British Artist Rachel Ara is a conceptual and data artist who explores the relationships between gender, technology and systems of power. She graduated with a Fine Art degree from Goldsmiths College, London, where she won the prestigious Burston award. As a multi-disciplinary artist, she has a diverse skillset acquired from working 25 years in the tech industry to being a trained cabinet maker and combines them to make unique and often surprising installations and sculptures. The works are nonconformist with a socio-political edge that often incorporates humour and irony with feminist & queer concerns.
In 2016 she won the Aesthetica Art Prize 2016 for This Much I’m Worth, the self-evaluating artwork. Pulling on her experiences as a computer system designer, the digital sculpture draws on data and complex algorithms to calculate its own value in real time. In 2018 she was featured on the cover of the FT Wealth for her monumental version of the sculpture “This Much I’m Worth” that she engineered and built incorporating over 80 pieces of neon and a homemade animation system made from recycled materials.
It’s been a busy year for Ara: In 2018 she was made Artist in Residence at the V&A Museum in London responding to their data. Ara has also shown new works this year at the Whitechapel Gallery (“This Much I’m Worth (Monumental Version)”), Barbican Centre (“American Beauty, a Trump L’Oeil”), Humber Street Gallery (“The Ancestors)” and the V&A (“Transubstantiation of Knowledge”).
Ara currently lives and works in London.
WIA: What are you doing today?
Rachel Ara: Shamefully I’m sitting in my pyjamas at home doing funding applications for new works which is the worst part of the job. I was up till 4.30 am last night working on the same one so I’m pretty knackered.
After I’ve submitted that I have to chase up two cases of damage to works that have just returned from touring.
I really don’t like being out of the studio, but this is the reality for many artists nowadays. A good chunk of creative time is taken up with funding applications and all the other related administration – especially if you make larger works.
WIA: Tell us about your creative process.
RA: I’m all over the place. My brain keeps firing ideas and processing concepts and works constantly, it’s quite exhausting. That’s why I like a drink…..it all slows down.
I’ll explain my creative process for larger works, smaller works can be very spontaneous and unplanned. My ideas are often wildly ambitious so it’s a case of practicality – i.e. money (money = time) + space. For example, at the moment my studio is crammed with work as I’ve just had three shows back, so I have little room to make anything. I’m therefore working with limitation of physical space and pushing through some film ideas.
Where I’ve decided to take a concept forward, I spend weeks, even months, researching the ideas around it to make sure it’s watertight, original and makes sense to me. Some ideas can just die at this stage or lead onto better ones. I then move on to prototyping, technical drawings and re introducing play. Often, I have to learn a new skill – some new software or a practical technique – and lots of interesting developments happen round this process. It’s very iterative – make, play, mistakes, learning, research, adjusting paths, remaking etc… Although it sounds quite fun the process can be quite painful. There’s huge amount of work and thought needed to get it exactly right – which is not always apparent. But it always gets there in the end which is very satisfying.
WIA: Describe where you do most of your creative work.
RA: Creative work I define as the “ideas” – where your mind is loose and filtering all the data. (Just to keep it clear from the fabrication. Although there can be an overlap.)
I tend to get the most clarity in my mind whilst travelling, driving, walking, cafes and sometime repetitive fabrication…
My studio is too noisy.
WIA: What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
RA: It’s always the current project. I have complete autonomy in what I make so I would never decide to produce something that didn’t excite or challenge me.
WIA: What made you decide to become an artist?
RA: I don’t think you decide to become an artist. I always have been – I just didn’t have the time to practice. When I apply myself to work, I become totally absorbed – so the idea of a career paralleled with being an artist was not an option for me. It wasn’t a choice – the job paid the rent, the art didn’t. I’ve done the career (30 years in the tech industry) which has bought me some time to be an artist. Being an artist is a very privileged position mainly because of the costs involved buying time. It’s exclusionary. I’m sure some of the best artists of our generation are currently working in call centres, caring for family etc… and their potential will never be realised.
WIA: What are you currently working on?
RA: There always seem to be a lot going on in the studio:
- I’m currently applying for funding for a film installation – this will be a long process.
- I’m also just starting to make a small sculptural installation (to keep my sanity whilst doing funding applications)
- I’m also preparing transportation of a very large work to go to Europe in May for the Vienna Biennale 2019.
- I’m repairing (welding) work that has been damaged in the shows this year
- Sorting my schedule out for podcast requests and interviews
- I’m working on two short documentary films about my practice, one with the V&A and the other with the Near Now Fellowship. We’re mid filming on both.
- and many other lesser things.
It’s a 24/7 job and as you can see there’s not that much time left for creativity.
WIA: Do you listen to music while you work, and if so, what’s your soundtrack?
RA: It must be quiet when I’m doing my creative work – I can’t seem to tolerate certain noises. I get distracted very easily.
If I’m in the fabricating part of the project – then I tend to have music on in the background. Last week there was a lot of Roberta Flack going on whilst welding.
WIA: What are the key themes in your work?
RA: Feminist issues, conspiracies of silence and misinformation. I quite like what the Whitechapel Gallery curator, Emily Butler, summarised one of my works as “exploring the relationships between gender, technology and systems of power”.
WIA: What would you like people to notice in your work?
RA: I hope my work will always provoke discussion on some level. My work is always intensely researched and very layered in terms of concept and meaning – the longer one spends with it the more it will give up. Each aspect is always considered down to the smallest detail, material, placement. You hope to take the audience on a journey with you.
WIA: What attracts you to the mediums you work in?
RA: I love the challenge with working with new materials. But the choice of the materials is never frivolous – it always derives from the concept or visualisation of the work. For example, the use of Neon in “This Much I’m Worth (the self-evaluating artwork)” was very much a nod to the sex trade.
WIA: What equipment could you not do without?
RA: I don’t really need anything to create work – but I would certainly say the computer was my most productive tool.
My studio is packed with machinery, tools and equipment as I do all the fabrication myself so need specific tools for specific jobs.
WIA: Who or what inspires you?
RA: Misogyny. In terms of my work it’s the gift that keeps giving.
WIA: How does gender affect your work?
RA: It effects how my work is perceived, it’s status and its price. But what is gender anyway? It’s really just a social construct used by patriarchal society to oppress women (and men). This persistent and pervasive oppression and its contemporary interpretations certainly inform most of my works.
WIA: What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art?
I feel quite attached to the Tate Modern. It’s only 15 minutes down the road from where I live. I used to walk past it on the way to work when it was still derelict. It’s a magnificent space, incredibly varied. I love the new galleries in the Tanks they’re really cool spaces.
WIA: If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why?
RA: Probably Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God”. I wouldn’t feel guilty selling it so I never had to do a funding application again.
If you weren’t allowed to sell… probably a Jenny Holzer quote on the back of the bathroom door. (I live in a very small flat)
WIA: If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why?
RA: If you mean visual artist, then I’m not sure I’d like to collaborate. Most artists are fiercely independent and have a singular vision that they want to realise. Having another artist on board could be distracting.
However, I enjoy working with other artists where our skills complement, like musicians or fabricators. One artist I would like to collaborate with on another film installation I’m proposing is Simone Kermes. She sings Baroque like no other.
WIA: Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated?
RA: Let’s start with Women’s Art and go from there.
I’d also like to see all the work stolen from women artists by male artists reattributed, at good start would be Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhovens’ Fountain attributed to Duchamp.
WIA: What’s your favourite colour?
RA: That’s such a complicated question. There are millions of colours in the spectrum. It’s like asking me what note I like… which is easier. I do like an E flat, which is a kind of yellow, so I’ll go for that. It’s the same colour of my van (it’s an ex AA van).
For further info:
Social media: @rachelara