Poetry and art from the archives of Big Brother

Kaia Sand and Garrick Imatani search surveillance reports to recreate the lives of anti-war activists


Before entering the Portland Archives and Records Center on the fifth floor of the PSU’s Student Recreation Center, I had to leave my purse in a locker, hand over my driver’s license, sign a form, and promise not to lick my fingers before touching anything, which is apparently a common unconscious gesture.

I sat down with poet Kaia Sand in a room facing an archivist who made sure we didn’t break any rules and tried to answer our questions about the documents in the archive. This Monday, ten other researchers were bent to their tasks.

The archivist rolled out Sand’s cart, and Sand showed me her artistic spur-of-the-past-seven-months: pictures, pamphlets, and surveillance reports made by the Portland police from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that are collectively known as “The Watcher Files.”

From these files, Sand and her collaborator, Garrick Imatani, have created a wide range of work—the project has many permutations—that include poems made from the documents and inscribed and printed on different mediums, four mailings of artwork inspired by the files to subscribers, a plinth to house their work, a website, and public lectures. Their work is currently in Houston, but will be back in Portland this summer.

Kaia Sand works on the "Watcher Files Project"/Judith Pulman

Kaia Sand works on the “Watcher Files Project”/Judith Pulman

The pages that make up these files are in no sense organized, coherent, complete, or without error. Archivist Mary Hansen explained how archives differ from libraries, which collect mass produced works even if only from a run of one hundred. Archives contain documents that are unique and not to be found elsewhere—that’s the reason for the level of security here.

Sand, a poet who teaches at PSU, and Imatani, a visual artist who teaches at Lewis & Clark, were awarded a Percent for Art grant—funded by the City of Portland and Multnomah County, administered by RACC, back in March 2013. This grant allowed them to collaborate in a residency at the Portland Archives so that they might bring a fresh lens to some of these documents. The grant was intended to increase public awareness of the archives, which are open to anyone.

The Watcher Files Project has many moving parts. For the poem “She Had Her Own Reason for Participating,” Sand imprinted copper cards with sentences from the documents that begin with “She” and include phrases about the women under surveillance taken from the files. This poem both highlights and collapses the differences in privilege among the activist women in the files. It’s very interesting, and there isn’t a hint of the ‘lyric I’ that poets so often use to bring home their point about how the audience should feel about the material. That leaves readers to draw their own emotional conclusions regarding the catalogue poem sprung from the copper cards that connect such sentences as “She emphasized what she considers a hoax and a ruse, that high levels of military spending are necessary to protect workers’ jobs” with “She’s just sorry other women haven’t shown more interest in automotive work.”

With each individual card placed in the file, a multiplicity of possible poems arises: You might consider each card as its own poem (since each card was crafted by Sand and represents one person in the archive) as well as reading the cards together in sequence (in which case you get a catalogue poem). The collection is a smart way to represent the individuals as well as the collective voices that it takes to build a political movement that the police wanted to track.




I asked Sand questions about what drives her process and her choices of materials.

I’ve always been motivated by the social and the political. For me, writing poetry seems necessarily social because of the material I use: language. All language is what everyone else is using and what everyone else has made. I just love that—every single word has been made by social usage and I feel like I’m in the middle of it, trying to gather it or trying to give it some sort of luster or significance. I’m a person who’s really attracted to language. It feels like poetry is all around me and I get to usher it into space.

Language has always been primary for me, as both my parents were journalists. It’s the place that I feel home. But I’ve always been interested in activating that space between the writer and the reader/audience. That’s part of what drives my interest in material works like the copper cards. I like to have language move beyond the mind, and sometimes I just need the abstraction to puff away a little bit so that I can have something to drop on my foot. I love to drop a poem on my foot so suddenly it feels like something.

Of course this isn’t Kaia Sand’s first run around the block with presenting poems in an experimental fashion. In 2008, she began a poetry project called “Remember to Wave” for which she took groups on poetry walks around the Expo Center to connect the space’s current use to its history as an internment camp in 1942 as well as with Vanport’s ignominious place in the history of race relations in Portland.

Also unfamiliar but quite interesting: To explain the collapse of the financial markets, she collaborated on a childrens’ book called “A Tale of Magicians Who Puffed Up Money that Lost its Puff” with Jules Boykoff and performed it with the magician and whistler, Mitch Hider.

Also rarely seen on the poetry scene: She wrote a poem about global warming on a piece of e-waste.

The concern that drives much of my work is a concern for the intimate unknown—where the lyric is a yearning for the other. I’m interested in a social yearning—a yearning towards the future. There are so many people that are coming into being that you could never possibly know but you still might find a way to care abundantly about them. I’ve always been really interested in how do we deal with the unknown, how we deal with uncertainty, how we act effectively towards an ambiguous future.

Looking at the Watcher Files is inspiring since in the best of cases these people acted out of a real concern for the future. These activists had to make some serious ethical wagers. It’s exciting to talk to some of these people who are now living in the future since they can talk about their ethical wagers and their life’s work from a different vantage point. It seems that few regretted their wagers.

Sand and Imatani have been involved in a ‘talk-back’ process with the documents and photos: Since many of the people in the files are still alive, Sand and Imatani have interviewed them and given them an opportunity to respond critically to the police records (apparently some of these activists seemed like more of a threat to the police than the activists could have dreamed). Sand and Imatani have also taken the opportunity to artistically interpret these responses.

Sand interviewed Lloyd Marbet, an activist well-documented in the files and a founder of the Pacific Green Party, about his involvement in limiting the damage of nuclear energy, including his fight against the Trojan power plant. The poem she sculpted from these interviews functions as his response to the archival materials.

I became really interested in the weight of the phrases in Lloyd’s speech. My process began by transcribing the interviews by hand and then using watercolors to paint his language. The reason I did this was that I was trying to find an initial form since I was going to have to be selective about the phrases I used. When I watercolored, there was a kind of cascading effect from phrase to phrase so I was able to discover seven stories that formed the poem. There’s a way with storytelling that one thing just starts to flow into another so that you can find the parts. I was really appreciated his language so I repeated the phrases that I particularly liked to make a sort of chorus effect. For me, all experiences of language are very physical.

I ended up titling the poem “So he raised his hand,” based on Lloyd’s description of raising his hand when no one else did. He was sitting in a state licensing hearing for a proposed nuclear plant in Boardman, and when the hearings officer asked whether anyone would like to intervene, he looked around and saw that no one was raising their hand, so he did. He stepped up. And that’s a theme I’ve heard from some other activists, that sense of stepping up and taking action because it just needed to be done. What I’ve learned from this project is that the way to cause change is to doggedly show up and to keep trying and keep trying. The least I can do is try to visualize all the ways these efforts added up.

The first page of “So He Raised His Hand”/printed by Inge Bruggeman

The first page of “So He Raised His Hand”/printed by Inge Bruggeman

Garrick Imatani is performing a similar talk-back process with the photos and images contained in the files. Aside from the public lectures given in the fall, Sand and Imatani have work as part of the Antena exhibition at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston.

The Watcher Files Project is experimental, but nothing that a middle-schooler couldn’t grok. Finding poetry that is simultaneously accessible, avant garde, and deeply relevant to our times often seems like a hunt for Brigadoon, but The Watcher Files proves that it’s not.

Much of the artwork related to the project will reside in Texas until May, but you can plan to hear Sand and Imatani give an artist talk on March 23 at Grupo de ‘08 Salon, or subscribe to Looseleaf Services and receive a sculpted limited edition binder four mailings of poetry, essays, artwork, and documents inspired by the files.

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