Cementing conceptual and physical layers into her practice.
Artist Rachel Ara will reveal her new commission at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Korea in March 2019, exploring a theme that she’s widely referenced since 2013: value. This being the value of her own artwork, the value we place on women, and how values are constituted in society at large. With a month prior to the installing of her new work, the Jersey-born artist is thinking about the challenges of the piece in this interview, where she reveals that the work is over seven metres long, involves lots of metal, weight, logistics, technologies, and complexities – and often, she feels quite overwhelmed by it. Above all, the realisation of this work and her overall artistic approach is a reflection of the struggle for endurance within the art market as a mirror of survival within civilisation. The former computer programmer and cabinet-maker approaches her practice as a means for keeping certain discussions alive through her works, often assembled through symbolic mediums. These act as conceptual and physical layers of the story the artist wants to communicate: a story of things censored, hidden, coded, abandoned, or untold.
Growing up in Jersey, known for its relationship with trust taxation, you’ve strongly encountered politics, and through your education, you’ve been brought up with notions of Catholicism and art. How have all of these factors influenced your thinking?
Everything influences my thinking and therefore my work, I’m a product of my upbringing, and in a sense, my work is a product of me. I don’t have any filters or at least try to apply any. It’s interesting, as I don’t often consciously add these references to my work; they are just there in the making. I sometimes only realise that when the work is finished, and I have time to sit down and reflect on what I’d done. So yes, the last work I did at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “The Transubstantiation of Knowledge”, very much pulled on my Catholic upbringing. I guess it’s because I had an understanding of the church, and was, thorough experience, making connections between labour and the church through a feminist gaze, and brought that narrative into the work. In terms of my upbringing in Jersey – it was very unpolitical in terms of what Jersey was doing regarding taxation. I guess it’s convenient that islanders stay largely ignorant of the extent of global damage that is done by their regressive tax system – it’s only later in London when I became more politicised that I realised the full effects.
Working as a full time artist seems quite new for you, given that you used to work in programming, analysing, and computer system designing for over 25 years. How has this 5-year artistic transition been so far?
Incredibly natural and busy. I didn’t enjoy working in the tech industry, mentally I’ve always been an artist, but programming was the only way I knew to pay the rent. I would have loved to have been practicing full time when I graduated from Goldsmiths – but as you know, that’s not really feasible as an artist, unless you have money or support behind you. I couldn’t function doing the part-time art / part time career thing. When I do something, I throw myself fully into it, so doing the tech stuff pretty much took over my life – I’m not comfortable doing a bad job, whatever the application. The brain you need for tech and art are completely different – so it’s not easy to switch from one to another. I can understand now why many artists have less mentally demanding jobs, like cleaning, bar work, or being technicians – so your mind is not taken over by the complexities of the work, and is more free to think.
You’ve also trained as a cabinet-maker, specialising in wood. In that sense, in what ways do you interweave technology and craft in your practice?
I’ve always been a maker, and loved building things since I was very young. I do the plumbing, electrics, and building at home. I’m very curious about how things work. I’ve always had a love for wood – at some point we had a small woodland that I coppiced and maintained. When I stopped working in 2012, I did a year furniture making in an atelier in Devon to hone my skills. It’s very empowering to know how to build, as you can be very autonomous, and you don’t have to reply on other people. Because the tech and craft are so embodied in me – it helps me to navigate work more flexibly, and gives me more options – I don’t consciously think I’m going to do this or that. I’m led by the concept – then utilise these skills – some or all – to work through the process, and fabricate the work.
Can you drive us through the process of your work, from idea to realisation? Which tools do you use, and in what ways do you use them?
Basically, I have an idea – my mind rarely stops – it can be quite exhausting – I tend to write most of them down in sketchbooks or whatever is to hand. I tend to find that there will be one or two ideas that constantly surface over time – which means to me that they are probably stronger, and more resolved than the others. I can generally visualise the work. It usually surprises me what form and materials the concept takes – it could be a film, CGI, sculpture, anything. For example, “This Much I’m Worth” was fabricated out of metal. It had to be for the conceptual side to work how I wanted. For me, the metal aspect was practically and logistically a pain in the arse, as I’d never worked in metal before, so I had to learn about welding, and started building maquettes. Because this was such a huge sculpture, I did do some technical drawings in CAD. Also, because I had to spend some money on the Neon blowing, I had to ensure that the housing was build precisely to the millimetre. Meanwhile this process is supplemented by much time researching around the concept and materials. Often, when I’m creating a work, there are new tools or software involved – so there is a continual learning aspect – but you find in the end that there are connections between all the tools, so it’s never really like starting from scratch. Also, working with new materials and tools gives rise to other ideas, and as my familiarity with the tools becomes greater, then the work often changes with this. Working with the materials also gives me time to consider the work and cement the ideas.
Through your one year residency at the Victoria & Albert Museum, you’ve made-up fictional nun stories, analysed statues’ gestures, and displayed the readings of feminist texts in binary. Can you tell us more about how you’ve played into their collection, and why you were drawn to intervene in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries in particular?
I was asked if I wanted to present some work at LDF (London Design Festival), and it was too good of an opportunity to miss – so I went to find an available location in the V&A. There was this “hidden” gallery behind the altarpiece of the Church of St Chiara in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries that wasn’t being used, so it became the starting point for the work. Initially, I was thinking about creating a giant sculpture based on the physicalisation of data, and the craft that went into the making of early computer memories, but then, I started doing some research into the location. The more research I did, the more I became fascinated by the history of the chapel and its inhabitants – the 1 in 8 highly educated Florentine women who became nuns in the 15th and 16th centuries, and who’s labour was exploited by the merchants. These convents, specialising in the manufacture of metallic threads, captured my imagination – and I started drawing parallels with the 16th century nuns to the women in the 1950s/1960s, who wove the first computer memories using metallic thread. I then speculated about these nuns mastering a technique of transubstantiating their knowledge into these threads for later generations. So, the story grew and spread into the rest of the collections in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. The nuns embroidering code into the priests Chasubles (I placed a decodable fragment next to the chasuble collection), the women, once silenced, communicating with gestures – depicted by the statues etc… I collaborated with a writer, Laura Hudson, to write this story, which became the audio guide for the HoloLens. I then teamed up with DoubleMe, a company that specialise in mixed reality, to bring the nuns back holographically to wander the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. It was an incredibly successful multifaceted project produced on a minimal budget. The work is more complex than I described here but I’ve written more about it on my website and I’m working with the V&A on a short film about the work that will be completed early 2019.
You’ve worked with kinetic sculptures, videos, photography, holograms, paintings, plays, stamps, and installations, amongst others. How do you adapt the content of the work to the mediums you use?
I don’t adapt the content of the work. I choose the medium to convey the story, to act as a signifier – to point to where I want the audience to go. I never start with the medium, always the concept of what I’m trying to say.
The death of artist Ana Mendieta, the censoring of language, coded knowledge, abandoned technology, or the invisibility of male violence towards women are just some of the topics one can stumble across in your work. Are you interested in revealing all things hidden?
I think there certainly are issues that need talking about, and that need to stay in people consciousness. I feel that my work is trying to keep certain debates alive – or maybe getting people to approach difficult subjects in different ways. I want to draw people into the work so that they start asking the questions.
You’ve been categorised as a “digital artist” throughout media, however, would you consider your practice in that manner, or is it more functional?
Isn’t all art functional? I don’t consider myself specifically as a digital artist. Technology is very much a part of me, so it will appear present in some work. But then who is untouched by the digital nowadays? I’ve made many works that are less “digital”, but I guess the art world is currently more interested in the computational work as this is a part of a trend.
“You can’t make subtle artwork and survive” was a quote you mentioned in our recent conversation at your studio. Does that particular idea of ‘survival’ characterise your approach?
That’s very perceptive of you. I do feel that my work is challenging and in a sense it is a struggle, a fight to get it realised. For example, this commission I have for the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Korea is a massive challenge – to build it in the timescale with no physical support. The work is over 7m long, involves lots of metal, weight, logistics, technologies, and complexities – and often, I feel quite overwhelmed by it – but I’m very good at talking to myself and getting refocused. I feel like when you’re making work like this – it’s almost as if everything is trying to prevent it happening – studio size, lack of funding etc., which makes it more of a challenge that I thrive on. And I do think there is something to be said about making more bolder work. I’m certainly not saying it’s better or more engaging that subtle work, but there’s a lot of artists out there, and I guess one has to stand out. And big / bling (or bigly as Trump would say) is more of the zeitgeist.
“This Much I’m Worth”, a work which displays its sale value through algorithms, has placed your practice in the spotlight. Is this work, which led you to press attention, a critique about getting noticed in the art world, and in the world-at-large?
You have to understand the history of this work. I made a prototype version of this work in 2013 that was quite small, and it won the Aesthetica Art Prize and got me some publicity. The prize money also helped me build the massive version that was very much about playing up to the machismo of the art world. A work that simply could not be ignored because of its size (and complexity). Of course, there are many other layers to this work – just going along with the size is simply not enough.
This work not only manages to display it’s inside and outside at the same time, use animated neon, but also reference woman’s sex trade through it’s choice of colour. Can you tell us more about the engineering, logistics, and organic choices when making the piece?
For me, a work has to have a multiplicity of meanings, and each material is there because of a set of choices. The structure of the work was based on a sex shop sign – brining into question the values we place on women – treating women as commodities to be brought and sold – so we’re not just talking about the value of the artwork – but how values are constituted. In terms of engineering – I only wanted women to work on this piece. It was also about women’s labour. I was looking for women who work in industries that they had been largely excluded from. I had a good lady neon blower, but could not find a women engineer or welder, so had to take on this work myself. I developed a homemade method of animating the neon thought using recycled server equipment. I then had to incorporate this equipment into the design and build – so at each stage when I was creating a solution to an engineering / technical problem – the equipment / solution had then to be fitted in to suit the aesthetic I was after. So, it was a more organic build than you would think.
I believe you’ve collected a lot of data through this piece, being this, age, gender number of visitors, and conversations or photographs taken of the work. Will you use this collected data at some point, and if so, how?
I have to be careful about how this is used – as at some venues consent was not clear. I’ve certainly been using this data for my own research into how audiences engage with work. You can certainly see methods of engagement vary in different regions.
I’m interested in knowing the highest and lowest price this work has been worth? Do you agree with the fact that a set of algorithms can actually value you, or is it a humorous/political critique towards systems of value?
The bottom line is that it’s a humorous/political critique. It’s impossible for an algorithm to determine the price of a work – although there are certain sets of criteria that are used, for example, artists provenance, gender etc… – these decisions are largely made behind closed door – something I was alluding to with the work / the algorithms / black box. I think the starting price was around £25k and it’s topped the £100k a few times. I expect the price to go up quite sharply this year given the provenance of the venues it’s scheduled to show in.
What exhibitions and projects do you have ahead?
My main focus for this year are group shows at the MAK Museum in Vienna as part of the Vienna Biennale 2019, and MMCA (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) in Seoul Korea. I have a film proposal in the pipeline and several other works – but that will depend on funding. I’ve just been shortlisted for the Women Make Sculpture commission run by theCoLAB so have to put in a proposal for the commission – but there are some fabulous sculptors that have also been shortlisted, so I don’t hold out hope on that one!
It’s striking to me that as an emerging artist, you’ve manage to exhibit in a numerous amount of institutions and museum shows, skipping the group shows, or shows in a gallery context. Is it a deliberate decision to orientate more towards the public realm rather than the private one?
To be honest, no one has ever asked me to be in a group show (until very recently), so I’ve very much had to navigate my path in the art world alone. It’s partially to do with going back to full time work after graduating from Goldsmiths – so I missed the momentum of peer group shows, and then not knowing other artists. That’s why I’m now in studios in London, so there’s interaction with other artists. The way I’ve navigated the art world is by doing copious amount of competitions, and responding to open calls – if you have no contacts, then that seems the only way to go. I was shortlisted and won a few, which enabled me to meet people in the art world and start building contacts – I’m not a natural networker. My confidence has now improved so I’m more gregarious now. Working incredibly hard in the studio, and creating challenging and relevant work supplemented this. I also made sure the work was photographed, documented, and put on my website / social media. I’ve had some good opportunities that have come from this. My ideal situation, probably like most artists, is just to be left alone in the studio, and have the mental and physical space to make work without all the other pressures e.g. money, publicity etc… Then, to have the ability to show your work in big venues – it’s really great to have people talk and interact with the work. I love the conversations around work. Sometimes, it can be disheartening in smaller venues – the lack of engagement. The V&A, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Barbican shows were great – I had so many conversations that have even carried on after the show. It’s nice to know that people got something out of it, which is reciprocated.
Words by Vanessa Murrell