This year the New Media Artspace presents two solo exhibitions by Sarada Rauch and Kerry Downey that both address political consciousness as craftwork. In conjunction with Rauch’s exhibition, Downey interviews Rauch as the first part of a two-way dialogue between the artists on their works in relation to these and more ideas.
Kerry Downey: While your work reads to me as playful, intuitive and process-based, the way you make things also doubles as a reflection of the way we are all produced through power relations. There’s a feminist and queer radicality, even an anarchism in your work that’s really potent. In Topple, you are taking on and taking down racist and fascist public monuments (and I might add, years before the popularized public concern over Confederate monuments). Topple is so simple, so beautifully direct—an anti-monument, anti-anthem jingle for the revolution. It’s like: it’s not that hard people, let’s just take them down! Because you’ve handmade the monuments in miniature, this work reminds us, they’re just fragile, human-made objects. None of this history is stuck and yet history repeats. Can you talk about the connection between the macro and micro, between the dying star and the toppled monument, or between the hierarchical symbol of the monument and the scale of hand?
Sarada Rauch: My process is intuitive in some regards, but mostly at the beginning. My work begins with historical and scientific research which I digest through prose and poetry. I create snapshots of imagery from these words and string them together to create a narrative. Then I start constructing the visual.
I love shifting perspectives in my work. My miniature environments encompass large sculptures through digital collage, or my hand intrudes into the scale of the scene. The miniature environments I build become larger than what they are mimicking.
In general, I am interested in how power works. I conflate scale to shift perspective, and play with micro-viewing and macro-viewing. As an individual, independent actions are micro, but are part of a larger macro system. Small acts can lead to rebellion. Small individual microcosms can spark protest. It is almost tacky, the metaphor. Power systems being so huge, and one individual being so small, then I reverse it. An individual is powerful and the paradigm is small and malleable. The micro becomes macro.
KD: In your videos you construct a lot of spaces inside spaces. You can see from inside a living room window out into a strange turbulent landscape. Inside it’s cozy, outside it’s war and I have a hand in it remind me of Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home series, where two seemingly disparate worlds, the domestic and military spheres are shown in close proximity. As rooms open up into other rooms, you have us zooming in and out, so that our perspective is beingframed and reframed. You also embed video monitors inside altered found objects like picture frames. I never think what I’m watching is “real,” I always know it’s a construct. Yet I believe in the worlds you’re making, I’m invested in them and feel close to them—I’m a voyeur and participant! How do you conceive of the role of framing or constructing spaces/places for your audience?
SR: When making a video, I think of it as creating a universe that has its own scientific logic and aesthetics. I am really into facts-based world building like science fiction, speculative biology, and game art. I view science fiction as a new folklore, it imagines new narratives from ancient stories. Speculative Biology is similar, imagining different facts-based possibilities. In game art, you create the physical environment with its own set of rules. You also often create a whole narrative and character development, and the characters themselves. There are no limitations of reality.
The what if’s of these genres attract me. What if this line of evolution went this way instead? What if our society took this turn? The uncharted territories, without already worn paths, is a collective think tank. This type of imagination can be a powerful political action.
KD: Your work has an abundance of amazing retro influences, from early MTV to early sci-fi to video art pioneers like Joan Jonas. A thru-line in this is a willingness to make aspects of your process transparent, showing your hand, so-to-speak, creating this amazing DIY aesthetic and collage sensibility. Seeing evidence of your hand’s craftsmanship feels very inviting and engaging. It makes the work feel accessible and I find myself wondering how you made it, or feeling like, oh, I could make that! Can you talk a bit about the significance of your lo-fi, hand-spun techniques—their intentions and influences?
SR: I wish I could claim intention, and pretend this style was a choice from the beginning, butit’s not. The choice I made was choosing to be myself rather than fail at being something I was not. I tried really hard in some early years to be a cleaner, slicker, less emotional artist. And I justcould not do it. Once I admitted to myself that I would continue failing at being clean, slick and super-conceptual, I moved towards the way I was naturally. I embraced it as a choice and got into it.
In a digital world there is an ability to create more dimensions, and build something abstract. I am able to conflate scale, like inserting a large sculpture into a small landscape, or collaging a variety of perspectives into one plane. Yet the tactile, physical world shows my hand within the process of making. My handcraft is imperfect, and there is an emotional intelligence to things that are imperfect. My pieces acknowledge their own silliness and because of this they can also dabble with being genuine. They are winking at you while telling you something heartfelt.
As for references and influences, I had to choose to embrace myself with those as well. Growing up, the only shows I could watch on television were Star Trek, The Muppets and the PBS NewsHour. I had no connection to pop culture references. To join conversations with my peers, Ireplicated social cues and pop-culture references based on hearsay. My work is influenced by what I saw on the small screen as a child: ridiculously-fake set design mixed with current events,filtered through pop culture. I continue the practice of watching from a distance, and reenacting popular media as a way to understand the world I feel at odds with.
KD: In the realm of a dying star is classic Sarada Rauch. As a series of DIY music videos with “sides A & B” like cassette tapes, it brings together music, video, collage, sculpture, poetry – and through their karaoke renditions, performance. Like Tracy and the Plastics, your work genre-crosses in a way that puts these different mediums not only in direct conversation with each other, but creates an interdependency between them, so that being interdisciplinary is much more than just working in a lot of mediums. It feels to me that the music needs the sculpture, the sculpture needs the moving image, the video needs the language, etc. How do you think of these mediums communicating with one another?
SR: I don't think of the different mediums as separate entities. I feel like they are different arms of the same body. Like how a painter uses color, or how you express yourself differently when speaking different languages. But to answer your question, I grew up in a family of artists and professional musicians. Early on before I was 10, my designated space was visual art. But when I was turning 20, and just moved to New York, I became terribly disgusted by the commercial art world here. I decided to swear off of art and become a musician. I purchased a twisted up acoustic guitar, and taught myself how to play it. I wrote songs and went out performing. I started making my own jug-band style instruments from household objects, out of financial necessity. However, I am wired towards the visual language. And turns out, I am terrible at performing my music live. My songs started to integrate performance art, which migrated back into making video and film.
My musician arm influenced the sculptor and video arms by being an amateur, and those arms influenced the music through pattern. I am what musicians call an “untrained” musician, which isthe equivalent to how artists call some people “outsider” artists—both terms and concepts that make me roll my eyes and fake barf. Not being “trained” in music allowed me to write with emotional intelligence, because I didn’t know the rules. I was taught art since the moment I couldhold a pencil, with all the rules. I appreciate that knowledge, but it doesn’t allow me to be as freewith my intuitive decisions. I chose to teach myself all things music because of this. In music, at times I can be more raw or silly. I write songs and music visually, mapping out the notes and chords like a drawing. This creates songs that have brazen meter modulation, or weird chord structure–so I have been told. And finally, as the child of an activist, I was bred on direct action. Protest songs are driven by their content, they are accessible and urgent. I feel an urgency right now that I cannot satiate with my art alone. Words are needed.