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Reimagining the past in Portland’s city archives

July 07, 2014

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Garrick Imatani, professor of art and studio head of foundations at Lewis & Clark, has been receiving recognition for his collaboration with Kaia Sand, local poet and professor at Portland State University, on a project commissioned by the Regional Arts & Culture Council.

Combining artistic interpretation with archival research, this project takes shape in the form of a residency at the City of Portland Archives and Records Center. Their work is centered on an in-depth study of a collection of documents nicknamed The Watcher Files.

The documents are salvaged police surveillance reports from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, which describe the activities of more than 300 different activist organizations in Portland. Using online and print publications, exhibitions, and performances, Imatani and Sand offer a multi-layered remapping of Portland’s public history.

Here, Garrick discusses his own approach to the project, and the relevance of the project to understanding Portland today.

How did you get interested in this kind of work originally?

I was really interested in the presence and history of the Black Panther Party in Portland. They used to operate a health clinic on North Russell Street, between MLK and Williams, that is now a vacant lot. I started to think about how I might revisualize or reconstitute it using a variety of archival photographs and records.

How do you see yourself as someone who is working in both the field of history and art?

I have a friend, another artist, Ariana Jacob, who talks about interdisciplinarity [by saying] that we’re all beholden to our own disciplines. For me as an artist, this means that I don’t necessarily have to cite everything. Not that this means I will go and play fast and loose with history—the point is that, because I’m not a historian, I don’t necessarily need to footnote everything that I’m looking at. I am free to make leaps of associative and symbolic thought between textual and visual information, and I can use a lot of materials and mediums to register connections that would be too difficult to do through language alone.

Can you speak to the public nature of the project?

The public art fund allows us to conduct this research residency, [in which] all of the work we do will ultimately become a part of the public collection. The residency itself is part of the public art project. The website is an extension, the book subscriptions, the exhibitions—all of it becomes portions of a whole. I like the idea of access, with works serving different purposes in the means of experiencing the objects. If I’m putting something online, I’m not necessarily emphasizing the materiality of these objects. However, you can go to an exhibition and see objects given to us by one of the people we’ve been working with, Lloyd Marbet, who was one of activists who was surveilled. You can go see a denim suit that was sewn by a friend of his for when he started to do these protests and become a self-anointed lawyer. He’s taking on PGE and he’s a self-trained lawyer, wearing his friend’s homemade denim suit with floral lining, and it’s kind of an amazing object. It becomes not only historical object or a personal memento, but also something to contemplate in the scope of this project. That can’t really be represented online.

Kaia Sand focuses her work on gender, and the role of women in the organizations that were surveilled. Can you speak to your particular area of interest within the project?

I love history; all my work in the past few years has dealt with mining stories. In my previous work in the archives, I came across photographs that were doctored or staged. Coming out of an experience of performance art, I began to look at them as a kind of performance rather than strictly functioning as historical records. Now, going back into the archives and looking at these documents, they become this very one-sided history, my ability to see that helps to fill in what’s missing. This project entailed looking at not just the City of Portland Archives, but at multiple different archive files to find photographs of the Black Panthers’ clinic. Some of those photographs can be from police surveillance, because obviously they were a group that was under heavy surveillance. But it also dovetails with a lot of other things such as public utilities, commissioners doing reports to look at areas of blight or re-development, or Emanuel Hospital’s own documentation of the area as part of their expansion plan. I got really interested in the idea of taking photographs from all of these different sources, and digitally collaging them and reconstituting the structure of the building from these perspectives. One can begin to see a reforming of this building, but only through the filters of all of these different agencies, and bureaucracies that happened to photograph it at the time.

What has it been like to be working with this history that is still very much alive?

People are surprised and sometimes afraid to be associated with this [movement]. They do fear that their livelihood or their jobs could be threatened if they’re associated with collectivist organizations, activist organizations. I would also say that something can be live, and something can be relevant. There are many ways in which you can make obvious comparisons, such as spying and surveillance, but you can talk about these files in terms of relevance to things happening on the ground, to continued gentrification in North Portland. The history has never gone away, and in that way it remains tied to the present.

The Watcher Files Project is an ongoing and in-progress project. For more information, please visit the project’s website at where you will also find links to the subscription for their serial publication on the project as well as a list of related and upcoming events.