Joanna Piotrowska and Formafantasma explore power dynamics

Incarceration, interrogation and power: “Sub Rosa” by Joanna Piotrowska and Formafantasma

Presented at Arch Athens, a collaborative project by photographer Joanna Piotrowska and design duo Formafantasma sees ethereal photography transformed into provocative objects inspired by the architecture of interrogation rooms

The story of “Sub Rosa” began in 2015, when Polish photographer Joanna Piotrowska traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As she described it:

“After a few days of exploration and photography, I traveled to Agdam and later to Stepanakert, where I was accused of espionage and subjected to interrogation by the local military police. After the interrogations, I was released and told that I should continue taking photos. Disturbed by the experiences of interrogations and knowing that my every move was being followed, I decided to censor myself and focus my attention on what I felt was the only safe subject in a place of military conflict – the ubiquitous roses.

Despite Piotrowska’s traumatic experience in Stepanakert, she continually returned to roses as a subject in her work, and by April 2020 had amassed hundreds of photographs taken in various locations. Eager to bring this body of work to life, she invited Italian design duo Formafantasma to collaborate to translate her complex experience into objects that explore the dynamics of power, fragility and violence. The result was “Sub Rosa” (meaning something that works in secret), which is viewable in Arch Athens until December 22, 2022.

The starting point of the collaborative project was the interrogation room; its ambiguous, characterless, oppressive qualities. “My memory of the Nagorno-Karabakh interrogation room contained an interesting dichotomy – it was a space that was both unfamiliar and ordinary,” says Piotrowska.

“We experienced a turning point when we looked at the design of interrogation rooms,” explain Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma, who have undertaken rigorous research on the architecture of incarceration, studying and recontextualizing the materials commonly used in these contexts, notably stainless steel, used as “anti-frame” framing devices for Piotrowska’s relatively delicate gelatin silver paper prints.

The results are menacing, jarring, and subvert a frame’s conventional functionality; the roses feel imprisoned, not liberated. As Piotrowska explains, interventions “obstruct or destroy in one way or another what they are supposed to protect. The moments when the stainless steel violates the image by piercing or obstructing are a reference to the deprivation of privacy and the act of self-censorship that I experienced in Nagorno-Karabakh.

As the duo Formafantasma point out, every element of the design of ‘Sub Rosa’ was collaborative. “Joanna worked entirely on the development of the metal components as much as we edited the photos with her or decided what worked and didn’t work in the space,” they explain. “We bonded with the ideas of ‘Sub Rosa’ because it also addresses how objects and architecture often participate in violence.” §

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