Stephanie Syjuco Talks Image Distortion

Conceptual artist reframes snapshots of history

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Syjuco began her presentation with a childhood photo of her and her mom. Photos by Josephine Joliff.

Over a decade ago, Oakland-based conceptual artist Stephanie Syjuco solicited hundreds of crocheters across the world to weave counterfeit designer handbags. Gucci means the same thing in every language — and her idea was to generate buzz about branding in the age of global trade and the web. 

“Teaching people how to crochet and talking through the project with them invariably became a kind of Trojan horse, in which we would talk about issues of black market economies, hierarchies of the fashion system [and] the gendered relationships of craft and making,” Syjuco said.

The crochet project was typical of her style of artwork, and it’s what she talked about in her April 9 lecture at the Digital Arts Research Center (DARC). Working in the mediums of sculpture, textiles, craft and photography, Syjuco’s pieces wrestle common objects — like outfits, books and patterned cloths — from their ordinary contexts to assign new meaning to them. Not only does this bring new ideas to the table, but it also centers conversations around seldom discussed topics. 

In her talk, “Total Fabrications: On the politics of imaging and representation,” she discussed the ways images become distorted as they get shared, copied and interpreted across international borders. 

“I’m interested in how images are trafficked and moved apart from the artist’s intention, or actually, anyone’s intention,” Syjuco said during her talk. “Representation cannot be controlled once out of a producer’s hands.”

The presentation was part of the Traction Art Talks, a bi-quarterly lecture series hosted by the UC Santa Cruz Institute of Arts and Sciences (IAS). Since fall 2017, Traction has attracted a slew of artists of international acclaim, including Aztec priest and performer Guillermo Gómez-Peña, choreographer Carolina Caycedo and conceptual artist Glenn Ligon. 

Syjuco talks about pieces made by various artists who recreate versions of well-known brand purses in their own style. 

Professor Rachel Nelson, curator and program manager of the IAS, said Syjuco’s work occupies space both in and outside the gallery. 

“One of the things that’s fascinating about her is that she’s interested in thinking about how to make visible the structures that we live in and the circumstances of our lives,” Nelson said. “Her art, and contemporary art in general, is particularly embedded into the world. It’s not content to just be hung on walls.” 

Most of it, at least. One of her latest works, “CITIZENS,” was a room-sized, multimedia spectacle that arranged portrait photographs of masked protesters, mangled banners with the slogan “Become Ungovernable” and a wall-mounted gray and white-checkered tapestry throughout the RYAN LEE Gallery in New York City.

The piece was conceived in the wake of the 2017 riots at UC Berkeley, where students and anti-fascist demonstrators protested against the invitation of right-wing speakers on campus. An assistant professor at UC Berkeley, Syjuco said she was mortified after news stories about the rallies portrayed left-wing groups as antagonists.

“I was interested in the loss of message coming from these protests,” Syjuco said during the talk. “I feel like no matter what your intentions are […] the media will take it and kind of spin it.” 

Though she’s now been featured across the globe, her exploration of image distortion had humbler beginnings. In 2006, Syjuco uploaded a photo of herself blowing air kisses to FreeImages.com, a royalty-free stock image website. Part experiment and part statement piece, her plan was to track the movement of the image throughout the internet.

As the web-weary of 2019 might predict, the otherwise innocuous image soon popped up in risqué locations that dating websites, websites peddling advice on dating Filipinx individuals and advertisements for Amsterdam massage parlors. 

“The projections put on this character were completely removed from whatever I could intend it to be,” Syjuco said.

Between then and now, Syjuco’s work has moved through a variety of spaces, ideas and modes. Her most recent solo installation, “Added Value,” organized bought-for-cheap books from the Prelinger Library into new genres, like “When Your Culture Becomes a Trend” and “Utopias.”

It’s the newest angle in her investigation of meaning defined by context.

‘“I’m turning away from these depictions of quote unquote ethnic types and the idea of looking at either Filipino Americans or the Philippines in order to look at how the colonial gaze has turned us into things,” Syjuco said during her talk, “I’m also looking at the history of America and the history and formation of whiteness in America.”