Sara Graham: Cut-Outs, Offcuts, and Cast-offs
In conversation with Alejandro Tamayo
April 11, 2023
[This conversation took place over a shared google document between March 27th - April 4th, 2023. Sara Graham being in Port Moody, BC and Alejandro Tamayo in Windsor, ON.]
Alejandro Tamayo, a visual artist originally from Colombia, currently living and working in Windsor, Ontario, recently visited Cut-outs, Offcuts, and Cast-offs by Sara Graham at Art Windsor Essex. The thought-provoking ideas and concepts presented in her work have lingered in his mind, bringing about the following conversation. The show was curated by Nadja Pelkey, an artist and curator, living and working in Windsor, Ontario.
Sara Graham's work takes a cross-disciplinary approach to explore ideas and issues of contemporary urban life. Specifically, she focuses on the relationship between the built environment and the landscape it occupies, examining how they connect and disconnect. Graham's work is often inspired by her experience walking or using public transit in the city, which provides new possibilities for thinking, noticing, and wondering about the urban landscape. She employs the methods and materials of architecture and city planning to propose alternative ways of looking at the city and its parts, using the real to construct the imagined. Her work takes many forms, ranging from paper, sculpture, and photography to large-scale public artworks. Graham's collaboration with numerous artists living across Canada on Sculpture a Day (SAD) further explores unexpected encounters with objects and how they relate to and complicate the artistic practice.
Alejandro Tamayo: In 2008 you initiated a project with art writer Bryne McLaughlin called Sculptureaday (SAD). The goal of the project was to “demystify —or perhaps re-mystify contemporary art making from the margins of workaday life”. The project consists in the photographic record of spontaneous situations that emerge in the urban environment involving objects and materials. Later on the project evolved into a collaborative platform on Instagram that currently receives photographs from various collaborators. The project does not seek to alter the landscape, but to create a record of an ephemeral situation. I wonder if you can talk about the relation between finding and making in your work? How much emphasis do you place on each?
Sara Graham: Hi Alejandro, I wanted to make one correction about your description of SAD. SAD started as an online project, we decided to use wordpress because at the time, it was free and easy to use. The wordpress site still currently exists https://sculptureaday.ca/. I was drawn to Instagram because it was primarily a photo sharing platform that used a grid, similar to the layout I had chosen for the wordpress. However, for many years you were unable to upload images from your computer onto Instagram and the apps were super complicated and evolved so many steps that I decided not to move to Instagram. It was only in the last couple of years that Instagram changed their platform and allowed direct uploads from your computer. However, by this time I already had 7 years worth of SADs on Wordpress and did not relish the idea of posting the entire history so I currently run them in tandem. (Here is an online article about SAD and gives a bit more of its early history https://www.magentafoundation.org/magazine/s-d-project/)
AT: It was illuminating to read that the origin of SAD was actually in the workplace environment, in the office, while you were working for Canadian Art magazine. So the seed for this project was actually planted when you and your colleague, Bryne McLaughlin, started making, and hiding, temporary sculptures for each other with the intention of being discovered within the pragmatic context of the office. Were these temporary arrangements ever photographed? Did other staff members participate?
SAD photo by Sara Graham, March 6, 2023
SG: Bryne and I were a bit frustrated at the time as we were working for the main Art magazine in Canada at the time, but we felt we hardly ever talked about the art and artists that interested us because the management wasn’t interested in our perspectives. Sadly, none of these temporary arrangements were photographed, such a shame, as some were hilarious. No other staff member was invited to participate (it really was our playful secret), but some of management did complain a couple of times that staff were not picking up after themselves.
Finding and Making
I actually find this question really challenging as I never thought of the two as separate since they both are so integral to each other. I think artists have ‘input’ and ‘output’ time and while input can dramatically differ from each artist, the input will ultimately inform their output. I have spent so much time looking to find something, that it has become second nature to me to look and document my findings (to a point where both my husband and son humour me when I go off on a tangent to look at something.)
Looking has helped inform not only my thinking of the city, and how we navigate through it but has also been an inspiration for my own practice in the studio and in the public realm. I really appreciate that my findings are spontaneous happenstances that are informal, messy, random, disorderly, and tentative. And in many ways they are completely opposite to my artwork, but I couldn’t create the work I make without being informed by what I see.
My practice is rooted in drawing, and drawing has influenced how I see my environment. For me drawing is immediate but requires a slow viewing to understand the complexity of mark making and line. I use the same precision that I employ in making my artwork as I do when I am looking and I hope that my drawings compel people to slow down and look.
AT: What I find very interesting about this approach to sculpture, the one embodied in the SAD project, is that the heroic gesture of the maker is counterbalanced with the less heroic, and perhaps more accessible gesture, of the finder. I say perhaps because finding also requires a particular disposition, a particular awareness. Breton called it “floating attention” (attention flottante). For Breton, this state of mind, where you are not actually seeking but open and receptive, is necessary in order to become sensitized to the encounter.
SG: I love your observation of the heroic and less heroic. Because these findings for much of the population are probably deemed insignificant; however, once the finder documents their finding, then it becomes elevated and becomes significant and of interest to the viewer. I have been heavily influenced by the Situationists International and their dérive and détournement are strategies that have informed my practice but also directed how I explore the urban environment. I cannot say for sure, but it seems to me that Guy Debord embodied Breton’s idea of “floating attention” in his own exploration of the city and defining the strategies used by the SI.
AT: I believe so, the practice of walking without engaging in practical commercial activities, that was practiced by the Situationists as a contestatary reaction to the Society of Spectacle, had its poetic precedent in the explorations of the “magical everyday” carried out by the Surrealists. The term that Breton employed was “the magical circumstantial”, which referred to the moment of encountering oneself in the territory. Breton performed oneiric walks in Paris where he opened himself to the possibility of having chance encounters that would transform himself, what would reveal himself on the outside.
SG: Guy Debord coined the term psychogeography as a way of defining the effect of geography on one’s self. And believed that the dérive was the tactic to allow those chance encounters and experiences.
AT: Parallel to drawing, walking seems to be an important part of your practice. Do you prepare yourself in a certain way when you go out for your walks? Or, to put it another way, do you find that the walks bring your mind to a particular awareness?
SG: Walking is a very important part of my practice. I try not to prepare myself at all and have no plan so that I can use the strategy of the dérive. Because these walks are not planned, it allows me the freedom to observe my surroundings or environment. Which is interesting in itself as I don’t really pay attention to streets or navigating in the traditional sense. I follow what captures my interest and sometimes have gotten somewhat lost. My partner has said to me numerous times, “It amazes me that someone who is so interested in the city, maps and the urban landscape, that you have no sense of direction.” His observation is partially true, because I am not paying attention to the physical orientation of the landscape, I am looking at much more interesting things instead of navigating.
AT: It is very interesting that you are bringing the notion of orientation, and the fact that you orient yourself differently. I totally sympathize with this. I get lost very easily, and in addition, I find maps difficult to use because I don't immediately see the correlation between what is drawn on the map with what I am seeing, or encountering, in the territory. I wonder if we can expand a bit on the idea of the dérive and orientation. Is it too much of a stretch to compare the temporal arrangements that you find on the street, the found sculptures, with a particular way of attuning yourself with the urban environment? Is there any particular quality in those ephemeral arrangements that you feel oriented towards?
SG: I’m not sure I see the found sculptures as a way of attuning myself with the urban environment, instead I see them more as a connection with the urban landscape. Many of these sculptures are part of the discarded, overlooked or marginalised aspects of the urban environment. It is through my ‘drift’ that these sculptures are revealed because I find them interesting.
I’m reminded of the S.I’s “Naked City” psychogeography map of Paris, where only the interesting areas of Paris were cut out and connected by arrows. The map suggested certain navigational directions and sequence but it was still pretty ambiguous. I might be generalizing in stating that most SADs are found in the grittier parts of the built environment instead of areas of newer developments in the city, as these areas don’t yet have the patina of urban life. I am drawn to areas that are visually diverse in forms, structures, textures and provide a certain ambience but with that said, I am also drawn to seeing something ‘new’ or different in my regular commutes as well.
The Map and its Referent
London Location Maps 01-06 (2010). Detail.
Photo credit: Alejandro Tamayo
AT: Maybe this is a good moment to bring into the conversation the plexiglass pieces in the show, the London Location Maps 01-06 (2010), which connect with the other topic that I wanted to discuss, the notion of geometric abstraction.
When we zoom in or out far enough, what is recognized suddenly becomes abstract and geometric patterns begin to appear and take precedence over concrete, recognizable shapes. This happens when we take a flight, for example, the territory is abstracted and some other meanings begin to emerge. The plexiglass pieces, as the “Naked City” psychogeographic map, are ambiguous. They bring the idea of buildings seen from above, but their exact location, or direct correlation with the city is not indicated. They open a sense of abstraction which is emphasized by their translucency. Could you offer some words on what the process was for making these pieces?
SG: I was invited by Melanie Townsend, who was the curator at Museum London, at the time. The London Series used cartography as a starting point to develop artwork that connected the actual with imagined histories of London. I spent a week researching and walking around the city to gather source material and discovered a historical fire insurance map from 1884-1932 in the archives. What immediately fascinated me was the map had an almost 50 year lifespan. Because maps were drawn by hand and were very time consuming to draw, any revisions were corrected and collaged over and over again. I loved the idea of a map as a living document, that layered its history over itself. The Location Maps incorporated not only the map of the buildings, but also the edges of paper that were collaged over. I also layered the previous drawings of the buildings over each other to emphasize the notion of a layered history.
When I was creating this work, I knew that I wanted the ‘map’ to be transparent and it made sense to screenprint the map on plexiglass so that the shadow of the work became another layer. The artwork was layered over itself, over its own history, mimicking the process I used to make the artwork in the first place.
Yellow was also an important choice. When I was walking in London, I noticed for the first time, these yellow pipes on the exterior of buildings. When I asked people why there were yellow pipes, not only did no one know what I was referring to, and in fact, they did not believe me that there were yellow pipes in the city. I later discovered that in Ontario, gas pipes must be painted yellow so that they are easily identifiable for safety reasons. What surprised me is that these pipes were painted ‘safety’ yellow and yet nobody saw them.
Yellow in city infrastructures usually signifies caution - to proceed slowly -think of the yellow light in a traffic light, or a yield sign, street markings or the safety vests of workers. I obviously love yellow but I also use yellow in my work as a signifier to slow down and look.
Exhibition detail. Photo credit: Alejandro Tamayo
Ephemerality and Permanence
AT: It was great to hear about this “living map” and how it influenced the creation of the pieces. It's as if the map was operating as a geological record that was keeping track of its own history as it was moving into the future. In contrast to this, the term “disposable architecture” comes to mind, and how large cities in Canada, especially Toronto, and to a certain extent Montreal, which I have had the opportunity to get to know up close, have been erasing part of their history due to the speed at which new constructions are taking place in their downtown cores. Many of these new buildings, unlike the "living map", contain no hint of their predecessors and operate by replacing history with generic constructions that are not meant to last. It is very sad, or rather I say SAD, to see this happening.
And this brings me to the last topic I wanted to touch on, which is the relationship between ephemerality and permanence in your works. The found sculptures are ephemeral, provisional, or transitory arrangements, whereas the works in the gallery, as well as your recent work, the panels for the Gordie Howe International Bridge maintenance building, appear to be in a finished state. Unlike the “living map”, they are not expected to change over time, or to allow the possibility for updates to take place as they move into the future. Am I interpreting this correctly? Is the relationship between the ephemeral and the permanent something that you think about?
SG: I think that is a great observation. And you are correct my work in the exhibition is fixed both literally and physically into place. However, the SADs that I or my colleagues find, while provisional, have also become fixed as well through the documentation. Up until COVID, I saw SAD, walking and my studio work as part of my whole practice but I didn’t think they were explicitly connected or maybe I couldn’t see the connection. It is similar to walking for me, I don’t think my practice is about walking but walking informs my practice. What I realized, during lock down and my daily walks with my son around my neighbourhood, was how much seeing and finding SADs informed my practice and not being able to explore the city because of restrictions, allowed me to really understand the connection between my studio practice and SAD.
I absolutely love that SADs are provisional and ephemeral and provide me with extreme joy when I find them. But the image of the SAD, the one that is posted online, is framed by the artist that took it and becomes fixed in time and place. I have always toyed with the idea of creating a map that locates the SADs because it would very much be like a “living map” where these sculptures have evolved over time.
I see parallels and contradictions between my drawing practice and SAD. One of the things I love about drawing is its immediacy but I also love the materiality of paper. I am interested in the line’s ability, where the absence of a line as the space between lines, the cut-out and its cast shadow, creates new lines in space and shifting representations of place. When finding SADs I am looking for the space between the lines as well. Collage disrupts and distorts its constituent parts and creates a new ever restless whole. The most interesting part of the collage is when and where the edges meet, and identify each element. Photoshop allows for seamless montage, but collage relies on the edge to distort the boundaries between positive and negative space.
AT: I feel that we have laid out a very interesting plan to navigate your practice. One that connects walking with studio practice, sculpture with drawing, and finding with making.
Is there anything else that you would like to bring in relation to the work included in the exhibition?
Also, I would not want to conclude before asking, where are you currently located?
SG: All the way back in 2002 in New York at the Mary Boone Gallery, I saw an exhibition that blew me away and still resonates with me all of these years later. It was a Peter Halley’s exhibition and he paired his paintings with these colourful graphic wallpaper designs. It sounds so simple or obvious but at the time, I never realized that a wall could be an artwork, or become integral to the installation of an artwork. Up to that point, my experience of galleries were pristine white walls with neutral floors.
After that moment of seeing Halley's exhibition, I have always wanted to create a wallpaper for a gallery exhibition. With the support of the Art Gallery of Windsor and encouragement of Nadja Pelkey, Curator of the exhibition, I was able to install wallpaper to accompany Solivagant Findings.
When I was making the paper mock ups for Solivagant Findings, I had numerous off-cuts and cast-offs lying on my table. What I began realizing was the discarded off-cuts were as interesting as the ones I had cut out. The cast-offs, similar to my found SADs, became the starting point for the In&Out&InBetween collages.
I currently live in Port Moody, BC.
AT: Thank you so much Sara! Cut-outs, Offcuts, and Cast-offs runs until May 28th, 2023.
Where the Points Meet (02), 2021. Collage and ink on paper.
Photo credit Byron Dauncey @byron_cameraman
Working drawing. Photo credit: Alejandro Tamayo