Sara Cwynar is a Canadian artist living in Brooklyn, New York. Before she switched to photography and art-making full time, she worked as a graphic designer for The New York Times Magazine, an experience she credits with informing her mode of working today. Her process involves near-constant culling and paring down—of found objects and images, video footage, snippets of readings, passages of theory. Her images are often assemblages of vintage imagery and painstakingly-arranged studio shots, dense with both visual layers and cultural references. When we spoke over Skype about a month ago, Sara was in London preparing for a show at Carl Kostyál gallery that features a series of images with a friend, graphic designer Tracy Ma. At the time she was in-between meetings, midway through a new film on the commercial production of color (an extension of her recent film Rose Gold), and toggling between two books: Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and On the New by Boris Groys.
You worked in graphic design before pursuing an MFA in photography. Were you interested in photography before you started designing? At what point did both of these things converge into your current practice?
I started out as an English literature major. I’m still interested in writing and literature, and still use those things in terms of making books and writing for video. I dropped out of school a bunch of times after that. I always wanted to be an artist and a photographer but I went back to school for graphic design because I thought it was more practical. Which is the only time in my life I’ve ever made a practical decision like that.
I really loved design and still do, but I fell into it without really knowing what it was, and what I actually wanted to be doing was photography. I started making photography in the mornings before I would go to work at the New York Times and I did some shows while I was working there. Eventually, after three years there, I was able to quit and just concentrate on doing photo. The way that design works, and the modes of working in graphic design, still inform my photo works, in the sense that I’m organizing massive amounts of information into something someone else can understand.
What was your motive for going for your MFA?
Maybe everyone feels this way, but I always felt like an imposter in the art world, because I was actually a graphic designer by training. Now I think of it as a good thing, but at the time I had just always wanted to do my MFA. Also, when you’re operating in the art world you’re often encountering only people who already like your work, so you just hear those opinions. It’s really hard to get someone to tell you honestly what they think. I was just at that stage, about a year after I quit the Times, when I felt like I should do it to get straightforward, honest feedback about my work, insofar as that’s possible.
You’ve been dealing with themes like hyperreality, the proliferation of image culture, and how images help shape our view of the world for a long time now. The Internet is obviously the great proliferator of images now, and the way that we value and share images online and on social media has changed even in the past 5 or 7 years. How have your own thoughts on image culture evolved over the course of your career?
There was such a moment of people making work about how images circulate. I can only speak for myself, but it stopped feeling so interesting. Or it started feeling like it was just one element of something else, instead of enough to make work about.
I’m thinking more now about a shared public archive of images, about the set of images that we are familiar with as a culture, that shapes how we see and understand ourselves and our history. What we see and what we accept as the image of something, or the hundred images of something, or the thousand—it was much more top-down in the Modernist period, with encyclopedias or newspapers or other authoritative documents, things like Life magazine or The National Geographic. There were only a set number of sources for seeing the world, and this was through images in the Western world.
Now images are just everywhere, but I think it’s still kind of the same. There are still images that we take to be authoritative, and others we just kind of discard. I actually don’t know if I feel like things have changed as much as it once felt like they had, or felt like they were going to. I try to look back on this Modernist period when populist imagery was so clear in its messages, and to think about how all the same themes and strategies are operating all around us right now and we just can’t see it yet, because it’s so hard to see these things in your own time. For example, the semiotics of advertising seems very naive in the ‘60s—we almost can’t believe people are falling for it. The ideals were very clear and limited: housewife, working husband, nearly always white, middle class, working towards some good life ideal. But surely we’re going to look back on this current moment and feel exactly the same. Maybe it will seem absurd that we produced content for Facebook as a leisure activity, for example, or that we couldn’t always see how retouched our images of women were.
I still think it’s interesting to think about how our experience of images has changed over time, but I also keep thinking lately that it actually hasn’t as much as we think it has. Sure, everyone can make an image now, but nobody cares about 99% of them. With the exception obviously of some images that have power precisely they were accessible to make in important moments, like Diamond Reynolds’ filming the immediate aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting, for example. But I think in terms of the images we digest every day, they’re still coming from the same centers of power and same authority that they always were.
And those centers of power are still something like newspapers and magazines, or cultural institutions with a name and perceived authority?
Yeah, or even in terms of the ways that we’ll often take images more seriously if they have a high production value. A lot of people would argue the opposite, but I still think it’s true. How do we interpret the means of production that goes into making an image? If it’s got a high resolution or looks like it was made by someone who knows those technologies it gets afforded more weight, and I think we do this unconsciously at this point. We also give authority to images that look really, really shitty and grainy, as if it was a true document of real life that just happened in an instant. So I don’t think that has changed much actually.
The images that define a lot of moments for us still do come from places like the New York Times. Historically we’ve relied on the same set of western-centric, mostly white male interests to define our culture and our history and who we are.
When you conceive of and start working on a new project, what is typically the impetus? Is it a response to what’s going on in the world, or to what you’re reading, or talking with others about?
I’m always collecting images or snippets of texts or things that people will say, lines that I’ll read in books—a lot of which is theory—or in the news. I’m also always collecting physical objects. While I’m accumulating these things I don’t have a concrete idea of what it will become, but usually something will just kind of strike me as the thing that I can do with all of that material.
When the Apple iPhone came out with the Rose Gold phone I thought, This object contains so much about what I’m already interested in, which is that design is often made with great optimism and then fades. Also, the way that we are sold the same thing with a slight difference to make it new again. I’m always thinking about how color contains history and how there is a lot of affect in color, a lot of feeling in it. It actually does contain a lot of meaning. So the Rose Gold iPhone, because it was marketed along the lines of color, seemed like a good way to open up to those ideas.
After you had that initial set of ideas to start working on Rose Gold, did those ideas evolve along with the scope of the project? Or do you feel like those were the major themes throughout?
They continued to be major themes but the project also opened up a lot. In the end it became much more about desire than I had anticipated. About wanting something even though you can see all the mechanisms that are making you want it. And more broadly, about the way that capitalism needs to keep offering you more things to desire so that you can keep working toward something, wanting something, so you can remain thrown into the world and engaged in it. I really saw my own activities in these themes so the project became a lot more personal too.
How do you revisit the material that you’ve been accumulating once an idea for a project has formed? And what form is that material typically in—how are you saving and organizing this stuff?
I’m actually so disorganized that I just have a kind of running mental inventory. Sometimes I’ll be reading something and know that it connects to something else, and I’ll have a vague idea of what that connection is. For example in the Rose Gold video there’s a tiny section about how revolutions in Eastern Europe were “branded” according to color. They were non-violent revolutions, and they wanted them to seem gentler perhaps, and also according to some, to be understood by Western alliances, so they gave them color names. When I read that, I had this vague memory of reading this anthropology text three years ago that talked about color revolutions. So then I have to spend like five hours digging back and trying to find that text. Then I’ll find 10 other things in the process.
This process is also connected to graphic design, because I’ll end up with an overwhelming amount of documents and information, and I’ll go through a bunch of lines of edits and wrangle it into something that makes sense. It’s the exact same feeling of putting together an issue of The New York Times Magazine: you have 50 pages of unedited drafts of stories and a list of illustrators you can hire. It’s a similar way of working.
I read that for the floral pieces for your show Flat Death you started with photos of floral still lifes you found in the NYPL. What are your other favorite places for image research, outside of the Internet?
I love the New York Picture Library. A lot of artists use it. Taryn Simon even did a project a couple of years ago where she was photographing the folders. I like that the New York Picture Library is so not the Internet: With most of those images, you get a feeling that they literally don’t exist anywhere else. I have no idea where those flower images come from because they just cut them out and glue them to boards. Which is what I love about them—it makes it more mysterious, that you can’t get a firm history on the thing that you’re working with.
I also love looking at encyclopedias, as kind of a physical precursor to the Internet, but all determined by what some white man decided should be the image to represent everything. It’s so hubristic, the notion of an encyclopedia—entries from A-Z are supposed to encompass the whole world in a set of books. But I think it really tells us a lot about how we got here and who we are.
You made your own encyclopedia in 2014, The Kitsch Encyclopedia. How did working on this book clarify or solidify for you your thoughts on kitsch? Or, put another way, how did living with those texts you used from Milan Kundera, Jean Baudrillard, and Roland Barthes, and organizing kitsch into an encyclopedia—it’s own type of kitsch—further inform your thinkings on the subject?
I still can’t explain it, but I’ve always been drawn to kitsch, and also to how kitsch isn’t just at the center of products of popular culture, which has become the more traditional definition of it. It’s also something that we need, and that people actually really love. And that I really love.
Kundera’s book is so corny. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is kind of cheesy, in a novel-y way. But his definition of kitsch is just amazing: that it can be anything—a political movement or a religious movement—that it can be to the left or right, it doesn’t matter. Or that it can be an image of the child playing in the grass. It’s all about seeing the world in this shared view, or the world how you imagine other people seeing it—with a collective eye. And also that we need these images to situate ourselves in the world and to ignore the things that are too chaotic about living. Baudrillard and Barthes are both talking about how you need these images to deal with the chaos of actual life, and that we use these images as an escape.
Reading those things connected me to the ideas that I already had about the need for kitsch when I was trying to figure out why I cared about it so much, and why it was such an enduring thing in society. I’m still thinking about those questions. Kitsch can seem cynical, but in a lot of ways it’s really not.
Do you think of the floral arrangements as an extension of those ideas?
I think so. An interesting note from Kundera that I thought about a lot later is that kitsch is a way of sanitizing the world and ignoring that we are human bodies; kitsch tries to look outside all the messiness of the body and the actual reality of living. The floral arrangements are made of these kitsch objects, but they have the marks of so many human bodies on them—so many people have touched those objects, so they’re dirty and marked with use. I think there’s a missed connection there too between the cynicism of kitsch versus the actual lives that you can see on the stuff itself.
The whole Flat Death series came out of working on The Kitsch Encyclopedia and reading a lot of image theory. I’m at a point now where I’m not as interested in ‘80s image theory, but at the time I was—and that sort of thing is also kind of kitsch, right? We know it so well, and it puts the world in these neat little boxes for us. With Baudrillard it’s all these easily digestible snippets of information.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’m working on a film about makeup and commercial production of color. It’s filmed partly in the makeup factory, partly in a printing plant and partly in the studio. It’s about subjectivity and color, and I’m working with a lot of theory about how nobody sees colors the same. I sort of tie that to the notions of bodies and truth. It’s an extension of Rose Gold. Then I’m going to stop making work that’s exactly like that.