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Virtual fly on the wall 

Luna Galassini gets paid to eavesdrop on the private conversations of strangers. For nearly five years, she's worked as an independent contractor providing transcription services for clients, including prosecuting attorneys in Los Angeles. Galassini, who lives in Rochester, receives recordings -- primarily interrogations and jail phone calls -- transcribes them, and sends her transcriptions back.

Galassini is digitally collaging excerpts of these dialogues with found imagery to create a sort of psychogeography mapping project. Her project, "Monitored or Recorded," currently set up in Visual Studies Workshop's Project Space, seeks to form impressionistic connections between personal experience, the visual vernacular of the digital world, and the stories on which she eavesdrops on a daily basis.

click to enlarge A glitchy Google Maps image screen-captured by Galassini. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • A glitchy Google Maps image screen-captured by Galassini.

Galassini says she learns a lot about people's struggles through the conversations, each of which can result in transcriptions of more than 100 pages. "I've barely ever had a phone call that was about a crime, it's usually just people talking about their lives, so that's a really weird thing to eavesdrop on," she says.

"Even at this level of distance, it's incredibly difficult at times," she says. "Whether they're talking to detectives, or talking to their wives, you learn so much about someone's life and history. So many of the interrogations start with the family history, like, 'Where are your parents?' and they're dead or in jail. 'Where are your siblings?' and they're dead or in jail. It's really easy to see how these things are systemic. At a certain point, it got to me, and I wanted to figure out a way to give some voice to that."

Galassini begins with taking bits of conversation out of context -- from intimate dialogues between family members, and from more combative interrogations -- then digitally fuses those words or phrases with images that include Google Maps screen captures or stills from L.A. rebellion films that focus on race.

The associations between text and imagery are built organically and loosely. Having never been to L.A., Galassini has to Google things she's unfamiliar with, such as street names or local vernacular used by gangs, usually to check for correct spelling. She'll eventually find the information she's searching for, but these trips down unexpected online rabbit holes serve as launching points into random and unexpected territory. "All kinds of things will come up," she says.

click to enlarge Luna Galassini's work-in-progress project, "Monitored or Recorded" is hosted at Visual Studies Workshop's Project Space through February 19. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Luna Galassini's work-in-progress project, "Monitored or Recorded" is hosted at Visual Studies Workshop's Project Space through February 19.

Other screen captures result from looking at the different prisons that she's become familiar with through transcribing, and "walking around" Google Street View. "Pelican Bay is a prison that's way upstate in California where everyone wants to go, because it's like the 'nice' prison," she says. "It's basically surrounded on all sides by forests, and the ocean is 10 miles away." In looking at Galassini's Google captures of the vicinity, a certain tension between that wide open wilderness and the jail-cell dialogues emerges.

"I want the images to be interesting, but they're also kind of noise. The text is the point," Galassini says. The images will be "weirdly beautiful things coupled with this sad text. You can't really ignore it. In all of the collages I've done so far, the text is more emotional, it gets to you," she says.

Galassini decided to incorporate the text in ways that would allude to the aesthetic of the digital world. It's sometimes presented like subtitles on a movie still, in other cases, within social media message bubbles or in the drop-down menu of Google's search bar suggestions. "I'm trying to get them to a place that's a little bit impressionistic, but still gets across the idea of the browser, or the user interface that most of us are familiar with," she says.

click to enlarge Galassini pairs excerpts from her transcriptions with found imagery. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Galassini pairs excerpts from her transcriptions with found imagery.

"The point of this project is to get across this very weird but also intimate and alienating experience that I have with these transcripts," Galassini says. While working on a transcript and doing fact-checking research, she is virtually immersed in the experiences and environments of strangers. But she'll also take a break to check Facebook and her own world.

"Something I keep thinking about is: a couple of weeks ago when Lemmy died, that was the same night there was no indictment in the Tamir Rice case," she says. "I was texting with a friend about how 'black internet' was talking about Tamir Rice and 'white internet' is just talking about Lemmy. And that's sort of where the idea to make this a digital project rather than a photography project -- rather than going to L.A. to take pictures -- came from. It's this idea that what I deal with when I listen to this recordings and I transcribe them, even if there are distractions, it's not something that I can block out."

"Monitored or Recorded" doesn't seek to present a narrative from one specific transcript. "For me, this is about a broad, larger narrative," Galassini says. "There are specific stories that I think are really heartbreaking for specific reasons, but the project is not about those stories. It's about navigating L.A. from a distance, navigating a lifestyle from a distance."

It's also about the political issues of civil rights, poverty, race, and class, she says. "I think it would be hard for anyone to listen to the number of teenagers that I've listened to who are facing life sentences -- no matter what they've done. That's really difficult. The systemic nature of the problems become immediately clear when you hear not just family histories, but what jobs people work, how many kids they have, the daily struggles people go through. I tend to be pretty pragmatic, and I think I can be relatively empathetic for both sides, but the way that cops treat these kids when they come in is impossible to ignore. And I've transcribed things where 40- or 50-something guys immediately drop their pants, and the other voice says, 'Oh, you don't need to do that,' but they've been strip-searched so many times, they just want to get it over with. They don't even care anymore."

Galassini says she doesn't feel comfortable being overtly political about the project, but that she is trying to evoke an emotional response with the work. "I think the voices in the text speak for themselves better than I could by imposing a message on it," she says.

click to enlarge Excerpts from Galassini's transcriptions are fused with a Google Maps screen-capture of Pelican Bay. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Excerpts from Galassini's transcriptions are fused with a Google Maps screen-capture of Pelican Bay.

The project is "really far reaching and hard to distill, but what I'm trying to do is get across this really sad stuff that I deal with and that a lot of people deal with in a more distanced way by reading or watching the news," she says. "I just happen to have a direct line into it through the transcripts."

Galassini's goal is to have eight final images ready for her Friday night reception, which will be presented on wall-anchored, custom-made light boxes. Illuminated from behind, the super saturated digital collages, viewed in a darkened room, will simulate our familiar experience with the glowing screen.

See the work: First Friday, February 5, 6 to 9 p.m. at Visual Studies Workshop (31 Prince Street). Galassini will keep working on "Monitored or Recorded" in the VSW Project Space through February 19. An artist talk will be held Wednesday, February 10, at 6 p.m. For more information, visit

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