18 April 2008

Interview: THEO JANSEN

I first discovered Theo Jansen's work just over a year ago and immediately started correspondence with him. Today, we sat down for what is a key interview in the roster bringing together the worlds of science and art in the most natural and unexpected ways.

Theo Jansen studied physics at the University of Delft, Holland before becoming a painter. After his seven year career in painting, he started work on the UFO project which entailed the creation of an actual flying saucer that flew over Delft in 1980 causing pandemonium in the town and attracting considerable attention to his work.

For more than 10 years now, he has been working on the genesis of new nature in his Strandbeest creations which he envisions becoming completely autonomous, intelligent, wind-powered life forms. As an introduction to this work, here is his presentation on this fascinating project for TED:

Theo Jansen: The art of creating creatures

What prompted you to quit your studies of Physics at the University of Delft and becomes a painter?
I was young of course. The hippy period was there. I was distracted from my study by all these new dreams of people and a lot of friends of mine were artists and so I decided to become one as well and started becoming a painter.

And have you continued painting?
No, it stopped as soon as I started the UFO project at the beginning of the eighties and then the UFO project had such a success also media wise and I had been famous for about three months in my country for that and so I chased it more or less on bigger projects. After that, I couldn't paint anymore, sit in my studio and just paint. It wasn't possible anymore.

Following on from your painting, you seem to have had a desire to “work outside the box” and pursue new forms of expression through the painting machine and light sculptures. How did these projects develop?
After the UFO project, I had to do something more technical things and my interest for physics which has never been away during painting, it was really a rebirth in the technical interest after the UFO so I wanted to make something technical.

The painting machine was something interesting because in those days there were no printers yet so it was quite unusual to paint with a painting machine like that especially as the perspective of the images that came out of the painting machine because it made real size photos in front of the wall so the distance didn't matter at all. If a chair was standing a meter or 100 meters it would be the same size. That was the special thing about the painting machine because you could also make the opposite perspective objects with it so I also made photographs of chairs and tables which were in opposite. Things which were closer were smaller and things which were bigger were further away from the wall so it's just the opposite of normal perspective.

What did you learn from them?
My mind was really going on thinking. It made me change my living just for a lot of dreaming about abstract 3D forms in my head and the possibilities of machines. It really did change my thinking and my attitude. I was asked to write a column for a university magazine that really was sort of, this is a Dutch expression, “a stick behind the door”. That means that someone is standing there beating you up when you don't do your homework.

And did this work have any influence on your Strandbeests?
It surely had as this column really forced me to think about anything in the world and because every time I tried to find new, strange perspectives on reality and in effect, the strandbeests they started off as a column in the newspaper and that is about 18 years ago now and in the first period after that nothing happened. I had written the column and then half a year later, I got the idea of going to the shop and buying some of these tubes. I started playing with it and I did that for an afternoon and in the period of the afternoon, I decided to spend one year on these tubes, on these conduits because I saw so many possibilities in there. It turned out to be more than I could ever think of all those years ago.
"...I discovered that I was making new forms of life and by doing that I hoped to get wiser about our existence and our own forms of life."
With the Strandbeests, you have stated that you are making “new nature”; what is your intention in developing “new nature” and what have you learned from your work on the Strandbeests?
The motivation changed. I started off building robots that could gather sands and build up dunes to save us from the raising of the sea level and during working I discovered that I was making new forms of life and by doing that I hoped to get wiser about our existence and our own forms of life.

I have all kinds of theories about symmetry and about multiplying, the sequences in evolution by doing evolution again and new, I think I discovered a lot about the mechanism behind it.

I wrote about this in my book The Great Pretender where I have written many theories about life.

The Animarus Rhinoceros Transport

Are your creations entirely built according to functional parameters or is there some poetry in their design?
Well, the strange thing is that I don't want to make something beautiful. When I work, I always work on function and it turns out when it's finished, it usually doesn't function that well but I surprise myself how beautiful it appears.

Their forms are very beautiful, very poetic.
There's nothing I can do to that. That's sort of this secret artist in me which I'm not aware of secretly making beautiful things.

You have mentioned that the next step in your work is giving your creations brains. Have you made progress in this phase and what does this entail?
Well, the progress is that the nerve cells don't eat that much any more.

Would you briefly explain the nerve cells to put things in context?
Well, the nerve cells are the element, the basic element of the brain. You could also say it's a sort of computer. In a computer, the nerve cell divides where there is an input or output and my nerve cells work in the way that the input is zero and the output is one so it's the opposite from the input and that means if there is air on the input, pressure on the input there is no pressure on the output.

"...the brain will in future contain a time mechanism which runs parallel with the tides of the sea so they will know in advance when the sea is coming..."

With this principle, you can make a network just like in electronics. And so you can make binary counters, time mechanisms. For instance, the brain will in future contain a time mechanism which runs parallel with the tides of the sea so they will know in advance when the sea is coming up so they can go to the dunes before that.

Also, they have sensors which feel the water of the sea. That works quite well these days. They have a sort of tube which is going very close to the ground sucking in air all the time. As soon as it comes into the water, it swallows the water of the sea and then it feels the resistance of it and then it immediately goes the other way out of the sea again because it's longer.

One minute into the rolling surf, they're lost because they're sucked in and cannot come out any more. Future Strandbeests will have step counters which will be reset by feeling the water and they run away from the sea and they count the steps away from the sea so they know where the sea is.

This is what you could call a very primitive imagination. We have our imagination,we have a sort of mirror world in our head which represents the real world around us. It is a copy of the world and our world is very complex but the beach animals world is very simple. On the right hand side is the sea, on the left is the dunes and there's no disposition toward those two elements and so these nerve cells, one nerve cell, works quite well which it does now then the possibilities are endless.

Would you tell us about the animaris speculata that remained attached to its mother acting as a kind of scout? How did this develop and would you tell us a little about how it worked?
Well, it didn't work really well. I've advanced

Is this something you discontinued?
Yes, I stopped the process because I found better ways to feel the soft sand. The animarus speculata worked with a wire in there and there was a lot of friction. It would work a lot better now because the lungs, the wind stomach, plastic bubbles would be a lot better to feed the speculata. It turns out that when the animals run into the soft sand, then the pressure goes up in the animal and you can do this quite easy with a big force that can be pulled out again. These days, they are quite able to walk on soft sand as well, the dry sand.

Theo Jansen's workshop in Ypenburg, Holland

As well as your beasts, there are the programs you’ve developed from the worms simulation to the algorithms you now use for the evolution of the Strandbeests. How have these evolved over time?

I used the computer mainly to develop the lengths of the tubes in the feet. In the middle of each animal there is a sort of backbone which makes a circular movement. The circular movement is transformed into a complex movement down to the toe, the feet. That translation is very much depending on the length of the tubes in between and there are 12 tubes which determines the movement of the toe. The combination of lengths is very important so I wrote a genetic algorithm in an Atari computer to develop the right proportion of the 12 tubes and those were 12 numbers, a sort of genetic code which survived best and these genetic codes are just 12 numbers and I call them also the 12 holy numbers. They determine how the animals walk like they walk.

How important is the environment to you and your work?
Well, I don't think the PVC pipe which I use is very good for the environment. Of course, I never leave them on the beach as part of the environment. The way I work with wind energy is...

Would you consider the environment a partner in creation?
Yes, especially the big dangers on the real beach is the storms. They must always walk with their nose into the wind. When the wind comes sideways they blow over. I work now on programs so they always know where the wind comes from and they put their nose into the wind. Seagulls do the same thing when they are standing on the beach otherwise they would blow away as well.

The place where I work now is quite inland, about 10km inland to have a sort of sandpit, 30m x 50m, here I'm working on them until they're mature enough to go to the real beach because they're not strong enough to survive a very long time in the beaches more than 5 minutes.

So you have a nursery or training area?
Yes. Because the elements on the real beach are a lot worse than they are here. I really must train them a lot better. I think in about 4 years, I'll go to the real beach with the animals and I will have a sort of mobile studio which runs after them and I can do my repairs and hopefully I won't have to do it every third minute like I have to do now.

What was the last thing to surprise you and what did you learn from the experience?
There was an exhibition by a guy called Gerritcan Vakal. He was a Dutch artist and he died in '84 and he made also machines that run on the difference in temperature between day and night. They run very slow. I think they do 3cm a year and he put one of these machines in a desert in Nepal somewhere, he put them in the beginning there and it will be on the other side in 38 million years so that's very funny I think.

Are they still working.
Well, I think the machines never worked but the thought is very good. He is one of the artists that really inspires me. Always when I have an exhibition, I try to include his work.

Generally speaking, art and science tend to make for strange bedfellows with resistence from both sides. Photographer Felice Frankel for example refuses to accept that her work is art and the art world in general is having a difficult time coming to terms to massive influx of new media. Why do you think this is and how do you think the divide between the two can be improved?
Well, I think it is just another matter of what is in people's minds. It's just the institutes that make the people. I mean somewhere where you earn your money, it's what you are. I mean I think engineers are more artists than they want to know and because they work at the university they think well I'm an engineer I'm not an artist. People tend to exaggerate what they think they are. Artists do the same. This world tends to split up just because of psychological reasons.
"If you didn't give anybody money any more, you'll see the real artist and you'll see the real scientist and they'll probably be one person."
And do you think there should be more art in science with more emphasis toward creativity in its tuition?
Well, it's something you cannot force, these boundaries, these institutions give money. You tend to do what gives you the money or recognition. I think if those elements were not there like you have for Eskimos who doesn't have any institution, he doesn't know he's an artist when he makes a little piece of art and he doesn't know he's a scientist when he makes a piece on his canoe to hide him so he can shoot the seals.

If that is the purpose to be blank again and have no prejudice feelings about what you do, I think money would change a lot. If you didn't give anybody money any more, you'll see the real artist and you'll see the real scientist and they'll probably be one person.

Is there any advice you would give parents to nurture children in learning the skills you use?
Yes, well I think when kids go to school they'll usually learn a lot more from each other than they learn from their teachers. So I think putting in a school doesn't matter, if the environment of the kids is okay, they will learn a lot. They might not when they go to economic school or something, they might not become an economist. I don't think the direction or the subject of the school matters so much, I think the mentality is more important than what you study.

And was there anything in your own childhood that led to your current work? (outside playing with pipes)
No, I had a very average family. I don't know how this all came. I think the hippy times did a lot (laughs).

What kind of impact do you hope your work will have both in practical and artistic terms?
What I see now, a lot of people seem to recognize what I do in their own imagination and follow me in my fairytale and become sort of partners or participants. Obviously they don't work with me but stand behind me, support me and really talk with me as if they are part of my project. That of course is something for an artist is very nice when people seem to understand your work.

In the future I hope that these animals will develop in the end that they can live on their own and I don't have to cure them any more and at the end of my life that they will live for a long time after I'm done.

Thank you.
It was a pleasure to do this.

Theo Jansen Wiki
Theo Jansen (Art Futura)
Wild Things Are on the Beach (Wired)
Theo Jansen (TED Profile)
Interview (artificial.dk)
Theo Jansen (Galerie Akinci)

14 April 2008


This is the first part of dual interviews between the twin founders of Evil Twin Publications.

Stacy Wakefield Forte studied book design at the Rhode Island School of Design and graduated from the Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam in 1994. As well as working with her sister on Evil Twin Publications, Stacy was Design Director at Artforum and Index magazines in New York.

Now living the Catskills of upstate New York, Stacy continues to design books, is a member of Booklyn, and works as a volunteer at hydro-powered WJFF Radio.

What effect did travelling outside the US at a young age have on you? And what were the key things you learned during this period? Charmed by squatting? Was it difficult to return to the home country?
Travelling internationally at any age is fascinating. You discover things you take for granted that other cultures look at completely differently. I loved squatting for the same reason, it expanded my notions of how basic things like housing and group living could and should work. In the netherlands there is a community around squatting that functions extremely well. People in that scene are very community focussed, which is surprising to be around coming from the US where the culture is very individualistic. American underground art and music culture is exciting exactly because of our intense individualism. But the dutch are much better than us at anything community-centered, like squatting and collectively run businesses and projects. In my experience.

You’re currently collaborating with Fritz Haeg, researching earth sheltered homes for a new book. Where did you discover Fritz’s work and how did the collaboration begin? And what drew you to the subject of earth sheltered homes?
I met Fritz in LA through mutual friends and we spontaneously discovered a shared fascination with earth sheltered houses. We both had ideas percolating around them that made more sparks when combined. Earth sheltered houses are so romantic and wonderful. Covering a house with a sod roof so that it blends with the landscape and the home is protected from the elements makes so much sense.

For some reason this style hasn't captured the sustainable-building imagination as much as it should, so I think this project is really important for bringing rooted houses more into the public conciousness. There are issues around building them, it is a little more complicated and expensive to build them than above ground houses, and the right site is very important. but with more attention and discussion brought to them, these things can be addressed and improved on. So our goal is to investigate earth sheltered building, its past and present and potential, and see what we find.

What are the prominent memories and key things you learned while working as design director for Artforum and Index Magazine?
Artforum is an extremely well-run independent magazine with a phenomenal staff. I was really lucky to get to work there. The design of the magazine is necessarily straightforward and subservient to the text and art images, so as much as i loved the working environment and being involved in such a venerable institution as Artforum is, I don't think the designer has a very integral role there. At Index I had the chance to have much more impact. It could be very challenging to work there because it was a small and chaotic operation, but that added to everyone's sense of urgency and personal accountability. The role of design in the magazine was huge, I worked in very close creative collaboration with the publisher, Peter Halley, and we tried out all kinds of ideas that editors would have killed at other magazines.

Usually as a designer, you are working to please a panel of editors, who are by nature word people and not always visually adventurous. I have no problem with that, I think that kind of collaboration between a designer and editor can lead to the most accessible and relevant design. But index was a departure from that because the only person with final say over my work was Peter Halley who is a visual artist, as well as a writer. He was always pushing me to be wilder.

"My aim is always for my work to be invisible."

Our goal wtih index's design was to make it look simple, naive and "undesigned". I also got involved in the editorial side a bit-- I interviewed Dutch band the Ex about their tour of Ethiopia one time, and pitched ideas for people to include and brought a couple writers and photographers in, and all those things contribute to having a sense of ownership over the whole project which is different from just having a job. Everyone there felt that way and developed close working relationships, I still work on projects with all the editors who I worked with there who now are doing completely different things. I also always went on press and oversaw the printing of the magazine, and I learned so much about printing from doing that, that was always an interesting experience. Magazines often send production people on press, but its not often that book designers get to go. I'd encourage any designer to do it whenever possible.

In terms of design, how would you say your work has developed over the years? And do you approach design projects differently than when you began? Why or why not?
My aim is always for my work to be invisible. if a publication is well designed, the reader is looking at the photos and reading the text in a logical and coherent manner and not thinking about the design at all. Early on, like all designers, i was really eager to show what i could do and define myself with a certain style.

"i'm much more interested in design as a solution to a problem than as an artwork..."

Also i think every designer is susceptible to elegant little flourishes and details and layers of froth. which I adore. But i'm not doing design like that these days, I'm obsessed with clean and invisible. i'm much more interested in design as a solution to a problem than as an artwork... solving the communication problem and creating a satisfying object, which works both for the editors i'm workign with and for the eventual reader. Also I think some designers are great at detail oriented things like posters and logos, but my forte is the codex form--the way pages flow into each other and develop accumulated meaning.

Would you tell us about your work with Allyson Vieira on Untitled(Geometry + Democracy) and how you approached design of this? And what attracted/interested you in Allyson’s work?
Allyson's work is so special to me, its rare to find something both so visually appealing and intellectually satisfying! She's extremely smart. We discovered our mutual love of 18th century history when we were both working for Peter Halley, before I ever saw her work. I am especially intrigued by the way different eras latch onto previous historical moments that fit contemporary purposes. The influence of ancient greece on the upheavals of 18th century france and america is a rich subject and allyson's thoughtful exploration makes connections between things for a reader to contemplate, without making definitive statements.

How do you approach your collaborative works on album covers with your husband Nick? And what is your idea of what makes for a good album cover?
When we work on records together, Nick is the one with the vision. He makes collages and always knows exactly how he wants the artwork to be. just help figure out how to make the type and packaging effective.

Whatever happened to the Turn-offs?
we all just moved on to other things I guess! I liked the playing music with a group of people a lot, but i'm not a musician.

Would you say you are influenced by your sister? If so, would you explain how this manifests itself?
I'm very influenced by my sister, she's always thinking about and learning and observing new things that she shares with me, she's always interesting to talk to! She's very smart and thoughtful.

Do you still practice photography? And how did you approach the photographic work you did for Transient Songs and Mud in My Veins?
I take lots of pictures always, some of which i use later in design projects like i did in transient songs and mud in my veins. I see my photography as an archive of images i can use freely in design and book projects. I like to crop and mess up my pictures a lot, i have a lot of freedom because they're my own work. I just finished an artists book called "sensuchtig" now. Its a tiny edition of 6 copies with the text and photos all printed in my darkroom and its bound roughly by hand. That kept me entertained all winter, hanging out in my dark room editioning it. I think i'll work on another book made of photographic prints this winter, I really enjoyed it.

Generally speaking, how has the personal ‘zine changed since your publication of “Greetings from the Endless Highway”? What effect has the internet had? And what are the opportunities now and for the future?
Now the kind of personal writing that used to go into a zine becomes a blog. But at the same time, changes in the printing industry and the availablility of computers for design have contributed to a thriving artists book/small press/artistic self publishing moment. You don't see so many photocopied zines the way you did ten years ago, but you see more creatively printed and bound artists publications than ever before.

What are your thoughts on the categorization of arts between “high brow”, “low brow”, “fine art”, and “outsider art”? Do you feel these labels serve any purpose?
I think these labels are useful to define the context of work. Artists can have viable careers in any of those categories. The most prestigious high brow fine art market is certainly hard to break into, Collectors and galleries and curators expect artists to have a certain background in schooling and a studio presence in new york or some other metropolitan area, They don't want to bet on young artists who aren't dedicating themselves to their work completely and poised to make it big. Its a high-stakes business.

In New York you see a lot of young artists who are focussed on trying to break into that world and frustrated. But thats true of young people trying to get ahead in any business. And of course the most ambitious folks in any field tend to come to New York. Which is what makes it such an entertaining place! But yeah I have no problem with those labels, they have meaning and may be defined differently by different people.

Would you choose a colour (it doesn’t have to be a favourite) and explain the ideas and feelings it generates for you?
Chocolate brown looks very victorian to me and i use it for everything.

What are your aspirations for the future? And in addition to your project with Fritz Haeg, are there any other projects in the pipeline?
My aspirations are to keep making books! I want to keep getting interesting work projects like i have been (Right now I'm on my way to Hong Kong to press check a huge photo book I put together with Vice Magazine) and also to keep making my own books. I have a bunch of collaborative projects still in the discussion stages, but the thing I'm furthest along with is another artists book which is about the catskills.I'm collaborating with letterpress artist Kerin Brooks Smith who runs Em Space studios upstate on a four color photo letterpress book, she's a very talented printer.

And if we end with a political message, a piece of advice to artists, and a recommendation?
19th Century literature is my answer to all three. George Eliot, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Thackery, Jane Austen, The Brontes, etc etc. in cheap paperback. There's nothing better.

Introducing Evil Twin (SiouxWIRE)
Evil Twin Publications
Evil Twin Blog
Index magazine

12 April 2008


Riceboy Sleeps is an art collaboration between Jónsi Birgisson and Alex Somers comprised of still images, music, video, and storytelling. Releasing a picture book in Iceland in 2006(1000 hand numbered editions), they held their first exhibition at Gallery Turpentine in Reykjavik.

In 2007, a second unnumbered edition of the book was released as well as two singles, All the big trees and Daniel in the Sea. Further exhibitions outside Iceland followed in the US and Australia. They currently have an exhibition at the Agency Gallery in London(10 April-17 May, 2008).

Jónsi Birgisson is also a member and lead singer for Sigur Rós and Alex Somers who has worked on artwork for Sigur Rós is a member of the band Parachutes. As Jónsi and Alex were setting up their exhibition in London as the interview was conducted, each was interviewed separately though the answers are presented here in a compiled format.

How did the Moss Stories and Riceboy Sleeps project develop and what were your motivations?
Alex: The project began four years ago and there was never any motivation, we didn't realise that we were starting a real project. It was just the two of us making music and making artwork for fun really.
Jonsi: It just started with me and Alex and we wanted to do something together. Alex is just in the same headspace.

Sioux: Did that start from the videos you've done?
Alex: Actually, we started making music a long time ago and we made lots of songs and we were recording and stuff and then at some point since we both did videos on our own, we decided it would be fun to make videos for some of our songs and that's how it began and then Jonsi and I moved in together so we began drawing and painting a lot together.

Sioux: What would you say are the key differences in your musical work with Riceboy Sleeps as opposed to your creations with Sigur Ros and Parachutes?
Alex: It's quite similar. We use the same instruments, same microphones. I think the process is quite similar except Parachutes is Scott and I, and Riceboy is Jonsi and I. I think working with Jonsi, everything is much more brave and spontaneous and I think with Parachutes we're not as brave as Jonsi, he's so brave in trying and going for things. And sometimes I forget that if I'm not working with him . They're quite similar.
Jonsi: Yeah, just different. Me and Alex work differently. Riceboy is more like playing with sounds.

Sigur Rós - Glósóli

Sioux: And would you say the Riceboy Sleeps project will have an impact on your future work in Sigur Ros and Parachutes? If so why and in what way?
Alex: I don't know. We have plenty of time to do both and we've had offers to do Riceboy and Parachutes projects together. I don't know if that will happen or not. And I don't think either will effect the other in a negative way, only a positive way, more creation and more making and having fun.
Jonsi: I don't know. It could do.

Sioux: Does the aged and worn aesthetic signify anything in particular to you and your work? And what was the motivation in using old, rustic frames in your gallery work?
Alex: It's more of a feeling and atmosphere we're trying to create than a specific message. We're never really aware of trying to tell people something, we're more interested in having people feel something so it's just a really good feeling and something we've both been really attracted to before we even met eachother. It's comfortable, it feels like things have soul. Before we met, we were both collecting old photographs and old books and didn't really know why, we just both really like them. Then when we started making artwork, it just got incorporated into our work.
Jonsi: We do the pictures first and we found these frames just lying and it would kind of suit so well with the other stuff we were doing.

"...when I met Jonsi, I was really, really poor and I was just living off of rice mostly..."
Sioux: Who is Rice Boy?
Alex: When it started out, it was the name of one of our songs called Riceboy Sleeps. It was just because when I met Jonsi, I was really, really poor and I was just living off of rice mostly and I was sleeping too much so Jonsi was writing a song while I was asleep one day and he named it Riceboy Sleeps. For some reason ever since then we just called whatever we were working on at the time, Riceboy Sleeps. We never decided for that to be officially be our name, it just happened.

Riceboy Sleeps - Daniel in the sea

Sioux: And Daníell(in the sea)?
Alex: Oh, he is just a fictitious character based like, we make stories also. He's just a character. He's just a really beautiful character and sometimes he's blind in our stories and sometimes he's not blind. Maybe because all the stories haven't quite finished so we're not really sure what is happening.

Sioux: Would you tell us about the creation of the accompanying videos and how they relate to the book itself?
Alex: Actually, they don't really relate to the book though everything shares a similar aesthetic. The do go with the book. It's a similar texture and feeling though conceptually they're not matched.

Riceboy Sleeps - All the big trees

Sioux: All the big trees is an unusual title considering Iceland is without trees. What do trees mean to you?
Alex: We both love trees. They're so beautiful. The title was actually made in the States, on the east coast in Maryland. Jonsi made a present for my mother and on the back he wrote 'thank you for all the big trees' and I think somehow stuck with us and we just used it for a song. Forests, I find them beautiful and full of life, amazing sounds, wind blowing through the trees, good smell...
Jonsi: I just like them when I went to visit Alex's mother who lives in Maryland, there were so many trees in their backyard, so big, so nice and cosy, comfortable.

Sioux: Is there a particular significance in the boy and girl that feature in the Riceboy Sleeps book? (Jonsi) Is that you and your sister, Sigurrós?
Jonsi: Me and my sister? (laughs) No, definitely not. Just fictional characters.

Sioux: Would you characterise your work as Icelandic? And what influence would you say Iceland, Reykjavik and its artists have had on your work?
Alex: I don't know. Probably not. Just the support and encouragement that I've known in Iceland. People don't judge you when you're making artwork and music and people support you and it's a small community. In other cities, I found it's maybe more judgemental instead of just supporting you and I find that a very encouraging environment to live and work in.
Jonsi: No, I think, yeah maybe, but you do whatever you are, your characteristics.

Sioux: What are your thoughts on the categorization of arts between “high brow”, “low brow”, “fine art”, and “outsider art”? Do you feel these labels serve any purpose?
Alex: No, not really. I don't even know where we would fit in. I've never really thought about it. It's like people need to box things up, but no, I don't think it's important.
Jonsi: They probably serve a purpose for those in the artworld, but of course it doesn't matter.

Sioux: What is your favourite technology and why?
Alex: Favourite technology? That's tricky. When we make our stuff we really like to make it as organic as possible though we use computers for layering and scanning things like that. And for scanning in our drawings and reshaping them and playing with the format. We like to use the computer and scanner. I don't know. Favourite technology? It sounds so bad if I say a computer. We don't really like graphic design so we don't want our stuff to look graphic design-y or anything like that.
Jonsi: Maybe the, I don't know. Maybe computers. Maybe the most important one. There's so much freedom, you can use it whatever way you want.

Sioux: Would you choose a colour (it doesn’t have to be a favourite) and explain the ideas and feelings it generates for you?
Alex: The only thing I can think of is that in the last year, I've got really into the colour light blue. I don't really know why. I just like it when I see it, something like a light blue boat that's washed out faded. It's just really beautiful, like a worn or washed out feeling. I see it on boats a lot in the harbour.
Jonsi: Light blue. Did Alex say light blue?
Sioux: Yes, he did.
Jonsi: (laughs) Yeah, we both really like light blue. It has to be perfect light blue, worn out light blue, old chipping paint... It's so soft or something. I think we actually like all colours if they're desaturated or worn out.

Sioux: Also, would you select an image that you feel is powerful (it can be a painting, a photograph—and does not need to be art, it could be a package design or an object) and explain why it has an impact on you?
Alex: Hmm. The last couple of years it would be anything in nature. I'm just super into nature; trees, plants, fruits.vegetables. I just like to be as close to that as possible.
Jonsi: Indirectly, there's a lot of people, my friends, my family, my sister is doing a lot of cool stuff with the full moon and meteors.

Sioux: And if we end with a political message, a piece of advice to artists, and a recommendation?
Alex: Be honest. Just make what you want to make. I don't feel I'm in a position to make any recommendations. That's the only thing that's important is to be true to yourself.
Jonsi: Just to be as honest in what you do and to create as much as you can, it gives you so much purpose if you create a lot of stuff and you're honest in that creation. It gives you so much and makes life worth living.

Sioux: Thank you.

Riceboy Sleeps
Riceboy Sleeps MySpace
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Moss Stories
Gallery 801
The Agency Gallery
Gallery Turpentine
Sigur Ros
Book Gallery

09 April 2008


My favourite works from Marci Washington are obtuse glances that appear to be specimens from an Edwardian murder mystery showing the suspects, the crime scenes, and the objects involved. Though apt, that is still oversimplification and only scratches the surface of Marci's work which hints at much more in the dark spaces between.

Growing up in California, Marci Washington attended the California College of Arts & Craft where she received her BFA in 2002. She's currently pursuing her MFA and CCA while building her collection of work and exhibiting.

SIOUXFIRE: How would you say work has progressed since graduating from the California College for the Arts in 2002? And has anything surprised you in regard to your work in this time?
MARCI: I think that there are still some things from then in my work now, and I think I’m interested in making art for the same reasons that I was back then, but I hope that the paintings are technically better, as well as more developed in terms of the story I’m telling. When I was in school I wasn’t very interested in narrative, but now the story that connects all of the paintings is a really important part. The paintings are like hints toward the bigger story.

The really weird thing for me now is how I spent so much time trying to get away from these dark gothic kinds of tales just to end up totally immersed in them. I used to be worried that people would just think that I was some super melodramatic goth girl (which I totally was), but now I know that it would be kind of silly to discount something that has always had such a huge impact on me. So now I paint all the dark melodrama I want.

SIOUXFIRE: To me, your work has a hint of folk art and Erte with a hint of David Lynch thrown in; how would you describe your work as a whole?
MARCI: I think of my work as illustrations for a novel that doesn’t exist. I borrow tons from the romantic gothic novel and from old bookplate illustration. I’m also super influenced by film. My paintings are kind of between bookplates and film stills.

"I liked the teeth because they were a way to imply violence without showing a violent act."

SIOUXFIRE: One of your most intriguing pieces simply pictures falling teeth. Would you tell us a little about how this came about and what you were hoping to achieve? And what would you say are the differences between your portraits and works such as this?
MARCI: Paintings like this I think of as supplements to the figures and settings- revealing a little bit more about the narrative, or helping to set the mood. Giving clues to the bigger story. I liked the teeth because they were a way to imply violence without showing a violent act. They also have so many different symbolic meanings. Everyone has dreamt of losing their teeth at some point, and it’s usually a pretty horrible dream that seems to be an expression of social anxiety- losing your friends or family, etc. Violence and losing your connection to others? Perfect.

SIOUXFIRE: The visual simplicity of your paintings have come in for some criticism; would you explain your intention in keeping the image simple?
MARCI: I am interested in communicating very clearly. I love to make paintings that are very simple, but still have a lot of weight to them. I like to find moments in my narrative that reveal a lot about the story and the psychological space of the characters, and then narrow it down to the essentials of that scene. One critic called my paintings “deceptively simple”- I really love that. I hope that they seem simple, but that there is much more beneath the surface when you spend time with them.

SIOUXFIRE: You’ve also created some sculptural pieces such as the chandelier of faces and jewellery; how do you approach this kind of work? And some of the jewellery was “pirate jewellery”, would you explain a little about that?
MARCI: The chandelier of severed heads was specifically for a show, and it was probably the only sculptural thing that I’ve done, but I really liked it. I’m not sure how it’ll pop up again, but it’s definitely in the back of my mind.

The jewellery is really just for fun. I was working for a jewellery component manufacturer and working with a lot of jewellery designers, so I just started making things for myself. Then Kelly Lynn Jones really liked some of it and wanted to sell it on Little Paper Planes. So I make it for her and for Cinders in Brooklyn, but that’s about it.

It’s just a fun hobby that helps me afford to not work a real job too much. Sometimes it intersects with what I’m doing art wise, but usually it’s just it’s own thing. The pirate jewellery was really fun- lots of bone dice and sculls, pearls, and old coins. It turned out so cool, but way too expensive to really sell, so I just made it for friends. It might make it to Little Paper Planes sometime, but I’ve just been too busy to work out the kinks since I’m back in school.

SIOUXFIRE: You’ve cited fiction and history as important sources of inspiration. What is the last piece of fiction you read and what did you think about it? And what period of history intrigues you?
MARCI: I love the French Revolution and Edwardian England. I love turn of the century turbulence and the gross reality of people’s good intentions. I love how the fiction of these time periods reveals the anxieties and social conditions of the time. I also just love a good story- history and fiction are both full of really great stories with ulterior motives.

Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Bleak House are all really great stories, but also pretty pointed social commentary. Their ability to have a critical comment relies completely on their ability to draw you into the story with romance, mystery and drama. At the moment I have a bit of a crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne. I just finished the House of the Seven Gables- so good!

SIOUXFIRE: What films or music haunt you?
MARCI: My absolute favorite movie right now is a Korean film called A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s set in this big house in the country with really great wallpaper where all of these horrible things happen. It’s not like an American horror movie where the scary parts just flash really fast, they hold the scary parts for an excruciatingly long time- moving so slow, you think you can’t bear to watch anymore. Then something fast will happen and you think you’re going to jump right out of your skin. That movie totally got to me. The colors are so beautiful and the story so well crafted- that’s how I want to make paintings.

"I got to this really horrible place where I started to think that I had to know what they were about before I even painted them."

SIOUXFIRE: What is your favourite work by Elizabeth Peyton and why? And would you explain how you discovered her work and how it affected you?
MARCI: When I was in undergrad I was getting so much pressure to be able to talk about what my paintings meant. I got to this really horrible place where I started to think that I had to know what they were about before I even painted them. Suddenly I had no idea what to paint and I got really stuck and depressed.

When I saw Elizabeth Peyton’s paintings, suddenly I understood that you can just paint what you like for whatever reason you want to paint it and the content will come on it’s own. I was working at the school library at the time and super in love with all of these photos that I found in books there- photos from history books, magazines, old snapshots, etc. I just started to paint from all of these photos that I had been attracted to for whatever reason, and suddenly I understood why I had been attracted to them in the first place. I understood what they meant together as paintings, and I didn’t have to worry about planning it out, the content was there in the images I had selected and in the way they were interpreted by my hand. I don’t think I could pick a favorite, but the SFMOMA has one that I absolutely love to visit in person.

SIOUXFIRE: Is it important for you to create work that can be enjoyed by as many as possible? And what do you think of the split between so-called “high brow” and “low brow” art? In some circles it’s a no-go area to do album covers or t-shirts. What do you think of this and would you do an album cover for a musician you didn’t like?
MARCI: It is really really important to me to be able to communicate with as many people as possible. I’ve never been interested in making art that only people educated about art can understand. A lot of that work is really great and I like it, but I’ve never seen myself working that way. The paintings that I really like are ones that get you right in the gut and make you think about them because they affected you physically and mysteriously before intellectually. A good painting works on both of those levels.

"The weird grey area between illustration and fine art can be a really great place to work from..."

The “high brow” and “low brow” thing is tricky. I like art that is accessible, but I also think that it has to have sophisticated content to be worth looking at. Some of what people call “low brow” has some really sophisticated content being delivered, but some of it is just trendy visual one-liners that sell everyone else short. There is a world of difference between the two, but right now all of that gets grouped together.

The weird grey area between illustration and fine art can be a really great place to work from- you have a much wider audience. To me it’s all about drawing people into your content- romancing them into spending time with your work and discovering the content behind it. Album covers, t-shirts, and zines are all tools for the same purpose- to deliver “high-brow” content in the guise of pop culture. I’m really careful about the projects I choose- there needs to be some similarities in what we’re trying to accomplish. I’ve done two album covers- one for The Rosebuds, and one for A New Spelling of My Name. With both of them, we had conceptual similarities that made the project a good fit.

SIOUXFIRE: You mentioned in an earlier interview that you were interested in making a film. Is this still something that you want to do and has this project moved forward at all? And would you ever consider animating your works?
MARCI: The film thing is a collaboration with my sister and hopefully, we can finally start on it this summer. Film and video takes so much planning! I just haven’t had time with all of the school stuff going on. I did a photo project that was super fun and kind of pointed to how the video thing might start to work out. I’m not so interested in animation- but real people sound like tons of fun.

SIOUXFIRE: What are you aspirations for the future? Ideally, where would you like to be in 10 years time?
MARCI: All I want is to have the time and money and space to be fully immersed in my projects. So yeah, I hope that I don’t have to go back to working a real job too much.

Thank you, Marci.

Marci Washington
Marci Washington interview (Fecal Face)
Little Paper Planes