Sarah Viviana Valdez is an artist living and working in Tampa, FL whom I met through mutual friends, and as a fellow Ringling College of Art & Design and New York Studio Residency Program alum. I’m intrigued by Sarah’s art practice, her evolution as an artist, and the direction her projects are headed. Recently Sarah had her first solo show at Gallery 621 in Tallahassee, FL, of which incorporated painting, sculpture, interactive ‘stations’, and googly eyes. With all the projects Sarah is currently involved in, I felt it absolutely necessary to contact her for an interview as her creative energy and dedication is refreshing and inspiring.
KLL: You have a very multifaceted art practice; how did you come to that process?
SVV: Peers have always had a huge impact on me. During undergrad school at Ringling I was heavily influenced by my classmates exploring a variety of methods, materials, and conceptual ideas. While there I applied topics such as educational systems, institutional aesthetics, traditions within portraiture, and interactive environments. In school it seemed more about processes and failures involving ideas. Everyone was feeding off of each other; it was a very fruitful environment amongst the small Fine Art majors. Naturally everyone needed to expose themselves to every medium since they seemed so enticing; it was a time to start being playful and we all learned a lot from that. I moved to Tampa post graduation, first living with my parents with little to no income. During this time, I had a six month break from school peers. Supplemental income allowed me to play with tools in a way that set aside the embedded history and its contemporaries. That transition helped manifest a language with myself, and understand where the work was coming from outside of the institution. After meeting a group of creative freaks in Tampa, I started to blend into the guerilla noise scene, and explore within a multifaceted DIY culture. My art practice is a result of my curiosity and desire for constant productivity, leisure, and play within order. It wasn’t until the institutional context was gone that I allowed the process of producing with a structural multifaceted framework, due to the nature of my new environment.
KLL: Recently, you had your first solo exhibition in Tallahassee, FL. Please describe the exhibition space, how you coordinated the show, and why you chose the name Where Current Can Flow for the exhibition title.
SVV: I found Gallery 621 online because they posted an open call for solo exhibitions a year ago, which I was diligently searching for at the time. I was unaware of the art scene in Tallahassee, so I researched Railroad Art Square which made the space intriguing — I would get exposure with family participants, according to the director who said Friday openings get at least 3,000 foot traffic, including families and students from FSU. The family aspect sold it to me; I wanted to plan a simple interaction with groups of people I’m barely exposed to with my artwork — Gallery621 was able to provide that interaction.
Planning an entire solo show is a challenge, especially when I never visited the site before the show. The gallery director, Cynthia, who is wonderful and extremely open-minded, responded to my email requesting information in regards to the layout and measurements of the space. Cynthia sent a detailed map and encouraged the proposal.
The proposal was a response to my current situation — an artist working a cubicle job and feeling very restricted by it. My experience with routine at work is absurd, where self identity is hardly encouraged and motivation is prescribed. The design of the office environment has an effect on its workers, putting them in a routine trance — the objective within the interior design is so specific to the potential each individual is allowed to have –this really interested me. What if I flipped that around and experimented with different arrangements to encourage the opposite effect? Where Current Can Flow intended to create play within order in an unconventional layout, allowing freedom and privacy in an inhibiting space. In this case, the gallery was the inhibiting space for a month. The floor space was divided in three stations, workspace, leisure-space and recreation-space. Arranging the three stations let me investigate the way adults and kids work, how information travels, and the way they encounter an ambiguous station encouraging interaction. For this show I started with primitive materials such as tape and scraps of paper, a labyrinth, and carrots to-go. The intention with the title, Where Current Can Flow, was to manifest an enigmatic energy between the space and the participant, initiating a creative circuit. Since the show, I hope to continue experimenting with and investigating the design of spaces for a positive energy that enhances self quality per participant.
KLL: I’m particularly intrigued by the “stations” in the exhibition; please describe each in detail.
SVV: The entrance area started with cartoon hands, pointing to the left and right sections of the room. The hands divided the space in half, offering two choices, the work-space to the left and the leisure-space to the right. Since there were no additional wall surfaces hiding what both sections included, it created an open environment. The left side was the work-space — a floor furniture piece shaped like three circles including tiny wooden sticks, tape, and scraps of construction paper in a trashcan. These items suggested a simple interaction, with one objective, to decorate the rug collaboratively rather than replace these items each day, the resulting constructions/collages were left for participants to dismantle or add to over the course of the installation. The right side was the leisure-space, signified by a large rounded rectangle as another floor furniture piece. In the center of this rectangle was an assortment of edible carrots and beets stored in a container with damp sand. Produce was used to invite the viewer to leisurely indulge in eating a fresh healthy snack, or to take back home, whichever notion pleased them. The front center was the recreation-space — a large square labyrinth floor piece with the maze laid out from tape. Participants could walk on top of the piece to find a way in and out of the maze, embodying a mental exercise. All the stations allowed me and the participants to reflect on three different topics; work, leisure, and recreation coexisting in the same space with no dividends.
KLL: Your work is predominantly vibrant and playful. I’d love to know more about the play element.
SVV: It’s second nature for me to be very playful. I’m constantly striving to take each experience nӓively like a child would. Of course my reflections on such experiences are different than a child’s. There is something about the immediacy approach, using new mediums to translate observations into images with no order or rules. It’s a constant reminder for me after being influenced by children. I have a younger brother, we are 15 years apart and he is now 10, Fernando is such an inspiration to this concept. It’s something I feel we shouldn’t lose as adults. I want to have that balance between child and adult when taking in new experiences, so I can make connections with our everyday life with play in mind. Our observations and conclusions shouldn’t have to be so structured. There is an energy that keeps allowing new connections to have an impact on us. With vibrant color and play it allows that to exist for me within the work.
KLL: What is it like living and working as an artist in Tampa, FL?
SVV: Tampa is a city where the general public doesn’t support the arts very much, having little knowledge about the underground local performance/art scene. Any rural, metro, or suburban city can have an ‘art culture’ exist; it takes a group of people with similar interests to make something happen. We just start spitting out ideas till something hits and actually interests all of us, but if no one ever produces them the results will be unknown. A group of people have to be okay with being intuitive with each other in order for the scene to progress locally. Breaking away from specific manifestos is important too. Such group decisions allow growth within the community. It’s a series of experiments: what else could be added, where else can we do it, who else can be involved? Working in Tampa is like any other place; to me it’s what you make it to be. Deserted spaces are useful pathways to transform into a happening. Such a space provides privacy, freedom, and choice of interaction. Tampa is filled with foreclosure homes for movie sets, bridges that hover the Hillsborough River that shelter performances, Curtis Hixon park with a power outlet and lights on till midnight, friends living in cheap housing in Ybor with no noise rules that allow events to get dirty and loud, storage units where mechanics test vehicles and the youth blow up speakers at the same time, Stoney’s a dive bar that get’s serenaded by loud bands bringing something back that was lost due to the pollution from nearby ports, and the list can go on…
KLL: How do you divide your time between your job and your art practice?
SVV: I work a full-time network support job that is unrelated to my degree and passion. It’s difficult to accept what needs to be compromised since a lot of my time is spent working 40 hours a week just to pay off my education loans. It’s like having two jobs — office job and studio practice job. It can feel discouraging at times, especially with Tampa not having a well grounded art community awareness. Awareness is not promoted well through the museums and galleries. USF Contemporary Art Museum has some of the better shows, but none include local art in Tampa. There is so much that is archived and has happened here and still not many people are aware of it. A lot of that is to blame within the scene too, due to rejection it’s natural to be enclosed with the smallness of the community, or allowing other scenes to diverge. We can make any place conducive to make art happenings. When there is less going on, it’s the boredom that brings similar people together to fill in that gap.
It has taken about two years to figure out my routine and balance my job, personal life, my dog Enzo, leisure, and art projects. I’ve had to sacrifice events, materials, and a certain lifestyle in order to keep making work. Continuing the work and being part of a community is all that matters to me. Nothing else makes sense in order to get through the day. When I get home there is so much to release after thinking in my dark cubicle cell. At my cubicle there is a stack of empty post-its that a co-worker gifted me. I use those constantly, writing ideas and lists of things to get done. When the shift is over they get stuck to my wallet or the back of my smart phone. My desk at home is filled with post-its. The notes are relative to review later on, a simple documentation of my processes unfolding. I also use my smart phone a lot for note taking, the camera captures weird occurrences encountered that later inspire certain pieces. The applications on my phone have been great in that sense, documenting immediate responses to my surroundings. That material has grown since acquiring the device, a lot more to reflect on though. I’d probably go insane not releasing my thoughts.
KLL: I love how you’re also interested in music and fashion; please describe your recent projects.
SVV: I did a fashion show called Gilded Rag with Katie Magruder, who performs as Fishwife, and Erin Hart, owner of Nail Pop LLC. It was our first time coordinating a fashion show and I really wanted to bring together our community in Tampa, and experience a happening through fashion. It was hosted at Cottage Sleaze, a true lair of Ybor housing used as a performance space. My friend Jasmine Huneycutt owns the place and performs as Diamond Hymen. A few friends have a name for their houses and use them as performance spaces; these spaces have changed the dependency with outdoor guerilla locations recently — It has changed the way sound occupies the space. Before, it was with limited equipment on the cement with a generator, now it’s a more controlled environment. The backyard, I think, used to be for milking cows — that’s where we did the fashion show — there is a raw cement opened building with a brick pathway leading to it, naturally ready for the runway. Jasmine also has a great amount of plants that added the Florida tropic into the scenery … oh, and there are even Roosters flocking around, showing off their red comb. The reason we did the fashion show was because there is a lot of Tampa music, but little of everything else. There are Ybor clubs and venues hosting mainstream pop culture, including Hip-hop and indie-rock — also the hair salons have formal fashion shows with an amazing influx of talent — there are the drag shows because Ybor has an upcoming gay pride scene, and then a few galleries that have opening receptions. Also, there is the DIY underground scene that includes noise, heavy metal, and punk.
I wanted to offer something different, aside from all the semi segregated scenes, and include something that had sculpture, performance, sound, and installation. The Gilded Rag show fit all of those points, and it still included music by using a tablet program that was very simple for my models to perform while wearing the clothing pieces. I also wanted to include more females performing that typically wouldn’t within our group, of course some of them already do. I selected a variety of girls, and was able to use two males, and put them in a position to perform and learn to be comfortable with their bodies and expressions. All the clothing was made out of plastic from shower curtains, LED lights, spray paint, free dumpster fabric — basically anything that we could get without spending our own dough, because we had a very tight budget to dress-up 12 models.
The music scene has been around my artistic career in Sarasota as well. I knew about the Tampa noise scene because they played shows at New College when I was in school at Ringling. Plus, in Sarasota, Matt Pierra, who has Roofless Records, coordinated Cinema Sounds — blending live cinema scoring with south-west noise music. I worked with Matt at Burns Court, and he was my introduction to DIY music in Florida. When I moved to Tampa, it was instinctive to become part of it due to my performance background. It was different of course — It’s like learning another language. Once I became confident writing and performing, the aesthetics and sculptures for i_like_dog_face sets started to mirror my art. Jimmy Sanchez and Daniel Kipp Whittaker, the guys from Skeleton Warrior, had this house off Branch Ave called the Branch Ranch Pervert Pit — they were the first to encourage me to start performing. I have Jimmy and Daniel to originally thank. Up until this year Cyborg City, a hidden secret amongst East Ybor, provided a space for my first sculptural performance involving a plastic inflatable Cyclops face — It is filled up with air from an industrial fan and I performed inside of it. Afterwards, I had a better idea for dog_face’s aesthetic, and it’s been interesting experimenting with outfits and environments recently. The same guys who run Cyborg City curate NO RAVE once a month this summer, at The Social Club in Ybor . There is a basement, it’s dark, and when it strikes midnight there is live electronic/industrial music from the noise scene.
I have released two digital downloads Cubicle Spell and Keep Rising From the Screen — both include digital sample sounds that have a creepy voice reciting words with a combination of panning bass — It first started with, “How do I deal with having a cubicle job?”. From there I created sounds for aggregate routers bouncing, clamping, encrypting, anything that included my job functions but giving it a soundtrack.
There are also a few festivals that happen once a year, getting everyone together to cram an ambitious amount of bands that perform over the course of 2-3 nights. The most notable one I got to perform for this year was International Noise Conference. Rat Bastard runs the event in Miami, FL at Churchhills Bar, and this year was the 10th anniversary. That guy has so much energy and loves everything about weird/noise music and gear. The event is held in February. This year Diamond Hymen attached a toy shotgun to her microphone, tossed one feather pillow into the air, and passed three cow hearts to three female performers included in the set — it looked like a slumber party occult ritual; it was fantastic. At the end of the night, everyone consumed feathers and where gagging them during their sleep.
I got asked to play for the third Savage Weekend festival hosted in Chapel Hill, NC, put together by Ryan Martin. It brought more Northern performers from Philadelphia, New York, and Providence, RI. It was the first time I’ve seen Humanbeast perform, and my jaw dropped amazed by Maralie Armstrong’s voice. The festivals have been inspiring just by experiencing the family vibe everyone has with each other, supporting the scene — its high-encouraging. I’m still new to performing within the scene, and this year has been the first time it has been exposed outside of Tampa. Cephia’s Treat Recordings released my first 15 minute tape Twisting Signals of Light right before Savage Weekend. The cover is screen-printed with glow-in-the-dark ink on construction paper — trademark of the local connoisseur and archivist of the Tampa noise scene, Todd Lynn (Haves & Thirds). The tape can be ordered through his website.
Tampa has its own slice in the pie as well which is Blood Fest — you never know where it will be or what’s going to happen. The sets are short, at different locations, sound tracking the urban landscape of Tampa. There are no limitations with locations to perform when it comes to a generator. It’s really hot and drippy; everyone has their own disaster of ‘blood’ that is poured on them before the set. This year was my first time performing for it. Also, artist Rosemarie Romero did another Porn Nails performance in conjunction with Nail Pop LLC and Action Research, at the Venture Compound in St.Petersburg, FL. The installation was great and the space is huge, surrounded by other industrial warehouses. There were music performances alongside the mobile nail salon concept, invading public spaces. So my ideas have translated in many different ways in Tampa. I’m having the constant desire to play and have fun with like minded freaks.
KLL: Where does your work exist in relation to the Digital Age, and how do you see this age evolving –our culture evolving and adapting to, or from, the Digital Age–?
SVV: I work a very technical job that changes everyday due to the progression of technology. It’s benefited me to understand how internet outages and other digital communication devices have an impact on individuals. Consumers expect it to work 24/7, with no flaws, without understanding what makes it function. We rely on the timing and advice of technology, to run and tell how life should be lived. The Digital Age has many affects on our culture, especially the way information is distributed and how products are marketed. The whole ‘You’ as the image for marketing is very strange, our own image/avatar is used to promote the use of these website companies, and it seems to have become easily adaptable in everyone’s lives. My work has gotten small exposure to strangers that know someone who knows another person, because it’s floating out there. I don’t really think people are ever unnoticed anymore, as much as we still like to think. Sure there are different degrees to being recognized but we are not alone. Also the Digital Age has expanded the way tools are perceived; the idea of editing has become more complex and its part of our everyday lives, with us not even noticing it. Because of all these programs, the amount of expression that is posted in the web has increased. Everyone is generating ‘something’. We are evolving as artists, because our filters are changing constantly with the rate of technology. There is also the politics of sharing in the Digital Age, the open source culture is having an impact on the way DIY is expanded in technology; people are sharing for free for others to amplify on their ideas with the intention to learn from each other. I think we are adapting slowly to technology, because the rate of technology is progressing at a fast rate, but our culture is not parallel yet. That’s where we need to be focusing, and it starts with understanding how our devices work because it’s now part of our daily lives.
KLL: Where do you see your projects going from here?
SVV: Right now I’m everywhere and in need to calm down. The next few months I want to focus on my sound performances with i_like_dog_face, and have better quality recordings. Ryan Martin (Secret Boyfriend) from Carrboro, NC owns Hot Releases records and he will be releasing a vinyl of dog_face. I have a lot to consider: The image on the cover, the content in the sound, how it’s recorded, what kind of atmosphere I’m willing to invade with the concept, etc. It’s an object that is distributed and the only control I have is the image and sound; the rest is involved with a basic frame that is pretty universal. It’s very exciting and all very new to me; Ryan is great and such a supportive person for the entire ‘noise/weird’ music scene. Also, recently many of my friends want to produce films, and a few have written stories for them and started filming already. One that comes to mind is Carlos Gonzales, a prolific performer for Russian Tsarlag, comics Slime Freak, and filmmaking. He resides in Providence, RI but is a true local from Tampa. He was in town over the weekend and we filmed one movie involving a Magician and another involving a Cowboy dentist. Carlos is a method actor and has a real immediate raw style with filming and editing. Sets include green tones and scraps of shiny trash melting off the wall surfaces. He uses a mini DV camera with built-in ‘cheap’ effects and edits with a VCR… Really excited to see the by product. I’ve been pushing myself so much to coordinate projects, such as dog_face performances, Gilded Rag fashion, and my solo show that now it would be nice to be used and directed. I feel like my performance and fashion will translate well when acting for films. Last of all, I’m moving into a cheaper housing situation which means extra cash flow and potential for a studio space, finally. Getting such a space has a lot of potential for the community in Tampa, not just for me. I’m already encouraging a lot of friends to get a space in the same location that was found on Craigslist — that’s if it’s legit. It’s good to have that break period and experiment with another form of art, for me at least it’s manifested a conversation within the community of friends, because not everyone is sticking to one thing anymore. Let’s keep the ball rolling, eh?
Sarah Viviana Valdez is a Kansas born artist who lives and works in Tampa, Florida. Valdez graduated with class of 2010 from Ringling School of Art and Design Fine Art department, and participated in the New York Studio Residency Program, Spring of 2009.