Incarceration, interrogation and power: Joanna Piotrowska and Formafantasma’s ‘Sub Rosa’

Incarceration, interrogation and power: Joanna Piotrowska and Formafantasma’s ‘Sub Rosa’

Now on view at Arch Athens, a collaborative project by photographer Joanna Piotrowska and design duo Formafantasma sees ethereal photography transformed into provocative objects inspired by interrogation-room architecture 

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

‘After a few days of exploring and photographing I made my way to Agdam and later Stepanakert, where I was accused of spying and subjected to interrogations by local military police. After the interrogations, I was released and told I should continue taking photographs. Disturbed by the experiences of interrogations and knowing my every move was followed, I decided to censor myself and focus my attention on what, it seemed to me, was the only safe subject in a place of military conflict – the omnipresent roses’

 Paris Tavitian

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 a variety of locations. Eager to bring this body of work to life, she invited the Italian design duo Formafantasma to collaborate on translating her complex experience into objects that explore power dynamics, fragility and violence. The result was ‘Sub Rosa’ (meaning something that operates in secret), which is on view at Arch Athens until 22 December 2022. 

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

‘A turning point was when we looked into how interrogation rooms are designed,’ explain Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma, who undertook rigorous research on incarceration architecture, investigating and recontextualising the materials commonly used in these settings, notably stainless steel, used as ‘anti-frame’ framing devices for Piotrowska’s comparatively delicate silver gelatine paper prints. 

 Paris Tavitian

The results are threatening, jarring, and turn the conventional functionality of a frame on its head; the roses feel imprisoned, not liberated. As Piotrowska explains, the interventions ‘somehow obstruct or destroy what it is intended to protect. The moments in which the stainless steel violates the image by piercing or obstructing is a reference to the deprivation of privacy and the act of self-censorship I experienced in Nagorno-Karabakh.’

As the Formafantasma duo emphasise, every element of conceiving ‘Sub Rosa’ was collaborative. ‘Joanna worked fully on the development of the metal components as much as we have been editing with her the photos or deciding what was working and not working spatially,’ they explain. ‘We related to the ideas of “Sub Rosa” because it also addresses how objects and architecture often participate in violence.’ §

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