An Exploration of High Weirdness: Interviewing Sarah Zucker

Editorial is open for submissions: [email protected]

by luxpris

Sarah Zucker is a multidisciplinary artist from LA whose work includes digital and analog video manipulation, performance, drawing, 3D sculpture and more. Within all of these mediums, Zucker’s work offers a singular acid-warped vision that marries humor and mysticism with a unique brand of public access psychedelia. 

This month we exchanged emails and chatted about her history tokenizing art on the blockchain, the ways technology impacts her work, and some of the inspiration that drives her prolific creative expression.

When and how were you first introduced to tokenizing art on the blockchain? How has it impacted your creative practice over time?

Back in 2014, I did an interview with The Creators Project called “The Future of GIFs as Gallery Art,” (the article has sadly been removed from their site) where I remember discussing the potential of editioning art on the blockchain. Ethereum was ramping up around that time, and GIF Art was my primary focus back then, so I remember it being something of a pet topic. But it was all theoretical at that point. 

Then in April 2019, I began to see Yura Miron posting about SuperRare. I had shown his work at Prism Pipe, a visual music show I curated in Los Angeles from 2014-2016, and had followed him ever since. When I checked out SuperRare, it was like, “By Jove, I think they’ve got it!” I applied to be an artist, got accepted, and started collecting around the time I started making sales. I’ve been tumbling down the Crypto Art rabbit hole ever since!

Fountain of Calm
Edition 1 of 1
∞ Forever in Flow ∞ Original VHS Art by Sarah Zucker, 2017. An “Artist’s Reserve” Token – a masterwork from my career, newly remastered and tokenized in 2020. Single Edition. 725x725px, 126 frames. Collector will receive hi-res loopable .mp4.

You’ve created in a variety of different mediums. Looking through your work I see analog video manipulation using VHS/video mixing equipment, animated paintings using neural style transfer, and most recently VR sculpture. What drives you to move through these different technologies? In what ways does the medium influence the outcome of your work?

Analog Video has been one of my primary mediums for the past 5 years or so, but it’s certainly not the only medium I work in, and I don’t know that it will hold my attention forever. I’ve always loved to draw, and I made my first GIFs for my Geocities page when I was 10. Then I got very interested in film photography when I was 15, and that was my primary medium for about a decade, when I shifted my interest to video. 

Analog Video is definitely my bread-and-butter these days. In some ways, even though I’ve only worked with it in a professional capacity for about 5 years, it’s always been destined. I was obsessed with the family camcorder as a child, and was always scheming ways I could convince my parents to let me play with it. The Art I create with it now is almost like this lifelong payoff to those schemes, finally showing: “Hey! I told you I’d make something cool, if only you’d let me play with that.”

It’s almost too-cool-to-be-true, but I actually found two instances of my childhood fascination with Analog Video when I was digitizing old home movies a few years ago.

There’s this moment, from when I was 5, where I pleaded with my dad to let me see the camera, so certain of my ability to use it properly:

And then there’s this moment in 1992, where I discovered video feedback for the very first time. Feedback is a huge part of my process now, and it’s pretty wild to be able to witness the exact moment I fell in love with it:

I’ve always been a tinkerer. That’s always been the joy of it for me. I love playing with different devices and seeing how I can use them “my way,” which is often not the way they were intended to be used. On some level, I think it’s because Art was always the thing I did for fun, when I had other more central pursuits where I took education and technique much more seriously. This allowed me the freedom to discover how I wanted to make something, and not feel beholden to the “correct” way to do it.

And now, wouldn’t you know it, Art is where I’m really making my mark. Because no one approaches these mediums the way that I do. The thing that was always just my playful hobby has become more front-and-center in my life. So, the challenge now is protecting that playfulness. I always say that being a working artist is the task of being both the inner child and the babysitter. The babysitter has to sit the inner child down and make them feel safe enough to play. But if the babysitter is too mean or demanding, then the inner child won’t deliver. 

Adopting new mediums is one of the ways I maintain my sense of play. During the lockdown, I’ve let myself explore new modes of expression that I never felt like I had the time to pick up before. I’ve been working with augmented reality, more advanced 3D techniques, and now sculpting in VR. At this point in my career (and life), I have faith in my voice to shine through in whatever I take up. 

This was not always the case; it definitely takes time and experience to develop your voice as an artist and as a person, and you have to be willing to slog through those years of not living up to your own standards. It’s exciting to be in the early stages of working with new mediums. I embrace the fact that the rudimentary early efforts have a charm all their own, which you cherish down the line when you become more adept.

Edition 1 of 1
The flow between the past and the future. Original Animation and Analog Camcorder Title Feedback recorded to VHS. Filmed in 4K Video from vintage CRT Television.

I think there’s an interesting dialogue between what I see as your more absurdist “character” pieces (“Chicken Fiend”, “Rainbow Loaf”, “Treasure Witch”, etc), and some of your text-based work (“I Am Changing”, “Eternal Now”, “The Present is a Gift”, “Flow”, etc). The former are quite comical and the latter are a bit more contemplative and read like poetry: it isn’t uncommon to see reflections on identity, mindfulness, time, and so on. Almost spiritual. Despite the differences, everything falls within one cohesive style. Do you have any reflections on this?

In recent years, I’ve dialed in to a particular mood for my work, which I think of as the merging of the gorgeous and the grotesque, the sacred and the profane, the mystical and the manic. We are alive at a very weird time in human history, because we’re developing the means to transcend the biology that used to determine our humanness. The art that speaks to me really hones in on that sense of High Weirdness. The Mystery of Life is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, and I enjoy art that can capture that dichotomy all at once.

I think of artmaking as a sort of channeling: it works best for me when I can be like an antenna for the cosmic flow and see what I can tune in from the collective consciousness. In earlier human civilizations, the role of artist was synonymous with that of Shaman or Priest. I feel, for me, it is a sort of calling to sneak into the realm of the gods and try to smuggle their fire back to enrich humankind.

Acting as a receiver in this way, the concepts I channel are obviously colored by my own lived experience. Cartoons were such a formative part of my youth, especially absurdist masterpieces like “Ren & Stimpy” and “Looney Tunes.” I think this is why I like to lean into mania as a mode. Society feels like it’s on such a huge precipice, so it’s only natural that our Art should be teetering on the brink of the Void, screaming and laughing at the edge of the Abyss. 

But meditativeness is equally important. I play with the concept of recursion in a lot of my work, and I think that’s where the contemplative quality comes in. I love the idea of a strange loop, a closed system that feeds back onto itself and somehow both changes and stays the same. This is why I like using video feedback for my text art pieces: like mantras, they are meant to be at once complete unto themselves and yet always changing. There is great power in the ability to be at one with yourself and your system of being.

I Am Changing
Edition 1 of 1
Forever Changing while remaining the same. Even though stasis is the dominant flavor of the moment, the quiet allows us to be more attuned to the gradual ways we are changing, bit by bit, every day. 1/1 VHS Text Art piece by Sarah Zucker. Digital Video Synthesis and Hi8 Camcorder Feedback on VHS, recorded in 4K from vintage CRT Screen.

Your Nervous Systems series on GIPHY offers “a psychedelic view of the Internet as the functional extension of the human nervous system.” One GIF depicts “light bodies distort[ing] as they emanate out from our nervous systems out into the web.” I think this is representative of a lot of your work: familiar images or living beings (e.g. a phrase, an animal, a woman) warped by some sort of technological interference. Is this something you think about pretty consistently when you make your work? If so, why are you drawn to it?

Nervous Systems was a GIF Series I created for the 2019 PrintScreen Festival through a grant from Asylum Arts. I had free range to create whatever I wanted, and this idea of the mystical connection between the human nervous system and the Internet emerged. 

Over the years, I’ve found that the juxtaposition of the organic and the digital has become something of a pet topic for me. My entire life has been mediated through technology, as I’m part of the first generation of true digital natives. I choose to focus on the beautiful aspects of that, because I think dystopianism is a facile, ego-based response to a period of massive societal change. I think we have more than enough art that highlights the ways that our tools get the better of us. As someone whose life has been made infinitely better by my command of the advanced tools available to me, I choose to marvel at being alive at this particular point in time.

It’s a poor craftsman who hits their thumb with a hammer and then blames the hammer. Because an adept craftsman could use the same hammer to build a shining city. I suppose I’m always turning the prism of perception around in my hand, refracting my view of how we experience our hypermediated lives. There is always distortion, sure, but we can find joy in that so long as we don’t mistake all the beautiful illusions for ultimate Truth. 

I think we are funny creatures, making shadow puppets and then mistaking them for real things. I think it’s good to be able to laugh at yourself. 

Treasure Witch
Edition 1 of 1
This gleeful Treasure Witch is a musing on the state of Niftymania in the Summer of 2020. Original 1/1 Video Drawing by Sarah Zucker. Vido Synthesis Animation run through 1991 Sony Video Painter, recorded on VHS + digitally transferred in 1080p.

I absolutely love your Cosmic Rainforest series you’re collaborating on with your partner, Bronwyn Lundberg. They’re really fun pieces. What inspired these?

Bronwyn and I started working together in 2014, when we founded our animation studio YoMeryl. She is a remarkably talented illustrator and animator, it’s one of the things that drew us so close together from the very start. It’s been incredible to see our collaborative style evolve as our own personal skills and viewpoints have grown. 

Often, when we create animations as YoMeryl, I’m in the role of writer/director. I come up with the concepts, scripts and storyboards, then I leave the execution up to Bronwyn. 

Of course, I have my own substantial practice as a visual artist, so we began to wonder what a merging of our visual styles would look like. Cosmic Rainforest came from a desire to create something that would unify both of our styles, and our shared love of animals and the Rainforest. She creates drawings with color palettes that compliment my video textures, and I create textures that could be used as “skin” for these cosmic critters.

Cosmic Sloth
Edition 1 of 1
This Sloth is Far Out, man. First Friend from the Cosmic Rainforest series by Bronwyn Lundberg + Sarah Zucker. Illustration by Bronwyn Lundberg, VHS Video Art by Sarah Zucker.

You are a Los Angeles-based artist. I think now is an interesting time for creative communities because so many local art scenes are moving online due to risks associated with COVID. How have these adaptations played out in your immediate community in LA? Since your work exists in such a strong digital context, has it affected your daily work much?

There’s so much right now that’s troubling on a macro level, and yet, I find myself to be quite well-adapted to this new lifestyle. I have studio space connected to my house, so I’ve been doing the “work-at-home” thing for almost 8 years. And I’ve been an “Internet Person” since elementary school (Geocities, The Site Fights, Kidzone anyone?) So, while I miss IRL hangs with friends, and going to restaurants or just doing casual errands, I’ve enjoyed the sudden mass legitimization of the Internet as our main social sphere. It feels weird to say, and I recognize this is absolutely a privilege, but in many ways I’m thriving right now.

I do feel sad about how this will affect live entertainment venues in the long run, because live theater and performance are extremely important elements of a healthy society. These things cannot be replaced – but they will return in some form eventually. My heart hurts for my friends who primarily worked in these capacities. It’s a very trying time for them, and I think it’s important that we figure out how to provide them with support. 

As for Los Angeles itself… who knows, ya know? This is a real shake-up for all the big metropolises. A lot of people have left the city, but I think that was maybe something they wanted to do anyway, and just needed a good reason. I love it here – not just the creative scene, but the whole vibration of it. California lights me up. So, even though we’re having some climate hiccups, I can’t help but be optimistic about the future. 

That drives some people nuts, because the dystopian narrative is addicting. I certainly don’t have my head in the sand as to the foul things afoot in this country (fascism and autocracy… woof). I guess I just try to maintain a zoomed out perspective as much as possible. 

In that way, you can see this time as a growing pain at the beginning of a century that’s destined to be the most pivotal in human history. Of COURSE things are bumpy right now. It’s Transcend or Die – either we evolve with our tech, or we kill ourselves trying. 

I prefer to at least TRY for transcendence rather than give in to the forces of destruction. If we only visualize the doom and gloom, that’s what we’re gonna end up with. I try to visualize the potential outcomes of human ingenuity and camaraderie: these things are possible too.

Rainbow Loaf
Edition 1 of 1
When the cat nests on ur green screen + begs to be sent into cyberspace. 1/1 VHS Art Token by Sarah Zucker. Created for the Kitty Bungalow Buy Art Help Kittens Art Show curated by Coldie. 100% off proceeds donated to charity for cats.

Do you have any upcoming projects or goals that you’d like to share?

I have a public art installation going up in West Hollywood for the duration of October 2020. The project is a virtual sculpture called “NOW MORE THAN EVER.” It’s going to be installed as both a digital-analog video art piece on two billboards on the Sunset Strip, and a corresponding augmented reality face filter. I want users from around the world to use the face filter to complete the phrase “Now More than Ever” however they see fit, and I’m going to make a compilation from those videos at the end of the month.

The concept is having a bit of cheeky fun with a phrase I keep seeing in corporate messaging during the time of coronavirus. I want the large-scale video billboards to have a hint of an Orwellian “newspeak” vibe to them, only, you know… aesthetic. But my hope is that a sort of profundity will emerge through the user submissions with the face filter. This is an incredibly impactful time for all of humanity: there’s a lot to laugh AND cry about. I’m viewing it as a sort of open-ended collaboration with the world. I’m hoping plenty of folks from the Crypto Art scene will contribute their visions!

I am also evolving my curatorial project Fancy Nothing to enter the Crypto Art space. This is still very much in development, but I’m excited for this next chapter. I just hit 20k followers with the project’s primary feed on Instagram, and I feel it has a lot of potential to help bring Crypto Art to a new audience.

Author profile

I am a creative technologist who assembles abstracted landscapes and collages with code. I work primarily with p5.js and use generative processes while designing. The result is extraterrestrial, angular, and heavily geometric. Conceptually I'm drawn to questions unearthed when collaborating with machines. What does it mean for an artist to act as a curator of a computer's procedural outputs? Where does the user end and the machine begin?

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