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Episode 51
Artist Sarah Morris

  • 2 min read

Episode Description

A discussion with artist Sarah Morris. Morris’s films and paintings try to capture the way in which we conceptualize the physical space of locations, while trying to reconcile our imaginations and the reality of navigation. Her works are in the collections of nearly every major contemporary museum and this coming year will see major retrospectives in both Germany and Japan.

Transcript

Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focus on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with artist Sara Morris. Morris's films and paintings try to capture the way in which we conceptualize the physical space of locations while trying to reconcile our imaginations in the reality of navigation. Her works are in the collections of nearly every major contemporary museum. And this coming year will see major retrospectives in both Germany and Japan. And now, a parallax view of the art world with artist Sara Morris.

Craig: [00:01:01] It makes me wonder why Sarah Morris doesn't have a podcast.

Sarah: [00:01:05] That's a great question. Actually, I remember that Lawrence Weiner once told me he came and heard we were all in Switzerland. And and he always used to say that artists were like expensive luggage being shipped around the world. Obviously, that has changed a little bit. But anyway, after we did these series of talks and I did my talk, he said, "Really, you should..." He didn't say podcast, he said, "you should have a TV show."

Craig: [00:01:35] Absolutely.

Sarah: [00:01:36] And I thought that was I'm not sure if that was like a backhanded compliment, but I'll take it as a compliment.

Craig: [00:01:41] No, I mean, you know, and it's funny because I mean, I talk about this with people sometimes.

Sarah: [00:01:46] He was a great talker.
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Craig: [00:01:47] Oh, sure. And, you know, I only wish I could have the bass in my voice that that Lawrence had, right?

Sarah: [00:01:54] Yeah. And the questioning.

Craig: [00:01:58] Sure. You know, in my twenties, I love to stay up late every night and watch Charlie Rose, and I feel like that's kind of where I found a love for interviewing. And, you know, that show doesn't exist anymore because he got canceled for obvious reasons. But you know what? There's a slot there for somebody like you to have interesting conversations with people because.

Sarah: [00:02:19] There is.

Craig: [00:02:21] You know, you're the one with the the philosophy degree and the well-traveled.

Sarah: [00:02:26] Well, I could do that if I wasn't doing all the other things that I'm doing. So it's as you must know with preparing for stuff and getting stuff organized. I mean, if you've done 50 podcasts in a year, that's a lot like. I mean, I could I mean, I've done several films so far with people of interest that have sort of come up peripherally with other films that I've done. So there's almost like a chain of filmmaking that in my mind isn't just a visual investigation. It is also hundreds of conversations that go on around the making of a film, around the understanding and navigation of space that I always find really interesting. I don't record those conversations in a few instances, though, I have made them films, which notably was like "Robert Towne" film, which I made after I shot the "Los Angele"s film. And he was in, you know, and I realized I needed to have a conversation with him, which is a crazy story if you want to hear it.

Craig: [00:03:41] Absolutely.

Sarah: [00:03:43] So basically in 2006, I was asked to do...well, for many years I had been asked to do with Public Art Fund, I had been asked to do a project anywhere I wanted in Manhattan. And Tom Eccles was sort of asking me and I really wanted to do a piece in the Seagram's building, although there was only one spot available, which is where that tapestry, that Picasso tapestry hung.

Sarah: [00:04:15] And we we couldn't get an answer about it. And we certainly I would never have been able to do like a wall painting or an actual intervention on the architecture. And so finally I said, Lever House because Lever House was like, you know, out of there's something really wrong about Lever House, right? It has a plaza, now they use it as a restaurant. But back then it was like it was a plaza that you think should be an entrance to a subway. It's not it should be a bar or restaurant. It wasn't. You should be able to cross the block quickly, but you can't because there's this like glass lobby. There's a number of sort of frustrating aspects to that building, although it was the first public plaza in Manhattan, from what I understand, and then it became sort of code to make public space whenever you made a skyscraper. But so as I was doing it, I came up with this idea to do one of the "Los Angeles" paintings called "Robert Towne", who had sort of he was almost like a ghost when I was making the film.

Sarah: [00:05:29] He was in so many conversations that I would have that Robert Towne would enter the conversations. And I was you know, I obviously was always a huge fan of "Chinatown". I can't think of a better film, really. And and the whole idea about "Chinatown" is a is a frame of mind was, I think, even a line in the film.

Craig: [00:05:52] Right.

Sarah: [00:05:53] But I was always super interested in him. And then when I proposed to do this piece called Robert Towne, which is, of course, a fictional name. You know, it's not even his real name. He's...I think he's a he comes from a Russian Jewish background. And his name was adopted. So when I said the piece was going to be called "Robert Towne", the person who was in charge of Public Art Fund said at the time said you're going to have to get it okayed by him. Which I was like, That seems really ridiculous. I mean, it was almost like a sort of litigious fantasy that he would say no and sue us. So anyway, I ended up calling Robert Towne to get his permission to title the piece. On Lever House, "Robert Towne", and he said, I'd rather be on the ceiling than the floor.

Sarah: [00:06:58] And that was sort of the beginning of a conversation which led to the making of the film, which I shot like a few months later. But it always struck me as sort of ironic to have this sort of fictional name called "Robert Towne" in Manhattan on a building which sort of had produced it was the headquarters for Lever House. I mean, Lever House was the headquarters of Lever, which was like a soap company. And obviously, Robert Towne had had written the infamous shampoo film in the late seventies.

Craig: [00:07:31] Right.

Sarah: [00:07:31] So I had asked to do that, like sometimes characters or people enter the films and I never have like a direct conversation with them. In other cases, there's many conversations with somebody about the making of a film, and they're not an image, right? Who becomes an image and what becomes an image is sort of there's a there's almost like an alchemical sort of process with how those decisions get made. But the conversations that go on sort of through the films and pass them, you know, become sort of the matrix for how I sort of move around and how I who I'm talking to and how I'm thinking about my work.

Craig: [00:08:21] So you're bound to think about interconnectedness. I mean, even in the story that you're just talking about Robert Towne and "Shampoo", I think I've heard you tell the story about how you were working on Los Angeles in 2004, and you're in Warren Beatty's office and he takes a call from Robert Towne.

Sarah: [00:08:40] Yeah, that was in his library. Yeah. And I remember looking at this photo of Hockney that was in his library, and then he got a call from Robert Towne, and Robert Towne was out of town, so to speak. He wasn't in Los Angeles, otherwise he would have possibly been in the Los Angeles film. But he was out of town and he was somehow in South Africa shooting a film. And I heard this, you know, like anybody from Los Angeles, they sort of like to do this spectacle of their phone call. So I got to hear 20 minutes or 15 minutes of a one sided conversation about a very difficult film situation going on. I don't know whether it was an actor or an actress having an issue or whether it was a writer problem. But anyway, I sat in and I heard this whole conversation and I was very intrigued as to what was actually going wrong with Robert Towne's film, you know? And then I realized at some point I, I have to treat Robert Towne as an epilogue like Robert Towne became this sort of key to the history of Los Angeles and the key to what would be better about Los Angeles if there were more people like him.

Craig: [00:10:02] Sure.

Sarah: [00:10:03] You know?

Craig: [00:10:03] So almost almost a lens to look through?

Sarah: [00:10:06] Yeah. And I mean, he tells you he has so many interesting stories about, oh, everything from the history of his own career, but all the various people who sort of created 70s filmmaking in Hollywood. And also, you know, he has very interesting stories about how he tells he told me a story I can't remember if it's in the yeah, it is partially in the Robert Towne film, he tells me a story of how Robert Evans sort of made his Robert Evans really made his career like the deal that Robert Evans gave him allowed him to write pretty much for the rest of his life based on Chinatown alone, you know, because basically Evans offered him a share of the movie, which was apparently unheard of at the time. So sometimes these also these economic things, which are usually not talked about, certainly in the art world, you know, they're fascinating because you also hear the history of an industry like the history of how he was operating, history of Paramount and the history of like how that role came to be, which is basically like somebody being a script doctor, taking somebody else's material and working it. Obviously, Chinatown was written by Towne, but he had already developed this career as a fixer, you know, as somebody who could come into a situation and, like, clean it up and get it. Get the dialog right. Get this scenario right. And that sort of intrigued me, and I sort of thought about that the role of the artist is not so dissimilar, like what's needed. You know, you're oftentimes invited going back to Lawrence Weiner, you're oftentimes invited into a situation to sort of say something or do something. And you do have to think very seriously about context, about where you're operating, what's going on, what's what's missing from this situation.

Craig: [00:12:27] Just to reset for my listeners. There is one question in terms of like context. I try to ask every artist, which is a hypothetical. If you were to sit down at a dinner next to someone who has never met you before and has no idea who Sarah Morris is, how would you describe what you do, what it looks like to this person that is a complete stranger?

Sarah: [00:12:56] Well, I guess I would say that I, I guess I would say, first of all, that I was an artist and that I make films and paintings that somehow try to picture or capture the way in which we imagine space, the way in which we navigate space, the way in which we navigate cities and people, the way we handle our infrastructure, the way things sort of move, and when I say the way things move, I mean even more nebulous things like power, the way power is configured, the way in which we fantasize about that, all of those things. Sometimes it's not the actual way of the way. For instance, if you look at early paintings of mine, whether they be "HBO", "Grace Building" or the "Revlon Corporation", they don't actually look like that. Right? That's the way I want them to look. They're the way I want to display those sort of signs, you know, and to almost like as an appropriation of space, you know, taking over those elements of parts of sort of the context we live in. Is that too long of an end?

Craig: [00:14:36] No, no, it's it's never too long of an answer, Sarah. So your films, your paintings, they're very much tied to coordinates. They're tied to place. They're tied to places. They're tied to times. Is there something in particular about specific dates and times that you find attractive?

Sarah: [00:14:56] I mean, I am interested. I mean, I'm always interested in the precision, the seeming precision of time, which, of course, we know that everything is connected. Right. I definitely believe in sort of duration, the idea of duration, not specific moments of time, because I think it's impossible if we took a specific moment in time, it's connected to the moment before, the moment after. It's connected possibly to something a few years back. You know, there's no way to isolate the specific moment in time. You can try to but I do think the element of what when I say, how do you navigate and how to how do I navigate? I think about that a lot, about my path through the city, my path period. You know, I think about where my studios have been. I think about sort of moving through time, through history, which now obviously is you can say when I say history, history becomes art history, right? So you think about, you sort of think about sort of all the conversations that have happened and what is sort of propelling you. So sort of when I think about the calendar, which is an interesting problem now, especially with COVID, it's sort of like, I don't know, there was like I feel like there's become a crater that has happened in the calendar.

Sarah: [00:16:31] You know what I mean? Like people have sort of lost some conception of hard time. There's even more of this concept of duration. And that's fascinating to me because that's something I think artists are quite aware of, even without a global pandemic. But I think the global pandemic for sure exaggerated a lot of things. And for sure it exaggerated this idea of distraction and concentration and the sort of crazy in-between space between the two, right? What is the state where you're not completely distracted nor you completely concentrated? And this sort of pivot between these two states of being is sort of where a lot of people have been for the last two years, right? But as an artist, I think you're flicking in and out of sort of concentration and highly sort of relaxed moments, right? Like, it's not it's not just one state of affairs, thank God. You know, I mean, you're just sort of moving. Moving about.

Craig: [00:17:45] No, it's it's really interesting. You know, you're talking about duration. It makes me think of our perception of time because time is a constant, but our perception of time changes as we get older. "They say" because when you're a five years old to to get to your sixth birthday, you know, you have to make it another 20% of your lifetime. But, you know, by the time you're in your fifties, it's only 2%. And so, like each year, you know, our perception of of how quickly time is passing is, is changed. That's always been a really interesting concept to me because, you know, we're always told that time is such a constant.

Sarah: [00:18:29] Well, everything is quite relational. I mean, the sense of I mean, I love that Charles and film "Powers of Ten" because of that sort of issue of scale, you're talking about scale a child scale of perceiving time and perceiving people even you know, you might know only X amount of people when you're five, you know many more people by the time you're 20 and and so on. But in some ways, I don't really know if there's any sort of like progression through these sort of experiences because as I was thinking about it, for instance, I was asked recently by another artist to find a photo of myself when I was five, and of course, I don't have it with me. I'm going to have to go to get it get it off my parents. But, you know, when I was five, I don't think you know, I don't really think my personality was much different than it is now. Maybe my sense of scale was different, but I'm not even sure about that, you know? I had very precise ideas about the city before I even got to the city. And when I say the city, I mean New York City. You know, it was clear to me that New York City was like a mecca, you know, and that I was definitely going there. And I remember that very precisely the first time I went, which was I was like less than three. So I don't know. I mean, how you perceive things is, is I'm not sure if it's a constant or if it changes. I mean, for sure there's elements of both, right?

Craig: [00:20:14] Well, you know, that's something that strikes me sometimes also is that I think about places I lived 20 years ago that I haven't visited in 20 years. And in my mind, that place is still exactly the way I left it.

Sarah: [00:20:30] Yeah,

Craig: [00:20:30] But it's just as real in my mind is as if, you know, that's the case. But I know that there's absolutely no way that it's exactly the same. And so our perception of what these spaces are is kind of tied to our memories in time. Philosophy is more your wheelhouse, right?

Sarah: [00:20:54] Well, I mean, I didn't you know, I did study some philosophy. I studied mainly political philosophy, but I wouldn't say I'm an expert by any stretch. I you know, I read a lot of books and I love reading. I love I love reading other people's ideas and sort of comparing it to how I'm experiencing those phenomenons, whatever they are or whatever politically they are. I like political philosophy, but I like a lot. I mean, you know, when I speak about duration, I'm talking about Bergson, you know, like that to me that I remember when I read those books, I was really like, that does, you know, the sort of understanding of time and of sort of inner language that happened around the turn of the century, sort of the turn of the century, 1900. Sort of right at the moment before things became industrialized. That's sort of interesting. The writing around that that moment. And then what happened next, of course, is a sort of major, major revolution on the level of what we're probably experiencing now.

Craig: [00:22:21] So let me let me ask you, in your opinion, would you consider your films documentaries?

Sarah: [00:22:28] Definitely not. Definitely not. I will never forget once I screened "Los Angeles" in Los Angeles, right? And I screened it in Los Angeles twice. Once was at a screening at Creative Artist Agency, which is the talent agency in L.A.. And then once because it was I think it was shown at UCLA and it was in the sort of running up to the Oscars. And I think the producer of the film and I put it as a as a possible short documentary, but, you know, I remember in the audience at the university anyway, there was somebody in the audience who was like, "This isn't Los Angeles." And I remember thinking or saying, "Well, of course not. This is like sort of this is this is the film industry, right? This deals with sort of fiction. This deals with fantasy. This deals with the fact that most actors or actresses are out of work. This is not this is this is about aspiration. Right?" It's not about it's not. I mean, yes, it documents in the sense I shoot like documentary style. I don't use lights. I use real situations. If you want to call them coordinates, you could call them coordinates. I put myself into certain situations. I'm not necessarily creating them. That script is running through the Xerox machine. That actress is trying out for that role.

Sarah: [00:24:04] That casting agent is doing his thing. You know, Brad Pitt is punching himself. You know, those are all things that were happening. You know, it's just I was I was there to capture them and I place myself in those situations. Of course, you could argue that that changed what went down, but maybe in a few examples, it did change what happened for the camera, so to speak. But in general, it's they're shot like documentaries. A lot of the shots are like documentaries or they're like B-roll from some other film, you know? I mean, I remember when I first started making films, people thought that I had used other people's footage and I was like, "No, this is actually my footage of Chase Bank. This is my footage of Park Avenue. This is my footage of Penn Station at 5:00." And, you know, the idea that somebody would capture these seemingly just the sort of transient nature of the movement of the city and these narrative things that, you know are narratives, but you don't know the ending to the narrative, right? You just know that somebody is rushing from Penn Station out with a briefcase. You don't know exactly know. It's sort of frustrated narrative, if you will. But no, they're not documentaries. I don't I don't really view them that way.

Craig: [00:25:36] You know, it makes me wonder whether they may be even more objective than some documentaries.

Sarah: [00:25:43] Well documentaries are fictional things, too. I mean, they can be because it's like you start out with a theory and then you sort of prove your theory by talking to somebody who, you know, has the key to whatever you're trying to sort of learn from. I suppose you could look at it as my films, as documentary, in the sense that they're sort of an exploration of a place, but they're probably more David Attenborough than they are documentaries, you know? In the sense that they're like, I look at things as like a habitat, right? And if you look at things as a habitat for everything and even a recipe or a diagram for a painting, if you think about if you think about the contacts and Rolodex of Creative Artists Agency, which by the way, is a painting of mine that's at the Museum of Modern Art, was collected by them. But if you think about, you know, the contacts and the sort of diagram of one of those agents heads of like how they're operating and who they're trying to bring up and who they're trying to throttle and and so on. You know, you might get to an image of my paintings. You might be able to sort of derive derive some sort of a process there.

Sarah: [00:27:09] But that sort of navigation of like taking something off, taking something down, squelching something else, you know, is all sort of this compression that most people in our sort of current configuration of, let's call it, sort of late capitalism, that's what people are doing. The CIA is just like an extreme example of that, right? And it's just in one field. But this sort of, you know, even the iCal, which I hate iCal so much, I mean, it's the bane of my existence looking at my iCal because it's like it has a glitch in it. It repeats people's birthdays 5,000 times. Like, I don't know if I'm the only person this happens to, but anyway, it's like just the carving out of space of iCal is like, tells an entire story. Right? It tells an entire I mean, it is a document, right? It becomes the history of the studio or the history of what I'm up to. But on another level, it's like it's not just the history of what I'm up to, it's the history of how people are perceiving time and context.

Craig: [00:28:27] Do each of the films, do you wind up having paintings that are kind of naturally created as physical responses to the films?

Sarah: [00:28:37] Well, it's not it's not that organized. It's not that organized. The paintings, even with "Midtown", the paintings, because "Midtown" was the first film that I did, the paintings started before the film continued after the film, definitely certain buildings in the film appeared as titles of my paintings, but so there is sort of a map in that regard. But it's not linear. It's not like the films come first and then comes the paintings or vice versa. It's like everything's happening all at the same time and sometimes with big lags, you know? But no, it's not, it's not it's not so organized like that. I mean, you really could say in a way that the films and the paintings, I mean, they are made by one person, but it could very well be the work of two different artists. It happens to not be, but it could be. You don't have to experience one to experience the other. You don't have to see them in order either. I mean, I don't like the idea of this sort of...I don't really like the idea of the black box, of the way people have sort of shown film in art. I mean, I've been lucky enough to show the films in a lot of different spaces around the world, and sometimes we show them, sometimes we do project them in a, quote, black box.

Sarah: [00:30:19] It's like, I'm not so interested in that, per se. I like the idea that you could capture a few moments again, going back to this idea of distraction as opposed to concentration. I think you could I think you could watch like 10 seconds of my Beijing film and get it, right? It might be...I might shoot in 200 locations, but like if you saw a few of them, you would probably be able to understand a certain temperature, which I'm trying to yield, you know? And this sort of flickering that goes on. But I don't think you have to, I don't think you have to see it all as a whole. You know, there's different levels of like how I view the audience. I think it's okay to just see an or understand a fraction. And I think you have to see the entire whole. Of course I see the entire whole. Certain people see the entire whole. But you don't have to like that's not that's not a prerequisite. It's not like it's a mandate that you have to. Although it'd be fun to mandate that, but you don't have to.

Craig: [00:31:27] So in my imagination, you do a lot of research and you talk to a lot of people and you wind up creating like a shot list, this coordinate at this time, and then you show up and you shoot there.

Sarah: [00:31:41] And something totally different could be happening. By the way, what I project, it could be something like I didn't expect, for instance, on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I didn't expect for Brad Pitt to punch himself in the face a bunch of times. I mean, I heard they were having all types of problems on the set, but I didn't expect him to do that. I just showed up and that's what happened. So you have to be sort of ready to capture sort of that anarchic moment. And sometimes the moments are very staged and very intermediated by some other group, and sometimes they're quite raw. And actually that's sort of interesting. There's different sort of densities of like actually having to deal with that because it makes it very...makes it really surprising because you don't know, like another example of like when I was in Beijing, we got there very first night, you know, the producer who is quite a commercial producer who basically wasn't going to work for me. But then I somehow got the International Olympic Committee to do it. And then as soon as I got all the permission, he was like, "Yes, I'm on it, right? I'm going to work for you." And so I remember we went on to dinner the first night in Beijing where I was incredibly jetlagged and somebody said, "Kissinger is around. He's like, He's he's here for the opening ceremonies." And I immediately was like, "Well, we need to definitely need he needs to be on the shot list NOW. Where could we get him? Where could we possibly get him?" And apparently he was giving a lecture, we found out at the University of Beijing, and we went and we filmed him in this amazing sort of auditorium with the chandelier. I mean, it looks like out of Stranger Things, it was like it was like Kubrick mixed with stranger things. It was like this chandelier with this incredible.

Craig: [00:33:47] Like Dr. Strangelove.

Sarah: [00:33:48] Honeycomb, structured ceiling. And then before he spoke, Jackie Chan was speaking and I was like, I can't believe this. How on earth would they have Jackie Chan lined up with Henry Kissinger? And I thought, well, that was that was quite apt. You know, that's what I mean by being sort of surprised by how things are actually organized by others. I think there's a level of randomness, but maybe not. Maybe there's a whole story. I'm sure there is a story for why Jackie Chan was in the lineup with Henry Kissinger. Aside from some sense of irony on the part of whoever was organizing the speakers that day. But, you know, I'm sure there is a story about why as to why somebody had a logical reason for it, but it doesn't really matter what the logical reason is like. That doesn't interest me.

Craig: [00:34:44] And it just kind of goes back to to some of the points we've already discussed is that when you are planning your your film, you're imagining the narrative based on what you anticipate being at those coordinates. The end product winds up being totally different.

Sarah: [00:35:01] Somewhat. Somewhat. But no, I think I don't think it ends up being that different than I have in my head. I just think the little details are different. Like, I don't know. I didn't know that that was going to happen. I didn't know that we were going to be shooting like, you know, the that we would get...that we'd have such access to, for instance, the female gymnasts. Like, I didn't know. I mean, I imagined that we would, but like, I didn't realize that we would get the balance beam screw ups of the top gymnasts of the world. I didn't really think about that. I just sort of thought, I want to place...I want to have full access. And then we'll dissect the sort of lineup as as we have energy and sort of time to do. Because when you're shooting film, sort of like with anything, time is money. So you sort of you have a certain window of time to do it and it's almost like a game, you know, it's like you have only a certain amount of days to shoot your film, so you sort of prioritize what becomes the most, what you have access to and what seems the most pertinent to the overall image of the film.

Craig: [00:36:15] You know, shift gears just a little bit. And and that is can I ask you about "The Parallax View". You know, I've heard you talk a little bit about this movie from 1970.

Sarah: [00:36:27] I love that film.

Craig: [00:36:29] Interesting story. You know, I grew up outside of Dallas and, you know, the Kennedy assassination always kind of hanging and lingering in the air. When I was in high school. My U.S. history teacher actually showed "The Parallax View" in our classroom.

Sarah: [00:36:44] That's pretty amazing.

Craig: [00:36:45] I know.

Sarah: [00:36:46] I wish I had a history teacher like that.

Craig: [00:36:48] What does that film mean to you?

Sarah: [00:36:51] I think that film means to me several things. It means to me I mean, I like the idea that you would have this sort of recruiting operation that is the sort of entity that you don't know who they are and that you're doing a job which you don't really know how it fits into everything else, right? Like when Warren Beatty takes that test and is determined to pass the test with a certain sort of profile, he's not entirely sure he has a theory, but he's not entirely sure how his work is going to be used, like what he's actually being recruited for. And I think I think there's an aspect to that in most in most of our roles, but it's certainly that in the role of the artist. But I guess that's one aspect of it. I like the second. I like the idea of an anonymous entity sort of controlling stuff. I like the idea of that. And then the second thing, I like the idea of the disruptor to that. I like the person who infiltrates and gets recruited and has their own agenda, right? Which is the sort of Warren Beatty character. I love that. I think there's something quite subversive about that. The idea that it has this background of 70s American politics and this, you know, of taking down progressive sort of characters or at least sort of like keeping them down, sort of changing the whole idea of the conspiracy is something that we're still grappling with today.

Sarah: [00:38:43] There's no end to it, right? I mean, once you get on that and I'm not saying I'm a conspiracy theorist, but I just like the idea that basically there are certain entities that are in power that are trying to somehow activate or use our sort of I don't know, somehow I guess I'm trying to say that like the idea that are somehow "The Parallax View" anyway, you have an organization that's trying to sort of control political outcomes specifically in that film. And I guess I'm probably a kid who witnessed a president resign. That was pretty major. I definitely saw my parents talking back to a television set or speaking about the news. I remember then, I remember even hearing I mean, there was a lot of that in my house anyway. Like the idea of basically realizing what was going on is not what actually is going on, right? That actually there's sort of two soundtracks, right? There's the official soundtrack and then there's the the other version. And so this idea of like basically things are not what they seem or sort of deconstructing things seemed to be like a normal...it just seemed to be like a normal thing. You know, it's like as as normal as cutting the grass or, you know. Having a calendar in your house.

Craig: [00:40:34] Do you think that influences your work? I mean, could could somebody objectively look at your films and say, "you know what? Is this a little bit about surveillance?" You know, especially, you know, when you think about some of your your paintings are sort of, you know, satellite-level imagery in some ways, right? I mean, is surveillance in there somewhere or is that just me filling in gaps?

Craig: [00:41:01] I'm not sure if it's surveillance or voyeurism in any sort of like normal sense. Probably more in a sort of morph between sort of like Charles and Ray Eames and Picabia. You know, like I mean, I'm very interested in the machine. I'm very interested in the idea of fake industry. I'm interested in the idea of currencies and in these sort of flow patterns that sort of are sort of what's making things tick, like how are these sort of aspect...and I'm not just talking about infrastructure, like proper infrastructure, but like all, all of these infrastructures, right? I'm not sure if you would even call them infrastructure, but I think it does influence the work this idea of looking for the sort of structure of things, trying to figure out how are things organized. And and obviously with thinking about that. You're at the same time playing with like the idea that any type of planning of a society is bound to have some level of failure. I mean, there's just there's just no way around it with the level of corruption and the level of sort of human psychology, right? So I think there's an element probably going back to "The Parallax View" where you just understand that the social forces that are upon us are not what they seem. And I think I probably had a pretty good understanding of that at a pretty early age.

Sarah: [00:42:53] Whether that makes me anti-authoritarian...probably, you know, whether that makes sort of one I think you have to have...the thing about art that is the most interesting to me, aside from all the conversations and the people and the travel and all of this sort of vast, again, connections between all these places and people is that there is this sort of constant sort of questioning of like what should have priority, what what does...what is the sort of dominant culture, what is not the dominant culture? I mean, even if you're looking at artists that sort of dealt with the marginal or marginalization as as a sort of concept in in their work. And you can look at sort of, I don't know, Paul McCarthy is a perfect example of somebody who's taken that trope. I mean, that has a political side to it, obviously. And I think that's the part about art that I love, is that sort of constant questioning of how you can choose a theme, and try to render it visual and have that conversation. Because ultimately, I think art is conversations it's impossible to avoid. Like that's what generates that, even if it's just in the mind of the viewer. And very rarely is it just in the mind of the viewer. But even if it is just in the mind of the viewer, that's okay.

Craig: [00:44:33] You know, when I look at your your paintings, I think of this this website I go to sometimes that is focused around the visual representation of data called "Information is Beautiful". And I don't know if you've ever come across this, but it's. 

Sarah: [00:44:50] I have not.

Craig: [00:44:50] You would you would probably love it. I have a number of books by a Yale professor named Edward Tufte, who talks about designing around the visual representation of data. And it reminds me a lot of your work, but, you know, I'm not always sure exactly what's the underpinning or what. I don't know exactly...

Sarah: [00:45:14] I'm not sure either. I'm not sure either. I mean, basically, you know, of course, I think about the idea of all the different types of visualization of data. Even like right now, as I'm talking to you, I'm looking at a stop sign in Long Island City...stop light, that is, you know, which is a brilliant, brilliant sort of invention that obviously has a middle ground, which is the yellow, which I love, because that's the light you go through, right? But, you know, visualization of data is like everywhere from 7-Eleven to the stoplight to the subway codes that I'm looking at, to trucks going by. I mean, you have there's so many elements to it and we know how to we actually are quite sophisticated in how we look at like even a Coke, you know, even a Coke can like it means something around the world. And it doesn't necessarily just mean like, you know, a cold Coke. It's not like an autonomous thing. It's it's obviously it's a it's a piece of propaganda ends up like a sign. It ends up like a flag, as does FedEx.

Craig: [00:46:34] Right.

Sarah: [00:46:35] You know, I mean, all of these elements are sort of moving around and they're they're everywhere. And, yeah, I'm looking I'm looking at things like that as I'm sort of working on the paintings. I'm looking at everything from how I may see something that I think could be done better. Or it might be that I'm looking at like the scaffolding systems of Hong Kong or the matchbooks of Hong Kong. You know, like there's many...it's it's sort of a sliding compendium of things going into the paintings. It's a little bit like a sort of tornado, and then it ends up very quiet. But there's a lot of...I mean, I never really want to have too literal or too linear a path to the actual rendering of whatever data I'm using. But there's a lot of things that go into sort of the perspective that I'm trying to trying to build.

Craig: [00:47:41] The majority of your paintings look very structured and planned. But I've heard you talk about improvisation and how people kind of underestimate how much improvisation you use. Does that improv happen in the digital design or does it happen at the point of execution?

Sarah: [00:48:00] Well, nowadays I and for quite a long time, I always work on the computer and the paintings are designed on the computer. But and I do my best to sort of work with paint live. And that means that even if I have a painting laid out, planned out and we're rendering it on the canvas, I will still make a number of changes even as it's done. And that's that's that's gone on for quite a while. So it's not like the computer can solve all problems to do with scale and that you can plan out everything you can't because some things just have to happen in the studio. But certain things happen even improvisationally when I'm at the computer. When I'm at the computer and I'm working on a painting, there's a thing that, for instance, mathematically I might create a certain grid or plan of a diagram. I'll call them diagrams. But again, I don't know diagrams to what, but they are diagrams, right? So I'll be planning a diagram. And then there's certain things that happen where there'll be an accident that happens using a certain tool. And then I'll realize that actually that creates a different type of space, and I'll end up using that or trying to learn how to use that accident. So it's not not not so dissimilar to sort of things that happen in the films, too. There's there's all sort of levels of improvisation that go on.

Craig: [00:49:50] But, you know, you know, as you as you describe that, I think of these paintings I saw in your most recent show, "Means of Escape", that sort of look like spider webs in. And it's almost like the spider webs. You know, how a spider will create a pristine, you know, symmetrical spider web and then something will happen. Maybe something's caught, webs break

Sarah: [00:50:16] Well you'll have something drive through it or go through it or it'll rip.

Craig: [00:50:19] Right. Then there will be these random repairs, right? And you know, what I'm hearing kind of makes me think of of that painting. Are there spider webs in there?

Sarah: [00:50:34] There are. There are definitely some spider webs in there. I mean, at the beginning of COVID, I found myself up in Massachusetts and I just saw...I was thinking about this condensation of the city, which, you know, you hear people, everyone from Rem Koolhaas to so and so talking about this like the city is the solution. And then literally we have a crisis in the city is like empty, right? So I was sort of thinking about this congestion, condensation in the city, then it going to empty, now it's back to full again. And then I was thinking about these provisional structures, these improvised structures, but highly planned, highly engineered, which are these spider webs and thinking also how ephemeral they are, how tough they are at the same time. And I thought as I started to sort of photograph them and found them everywhere, like once you start looking for something, you can start to like looking for the letter S on license plates. Like you'll start to find them everywhere. So I started seeing them everywhere and I realized that actually maybe there's something to that idea of the improvisational and the idea of this other type of organism that's actually sort of also building their habitat and trying to think about survival and thinking about, you know.

Sarah: [00:52:09] Dealing with all these different predators and also thinking about their food. You know, so it was just sort of it was like a study for me of looking at another...to me that it was I was really thinking about New York when I was making those paintings.

Craig: [00:52:27] Mm hmm.

Sarah: [00:52:28] The state of New York. The state of also time, too, because it's like everything is relational in terms of scale, as we talked about. So if suddenly, you know, even if you're in New York City, which was, as I say, always my Mecca, you know, if New York is turned off like it was during the whatever, during Sandy and you had half the city off and half the city on, what type of the city is that?

Craig: [00:52:57] Right.

Sarah: [00:52:58] What kind of the city is a city with no people or no. No shows and no. What? It just sort of goes to show that a world I mean, to me, a world without culture is a world impossible to even think about. You know, and when you think about culture, it is like it is produced by a group of people moving somewhat in a random, chaotic way, moving in the same direction. Like it's it's not possible. Otherwise, if you think about what's going on in the Ukraine, it's like, you know, obviously culture becomes like a footnote. There's no time to think about culture. In fact, I just got an email from from Kiev because they have a couple of my paintings in that collection there. And they were trying to figure out evacuation. I've never been, but I got an email from them asking if I would help discuss what the plan was for their evacuation of the museum. And of course, I wrote immediately back and never heard from them again.

Craig: [00:54:16] Wow.

Sarah: [00:54:17] I don't know what that means, but anyway, these are all sort of modern, sort of quite, quite sort of current circumstances of thinking about the city and crisis, right? 

Craig: [00:54:33] Sure.

Sarah: [00:54:33] That's what we're all sort of thinking about even now. Even now, we're sort of in this moment of like optimism and whatever. It's still like what happened with the pandemic, no matter how much anybody doesn't want to speak about this, it is part of climate change that seems pretty clear.

Craig: [00:54:55] Sure. So, Sarah, you. I hate to change the subject one more time, but you you have you have a retrospective coming up, right?

Sarah: [00:55:06] I do. I have two retrospectives. You're reminding me of that. Don't give me a headache.

Craig: [00:55:11] Oh, I'm sorry.

Sarah: [00:55:13] There's two. There's two. One is in Japan and one starts in Germany. And I tried to get them all on the same page that it would be the same show, because I just thought maybe that would be better. But the Japanese said, no, they want to do their own show. So it's actually two different shows. One starts in January.

Craig: [00:55:37] No, I was just going to say, does that mean there are going to be some pieces that have to go from one to the other?

Sarah: [00:55:41] No, no. They're two separate checklists.

Craig: [00:55:44] Wow.

Sarah: [00:55:44] Two separate checklists. But the films, I mean, one one reason that I started doing film to begin with, aside from taking over my own set of references and being in charge of my own program, so to speak, not waiting for somebody to write about it, but to actually just sort of do it in visual form like a manifesto, is that you can show a film multiple places at the same time. It has it has a big advantage over a painting in that regard. And then you add in the fact that people are sort of attuned to watch and moving image much more than they are something that is seemingly static. But yes, they have two separate checklists, two completely different shows with two completely different catalogs, which is that's why I say it's like it's a little overwhelming at times, but I'm super excited about doing one starts in January, in 2023 in Osaka, and the other one is in Hamburg and it opens at the Deichtorhallen at the end of April 2023 and then travels through Germany and Switzerland.

Craig: [00:56:58] So is there a lot of heavy lifting on your part between now and then?

Sarah: [00:57:02] Yes. Yes. Because as we know, curators like, at least if you're living, curators like you to do...they want your take on almost everything, which is good. I'm not complaining, but it's just like you have to. It's about making the checklist...and I'm just watching Seth Price walk through the 7-Eleven parking lot right now I'm in my kitchen of the studio...anyhow, yeah, and there's because I'll be involved with the books, too. Right. Right. So I'll be. We have to come up. We have to find a lot of images of the making of the films and film stills and lots of visual material, and also make sure that everything is compatible now with this whole thing of everything becoming so hi-res. There's tons of old things that need to get re interpolated, right? They need to, unfortunately, that somebody has to do this. So it's going to have to happen, I guess, in the studio, sort of under my supervision, I guess. So but yeah, there's two books coming out for those shows and the title I want to just add the title of the Hamburg show is "All Systems Fail".

Craig: [00:58:24] Got it.

Sarah: [00:58:25] Which they were a little bit like, "oh", you know, when I said that title, I think in the middle of COVID, it was like deep COVID. Actually, when I say deep COVID, it was probably like early 2021, maybe even late 2020 when I titled the show. But I do like the idea of I mean, I think it's I think it's a good thing that people can't be controlled and that things go wrong. Like, I don't see that as a bad thing. That system planning would fail.

Craig: [00:58:58] And, you know, we try as we might. We really do a terrible job of anticipating the future. And so.

Sarah: [00:59:05] Well, there were a bunch of people who anticipated this future.

Craig: [00:59:08] That's true.

Sarah: [00:59:10] But yes. But believing it is another story. Right?

Craig: [00:59:14] Right.

Sarah: [00:59:15] But it's definitely there's a lot of material to deal with. There's a lot of aspects of thinking about how. Yeah, I mean, I'm not even sure. I don't even know as an artist, I don't even want to think about how things should be structured better. You know? But that's somebody else's job.

Craig: [00:59:40] Right.

Sarah: [00:59:41] But I can think about how things. Could be.

Craig: [00:59:48] Well. Well, it's just, you know, it's micro versus macro, right? You know, the you can't worry about as an artist, maybe how the grand system is designed. But you can, you know, on the micro level, how we can live within that system and process it to the best of our individual abilities, right? How do we process it?

Sarah: [01:00:13] How do we process it? And also, as an artist, you think about how you take things over. Like when I think about my "Midtown" series or even the way I approach any sort of titling to the paintings and the films I think about like mapping, you know, my universe, mapping it. And by doing that, it becomes like a form of graffiti in the sense of you're tagging it, you're taking it over, you're appropriating it. And once you take it over, like once you once you make a film about the Oscars and do it your way it and you realize maybe your way is better than the actual Oscars, which it's not very difficult to do that, right? You actually realized that actually that you've changed the thing itself. You know, once you're speaking about it and rendering it in this other way and it becomes shown and often reproduced enough and discussed enough, it actually changes the original film. The people who are in power are aware of it. They're aware that they were portrayed like that. They're aware of how...they're highly self-conscious people. So they're aware of it. And the same could be said for corporate America, which, of course, they're not as self conscious at all. Still, if you do, if you map out the way Sixth Avenue looked and who sort of dominated that skyline going up Sixth Avenue in Manhattan in the late 90s or whatever it was that I did. That was sort of my version of the sweet smell of success. Like you have you have this sort of panorama of the powers that be, but they're not even the powers that be now. Because actually, the thing is that these things are not they're they're not permanent. They're all in flux. And that's a good thing. It's not a bad thing. That's a good thing that they're in flux because anything that was permanent would be a problem.

Craig: [01:02:27] Well, Sarah, I seriously feel like I could talk to you for another hour. I mean, like we haven't even touched on your time with Jeff Koons.

Sarah: [01:02:35] Yes.

Craig: [01:02:35] You know, I mean, just.

Sarah: [01:02:36] You know, maybe we should do another session if you want if you want to get on to all of that, because, of course, there is a lot of material. So I'd be happy to schedule something else and we can go into.

Craig: [01:02:48] And so maybe.

Sarah: [01:02:49] Beginning in New York.

Craig: [01:02:50] Exactly.

Sarah: [01:02:51] I mean, maybe you want to just edit it in a way. I don't know if I went on, so.

Craig: [01:02:55] No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This our conversation today is exactly what I wanted our conversation to be. And it was it was, you know, it's like one of your films. You know, I set up questions, anticipating, you know, a line and  it became, what it became. But, you know, I would, you know, somewhere down the line, maybe we could have another conversation. And, you know, with that one could be about your early days in New York, because that that sounds like a really interesting time. And just how how things have changed and how the things stay the same.

Sarah: [01:03:34] How things have changed and what I saw. Yeah, I think that would be...that could be quite interesting.

Craig: [01:03:41] Sure. But I appreciate your candor and your openness and just being willing to talk and talk. If somebody wanted to keep track of of you and your work, where is the best place to follow you, Sarah?

Sarah: [01:03:53] Probably Instagram.

Craig: [01:03:54] And that's just sarahmorris?

Sarah: [01:03:56] Yeah.

Craig: [01:03:57] Awesome. I appreciate your time.

Sarah: [01:03:59] Yeah, thanks. Thank you for asking me.

Craig: [01:04:08] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense you can find the show on Apple Podcast, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to canvia.art and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at craig@canvia.art. Thanks for listening.

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