The TH Interview: Alyce Santoro
When science jumps the fence into art, definitions get all screwy. Alyce Santoro's training in biology couldn't make room for her sense of wonder, so she split. Now, her work ranges from bizarre physical hybrids to elegant recycled textiles. She is the maverick weaver behind Sonic Fabric (a commercially produced musical cloth) and was recently featured in Sundance's Big Ideas for a Small Planet. Brooklyn couldn't hold her so she replanted herself in the mountains of West Texas to live sustainably and let her art wander. So what is her work trying to tell us? "It's just about how crazy it is that we're here at all."
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TreeHugger: Artistically you've got a really broad palette. Your work takes all different forms: some of this has social commentary, it also draws on scientific sources like string theory and Buckminster Fuller. Are you able to describe the things that you make? Is there a common thread that runs through?
Alyce Santoro: I have a degree in marine biology and I worked as a research assistant for a while. Then I went to school for scientific illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. So I knew that I wanted to make art about science, but for me, the problem with science is that you're not really allowed to get excited about the mystical part, because that's not scientific.
And for me that's what's fascinating, so I feel like what I'm trying to do with my work is elucidate the mystery and make not only non-scientists excited about it but scientists themselves who are unable to, in their own work, because it's not part of the scientific method, to experience the miracle or to get excited about the miracles. I feel like that's the common thread in all my work. It's just about how crazy it is that we're here at all.
TH: You're New York based, but now you're out in West Texas and actually the rain is coming down on your tin roof as we speak. What was the motivation for this move and how far out there are you? How remote is this?
Alyce: Well, it's pretty remote. I'm in the high mountains. My front door's at 6, 000 feet. It's really beautiful up here. I've never lived in high altitude; I've always lived near the ocean. I came out here because actually a friend of mine was coming out to the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Marfa is a very strange little place in West Texas, near Big Bend National Park. It's an artist community that was started by Donald Judd and the '70s a minimalist guys who all kinda came out here—Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain—and really they were just looking for a blank canvass.
They came out to this place Marfa which is very flat, very open spaces. They really started this crazy little colony there that's now drawing people from New York and LA. It's like a little miniburb of New York. [laughs] I run into to people I know from New York there all the time. Anyway, that's not far from here so that's how I first arrived. But where I lived now is actually way up in the mountains. I'm near the Big Bend National Park; I'm near the Mexico border.
Really, it's a similar thing. I just felt like my work was more about being able to do an experiment. Live my life as an experiment where I'm growing my own food, eating local food, capturing water. Our rain tank is filling up as we speak and that's the only water source we have—a catchment tank. We have gardens and we're about to put up a windmill and some solar panels.
I just felt like my work was getting to be more and more about sustainability and I was not really able to do that as easily in Brooklyn. Although if I had ended up staying there I would have tried my best to get my apartment off the grid, or whatever. Here, I just felt the fresh air and being around nature. My work is really about that. So that's how I ended up out here.
TH: So you're really trying to get off the grid—disconnected.
Alyce: Exactly. We're going to be off the grid, hopefully, within the next couple of months.
TH: You work with recycled materials and environmental themes run through your work. You created this fabric that is certainly unique; it's made from recycled audiotape, Sonic Fabric. You started making this by hand, I imagine, but now it's being mass-produced by a TreeHugger favorite, DesignTex, a company who's really been a leader in sustainability. Where's the stuff being made and where is the tape coming from at this point?
Alyce: Well, like you said I started out weaving by hand using small potholder looms, and then a friend of mine at Rhode Island School of Design suggested we weave it in the textile shop there. So that's where the first two samples were woven, using a hundred tapes that I had either recorded myself or people had donated or I got them at different stores. But to me, what was on the tapes was pretty important.
Like you say, I'm interested in quantum physics and to me it's about everything on a quantum tiny level being made up of vibrations. Every sound we hear has the potential to change our attitude and our mood. Sound is a very powerful thing. For me it was very important that the hundred original tapes were recorded with meaningful stuff.
Once I moved to New York and started the dialogue with DesignTex, I realized that I was going to need to mass-produce it. So I did two things: the first thing I did was contact a women's craft cooperative for Tibetan refugees who are in Nepal. And I was hooked up with this guy who is a liaison in the States for this craft co-op. I would send tapes there that people would donate to me and the ladies there would unspool them and weave them by hand. The handbags that are on my website, I call them the Monk Messenger Bag—they're a shoulder style bag—those are hand woven in Nepal. It's a fair trade situation at this women's craft co-op.
DesignTex needed more yardage and so I had a connection with this small mom-and-pop textile mill in Rhode Island. It's an adorable, clapboard mill near Rhode Island School Design in Providence. That's where all the fabric is being woven. It's really important to me that the fabric be woven domestically at these small mills that are really becoming a thing of the past because a lot of things are going overseas. Anyway, it's really important to me that it's woven at these two individual places. The fabric for me is mostly woven in Nepal and the fabric for DesignTex is woven in Rhode Island.
The tape is basically in a warehouse; it's going to go into a landfill. So because we can't use individual tapes for the DesignTex fabric, we need to use spools. They are called "pancakes" and they're these big spools of tape. They're just blank and they're going to be dumped into a landfill so we buy up blank spools and them I have them recorded with the sound collage and that is my interpretation of what it's like to be in New York: this constant barrage of sound.
So that gets shipped to the guy who records onto the tape, and that gets shipped to the weaver in Rhode Island, and then the yardage gets shipped to DesignTex. So everything is basically done in the Northeast. That's another thing that's important to me. It's a lot of shipping around which I'm not too excited about. I'm not too crazy about all the trucking that needs to happen but at least it's all sorted in the northeast.
TH: So the tape's not coming from Phish bootlegs?
Alyce: Well, actually some of the stuff still is. The stuff that goes to Nepal can be individual tapes. And funny that you mentioned the Phish bootlegs, because you may have seen on my website that I did a dress for the drummer of the band Phish, Jon Fishman, who's a friend of mine, and we ended up using his collection of tapes to make a dress for him, which he played on stage. So there are some Phish bootlegs in some of the versions of Sonic Fabric.
TH: So the tape itself, is this good stuff to work with from a craft point of view? Is it enjoyable material?
Alyce: Yes, actually. It's very easy to work with. There have been so many crazy flukes about this project from the very beginning. I mean, first of all, I had no idea that it was going to be useful to weave in a loom at all, in a regular textile fabric weaving loom. But it worked perfectly. The household eighth-inch tape works perfectly in a regular loom. And then I had no idea that it would be so easy to work with, it's very easy to cut and sew on a regular sewing machine.
It's extremely durable, I had it tested before I presented it to DesignTex and it was more durable than most commercial fabrics. And it's very comfortable to wear. I started out making these sort of shaman-superhero outfits out of it, and it was remarkably comfortable to wear. It's actually very breathable. And it's more soft than it looks. It looks kind of shimmery and a little bit stiff, but it's actually pretty comfortable to wear.
So a couple people have been doing stuff. Koos van den Akker, he's a designer in New York, has been making some stuff out of it, and Lola Ehrlich is a hatmaker, she's been using it in hats. And I love the idea that other people are doing things with it that I never would have thought of. I have a friend, Julio Cesar, and he's making neckties out of it, and they're just beautiful! I mean, I'm not a really accomplished sewer, so the stuff that I make is sort of primitive compared to the beautiful things that these other people are making. So for me, it's kind of a thrill to watch it go out into the world and be made into things that I wouldn't have thought of making.
TH: So, Designtex, this is big, this is the opportunity for this to reach a much wider audience. How did you and Designtex link up?
Alyce: Well, yet another fluke. I never in a million years expected this to become a commercial project at all. I mean, to me it was a conceptual art project, and it was really important to weave with those original 100 tapes that I collected, and as far as I was concerned, when I had the first two panels of fabric, that was my art piece.
But some friends of mine who were industrial designers in New York saw it, and were like, "Well, I think you might be onto something with this, maybe you should show it around, and we'll talk to people and see what could happen."
And a friend of mine at The Apartment, which is an industrial design gallery in New York, just suggested, "Maybe you should just send samples to the three major textile distributors, " and I did. Just a silly artist's letter on regular paper in an envelope with a couple small pieces of sample. I just said, "I've got this product, if you'd be interested in speaking with me," and Designtex called the next day.
I mean, literally. They barely had time to receive the envelope, when I got a call saying they'd be willing to speak with me about it. And I don't think they even realized, when they first spoke with me, that all the pieces were sort of in place already to make it into a commercial thing.
TH: And now Sundance Channel just included you in an episode of "Big Ideas For a Small Planet", which was themed around artists who use recycled materials in their work. And so you were alongside other artists who were doing similar things. Did you feel like there was a connection, kindred spirit thing between artists using recycled materials?
Alyce: Well, yeah, I think there is. The Sundance episode was interesting, because there were three artists. One's a photographer who's making work about the Arctic, which was very, very interesting. And he just happened to, because he's been doing it over the course of time, capture some interesting global warming images, some very dramatic global warming proof.
And then the other lady was making a house out of an airplane. I don't feel like I have very much in common with the lady who's making the house out of the airplane, because she's spending an awful lot of money to take something and make it into a recycled thing. And I think there's merit to that, but I think that what people don't realize a lot of times is that is that you don't have to spend many, many thousands of dollars on solar panels for a house, for example. There are cheaper options. There are cheaper solar panels, there are windmills that you can make yourself.
I think a lot of times, people who have a lot of money can just throw money into being greener, and that's really not the point, because there's a lot more waste in having to truck things around, and have things manufactured, instead of using recycled materials.
So I think that there's a wide spectrum. I think it's all very helpful, it's all wonderful that people are thinking in a more sustainable way, but I think that there's not necessarily a lot in common between all people who are recycling. I mean, some people are actually spending more and using more fossil fuel in order to recycle than just using what's around them.
TH: And you talk about this do-it-yourself, very hands-on approach, which can be the economical way to live greener. You're such a crafty person, do you have experiences with this hands-on approach to green living that you want to share?
Alyce: Well, it's sort of hard to even imagine not using the materials that are around. Like for example, right now I'm looking out my window and I have containers with tomatoes and eggplants in them, and they're just halved 50-gallon drums that I picked up from the dump in my town. I mean, I do a lot of collecting at the dump.
And I feel like, when I see a material, especially something on the side of the road, or at the dump, it sparks something, and then I know what it needs to be used for. It's not often that I think of a project and then have to go out and find the material. Usually it's the material that inspires the thing.
So, just looking around here, a lot of the tin that's on the roof came from the dump, and just a lot of salvaged materials. It's not only economical, it's just kind of sensible to get things out of the landfill. So there's a lot of wood, plywood and other kinds of boards and wood, and wire, and all kinds of things. The dump is just a fantastic resource [laughs] for building materials.
TH: I completely agree with you, there's nothing quite like dumpster-diving, or rummaging around at the dump. It's a unique thrill. To put it all in a nutshell, is there a message for people that you like to pass on when it comes to, in a hands-on way, building a sustainable world? Is there advice that you like to convey?
Alyce: Well, I guess it's kind of clichÃ©, the "think globally, act locally" thing, but it really does boil down to that. If you can just try to keep as much as possible, including your food and everything, really, in your own hands. If you can grow a garden yourself, then that's great; but if you don't have land but have a nearby food co-op, then you could join that.
I mean, as much as you possibly can, to take into your own hands the resources that you use—to realize what those resources are, and try to create them yourself.