The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Kara Rooney is an accomplished artist, critic, and professor based in New York. She is a Managing Art Editor for The Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at theSchool of Visual Arts where she teaches art history, writing, and aesthetics. Her work has been exhibited in numerous institutions including Driscoll Babcock Gallery, NY; Brian Morris Gallery, NY; A.I.R. Gallery, NY; the Chelsea Art Museum, NY; the International Women’s Museum, CA; the Jersey City Museum, NJ; the Montclair Art Museum, NJ; and the Pera Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Most recently, she was selected as a recipient and fellow for the 2015-16 Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program. Her critical writings have been published in The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, Hysteria, G.A.G., and M/E/A/N/I/N/G.
BW: What is your artistic vision?
KR: I am deeply interested in the connection between language and image as a way of reading the world.
This slippery terrain, the shifting ground that defines communicative discourse, has been a core tenet of my work for quite some time.
The series I am currently working on aims to open up or expose what I believe to be closed systems of information distribution as located in the photographic image, for example, or in written text.
Be it in sculptural form, digital collage, or immersive site-specific installations, the work attempts to visualize the gaps or flaws inherent in communicative exchange as well as highlight the slippage between memory, social interaction, and actual event. For me, art’s communicative function is its most important reason for being; it transcends socially established boundaries surrounding speech and visuality in ways no other medium can. As long as I am engaged in a relational dialogue with the world, these aspects of creative exchange will continue to fascinate me.
BW: Where is the starting place in your work? Do you identify as a sculptor, photographer, writer, painter, etc.?
KR: The starting point is different every time. Sometimes what begins as a sketch or a simple idea ends up evolving into a two-year project, just as sometimes after spending a couple of weeks with an idea, I am no longer interested in it. These are things I cannot anticipate. Poetry—the writings of Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz,Tomas Tranströmer—as well as other literary and theoretical references, however, are a consistent thread line throughout the work. Then there is my own personal experience and interaction with the New York art world. So while the point of entry might be rooted in issues surrounding language or specific texts, it is also largely determined by what excites me at the moment and how I take that idea forward. The thing that keeps me coming back is the not knowing.
Kara Rooney, On Moving Farther Away from Speech, or Hindsight is Never Twenty/Twenty, No. 1, Plaster, ceramic and digital photograph, 7” x 3” x 2", 2014. Photo Credit: LDOphoto.net
BW: How do you think about intelligent risks in your process?
"If I am not taking risks in my work, then it is not worth making. Risk is a necessary component for any sort of creative exploration, whether you are an artist, an entrepreneur, or a businessperson.
To be an artist in the New York art world today is a very risky proposition. There is no guarantee of success, at least in the traditional sense, or even of a living wage, so just that choice, the decision to go into your studio everyday and put your vision out into the world, is risky. But that is exactly why I do it. The studio is a place where I can be very free, whereas in my writing and teaching practices, the risk is more calculated. There is a different set of responsibilities that come with being an art writer or an educator, where the obligation you have is not only to yourself but to another as well.
Kara Rooney, Reverb, No. 7, Hydrocal and digital collage on aluminum, 20” x 30”, 2015. Photo credit: LDOphoto.net
BW: When it comes to the actual studio itself with regard to experimentation, how do you do it? Do you set any rules or constraints upon your work?
KR: The only constraint I have is with regard to concept. The conceptual framework is what holds everything together for me and is why I often allow myself to experiment with so many different mediums within one body of work.
I would be lying, however, if I didn’t say aesthetics were a part of the equation. We are all influenced by the act of looking and this, in turn, greatly influences the work you make in your studio. Through my roles as a critic and educator, I have accumulated a substantial knowledge base of art history and the contemporary art world from which to draw upon. This multi-pronged approach to viewing—as both maker and observer—is why I continue to make installation work. The installations are a visual response to my multifaceted position as critic, curator, professor, and artist. I am more interested in the inter-relatedness of the objects within a space and how they play off of each other than I am in the making of discreet objects, per say, for the simple reason that these connections more closely mirror the way we navigate the world at present, where everything can be mapped as a series of data points.
Kara Rooney, On Moving Farther Away from Speech, or Hindsight is Never Twenty/Twenty, No. 3 and 4 Plaster, ceramic and digital photograph Dimensions variable, 2014. Photo credit: LDOphoto.net
BW: Congrats on your upcoming residency at Sharpe-Walentas. Are you going into the residency with an idea in mind or are you using it more as a laboratory? Why did you apply?
KR: I applied for two reasons: one, I was faced with losing my current studio space and finding something new that was affordable. Due to the skyrocketing cost of studio rent in New York, this proved a much more difficult task than I had originally anticipated. My options were to apply for a residency, go without a studio for some time, or leave New York altogether, the latter two being non-options, really. The Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program (formally the Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program) has been around for many years and if accepted, I knew it would provide many of the things I was looking for in a creative community as well as the financial subsidization I was so desperately in need of. Secondly, the opportunity to work amongst a community of my peers is something I haven’t really had the benefit of doing before. I have had my studio space in Jersey City for a number of years, but worked in relative isolation there. The communal aspect of Sharpe-Walentas was therefore very appealing. My goal while there is to simply make as much work as possible, to experiment with and push through any predefined boundaries. In this sense, I’m very excited to see what happens.
BW: Who or what inspires you both within the art world and outside?
KR: There are many things I draw inspiration from. I was trained as a dancer for many years, so the high cultural temples of New York—spaces like BAM, Lincoln Center, The Joyce and The Met—are where I go when I want to reconnect with why I have chosen the artistic path. In terms of individuals, my colleagues at the Brooklyn Rail, artists who are motivated by and devoted to activist aspirations, really anyone who is willing to make a sacrifice for their beliefs and stick with them for the long haul. I truly believe that the work one does outside of the studio is just as important as the work done inside—it's the only way we’re going to make any difference in the world right now—so that devotion, that commitment of service to something bigger than oneself, I find extremely inspiring.
BW: How do you define success?
KR: In the end, I would have to know that I gave it my all. If I can say yes to this equation, then I would say my efforts have been successful.
BW: You’ve had a long history with the Brooklyn Rail. Could you share more about the mission behind the publication?
KR: I like to think the Brooklyn Rail embodies the principal of art writing as a form of protest. I have worked for the paper for six years, many of them as a Managing Art Editor, during which time we have undergone numerous changes both within the publication and without, but those changes have allowed for a freshness and vitality unique to many other arts periodicals. One of the primary missions of the Rail is to give voice to those who are under-represented in certain corners of the art market or have been written out of the art historical canon altogether—to expose our readership to art’s potentiality, not only its successes. In this we are actively addressing the question of what criticism’s function is now and the various ways in which it might respond.
BW: Was there a specific project that was a highlight moment for you?
KR: In the summer of last year, I was invited by Phong Bui to be the Guest Editor for the September 2014 Critic’s Page. The Guest Editor project has been in place for a little over two years and offers each invited editor the opportunity to critically explore a specific theme or concept in depth, without censure or contributory limits. At the time, I had been involved in a number of feminist oriented exhibitions, interventions, and performances, and so began to ask myself what it was about this particular moment that had sparked such a renewed interest in the topic. Of particular interest for me was the issue of gender inequity in the contemporary art world. So I sent an email to approximately 30 artists, writers and academics, the result of which was the coming together of an incredibly informed and passionate group of individuals, approximately 98% of whom were female. The range of voices and perspectives represented was widely intergenerational and addressed difficult questions surrounding the state of feminism today, its representation in the art world, market sexism, the indexical object, and struggles within the movement itself. In the end, we pulled off what I like to think of as an interventionist project within the Rail itself, where questions were raised that no one, as far as I’m aware, had previously and so pointedly addressed. The project presented new and unexpected opportunities for connecting with a subject that, as a woman and an artist, I’ve fiercely identified for many years. It forced me to redefine the terms upon which I now approach these ideas, an indelible experience for any editor.
BW: What shifts are happening in the world of art today?
KR: That’s a pretty loaded question! I can only speak to a few, but enormous shifts are taking place on an economic, political, and theoretic scale. There is a lot of discussion, for example, around the current state of art criticism: where it’s going, how it should respond to the work of art, whether or not it’s necessary or even relevant any longer. Also being questioned is the role of the critic, the artist, the curator. Where do the structures of power lie; how are they being formulated and maintained? How do we address the dire lack of compensatory wages for arts workers? Other art world conversations happening now include the rise of the mega-gallery, artist poaching, and the obscene amounts of money being pumped into the art market. There are many different approaches to these questions; none are really right or wrong. For me, what it comes down to is which issues you are most interested in addressing. As culture makers, should we be paid a living wage? The answer is a resounding YES. Is criticism still relevant? Again, yes. Writing is an indelible archive, just as the art object is an archive of creative exploration. Writing allows us to go back and examine and recollect. In an era in which things move at such an incredible pace, this to me seems criticism’s most important role.
BW: Do you identify as an entrepreneur?
KR: I think I would have to at this point. It is not the path I envisioned for myself, but it’s what has unfolded.
The entrepreneurial is largely a response to the time and era that we live in; I know very few artists in the New York art world who do not engage in multiple avenues of creative labor.
I worked for many years as the Associate Director of Admissions for the School of Visual Arts. This position allowed me to build my artistic network. It provided me with an incredible foundation upon which to stand, but at some point I had to confront the fact that a traditional job wasn’t going to fulfill my desires as an artist or afford me the freedom to explore my other career aspirations. There was a moment in time when I had to walk off this cliff, but before I did, I made sure I had some semblance of where I was going. The multidisciplinary approach is now what drives my creative process—art making, writing, curating, teaching—so that each part is largely dependent on the execution of and engagement with the other. The relationships I’ve formed along the way are a bonus; you never know who or which project might open a door for you. This keeps the realm of possibilities open and stimulating.
Kara Rooney, On Moving Farther Away from Speech, or Hindsight is Never Twenty/Twenty, Installation No. 2, Brian Morris Gallery, 2015. Photo credit: LDOphoto.net
BW: What are some upcoming projects that you are currently working on?
KR: I have a show that recently opened on the Lower East Side at Brian Morris Gallery titled ‘Cuts Noon Light.’ The exhibition includes two new site-specific installations from my current series On Moving Farther Away from Speech, or Hindsight is Never Twenty/Twenty, along with the work of Andrew Ginzel, andSteel Stillman. It will be on view until the end of June. I’m also focusing on an upcoming two-person exhibition at FiveMyles Gallery in Brooklyn, curated byCharlotta Kotik, formerly of the Brooklyn Museum. Right now, it’s shaping up to feature a large-scale installation of sculptural work by the artist, Ruth Hardinger, and myself. Ruth’s work deals explicitly with environmental concerns, particularly in regards to methane emissions and fracking. These interests are reflected in both a formal and conceptual capacity, so it will be fascinating to see where our two philosophical and material sensitivities converge. That show will open in October of 2015.