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Appel’s ability to mix two forms of photography that are seemingly at odds—-the fine print standards of

high portraiture with the committed advocacy of social documentary— yields imagery that defies tradi-

tional categories. She would remind each subject that their image would not just be a portrait of the person

they are, but a portrait of a movement. Exemplifying Nicolas Bourriaud’s call for a relational aesthetics,

the images collectively serve a further purpose, becoming a “system of intensive encounters . . . which

takes being-together as a central theme,” producing “empathy and sharing” in the exchange, which, in

turn, triggers other encounters, such as “the ‘encounter’ between beholder and picture,” and through

these many linkages what takes place is “the collective elaboration of meaning.” Bourriaud’s concept

of the “artwork as a social interstice” puts emphasis on human interactions and social context over the

personal crafting of a precious object in the private space of the artist’s studio, or the purchasing of art as

an elitist product in the commodity marketplace. This shift from the artwork as a reflection of one indi-

vidual’s vision to a participatory, shared encounter signals “a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural

and political goals introduced by modern art.” The utopian ideals of modernism are replaced by the

relational artist’s embrace of microtopias—what we can accomplish collectively through smaller gestures

in specific places, one-on-one and in communities, breaking through business as usual to model alterna-

tive possibilities. The “artwork as social interstice” mirrors the Occupiers’ upsurge of social exchanges

as an alternative to corporate takeover. Appel’s Occupy photographs, like the movement itself, are lived

examples of “learning to inhabit the world in a better way.”

“All form is a face looking at us,” wrote Serge Daney in a quote Bourriaud likes to cite. The first things

you notice when looking at Appel’s Occupy portraits are the eyes, which make connection with the cam-

era eye and, by linkage, with our gaze. The trace of the intimacy formed between the photographer and

the subject carries over, thus, to the encounter that now unfolds between viewer and picture. The form

of address is one of direct eye contact due to the challenging stares that turn the focus back on us. Even

when the figure is off-center in the composition, the gaze is what determines the trajectory. The visual

field, however, is not without its destabilizers. The squared picture format often includes diagonal sight

lines that cut through the field: tree trunks and makeshift tents often lean in skewed directions, blocking

any view to a far horizon. Institutional structures, intended to promote stability and power, are always

seen as partial and incomplete rather than whole in these pictures. The person or persons placed in front

of such settings again and again upset the balance in these power relations. Appel is particularly clever

at disrupting the various forms of staircases that are meant to grandly lead up to these imposing forms of

official architecture. Instead of allowing the steps to elevate, she shifts the perspective through a variety

of subtle, off-setting strategies: a sign held by Occupiers interrupts the geometric logic, or graffiti in the

form of a scrawled message or giant peace sign distorts the geometric regularity of the coded buildings,

leaving evidence of someone talking back to power. Sometimes what disrupts is just the posture of a por-

trait subject who occupies these sterile spaces in an all-too-human way: legs sprawled out on the steps,

backpacks and other personal baggage scattered here and there, a man and his dog both sitting slouched

in front of a city hall, but both also making eye contact with the viewer. To view these pictures is not just an

exercise in surveying what all they document. To view these pictures, one has to

occupy

them along with

the subjects portrayed. “All form”—from the compositional field to the details included in the frame; from

the background setting (usually blocking off any far distance) to the textures of grass, pavement, clothing,

skin and body hair so visceral and present; from the deepest, obscuring shadows to the most bleached-out

highlights—“is a face looking at us.” The question is are we really outside looking in, or was our recep-

tion of these images always critical to their collective make-up? In a very telling way, aren’t these images

centered in the all-too-human relational connection we form when exchanging looks with the Occupiers

portrayed? Regardless of your political stance, there is no extracting ourselves from the scene/seen; there

is no way to remain “other.” Our looking back is encrypted in the image.

If the pull of the gaze is a common thread, what is equally at work in these images is how uncommon they

are, disrupting any stereotype of what a “typical” Occupier is supposed to look like, dress like, or be like.