Sari Carel granted me access to her studio in the nefarious no man’s land near the Navy Yard in Brooklyn. Sari made me green tea, showed me a new film, “Olive Glove”, and we talked about her show now up at Momenta Art in Williamsburg, fantasies, clowns, and Koko: The Talking Gorilla, among other things. She has a project called “The Beekeeper” in the current issue of zingmagazine, #21 (available at your local independent bookstore / museum). Sari also interviewed Dave Hickey in issue #14, which can be seen here. Now it’s Sari’s turn for the hotseat:

Brandon: I was thinking about it and I guess I sort of lied when I said I’m not very familiar with your work, because I’ve personally seen two of your shows, at the gallery in the Lower East side. What was it called again?

Sari: “Watching the Wolfman Dance the Foxtrot”?

B: And the gallery?

S: Nicelle Beauchene.

B: And I saw some of your photographic/illustration work at Melanie Flood Projects, which I almost managed to forget about.

S: Oh, right right.

B: And I’ll probably see your show up at Momenta, so I’m doing pretty well actually. I guess we should start off talking about your show at Momenta, and see where it takes us. So, tell me a little bit about the show. Give me a run down.

S: It’s a show they do once a year where they feature recent videos that they add to their library. They do a series of two-week projects for each.

B: Oh, I think I went to that last year, maybe the year before. I saw a video by the Canadian artist Brenden Fernandes. He did a piece involving speech.

S: Sounds good. I’m going to show this video I did a couple years back. It’s called “Cast & Bridge” and it’s basically this kind of tour through an abandoned, decrepit falling apart house. It’s basically structured on the logic of a slideshow. Part journalism, part dream sequence. Then there’s a soundtrack that is very pervasive, this nature creeping back into the visuals, as well as the sound. Nature creeping back into a model modern house. There are also elements of collage in it.

B: Similar to some of your previous video work?

S: Yeah, in the feel and this logic of collage, really layering different kinds of images that don’t necessarily start as relatives, but giving them a specific relationship through the piece. Giving them a specificity by bringing them together, whereas some of the stuff could have been arbitrary selection or randomly put together. What I’m even more excited about, which is what I’m working on right now, is this performance we’re doing there on Sunday. The video has footage from Berlin and I’m layering on top of that, animation and collage. It’s going to be shown with my friend Sergei, who is a composer and musician, and he is going to play live music to the video. It kind of goes back to the early days of film, where they were silent with a live accompaniment of music, I guess usually a piano or something like that. It would give such a different experience of film or a room, the audience in relation to the visuals, in relation to the sound. I think something really interesting will happen in the room because it spins this whole relationship around. Sometimes the music will take precedence, sometimes the visuals will.

B: Moving back and forth. Is it improvised or did he compose a score?

S: We’re doing some sessions together, but a lot of it is improvisation. He works with a synthesizer, and old synthesizer I think it’s from the 70s or 80s, a machine with some street cred. And we have a general idea of what we’ll do, but a fair amount of it will be improvised.

B: Cool. You said it’s a four-person show? Who else is part of it?

S: Jessica Ann Peavy, Miriam Ghani & Erin Ellen Kelly, and Eve Sussman. Each work is shown separately for two weeks.  It’s almost like a four-part mini one-person shows.

B: Gotcha. Sound seems to be an important part to your videos, especially after just viewing “Olive Glove” here at your studio. What role would you say sound plays in your videos?

S: It’s immense. I’m super-interested in the way sound affects visuals and visuals affect sounds. How they influence the meaning of one another. Like how I spoke earlier of how images rub together each other and influence the determination of each other’s meaning. I really like the idea of translating one medium into another and all the mistakes that come from the process. The mutations that they go through in the act of translation.

B: How do you create the soundtracks of your videos?

S: I treat it almost as a painting.  I pull most of the stuff off the internet. The basic units. Then I just work intuitively, like shuffling a paintbrush, moving them around until it makes sense. Building this layered soundtrack. When I was in Australia, doing a residency, I was in the middle of the bush, this amazing place. The birds there sing very differently than anywhere else. A totally different repertory of sounds.

B: I went to Australia somewhat recently. So, I know what you mean.

S: I would spend hours listening to this whole other set of sounds. The soundtrack for “Olive Glove” had a lot of Australian birds in it. I also did an outdoor sculpture at Socrates Sculpture Park and it had a very naturalist soundtrack, made of electronic and vernacular sounds like trucks idling. But it was based on these magpie birds, which have this really digital sounding bird twerp.

B: It also reminded me of something you hear at a zoo. Like you go for a walk through the woods and they have these speakers hidden with soundtracks.

S: That’s also very interesting, the synthesizing of the natural into something that is really meticulously fabricated. The video you saw at Nicelle’s gallery is basically all shot at the Bronx Zoo, where you have all of these fabricated environments.

B: The attempt to replicate a natural habitat.

S: A natural remote and pristine environment, so that falls exactly in the territory that I am interested in looking at from different angles.

B: The natural vs the artificial?

S: Not so much a binary relationship, but more how they fantasize about each other, how they are different sides of a similar fantasy, like in “Olive Glove,” where there are projections of the natural image, projections of the designed image. The video is a series of vignettes, little theater sets that mesh together images and projections of the “natural” and the “designed”. I think they fall into a way of desiring something far away and different.

B: A utopian point within them?

S: These images are the images of desire for something very complete, separate from what these objects do day to day. Separate from what it is to go to a place like that. What else? A lot of my interest in sound is in the natural, immediate representations of these far away places that are slowly disappearing.

B: And at the same time, they are all digital recordings, a digitizing of natural sounds, so I guess that fits in with the grand scheme of things. In your other work you have a lot of layering as well, drawing on top of photographs and things of that nature. For example, the work at Melanie Flood Projects. Did you start working in photography or illustration and move into video?

S: Yeah, I used to do straight up painting, but was always interested rubbing two or more things together. These mongrel situations. Once I started working with video, it fit much, much better, but I still brought a sensibility that is very much of painting, out of the studio. This way the materiality of the medium, along with the sound, treating them as a painting with a spatiality to it.

B: I was just noticing these very frightening drawings of clowns on your wall. What’s up with clowns?

S: Yes. I like them because they are very unalluring images. A very low level of seduction. So, it’s a matter of using the images on the margins, the images no one else wants.

B: But they are these sad clowns. The men behind the clowns. Are you afraid of clowns?

S: No, I mean the relationship to the image isn’t so much personal.

B: My roommate is terrified of clowns. I’ve never had a problem with them, but I’ve never had to face one.

S: And then you have all these horror stories where a clown plays a role.

B: I take that back. The Stephen King movie It. It’s about this clown that lives in a sewer and eats little kids.

S: Like an alligator.

B: Yeah. They would show it once a year, and somehow I would always see it and end up watching, but not wanting to watch it then have nightmares for a month. Anyway, sidetracked. When is your rotation in the exhibition?

S: January 21 through February 1.

B: How did you get involved with Momenta?

S: I was in a show there some years back, and I guess we reconnected.

B: Momenta is one of those Williamsburg institutions. Do you have any take on the Williamsburg art scene in general?

S: I don’t know that many artists that work in Williamsburg anymore. I think that they all moved to Bed-Stuy.

B: The mass exodus.

S: Definitely not new people there. But when it got pricey, people moved out.

B: Is this considered Clinton Hill still or what?

S: It’s kind of a no man’s land.

B: A liminal area. The Navy Yards. Don’t know what that is. Whenever I bike by, it seems super-secure. But this is definitely not a place you would just stroll by for any reason, on a Sunday walk.

S: Once in a while there’s the odd tourist, who is very lost.

B: You’ve been here for a while?

S: 3 years.

B: There really isn’t much of a presence otherwise, commercial or places to show. Melanie’s was in her apartment.

S: I don’t know if galleries would move here, but it’s hard to get here.

B: You had a project in zingmagazine, issue #21. Can you give me your take on it? From what I recall, it was animals missing body parts, paintings?

S: Actually a lot of the images are images from a show I did. And I did a layout for the magazine. The show also had sculpture and I had this idea, which is kind of a mirror idea to what I said earlier of how do you take the sensibility of film, the way its structured, how narrative is structured, no necessarily a story, but narrative movement, and apply that to something that is spatial. Like a room full of images and some objects. So that was the motor behind the whole idea, and it made for an odd show. But the images were kind of vignettes, flashes of this fictional film I had in the back of my head. Some of them were reverberations of an act of violence. Really direct—like here’s a rhinoceros with its horn chopped off and others that were more indirect, the atmosphere of the image. It’s not like a strict connection, but more atmospheric and poetic and creates a group of images with a distinct feeling.

B: Seeing that this is the beginning of the new year, let’s do some summaries of 2009. Do you have a favorite show of 2009?

S: Oh wow. Those moments when you forget everything. [Laughs]

B: Whatever comes to mind. This section is called “What comes to mind from 2009?”

S: There was a show at the Met, after Phillippe de Montebello retired as director. It was in his honor called “The Phillippe de Montebello Years” and it had all kinds of objects that were added to his collection, throughout his term. Sounds boring, right? Whatever, some random collection of things. Paying respect. But you go in there, and it’s the most exciting show I’ve seen in a really long time. Because the way they put it together, you have these objects from different centuries, different styles, different mediums, religions, contexts. The curation was magnificent. The way they put things next to each other to create the most beautiful, startling pairings. It was so exciting.

B: As a product of the curation?

S: And just the power of the images themselves

B: What was in it?

S: They had an Egyptian male bust, a sculpture, a body beautifully crafted next to a Swiss wooden bust, this really ornate man with meticulous details. They was these two things worked together, it was electrical.  You have a room full of 17th century drawings, or a room of Egyptian sculpture, they all look the same. But mixed, it is the differences that make them stand out. The objects all shined on their own.

B: I’m such a bum that I didn’t see it.

S: You could go to that Met and go from room to room, DJ in your mind.

B: Yeah, somebody should make a map of the Met, a curation tour for other people. Did you have a favorite movie of 2009? Throw a little pop culture in the mix. Doesn’t even have to be from 2009.

S: I saw this movie Koko: The Talking Gorilla, an old documentary with beautiful Technicolor and it’s about this gorilla that was taught sign language. It was really interested but a bit tragic because it lived with humans and learned how to speak and it became a creature, a species of its own because it knew how to talk. It had an awareness that probably other gorillas wouldn’t have. Abstract ideas like love and anger and “I’m sorry” and they created this creature that at the end was something very lonely and tragic.

B: That sort of relates back to how you were describe your work. How it’s like taking something that is natural and then, like with sign language you’re making a hand gesture that is a symbol. A symbol for a sound, which is a word that relates to abstract thinking. You’re giving an animal a symbolic order. It is in some way artificial because symbols are not naturally occurring things. There’s this disconnect once the animal crosses the threshold in a way similar to your work.

S: Right, it creates a hybrid third place, it becomes this mutation.

B: Sign language is artificial, created as a system of communication. Like you’re presented designed objects into a natural landscape. Not necessarily a direct connection, but the ideas are floating around.

S: They swim in the same pool. This movie is from the 70s, and everyone is a hippie and it’s in California and it is about progress. Yet there is something so inadvertently sad and hopeless about this project because this woman’s life is devoted to this gorilla and the gorilla was yanked out of her pack and moved into this other life. It became kind of senseless at some point or hopeless.

B: It was helpless because people did everything for it? Could it not go back to its pack?

S: I feel like it was a point of no return.

B: It took a bite out of the apple of knowledge. It learned human systems.

S: It entered the kind of relationships that severed it from its original people. I was reading the other day about monkeys and language and some guy interviewed a chimpanzee for a newspaper, like “What is your favorite movie of 2009?”

B: I hope it didn’t say Avatar.


See Sari Carel’s film “Cast & Bridge” at Momenta Art, 359 Bedford Ave, through February 1.


-Brandon Johnson, January 2010