Mining the invisible with Kara Rooney

Brooklyn-based artist Kara Rooney speaks about her work, her process and her exploration of sculptural, performative and written works

March 15, 2017

Sara Jimenez & Kara Rooney

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I met Kara Rooney on a feminist panel at Air Gallery a few years ago. Her work and writing around areas of language, memory, and identity formation have always intrigued me. In addition to being a multi-disciplinary artist, Rooney is a managing art editor for the Brooklyn Rail, as well as a faculty member at the school of visual arts in New York. We met most recently at her two-person exhibition Trace/Matter (curated by Charlotta Kotik, with Ruth Hardinger) at Fivemyles Gallery, to delve deeper into her conceptual interests, process, and most recent works.

When did you first become interested in the relationship between language, experience and memory? Was there a moment or an accumulation of moments that lead you to want to investigate the tension between them?

I’ve been interested in these connections for as long as I can remember, but that interest was certainly intensified by my relationship to writing. Writing has always been an integral part of my studio practice as well as something I do at the professional level. There’s something about the transcriptive act that has always intrigued me- how the written form can crystallize thought, can embody a sense of time or place, in a very different sphere than the object can. My visual work stems in part from an interest in seeing if I could change my relationship to the object by working through the ideas of coding that are attributed to the letterform or to written script, between the tangible world of text and the ephemeral nature of memory.

This interest is also about a relationship to time. The ancient Greeks had two different words for time –kronos and kairos. Kronos refers to sequential or chronological time, time that we’re much more familiar and comfortable with, particularly in the West, but that is artificial, imposed upon the human experience. Kairos, on the other hand, is atemporal – it’s simply the potential for a moment of decisive action. It is that non-space that we are always contending with, that we are always trying to interrupt with kronos, with chronological time, in order to situate ourselves within the world.

I think we could all agree that increasingly, there’s a disturbing dissociation in terms of how we relate to one another, how we relate to objects and space, as well as how we relate to time. The work that I make attempts to unlock this, what I see as, destructive sense of linearity that we’ve become so accustomed to—to place us back into the realm of questioning, or of inquiry, where the status quo is not something that’s accepted but can be challenged, both intellectually and visually.

Since you are a professional writer and maker, how do the ideas change when it comes to visual representation versus using language as a means to communicate the ideas?

Both are always in constant dialogue with one another. The separation between object and text or object and theoretical thought is a slippery distinction. One can’t exist without the other. We need the image just as much as we need the textual component in order to make sense of our surroundings. They’re kind of all we have as a way of moving towards understanding or meaning. As someone who traffics in both mediums, I’m hyper aware of this tension or dialogical play.

The sculptural works I create are intended to act as visual semaphores, or stand-ins for speech. I’m enlisting the semaphoric act of cueing as a means of widening the gap between speech, visuality, and definitive conclusion. The object acts as an entry point for understanding that there is something else that exists beyond the ‘thingness’ of the object. What that is for most viewers is a sense of the theoretical or the textural, not necessarily more materiality. Something that is less tangible, less easily pinned down. This is a lot to ask of abstraction but I’m doing it anyway!

Also of great importance is how the objects relate to one another. I’m staging the pieces similar to the way in which words relate to one another in a sentence or the stanza of a poem. I’m thinking about the open-ended nature of poetry, its inability (and disregard) for linear reading in the way that these objects move or float within a space.

Since your series “At the Banquet of Alphabetic Form” (2009) until “On Moving Farther Away from Speech, or Hindsight is Never Twenty/Twenty”(ongoing), you have always had a conceptual thread between your works. There’s been an exploration of (as you state) ‘visual embodiment of language’s inherent flaws’. How has this exploration shifted, changed and developed over time?

In the beginning my relationship to these ideas was more theoretical. I was wrestling with notions surrounding the letterform, written speech, and coded systems. My interest in coding, as inspired by the writings of Norbert Weiner, the founder of cybernetic theory, was the root of those works. I was trying to point to or visualize gaps in experience, specifically the communicative gap that always exists in terms of what is articulated and what is received.

As I continued to work with this material, I developed more of a personal relationship to it. The work that I’m making now is more of a hybrid between the theoretical components that sparked my initial interest and my own experiences with language. I have had to come up with a different vocabulary for exploring these ideas on a formal level. In a way, the photographic image has come to replace the phoneme or the lexical component, where the image is still a very coded symbol that one must learn to read, but it’s not phonetic in in terms of its communicative capacity. It doesn’t have a particular mode of speech that’s attached to it.

To be clear, however, I do think the photographic image shares a close kinship with writing. It too is an endoxa in that we’ve internalized it to such a degree that we forget that it’s something that we invented. This is particularly true of the documentary photograph, which utilizes the mechanized constructs of perspectival illusion to simulate a “real” or “accurate” representation of the world, one that we all recognize as inherently flawed. The sense of clarity that the photographic image supposedly presents and the sense of clarity that’s associated with writing, for me, are both closed systems of exchange. I’m really interested in pulling the mask off of these illusionistic systems of representation.

The same way that I cut up words or phrases in earlier series, I’m now doing with the digital photograph. Those cuts look very different on a formal level, but the action is the same kind of action – that sense of collaging, of archiving, of tearing down, rebuilding, and of putting back together. This performative methodology dissolves the illusory quality of the unitary image, it exposes it as a charade, just as the text collages pointed to a different way of thinking about historical memory and authorship.

I notice that your work develops in series. What is it about this container that supports your process? How do you know when a series is finished?

I don’t know when a series is finished. What usually happens is that I’ll start making things that looking something like the initial series but depart from it at the same time. I’ll spend a few months in this intermediary stage before I realize that the work has actually moved beyond the series and become something else. It’s a very gradual and organic process for me.

The series format acts as a framework within which I can make adjustments and slight revisions while never getting too far from the original concern. It provides structure. Because of my interest in spatial relationships and of the tension that I attempt to establish between objects, it’s never enough for me to make a one-off work. Every single piece in that series relates to one another, it’s never just about one individual unit.

In your two-person exhibition, Trace/Matter at FiveMyles Gallery (curated by Charlotta Kotik), you have work from the series On Moving Farther Away from Speech, or Hindsight is Never Twenty/Twenty (ongoing) and Alters and Reverbs (2015). Will you talk more about your process creating the Alter and Reverbs series?

The photographic elements that appear in both series come from a suite of 26 images, all self-shot, that I’ve been using in my work for the last couple of years. My interest in these photographs began as a personal experiment—to see if, in working with a fixed set of images from my past, continuously over a period of time, I might begin to change my relationship to their original context. Would the images and my associated memories of them begin to shift?

The result was the On moving… series in which I began working with the idea of fragments, casting Hydrocal and ceramic pieces and embedding photographic images within them. The resulting objects were then placed on these large resin-cast platforms so that they could be moved throughout the space, hovering just a few inches off of the ground. The interactive quality of the work, where one had to squat or kneel in order to engage with the objects, or where the platforms could float about freely, was extremely important in that it mirrored the fracturing of reality that occurs with memory recall. Our slippery and flawed relationship to time.

After working with those for a couple of years it became important for me to scale up, to see if I could retain that sense of imbalance, lightness, and gravitational thwarting even though I was continuing to work with very heavy industrial materials such as Hydrocal (industrial plaster), wood, and resin. It was important that the objects, while larger, retain their degree of fragility. The surfaces of the Alter pieces embody this idea. I’d been working with ceramics and had a number of pieces blow up in the kiln. Afterwards, I found myself really attached to the detritus—I literally couldn’t throw these fragments away. Eventually the ‘the ghost of failed work’ ended up embedded in the surfaces of these structures. The series of 26 images are also worked into the surfaces of these pieces. Sometimes the photographic shards are visible but often, they’re completely engulfed by the material, which is very different from the smaller pieces in the On Moving series in which the photographs play a prominent role. In that sense, the Alters act as this bridge between the former series and where this new work is going (which is still largely to be determined).

How do the concepts of weight, weightlessness, and gravity play into your process?

My fascination with these concepts stems, in part, from my past. I was professionally trained as a dancer for many years; balance has become one of those unconscious things that I’ve come to realize informs the work and my making process in very significant ways—it’s something so ingrained in the physical presentation of who I am that it’s now impossible to escape. I’m always contending with it to some extent. On a more conceptual level, the fascination is largely a response to trying to find ease or a sense of comfort in ambiguity. What I’m doing in working in these in- between spaces is trying to find something that we don’t have the language for, that we don’t have a representation of. And that’s a very nebulous, amorphous space to be working in–gravity doesn’t exist there. It’s simply not part of the equation and the work, therefore, has to reflect that.

I would also say that classical themes of balance, symmetry, and harmony are a concern of mine, but not in the traditional, art historical way. It’s more about trying to present an alternative to what we think of as harmony, symmetry, or of balance, that’s both biologically and culturally ingrained.

Can you speak a bit about how you chose the titles ‘Alter’ and ‘Reverb’?

The titling is something that I wrestle with a lot. It’s usually not until I’ve made two or three pieces in a series that a title might present itself. I’m a voracious reader, and poetry is something that I come back to often. Sometimes the titles are a combination of poetic texts; sometimes it’s a combination of my own writing and another authors’. Octavia Paz is one of the poets that I have gone to frequently, for example, not so much for inspiration but as a way in, a way of thinking about the work from a perspective that I hadn’t considered before.

With the Alter series, it’s actually an interesting story. I want to clarify that they’re spelled “A-l-t-e-r” not “A-l-t-a-r,” because each implies a completely different connotation. When people hear the title, they immediately think of something either religious or devotional, or they think of the pedestal, modernism and art history. I’m not opposed to those interpretations at all; they are legitimate, albeit alternative, readings of what I’m interested in presenting. ‘Alter’, in this sense, is read as an adjective but more importantly, it can also act as a verb. There’s an action-oriented implication that’s tied to the works through their verbal titling, which was very important to me, since I’m trying to present work that is constantly in flux—that is malleable and fluid. An additional layer emerged when I was speaking with Hanne Tierney, the director of FiveMyles, who told me that ‘alter’ in German translates to ‘old,’ which I was completely unaware of. In that moment, the idea of the artifact or fragments of memory synchronistically came together. So, the titling can be an organic process in the same way that the making and shaping of material is one.

The Reverbs have a more direct relationship to their physical forms. The series largely employs digitally collaged photographs of pre-existing sculptures that I then go back into, digitally cut, and manipulate. They’re almost like a snake eating it’s own tail, a re-articulation of something that has already happened or that already exists; that’s where the notion of reverb comes from. But then again, reverb also implies a sense of action. You think of ‘reverberate’, of ‘vibration’, of something that never quite sits still.

For Reverb 9 and 10, what was your process in creating the digital images?

I use the mouse in the same way that I would use my hands to shape the Hydrocal forms on the floor. I might go through 20 or 30 drafts before I find the digital cut that really sums up what it is I am trying to say. Sometimes that process can be really fast, and sometimes it’s painstakingly slow. I never really know what’s going to happen when I sit down to work with these. And you can imagine that I have dozens of them that have failed. The editing process becomes something very different when I am working with the photographic images than it does when I am working with the sculptural objects.

There’s a term in the Native American weaving tradition for the Navajo weaver’s pathway called the ‘spiritline.’ This is a purposeful line woven into the textiles, which often marks a deliberate flaw in the pattern; it gives the weaver either a way in or a way out of the overall design as well as the ability to distance the artist from the commercial value of the object. I’m using the digital cut in a very similar way. It’s about accessibility. With the traditional, unitary photograph, we (falsely) enter into a representation of the world that appears as a 1:1 likeness of reality; with the digital cut, you are reminded of the fact that this likeness is an illusion, that perspectival space doesn’t actually exist, that this is not an accurate representation of the real. The digital cut registers most often as a void – it’s a blank space that can either be read as an abstract presence layered upon the existing image or as an absence, such a deep space that you never quite understand where it ends. This formal interruption has the effect of slowing one down, of disrupting normal read time. It’s that capability for pause that gives the art object its power. In a culture that is so fast paced, the work can therefore act as a form of resistance.

That brings me back to the chiffon scrims because they physically create a pause; they choreograph the body. How did you come up with the color that you chose for them?

Again that’s a decision that’s largely intuitive. One thing I couldn’t anticipate was how these fabrics were going to interact with the grey of FiveMyles’ space. That was one of those really wonderful surprises. The scrims are always built in situ, there’s no other way to make them, so there’s always the element of the unexpected built in. I think that’s why I enjoy working site specifically so much–there’s always something about the process that you can’t anticipate that ends up being much more rewarding that what you could have pre-determined in the studio.

We spoke a few months back about the idea of the archive and the fantasy that we (humans) can hold onto something forever. How does the concept of impermanence relate to your practice and material choices?

The materials I work with are intentionally non-archival. They will erode over time. I don’t ‘fix’ these pieces in any sense. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve chosen not to work with ceramics and kiln firing, because it gives the work a sense of stability and completeness that contradicts the series’ conceptual aims. This is also why issues of gravity and ephemerality are so important. As semaphores, the works are not meant to be terrestrial, in the way that we have become accustomed to objects being fixed in time and space.

This same idea applies to the scrims. As site specific works, they can never be exhibited again. I think that’s anomalous in the art world now, where everything is about permanence and investment return. The work is very anti-market in a sense, and it’s meant to be. It denies a sort of fetishization that has historically accompanied the object, which, I believe, can be a harmful way of relating to our creations.

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