||Interview with Rachel Carns
by Julianne Shepard
Copper Press, Spring 2002
When is the first time you remember doing something artistic, and what was it?
Privately? Doodles in church, I'm sure. My dad was a preacher. Tiny drawings, silent, precise - my bible was full of them. The ultimate vandalism! Self-expression wasn't much valued. By smalltown wisconsin folks who eat supper not dinner and thank the good lord for getting them by, I mean - whose souls doth magnify that wonder. Don't get me wrong, mine weren't a lukewarm people. At 20¼ below zero you can't risk being lukewarm. But in the christian day school making art meant copying an illustration entitled "The Bare Aspen Tree" in pencil, charcoal pencil, and watercolor! My dad knew someone who made oils of stags in the wilderness. One hung in our basement. It's the only original art I remember. Intentional art, otherwise art, didn't occur to me right off (after all, it wasn't mentioned in the scriptures) but the power of words - and above all, god's - I understood immediately. The Holey Bible: what a Total Book! What an Origin, what a Finality! And containing-all-possible-combinations-therein-from-which-each-trajectory-issues-and-returns, to boot! What my child-mind did with this uniquely judeo-christian Big Book Fetish (so dear, I later discovered, to the avant-gardes) was this: I concluded, like a seven-year-old medieval realist, that Words must be actual things. So I'd sneak the worn 4000-page leather-bound OED back to my desk and, with a pair of safety scissors, quietly clip out the headings for words I liked - phylogeny, autochthonous, hyberborean, schism, cell, colonnade - three-point type, the tiniest slivers. And so with the scissors I began, piece by piece, to circumscribe my world. Really! It's probably the most sophisticated thing I've ever done.
What did your early art look like?
Crampy. I gripped the pen so tight I got a callous! But like all apparent transgressions my 'artistic' bent did not escape notice - by fifth grade I was making all the sunday school displays. Wall-size paper-cut lambs-lions-angels, the burning bush, the pillar of fire, the loaves and the fishes, the empty tomb - a visual poetics that's difficult, I think, for a secular people to grasp. Who talks about the plague of locusts anymore? About demon-possessed pigs and the parting of the sea? It's hard even now to be sensible about it. In a world that was barely-there, my interior life was the one thing I knew for sure. And the moment I left god and the church for real I found myself suddenly - well, somewhere. At the risk of sounding reductive I could say that my work still traces that line of flight.
You went to art school in New York, correct?
Yes - to Cooper Union For The Advancement of Science and Art.
Did you finish? Did you find it helped you in any way?
Well about that callous - it's long gone, thanks to a great old putz of a calligraphy teacher who made me draw the uncial "e" for three days straight. I graduated in 1991 with a BFA in painting and drawing - what was I thinking? Nowadays a kid might get to make a digital fanzine for class but we boiled our own goddamn rabbit skin glue! What any school teaches you really is that you'll have to look harder for what really turns you on. So I moved out of the Cooper studios and started painting in my apartment - and my tiny work got smaller and smaller. Shrank, it seems, in direct proportion to my identity as a student. Eventually it just up and flew off! Small wonder I painted the same UFO for an entire semester. In retrospect my five years in art school are better recalled as The Time I Lived In New York. Once I graduated I didn't make art for almost five years...I'd started playing drums with Kicking Giant - in fact if I had to name one great big thing I got out of art school it would be my relatonship with Tae Won Yu.
In a way, you and Tae (Won Yu) have a similar flavor to your art. Do you feel you came from a similar point of reference?
My creative relationship with Tae was pivotal - the formative years, really. We spotted each other in the sculpture shop at school and the next day he showed up in a t-shirt with RACHEL CARNS on the chest in sharpie...what makes a deep connection happen is difficult to trace. We played music together for the next six years! I for one was hugely affected by the kinko's aesthetic - but the joke's on me really cause I wound up with a damn computer. Do you know how long it takes to make a scanned image look punk? I started out doing pre-press work for Kill Rock Stars and found out the hard way.
So you use computers? How do you go about rendering your art, primarily?
My mac is me, really. And, like me, well I don't fully understand how it works. In high school, computer class meant learning BASIC and FORTRAN! For years I harbored the usual luddite tendencies - rooted in fear I suppose, and an undue attachment to lo-fi/lo-achiever charm. But the fact that computers are cheaper (and everywhere) had to ease the transition - and the prospect of self-employment. Relative freedom/total accountability. Digital space has become a parallel place or non-place where I wrestle, still, with some deeply internalized demon-angels - perfectionism, for one. My most abominable love. Fakery, frippery, visual near-rhymes...the way computer art works is alchemic, really. Qualities like DEGREE and INTENSITY come into play as Just Themselves, separate from their subjects. It's fucking beautiful. There are laws, there are mysteries, there are fabulous accidents. On a personal level it entifies completely my longterm entanglement with the myth of totality and its Abstract Machine (ah! chancemet love, fear and sex, stormy quarrel, tender reconciliation) and I try to approach even the most tedious and impersonal design jobs as a fragment or multiplicity of that. For this, I know, my machine loves me back.
It seems that, for the bands you've done work for, your art gives their music a stronger identity. Does their music give your art a stronger identity, too? How much do you listen to a band before designing their art, and does anything about that music inspire you?
Most bands I've worked for I already know and love. How much I listen to the music with its artwork in mind really depends, I guess - sometimes it seems crucial, sometimes not. In my mind music is closest to architecture - it carves out an actual space for itself. Lines/passages/intervals/relays that densify/intensify/reinforce/interject...as a body of music grows it also consolidates or gains in consistency and in my mind the package (its visual answer) can only indicate rather than interpret. Anyway it's flat! But its function goes beyond that of the blueprint - it lies at, and is, the actual threshold. The treasure map at The Door, the originating "X" (you are here)...if the work of a musician is that of a sorcerer then mine, as courtly artist, is that of a theologian.
How do you feel being a musician intersects with being an artist? Has playing music influenced your art and vice/versa?
At the deepest level. Yeah paper/scissors set me firmly towards The Outline, but it was music that sent me back into my black-hole self...see as a kid I played the piano - won endless blahblah competitions, taught piano lessons in high school, was the school choir accompanist and church pianist. And no rock music either - a prayer meeting decided whether or not I could go to jazz camp! What that meant to me was that music is explosive. It became my means of escape. Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Monk, Coltrane, Coleman - and under my pillow on the walkman, Rush and Sabbath and Priest. What makes good music happen? Or good art? Maybe it's buried treasure or sleight of hand. Maybe it's science. Maybe it's about wanting to live in a different world. Maybe the grandest attempts to totalize art have resulted in fascism (covert or not) or have been treated, by the weak of heart, as passionate delusion, but I have a soft spot for Absolutes. But you know that already - or did I babble on about my childhood for nothing? Did the Renaissance overthrow the medieval world? Or did it fulfill it? I quit piano and picked art school cause I was smart but didn't know - how can anyone who's truly smart know? Besides, enforced specialization in the education system is sick. I woke up one day to find myself leashed in obedience training for Art Poodles. But a leash in ones own hands can double as a rope, a lasso, for rigging...did you know that Scriabin came up with a generating harmonic nucleus or hexaphonic "mystic chord" (superposed perfect, augmented and diminished fourths) as the basis for his seeming-imprecisions? He speculated further that for every tonal pitch there was a precise color analogue - Rimsky-Korsakov (who, unlike Scriabin, had perfect pitch) came up with a slightly different pitch/color wheel; so did Messiaen. Kandinsky wrote a load of crap about it too but his science was weak...Klee, at least, didn't pretend to be anything but vague. Now I'm no synaesthete but, like any omen, once color-hearing struck me I saw/heard it everywhere. There's a psychological term for this kind of fixation, I forget. It took me all around! From the requisite french guys to Crowley and Reich. From the experimental films of Kubelka/Cuba/Lye/Brakhage/Smith/Anger et al to that late-80's marvel the Brain Synchro-Energizer - a goggles/headphone contraption that employs pulsing light and sound frequencies to physically alter one's brain state. Eventually it took me to India for seven months, ostensibly to research the confluence of color and sound in tantric ritual paintings and chants - a pursuit dropped real quick when some mystic old fart tried to get in my pants, but you see what I'm getting at, right? That's the trick about hindsight. Everything seems inevitable. And the funny thing is, I picked drums cause I didn't know a damn thing about it - which, in the end, reinvented me. Was I terrified of my own sophistication? Probably. It took years to reconcile my music and art with their respective mis-educations. And those with my self.
What are you most inspired by with your art? It seems there's a bit of Russian poster art in your style.
Propaganda, yes! All kinds. Expansion-occupation-contagion-peopling. And soviet art in particular, you're right - which shouted from walls and fences! Bold enough to agitate the masses and persuasive enough to shake into form even the twiddliest intellectual. It had it all - artistic innovation, sincere social commitment, pure utopianism - I think some of the 60's and 70's-era rock posters and cover art ride that wave. Lately I've been looking at poster art of japanese avant-garde theater from the same period...good art, to me, is rooted in the struggle towards a transformative life. Most contemporary art lacks an authentic ideological context. Besides cynicism, that is...though I think heavy metal may be one of the last living arts powerful enough to utterly seize its zealots! Then again in my mind A Pact With The Devil isn't just another name for an anomaly.
You also have the peculiar animals, like bird-horses...
The thing about hybrids is that they are sterile - their union is non-reproductive. Illicit, really, and above all magic. An apt metaphor, I think, for what it is to be queer.
Has living in Olympia influenced your art at all?
Oh my god yes - I've been in Olympia for almost ten years! Discounting all those months on tour, of course. But rather than go off about Olympia's amazing sense of community and so on, I'm going to tell you a story...so one summer night a bunch of pale-faced dyed-black punker-dykes were hanging out when a gang of lumberjack dykes (that's what we called them) crashed the party and tried to start a rumble. They got away with a trophy and a handful of underwear. Thus began the Olympia Dyke Gang Wars - The Sleazy Fuckers vs. The Scrawny Wusses. You can guess who was who. There was a midnight face-off in the empty lot behind Gold's Gym. We chased each other with crowbars around the parking lot of the adult video store. A hideous painting of a girl fucking an octopus kept turning up on porches all over town. One night the Sleazy Fuckers took a hostage (she was already in her pajamas) and returned her late that night with a series of polaroids of herself tied up and blindfolded in a dog kennel. P.S. she really liked it...anyway we finally declared a flag code - white on the right if you were open to ambush, white on the left if you weren't. We started hanging out in the Safeway parking lot on thursday nights, car doors thrown open, stereos blasting, the dudes in hesher drag - bandanas, mesh, moustaches, camaro mullets - and the dolls in anklets and heels and halter-tops. We arm-wrestled. We strutted around and played air guitar. We drank coke in a can. It was beautiful. But eventually we got bored of play-fighting and started talking...now the Sleazy Fuckers were more on the activist trip, and the Scrawny Wusses played in bands and went to art school. We all wanted to do something huge - and what came of our collision/collusion was The Transfused. An original rock opera that took a year to write and another six months of full production - besides working and re-working the music and lyrics and plot, there were auditions, rehearsals, benefits, planning meetings...and we raised almost $40, 000 without corporate sponsorship. Olympia was transformed. Kids moved here to work on it. Everyone got involved somehow - fundraising, sets, props, costumes. The closing show culminated in a parade that took over downtown Olympia. It was indescribable, really. The Transfused couldn't have come together the way it did in anyhere else...Mount Olympus! Whose gods and demi-gods play out the ultimate fictions. Small towns have a protoplasmic quality you can actually feel - it's like functioning at the cellular level. Germination, infection, chromosomal deviation...but the downside of small town living is that it's real easy (apparently) to get comfortable. To settle. I think Olympia's self-made mystique is, at heart, a product of its culture of boredom. It's enough to make you crazy.
It seems like you are at a crux of different ways of generally looking at art; ie, you get respect from the DIY kids, and also from the more formal, schooled, art-history types, and graphic designer people. Would you agree?
Sure. That's precisely where I sit. It's a place that doesn't have a name - the sum of my choices, I guess. And I'm not the only one...I say let's form a gang. Get tattoos.