architectural work is hung on the walls: posters, matted photographs, pin-ups, and models carefully staged in front of their respective 2D counterparts. People look, tilt their heads and try to look academic as the browse the gallery. Then they leave, and their lives continue the same as before. This wall is all about to change. The Over-the-Rhine Residency Program is anything but conventional, and we knew we needed to create a gallery experience that could engage the viewers and leave them with a comprehensive understanding of the transformative nature of the program. We decided that one of two things needed to happen to the walls: they either needed to not be used at all, or they needed to come alive in a way they never had before.
The hundreds of turn-of-the-century buildings throughout Over-the-Rhine have a layered history. There was never enough money to completely renovate them, so in many ways they have remained untouched by the twentieth century. Instead, they have been layered over: new decades, new tenants, new wallpaper. When I was working on the house on 13th street, I started tearing down wallpaper only to discover there were about seven other layers of different wallpaper behind it. I eventually gave up, deciding just to drywall over it. The wallpaper had become a part of the plaster, a part of the house, a part of the people who had lived there. It was like seeing the layers of history right in front of me, time passing through my hands.
Our initial idea was to cover every last square inch of wall in layers and layers and layers of wallpaper, and those who would normally be gallery “viewers” would tear pieces of the wallpaper down, whether gently or violently, and leave the remnants on the gallery floor. In its essence, wallpaper is simulacra. It is surface material, a veneer. And at the same time, it is a way in which we represent ourselves and a way in which we see other people. We see the outer layer. We see the layer that cannot help but reflect prejudice and assumption and portrayal by the media. What we forget is what we cannot see – what’s behind the surface. We forget that we are all made up of these layers and layers of wallpaper. And although every layer is different, they are the same in their depth. We have to tear down the walls and we have to do it on a huge scale. What is happening in Over-the-Rhine (gentrification, racism, classism, police-state) is happening everywhere, some places more quietly than others.
Are we living on the surface?
Over-the-Rhine pulled us apart, turned us inside out, let us see ourselves, be ourselves in ways we never could before;
Before the walls came down in layers and our perceptions, ignorance, stereotypes, obliviousness were crumpled on the floor.
Peel it. Tear it. Rip it. Throw it. Wear it. Kick it.
We are layered people.
We are layered communities.
We are layered architecture.
Are we living on the surface?
Final Design Layout
We decided not to use any of the gallery’s existing walls. The exhibit, like Over-the-Rhine was about the interplay between people within dynamic space. Our final design can be experienced in four parts:
graffiti boards: We covered five 8′ wide by 4′ tall perforated Masonite boards with graffiti on one side and 12″ wide by 40″ tall digitally collaged posters on the other. An issue of the Miami Student that had a feature on the exhibit included a photograph of the graffiti board that says “wake up, Miami” on it. There was one board that had a giant monster eating the word “OTR.” The monster symbolized the Cincinnati-sponsored corporation that is currently developing less-the-affordable housing in Over-the-Rhine while displacing current residents. The five boards were suspended throughout the space with coated-aircraft cable, guiding the viewer from the entrance to the video projection and “40 Garden” around through the poster series and finally out toward the wallpaper wall.
individual posters: There were 33 posters created, including a collection of photographs and journal entries, reflecting each participant’s experience in the program. The posters we crafted via Adobe Photoshop + Illustrator with the notion of blurring edges while retaining identities, as each person’s experience was simultaneously collective and unique. Each poster will be available to view on the residency program home page.
video footage: On the West side of the gallery, we projected a series of videos on a screen angled 45 degrees. The videos included footage from the People’s Movement in the early 1990s and interviews of current student-activists living in Over-the-Rhine. The projector equipment was stationed on gray wooden pedestals provided by the gallery which were clustered around one another. While the equipment sat on some pedestals, four glass 40 ounce liquor bottles sat on the others, a single fuscia flower placed in each, symbolizing the duality of struggle and strength; depression and hope; a resilient spirit that grows where you least expect it.
wallpaper wall: We maintained the ideo of “walls coming alive” without using the actual gallery walls. ON the East side, we built a mock wall, 14′ wide by 8′ tall on which we glued five layers of wallpaper, circa 1950-2007. The wallpaper was torn down throughout the length of the exhibit, left strewn on the floor (these histories realized…these truths, revealed).