This Internal Spiraling of Thoughts

This Internal Spiraling of Thoughts: A conversation between Sarah Seager and Cody Trepte, 2012

Cody: I wanted to start by talking about Conceptualism and how you see that in your own practice, both historically and in the present.

Sarah: I think that I’ve always been reluctant to say that I’m part of any kind of discourse. There are things that I love within Conceptualism which has really altered the way that I make work. But, I think for me, I never particularly belonged so much within Conceptualism because I’m much more of an organic thinker. I’m always confused by what I’m doing and I always think Conceptual artists have a very focused understanding and directed practice. Which is why maybe I fall on the edges of that and I think where I play with Conceptualism is with language and the use of language, but again, the way that I use language is more from my unconscious. Language creates all sorts of personal associations as well as cultural associations and so on, which circle back again to the personal reading. How a word sounds and how it feels has very much to do with personal associations with that word and my life, or anyone’s for that matter. The unconscious associations and word play that exists within my work, within images and objects come from a place which is not readily known within me. I intentionally allow for room not to know what’s going to happen in the work. That, I think, is what is most important for me. If I am allowed to enter the work through a means that is not entirely transparent and I must stumble through it and come to some place where I hope it has enough going on, both with what it might say and what I see before me, and also the possibilities of what might potentially be said, or seen, I feel that I am really working. I do love room for multiple readings that are also very specifically contained, meaning that I’ve figured out all the ways my work could be seen, and also all the ways I can’t ever anticipate, and if I feel there is enough room for all without chaos, I am happy.

It may seem controlling, but it’s not actually because if I can distill down what messages I can control, I can get closer to a reception which resonates within a narrower sphere, but conversely also always allows for what I couldn’t possibly imagine, giving away to the openness and excitement of interaction with an audience which is a mystery and has an imagination and history which is magnificently obscured from my practice. So I think that’s that part of the practice where I really love the process of what I understand as Conceptualism, or where I think that I understand, maybe what that is. I think that is what is so beautiful about art, that, no matter what lens one looks though, art comes through a person who has so many personal and professional layers of experience, that work can’t really ever be stuck or encapsulated into a definitive movement or meaning.

Cody: Sure, well you’ve definitely been labeled a Conceptualist with a capitol C, right?

Sarah: Yes and no. Where or how did you end up intersecting with Conceptualism in your work?

Cody: Oddly, it was sort of how I came to art making. Not following Conceptualism necessarily, I didn’t even know about it in the beginning, but I needed some reason to make work so I used to create rules for myself to follow. I would do things like systematically translate a sound into a sculpture, or an image into a piece of music. At the time, it was a creative process that was really just focused on execution. I later learned about Conceptualism in more detail while in school and for the longest time Sol LeWitt’s Sentences and Paragraphs on Conceptual Art functioned as my manifesto.

With your work, it’s funny to think about where that label comes from. Is that a critical or populist response, or is it something that just happens in the work? It’s great to hear you talk about your work as something more organic and it was definitely a part of thinking about the work in On The Line and certainly something that I’m really excited about in your work in particular. Is there a way to loosen the old definitions of Conceptualism? We’ve sort of played out the systems based language pieces in the work of Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner.

Sarah: Yeah, I was definitely very influenced by those artists. I never felt mistaken though; I knew that what I was doing was more populist. I thought, yes, these artists are really interesting, but I felt more of a personal and psychological link to it, which I guess goes back to a personal translation of something, bringing experience back to what it is that one identifies with, both in concert with ideas of artistic history and practice. That early conceptual work rang like a bell. I knew what they were talking about in art and life, but it was more about that which for me was missing within my life and the very narrow scope of my family life. Which brings me to the question to you Cody, how did familial or suburban life influence your direction?

Cody: I didn't have a particularly creative environment growing up. Both of my parents were engineers so there was always a discussion of technology, but never art. The one exception was my Dad's unexpected interest in minimalist music. He had these two records that he was really proud of -- a John Cage album and Terry Riley’s “Rainbow in Curved Air.” Every once in a while, he’d talk about those two artists and I got really into their work. Otherwise, I think the only other influence that suburban life had on my direction was that it created a sense of urgency to live some other way, so I moved to New York to go to school.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of family in art as my Dad has been suffering from some really intense health and family issues. He’s too young to have these problems so there’s a really deep level of sadness but at the same time, we (like many people) have a very strained relationship and reconciling that seems increasingly impossible and at the same time totally inconsequential. I guess it’s been something that’s been preoccupying me lately and so it seems to be entering my work in unexpected ways. It’s odd for me to see this play out because I usually think of my work as being sort of coolly systematic, but there’s also this other messier thing that surfaces from time to time.

Sarah: I think about my own relationship to familial and suburban life, and I suppose that’s why I asked, because it was those experiences, those relationships which caused me to work off them. Your story is amazing! I have a great respect for your father and for you. My family was pretty standard form for upper middle class. My father worked and was never home, my mother struggled with finding something meaningful. She was an English major in college and was so much smarter than I at that time. I felt like an invisible person, quiet, hidden, powerless. However, it was the knowledge that her mother’s cousin was a jazz coronetist that really captured my attention. He was Bix Biederbeck, and his story was told to us all growing up. I identified with the fact that he was described as both emotional and intellectual, and that he was never recognised by his parents for his choice to become an artist. I found family to be so confusing and interesting, and I began to make work from things I pulled off my bedroom wallpaper, things that I found in my family basement, and tried to recontextualize or reconstitute that stuff in a way that spoke to me privately as a way to assert myself, so that I actually could feel present within my own life, that the meaning I was making was very psychologically important to the sense of my own experience.

I am very interested in your ideas of pathos, and how that is informed by reading books, living life, or...? My question I suppose is what is your relationship to pathos? How does it figure in your work, and where the Genesis of this idea came from. Was it just a personal moment when you realized the significance of pathos in art?

Cody: I think of pathos as an essential quality to a work of art. It's present in my favorite films, stories, music and art. It's definitely present in your work and that's a big reason why I love it so much. I'm not sure if I could locate the origin of my interest in it, but when thinking about the work that I really love, the work that really resonates with me, like Felix Gonzalez-Torress’ for instance, the largest component of his work is not the minimal stacks or the endless piles of candy, but actually that he's found a really simple and beautiful way to give form to loss. You can call it conceptual and you can call it minimal, but his work actually resonates for me on a very emotional level -- something that’s not supposed to be a part of either conceptualism or minimalism. I find that really interesting. I try to embody that same quality in my own work. Not loss specifically, but pathos; that the work somehow feels fragile or vulnerable. Finding that space in work feels really rare and it’s something that really drives me to create and think.

Sarah: That’s what I really love about you Cody, are we family?

Cody: It makes me think of the way that you work, following a conceptual vain that’s also emotionally rooted. Where does the notion of Conceptualism come from within your work? Was it something that was happening in your studio and you were responding to that impulse -- something that we might label as Conceptualism, or did you find that you were working from or against a history?

Sarah: Well it was really accidental the way I fell into Conceptual work. How I had been working before was called minimalist or... maximal minimalist (by a good friend). I was doing very reductive sculptures on the face of things, it looked very minimalist. I’m referring to the bed rail sculptures, which were actually made from the old tossed out twin bed frames stored in the family basement. I looked at them in both a very emotional way but also with a distance, wanting to transform them into something else. However, I knew that in order to transform these familiar objects I would need help, so I decided to search out welders who could help me. I was involved with doing collaborative works with car welders. I specifically wanted to work with someone outside the art practice, and include them in the work. So that I would come to a welder with an idea and I would ask them, “What would you do in this piece? Do you think we should put it here? Do you think we should put it there?” At the time I didn’t realize what I was doing, that I really enjoyed working with someone who didn’t have the artistic lens into the work and then try to direct it. I really wanted to lose control just a little bit.

It seems that you work in a similar way with appropriated images, or images that you find based on specific ideas you are working through, can you talk about that process? I am interested in how an idea which might at the outset be extremely personal, becomes part of a process which is different. I am specifically referring to the new work with the ellipsis. Can you talk about the way in which that work came about? About the ellipsis?

Cody: For a while now, I've been trying to somehow give form to paradox, or find a way to represent that within a body of work. Not just illustrating the paradox, but actually creating a situation for the viewer where the paradox is realized in negotiating the artwork. The ellipsis feels like an extension of this in some way. I’m working on this new project where, structurally at least, the subject of the work is never addressed directly so it can only understood through certain omissions. Hopefully it will come together, and people will be able to understand what the work is about, but it’s never pointed at in the work -- that’s the hope anyway. It’s become really complicated for me because the subject of the work is this idea of everything -- all of it, even the things we don’t see and the things that we can’t even imagine that we can’t see. I’m trying to find a way to talk about that without actually labeling it -- giving form to it’s negative space in some way. Working with images allows me to deal with a small bit of visual material that can be recycled and manipulated within the work. The hugeness of the subject demands a sort of economy of visual material, so I’ve been drawn lately to images and language that embody this idea of something missing.

There’s a similar tension in your work that I find really exciting -- a quality of a curious fragility. The work is very precarious, at times it looks like it might fall over, but it’s actually very sturdy. It maybe mirrors this idea of Conceptualism and a more organic way of working?

Sarah: That’s definitely an area that I like to play in with my work. While I’m aware of the tension, I must say that I don’t really have control over it. I guess I just accept it as a limitation.

Cody: I'm really envious of how fluidly that works for you! Things like this somehow feel more rigid in my work. I spend a lot of energy trying out formal strategies and wondering how one thing effects the other pieces and how that can change the meaning of a title or another piece... so making decisions can become this really protracted thing for me.

Sarah: Decision making is kind of a strange thing. It’s profoundly mysterious. For instance, after I completed Excuse my dust, I had all the tacks that were hanging all the letters left in the studio. There were 88 letters, and I lived with them just hanging there. It felt like a really important part of making that piece. All the days that I spent looking at them hung up there, thinking about how I wanted to use them, then one day the letters were all taken down and sent off to the Smithsonian. At that point, after completing that work that took over a year I was at a loss about what to do. Then came the question from my dealer, could I make a work for an upcoming art fair? I thought ugh, I don’t want to do that, its pure commercialism and I really don’t work well that way. So I got angry, and suddenly I came up with what I thought at the time was the most hilarious solution -- the tacks left behind in my studio. So I quickly found a spaghetti jar, wrote down all the sizes of letters, “eight and a half by eleven,” “five pages,” on little labels with a ball point pen and put the tacks in the jar. Have fun trying to explain that, I thought, laughing to myself. I found the title for that piece from an Irish Newspaper that I’d been reading in an Irish bar while kvetching about the art market. So decisions can be tricky, and after the fact, I actually really like that piece. It’s very strange how that can work.

Cody: How does that work for you? What things propel you to actually make decisions?

Sarah: Oh... terrible fear and anxiety, the fear that I must get it done. Decisions are really horrible things aren’t they, but they are also the way things get done and who’s to say the work is done when it’s shipped off or completed in one’s own head. I believe in the fluidity of a work of art, that the artist can change it anytime. The act is a mystery and is full of worry and potential remorse, but I don’t believe that it is a definitive act. Is that crazy?

Something I think about in writing is that there is this constant editing process, and the thing gets made over years and years. I like that kind of pace. Often, when I’m working in my yard, I’m thinking in the voice of an author as I’m watering the plants. It’s really strange. I am really influenced by writers and particularly what they’re trying to do. W. G. Sebald, in a way, could be considered a Conceptualist. What he was doing in the book was mixing fiction and non-fiction. He would be writing about Nabokov, a fictional character Austerlitz, who really speaks for the author himself, and his search for identity and his own history. I think these are things that reoccur within my own work, things that I’m really interested in. Sebald will tell you a story about Nabokov, and show a real photograph of Nabokov catching his butterflies, but it’s a fictional encounter between this fictional character and a real character. Then he’ll be talking about the name of a church and he’ll show these architectural diagrams, but it’s within the context of this fictional character, and work, and time. I think he really pushed the form of fiction where no one else was really doing it. At the time, I think they were talking about memoirs and what’s really a memoir and how much of it was really truth, because that’s the kind of automatic flawed nature of one’s own memory, that you remember it one way, but then over time, maybe other things fill in and then the memory isn’t so pure.

Cody: It’s reinvented.

Sarah: Right, it’s reinvented. What is your relationship to memory? I love that in your work, the sense that part of what you are talking about is perhaps something beautiful that is fictional, like a wish, or a reconstructed memory, or a memory forgotten but now treasured... and then you create something quite different out of that. I’ve talked with you about the supernatural. Do you care to talk about any of this?

Cody: Memory has been a theme that I keep returning to. It’s a sort of residue -- the deeply personal and subjective thing left over from an experience. It feels really mysterious to me, but I know that it’s something that we all share and I guess for that reason have really focused on it in a lot of my work. It’s one way to approach pathos. I’m not sure if I think of it as supernatural, but it does seem like something fluid to me, something with overlapping experiences and without a pattern or consistent explanation.

Sarah: I find that beautiful. I find that fantastic. I love the idea of different kinds of realities. The reality of let’s say a dream, that when you dream something, you still experience it. It’s still part of you’re waking life. You think about it, you feel as though you’ve lived it, and in fact you did in some other way, then you’re back in reality and you’re doing something in the real world but you’re influenced by the dream that you had and then you may also be thinking of a memory, so all of these things converge together and form something that’s quite complex and interesting. That’s why I think Seabld really hit me hard. He’s a fantastic writer.

We’ve both spoken about how writers have influenced both our work, and you and I have on occasion talked about Borges. I have now become a huge fan of his work because of how you have talked to me about it. Can you talk about your interest with Borges?

Cody: Borges is one of my favorites! I come back to him over and over. I'm continually mesmerized by how succinctly and fluidly he is able to tackle some of the biggest ideas, combining philosophy, history, science and spirituality. His subject is sublime in it's everything-ness. Like the infinite library of Babel that contains all books ever written, or the tiny hole under the staircase in The Aleph which when peaked through gives access to all things, past, present and future in simultaneity. It is literally everything articulated in a short story. I find a lot of inspiration from him and other writers too. For me, his work is invested in a philosophical tradition, but he’s able to distill and represent ideas in narrative form. I’m really inspired by that and I spend a lot of time thinking about his aesthetic strategies and try to understand their implications for my practice.

I know that literature is a big influence for you too. In the Austerlitz work that was shown in On The Line, for instance, the text in the drawings came from Sebald’s Austerlitz. I really like the way that you incorporate reference into the work. I sometimes find it difficult when work is inspired by or sometimes leans toward another creative work, to find a way to both acknowledge that thing but also give space for the viewer to inhabit the new work. Including all of the bibliographic information in the title, as you did with “Austerlitz, 2002, Sebold, W.G., "Austerlitz", Anthea Bell (translator), Published by Random House U.S.A., Oct. 2001, ISBN-385504834,” is one way to deal with that influence, but visually you don’t see it at all. They’re just severed sentence. Why those passages? Are these the sections that you underlined when reading the text?

Sarah: I think it goes back to your idea of pathos, and I’ve never thought of my work that way but it’s really true. It comes from a very baroque place within myself of all of these thoughts. So when reading a book, there are passages that become very personal, or speak to a very personal experience or thought or idea that I have, and there is a mirror within this author’s work, so these things have very specific relationships to things that I’ve thought or experienced. That’s why those things are pulled out of that text.

Cody: So it operates in the same way that selecting the words for Angus, Autumn, Bird, Black did? These words resonated at a certain level and that’s how the decision was made?

Sarah: Yes, and to hopefully have it be open enough, room enough to elicit some ideas or connections on the viewer’s end that aren’t necessarily all my controlling of the reading of it. But to allow these passages to sit.

Sarah: Can we talk about your work which deals with the theory probability? Who was the scientist who created the machine that figured in your work, and do you have a history of education in science, and how does science play a role in your work?

Cody: I've always been interested in science. It’s a curious discipline that seems to perpetually occupy the limit of what we know and I find that space really inspriing. In What is Philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari talk about science, philosophy and art. They says that each is dealing in some way with the same set of issues, only through different languages and with different rules, but that none has primacy over the others. I find that idea really useful. Each discipline has its own set of limits, so with art for instance, we're limited to including things in our work which point to ideas in the world. Science on the other hand doesn’t have to deal with the problem of representation, but it’s bound to a rigorous lineage whose language requires that it meets certain conditions of ‘proof,’ and philosophy, also bound to a history, has more latitude than science but is also confined within the capacity of language to carry ideas. I like the idea of combining the disciplines in some way -- to use a visual language that belongs to a history of science to discuss ideas of paradox and uncertainty.

I've made two bodies of work around Werner Heisenberg and Alan Turing. Turing has such an important legacy but his life ended so tragically. He was a young mathematician who was recruited by the British forces during World War II to help with code breaking. He invented a machine to break the cyphers of German code machines called the enigma, and effectively turned the war towards the allies. Later, he went on to develop the first computer and outlined his methods for detecting successful artificial intelligence. At one point, it was revealed that he was gay and he was tried and convicted and sentenced to this horrible hormone treatment. He ended up committing suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. I found Turing’s life really interesting and it became the subject of a body of work. I guess in a way I was trying to give an alternate form to his legacy and also to somehow acknowledge the vastness of his life cut short.

With Uncertainty Twice, the work about Heisenberg, I was mostly interested in his discovery of the uncertainty principal in quantum physics. It was a way for me to try to understand and deal with the idea of paradoxes. Quantum physics relies on these really crazy rules -- with particles that can be in two places at once and accepting that there is a level of uncertainty at the core of everything. I love that these ideas are at the heart of our understanding of physics, something which otherwise feels so concrete and unquestionably ‘everyday.’

We should probably tie this up, but I have one last question that I’ve been dying to ask, which relates to the recurring theme of record players in your work. It appears in Record of 100,000 Sighs and also in Austerlitz, but does it appear anywhere else? Is there a significance to the record player?

Sarah: I don’t think that it does, but circularity was really the idea. The groove in this material, the sound that comes out of it, and the thing spirals in and then you can go and play a record again and again. The repetitive aspect of that. Something that goes back to Sebald and nature, the idea of time. How is that structured? I think of it as thought, this internal spiraling of thoughts.