Kaitlyn Schwalje

When I daydream about disaster, I see theater.

 I am the daughter of a safety engineer. When catastrophe strikes, my father enters the scene. When a factory worker’s hand is ground into a chicken processing machine or when someone slips down the stairs, he figures out why it happened and who was at fault. He is a professional expert witness: he testifies about everything from the lighting codes of stairwells to the material analysis of stress fractures in steel.

 As a result of being raised by my father, I received an education in disaster. Airplane crashes, assassination attempts, poisonings, and space shuttle malfunctions were all fodder for research. We could break down any cataclysmic event. The tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004, for example, was both a study in geophysics as well as risk management. And the explosion of nitrous oxide tankers in Florida that caused a nationwide shortage of whipped cream was an illustration of the intricate commodity chain of consumer goods. We looked at disasters not as isolated events but as products of human systems, believing that the way we fail and the way we react to failure speaks to a culture’s beliefs and behaviors.We were disaster anthropologists. This exercise of breaking down an event into its respective parts became a lens through which to better understand the world. 

 I am fascinated by the mechanisms that govern how everything works, from physical architectures to people and their behaviors. My work focuses on taking fleeting disastrous events, that exists mostly in popular memory, and representing them as objects to be stared at, questioned and studied. By giving visual representation to events, concepts and relationships historically expressed through language, my work aims to complicate the sensationalist narrative of disaster.