(Interview edited and formatted by contributing arts editor Mike Krainak)
Last year my family and I saw the Frida Kahlo: Letters and Photographs exhibition at El Museo Latino in Omaha, Nebraska. That is when I met Allegra Hangen, the museum’s Education and Exhibitions Coordinator. We sat down at a craft table and she demonstrated for us how to make a miniature weaving with scrap yarn on cardboard. During our brief conversation at the table I learned that she is also an artist. Soon I looked into her work.
Allegra Hangen is a multidisciplinary artist whose work is highly influenced by her background in photography. Through the use of found footage and images from the archive, she addresses concepts around memory, family and their representations in mediated images, linking them to other issues including visual culture’s role in politics, the power of visibility, and language. Her video installations tend to include found and mass-produced materials that refer to repetition, fragmentation, the home, and the screen.
Allegra received her BFA in Photography from the Art Institute of Boston (now Lesley University Art and Design) in 2014 and her MFA in Visual Art from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City in 2019. She is currently a 2020 fellow at the Union for Contemporary Art in Omaha, NE. And this week, she is co-launching a new exhibit for Amplify Arts.
Allegra agreed to join me in discussing her work in a meaningful way. Here is our conversation:
Travis Apel: This situation that we are in with COVID-19 is difficult to make sense of when and where things will get back to the way we remember them. How has this pandemic changed or affected you?
Allegra Hangen: It’s affected me in so many ways, as I think it has for almost everyone in the world. It’s flipped around previous priorities in different areas of my life, it’s given me some really amazing alone time, it’s allowed me to completely convert my living room into my studio and to consider where—or into what—I want to pour my attention. (Unfortunately social media has proven to be a huge time and energy suck but I’m working on that, as I imagine many others are at this point, too). Of course it isn’t always so idyllic as I’m making it sound, but I have definitely been enjoying much of it.
I don’t think we’ll really get back to things the way we remember them and honestly I hope we don’t. I think all of this has made very visible the toxic and unsustainable structures which have been widely accepted as “normal” but that desperately need to be uprooted. Lately I’ve been thinking critically about how I can react to this on a personal level, how I can remove myself and my ways of thinking and being in the world from these oppressive structures, whether that be from under them or from perpetuating them. I think this can be a huge opportunity for us to really critically look at ourselves and our complacency toward so many things happening in and to this world, and to search for innovative ways to construct something new.
Travis: Yeah, I totally get your point about this being a critical time to reflect on how precarious this whole situation has been for way too long. This is a sobering moment when we think that it may eventually come to an end and the power brokers will try and pull us back. It’s happening now. But on a positive note, you got a show coming up. This week you and co-curator Alex Jacobsen will present a virtual exhibition in A Memory Held in You, sponsored by an Amplify Arts Generator Grant. How will that event look for viewers who will be keeping a safe distance?
Allegra: Yeah it will probably be a tough process coming out of this but the most important thing is to just take care of ourselves and our communities right now, I think. And yeah! Alex Jacobsen and I are opening (launching?) our exhibit A Memory Held in You both online as well as in the physical Generator Space. We’ll be utilizing FB, IG, and Amplify Art’s new virtual gallery space on their website to post and share things over the six weeks that the exhibit will be up.
The initial idea was to perform in the physical space with two dancers and an installation around which the audience could walk. But in light of the pandemic, we’ve had to really rethink “space” and how we share it. This is one of the reasons why we decided on utilizing various virtual sites to upload different aspects of the show: so the viewer has the ability to hop from platform to platform, constructing their own virtual, but still somehow spatial, experience of the installation. We’ll be uploading content every week on these platforms throughout the course of the show, and the first week of May we’ll kick off the exhibition with a livestream performance on FB/IG.
That being said, we’re still going to install in the gallery, but as a kind of “window display” that uses the whole space. People are encouraged to walk by the gallery on one of their daily walks (or bike or drive) to look through the window and get a glimpse of the videos and sounds that are playing in the locked space—held in the space.
Travis: That’s interesting how you and your group will provide new content every week and using many virtual platforms. It sounds like the exhibition will be “living,” which spans over a period of weeks, rather than the single moment in time like a reception that we’re used to attending.
Allegra: I love thinking of it as living! Thanks for that word. It will definitely be more immediate than a physical gallery exhibit at least, anyone can access it from their bed, probably on the same device they’re using to read this. I think moving forward many more things will be virtual, especially arts-related, and I’m so excited to see how platforms will be utilized, or new ones established, to accommodate for “real experiences” online.
Travis: Yeah, it will be new seeing how things move forward. At what age did you become interested in collecting archival footage for creating your content?
Allegra: It was when I learned about the technique of found footage in my experimental film class in undergrad. I was already attracted to archival images and my family’s VHS tapes, but learning about its history made me understand that it was a viable way to make art (whatever that means…) and not just another hoarding pattern of mine, ha! Maybe it all still comes from a hoarding tendency, but at least I can justify it better now under the concept of found footage. It actually really started with one specific tape that contains material from converted 16mm and 8mm films that one of my family members filmed roughly between the 1930s and late 1950s in Iowa and Nebraska. Someone compiled all of the film footage onto the VHS tape to show it at a family reunion many years ago, but when I found it again during college I was really impacted by it both personally and for formal and conceptual reasons. I still react very strongly to these images and continue to work with the tape.
Travis: Our condition of completing repetitive duties in the workforce often for years can bury past experiences into dormancy. What is it about your practice that can bring an audience to recall memories that were once forgotten? Why does that matter?
Allegra I don’t know about making anyone recall a forgotten memory, I can’t even do that for myself! But I tend to look at the political and cultural patterns that show up in this found footage: in the way it’s shot, what the person actually decided to film, and the various objects and behavioral patterns that appear in the scenes. This inherently makes the images seem familiar to a wide range of people in this country. Friends, professors, or other people who have watched these videos but who aren’t from the U.S. have mentioned a familiarity with these images too, although this is a very different sensation of familiarity because it’s a mediated one that comes from (and references back to) American cinema from Hollywood. There’s something really interesting, as well, in that kind of mediated memory, or a distanced familiarity with media messages…
I’m not sure if any of this matters in the grand scheme of things but it’s something that I’m still very much interested in and continue to go back to in my work, in terms of looking critically at my identity as an American from a Midwestern family, in terms of trying to understand my country’s propaganda, and looking at how national patterns become integrated in our own intimate ways of being. (I’m thinking more specifically here about things that came up in work that I made while in my MFA program at UNAM in Mexico).
Travis: Invitation to Ceremony was compelling to me. I am curious about the collaborative nature of the work. Did the performers create their choreography around Alex Jacobsen’s Baptism, or independent of it? Can you explain the process how these layers came together?
Allegra: Everything happened (and is still happening) really fluidly and naturally with this collaboration.Invitation to Ceremony isn’t necessarily a standalone video, I was always thinking of it as a documentation of/for a potential performance (which, if we were able to commune in a space, A Memory Held In Youwould have been that performance). The dancers, Gayle and Isabella, created all their own choreography but in a very intuitive and maybe even minimal or deconstructed way (I wonder if they would describe it that way…). They had a few repeating choreographed gestures based on some concepts we had talked about but they also played around with other techniques, responding to each other through movement. They improvised for a couple hours to a few different tracks of Alex’s and I just kept recording.
While editing the video, I was thinking about overlapping memories, the many memories held in a body or in a space, and recalling a memory through a bodily, physical gesture.
Travis: Your PIP editing of Invitation to Ceremony presents a balance between the simultaneity of double footage and context for place. What did you enjoy most about putting this project together?
Allegra: Yeah, I saw this as a pretty literal tool to talk about that idea of overlapping or simultaneous memories. I also saw it as a way to combine all the different elements that would be present in an installation: movement, sound, and found footage/video. Because as an installation they would all be experienced at the same time in a physical space, I wanted to collapse that space in the video as well.
I enjoyed really just being able to play around with this project and to create again after a year of many transitions, long-distance moves, job changes, etc. This project really jumpstarted a bunch of new ideas around different ways to make and show work, and it kind of kicked me back into the routine of making again.
Travis: Let’s switch gears a little and talk about your photography. Your black and white series titled, Vistais an interesting exploration with capturing a nude figure in a forest carrying a mirror. At first I was deceived by the mirror thinking the images were collaged. What was the intent of those photographs?
Allegra: I feel pretty distant from this particular project now, but I still see it as having marked the coming to light of lots of theoretical concepts and visual tendencies that I’m still working with now. What I was mainly concerned with at the time was questioning our trust in the photographic image and distorting human figures.
Deception was definitely a sensation I wanted to provoke with these. They’re manipulated images but the photos are not; I’m always drawn back to this fine line that exists between the falsity and the truth of photography (thinking of images used for propaganda, for example).
These are large format photos (4×5), so the details are pretty sharp when printed and the black borders of the film sheet (and the silver-gelatin print itself) try to reinforce the idea that this is a “straight” photograph on film, printed in the darkroom and without any post-production manipulation. This “photographic proof” confirms the truth of the photograph as an object, but the subject matter (the image) remains distorted. A lot of my work tends to play with the tension in the perception of images in a similar way.
Travis: I am really impressed by your Mirror + Light Studies. These works like your videos carry a consistent theme of play between opacity and transparency, and overlapping layers in space. I love how you set up an environment with variance with light sources, reflection and refraction on glass edges. The overlapping of projected light through fabrics and onto wood grain creates beautifully graphic images. Some of the photos play tricks on me with disorienting perspectives. Will you tell me about the evolution of these photographic studies?
Allegra: I took the majority of these photos in college when I started really getting into experimenting with projections and materials instead of just printed photographs. These materials are still main elements in my installations: mirrors, glass, wood, light, video projections, fog. At that point I was really inspired by the work of Sara VanDerBeek (and forever will be), and I remember one image of hers that utilized a yoga mat, a few other 3D elements, and light to create an abstract composition. At the time it really made me consider the formal elements of found objects and I started experimenting with building and shooting within my own “environments,” thinking a lot about fragmentation, abstraction, and flattening especially through the use of mirrors. These photographs were sort of by-products of other video projects I was developing, but just as it happens so many times, I ended up liking these studies more than the final videos of these environments.
Travis: Back to your videos for a moment. The experimental work, Paperdrip could be a suspense flick in five minutes. Do you see yourself making more collaborative works like this one in the near future?
Allegra: Haha! Thank you. This video is mainly about the sound; it was the first project where I really worked with recording and editing sound (it really needs to be mixed though, yikes). As a video it’s a pretty banal split-screen video of a paper towel and black ink but the sound really overwhelms and makes it feel suspenseful. I remember showing it at a pop up show in my school right after I made it and someone had to take the headphones off because it was too intense, but watching the images alone seemed somehow playful (at best, but more like boring and slow). Before making this piece, I was pretty naive to the power of sound.
I tend to err on the side of eerie with a lot of my videos and I gravitate toward deep and intense sounds, so something like this will definitely come out again in the near future—and I think a few of the more recent things I’ve been making already do exhibit this suspenseful or dark vibe, I don’t know. I kind of have to check in with myself and ask “Ok, is this just off-putting now?,” but at the same time I’m learning to embrace that and even lean into it.
Travis: I agree, sound can be so powerful. It can be as soothing as a lullaby, or harsh as a weapon. Anyway, I’ll be looking forward to your application of sound in new works.
Because your experimental videos focuses on memory I think that your use of archival footage playing on a loop and/or in reverse is an effective way to address memory retention. More than an art form, your videos have a relevant function. It simulates the rumination and rehearsals that occupy our minds at times. Given the profound disruption that we are still dealing with, have you imagined works that are specific to this moment and if so, will you elaborate?
Allegra: I’m definitely thinking about works specific to this moment. Alex and I are talking about that for a few of the videos that we’ll release during A Memory Held in You over the next few weeks. We’ve been talking about our devices and sort of rhetorically questioning whether they can be better at holding our memories (and tastes and interests and…) than we are. I’m also thinking about all the new possibilities (and limitations) that technology and social media are really offering us in this time—in so many aspects—but especially creatively. The computer has been my main tool and medium since I started working principally with video, but now I’m thinking about my phone and social media both as potential mediums for creation as well as tools for editing, sharing, and collaborating in a completely new way.
I think interacting in a solely mediated way (through our phones, computers, or whatever other device) is going to really change our perception of memory in the long run, in a similar way that our perception of time has already quickly begun to change (disintegrate?) while in quarantine. I’m not sure exactly how this will play out but there’s something beautiful about it being such a collective and virtual experience.
For more information about A Memory Held In You, visit https://www.amplifyarts.org/virtual-generator-space-1 A Memory Held In You: Opening Virtual Performance on Friday, May 8; 8-9pm. Also, check out Facebook Live: https://www.facebook.com/amplifyarts1/ and
Instagram Live: https://www.instagram.com/amplify_arts/.
To see more work of Allegra Hangen, check her out at allegrahangen.com, vimeo.com/allegrahangen, Instagram @allegrahangen or facebook.com/allegra.hangen. To see more of Alex Jacobsen’s work, go to www.alexjacobsen.com.