Carrie Sieh weaves secrets into art and art into secrets. I tried to get her to confess, but she wouldn’t confess. Because, she says, her secrets are already revealed. The viewer just needs to know where to look. When I look at Sieh’s art, I see the internal workings of a one, two and three track mind. A mind that cleverly and meticulously defines and executes an idea and brings that idea to fruition, which is nothing like a Fruit Loop. In the end, Sieh shows us, the reader, the viewer, that art is a process that takes time, yarn and lots of magnetic tape to develop. Enjoy my latest Potty Mouth Interview with the funtabulous artist Carrie Sieh.
Almost Dorothy: Why can’t you stop thinking about it?
Carrie Sieh: I can’t stop thinking, in general.
AD: I didn’t know you were a general. On your website, you write, “All of us have secrets that we carry with us…and often our secrets are uncomfortable or embarrassing. I believe that one way we unconsciously alleviate this discomfort is by keeping around us objects that in some way symbolize or counteract our secrets.” Where do secrets come from?
CS: Well, a secret is a piece of information—usually very personal—that you don’t want to tell anyone else, or that you tell a very limited number of people. The reason we want to keep certain information private is usually because we anticipate that sharing it would result in feelings of vulnerability, shame, or guilt; that other people would think negatively of us; or that it would have some other uncomfortable social consequence. And the source of these kinds of feelings is almost always going to be cultural and familial mores.
AD: Your answer reminds of two TED.com videos I saw last week while riding my bicycle north on Biscayne Boulevard.
AD: Why do you create secret codes out of yarn, wire, raffia, plastic, cassette tape, river rocks, curtain rods and other materials?
CS: My interest in codes developed as a means to prevent my sisters from reading my journals as a kid. I was kind of a nerd, and spent a lot of time figuring out the best codes for my purposes. Artistically, I came back to the idea of codes because they’re relevant to both technology and psychology, which are two of my favorite themes to explore.
I choose the materials I do because I like thinking about the many subtle meanings of objects. So far yarn is the primary material in the “Secrets” project because it suggests domesticity, tradition, and protection—which I think are the most basic aspects of secret-keeping. The cassette tape and VHS tape relates to secrets because memory is a means of recording and encoding information. Also, thoughts and memories—especially difficult ones—can be fragmented and hard to untangle or interpret, like the information on the tape is once it’s taken out of its casing and knitted. The wire I’ve been using is jewelry wire, which has a much different meaning than, say, electrical wire. In “I Don’t Love You”, it’s alternated with fluffy but scratchy mohair yarn, to suggest the ambivalence often inherent in tokens of affection and motivations for personal adornment. In each piece I choose materials that I think have symbolic meaning relevant to the secret I’m knitting with them. Sometimes it’s straightforward and other times not—like our experience of our feelings tends to be.
AD: Would you like to reveal a secret today?
CS: No, but I think that I reveal secrets all the time in my work; it’s just a matter of looking for them in the right way.
AD: Would you elaborate on the themes of gender and sexuality, technology and the natural world that are woven into your work?
CS: I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about the nuances, ambiguities, and tensions of cultural attitudes—and what I read often finds its way into my work. I love the challenge of trying to translate intellectual ideas into works of art that are interesting both visually and conceptually. When I started thinking about gender, technology, and nature as interrelated concepts, I was reading “Manhood In America” by Michael Kimmel, “Plants and Empire” by Londa Schiebinger, and “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond. Cultural ideas about gender and sexuality have affected the development and suppression of technologies, as well as the way people interact with nature.
AD: How has technology shaped your work?
CS: When I work, I make use of technologies that have been around for centuries—like knitting needles—as well as those that are only decades old, like Photoshop. And technology is a subject in my work as well, in the Collapse series and the Artifacts series. I think it’s my experience working in libraries that sparked my interest in technological changes over time. The book covers that were the source of the imagery in the Artifacts series are all from the University of Miami library. I learned about them from Cristina Favretto, the head of the Special Collections department there. She’s one of the most dedicated, passionate, and artistic librarians I know—anybody who loves artist books or book history should make an appointment to talk with her and see the amazing stuff they have up there.
AD: I asked that question because I’m fascinated with your use of magnetic tape and old floppy disks in your work. I’m especially drawn to what you did in the Collapse series, which is also a coded work of art. So, what draws you to draw inspiration from these old technologies and why?
CS: People have almost always had ambivalent feelings about technological developments. On one hand, we—and by “we” I mean our culture as a whole, not us as individuals—embrace new things that we think will bring us increased pleasure, efficiency, and knowledge. On the other hand, we shy away from new things that we perceive as potential threats to established, comfortable ways of doing things. Ambivalence is one of my favorite feelings to think about, because it seems to me like such a deeply inescapable aspect of human experience.
I also like thinking about the ways that different technologies have shaped the human experience for better or worse. Computers are usually the first things that come to mind when we think of technologies, but really they’re just the most recent ones. I recently had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in Italy, and took half a day to walk through the Museo Galileo (formerly the Museum of the History of Science) in Florence. The stuff in there is fascinating and spectacular. One room is filled with the telescopes made by Galileo—one of the great geniuses of the Renaissance, who laid the foundation for all of modern science. But because the church saw his evidence of heliocentricity as heretical (and therefore in opposition to its power), he was eventually put to death (or put under house arrest). It’s one of the most despicable ways that people have suppressed technology in the interest of political power, and this isn’t without parallel today.
AD: Biggest influences?
CS: As a teenager, I was obsessed with the Surrealists, especially Dali and Bellmer. I don’t enjoy that kind of dark grotesquerie as much now, but their visualization of psychological states was a major influence.
But overall, I think my family has influenced me more than anyone else. My dad is a paleoseismologist and I grew up learning from him about natural disasters, human influences on landscape, and the magnificence of nature. These are all things that find their way into my work now. He also took me with him sometimes when he worked, so as a kid I lived in rural China for a few months, saw the aftermath of a terribly destructive earthquake in Turkey, hiked along the edge of a glacier—that sort of thing. His respect for both the beauty and the destructive capacity of nature helped shape the way I move about in the world and the way I pursue my creative endeavors. .
AD: First memory as a child?
CS: Climbing up an outdoor flight of stone steps in China. I was four, and the steps were so tall I could hardly get up them. And, around the same time, my sister sticking her finger into a light socket. (No harm done, luckily).
AD: Favorite brunch dish?
CS: It’s a tie between tofu scramble and strawberry crepes. I make a pretty good tofu scramble myself, but there’s a place in San Francisco called Boogaloo’s that makes the best one I’ve ever had. It has peanut-ginger sauce in it, and I have one every time I go back there.
AD: What is the next step, the next phase of your creative evolution?
CS: I’ve recently started experimenting with sculpture, and would like to go really big with it. I also have an enormous and fantastic video project in mind, but that’s going to require fundraising and travel, so it probably won’t happen for a couple of years.
AD: New projects?
CS: So many! I’m working on a new series of embroidered photographs called “Chaos/Control”; a collaborative installation with Jennifer Basile, Bianca Pratorius, Regina Jestrow, Liza Sylvestre, and Natasha Middagh; a few pieces for an upcoming group show at Miami International Airport; and several artist books. I’m also working with Ami Lawson on the Revolving Door Project, an upcoming exhibition to raise awareness about the issues faced by homeless youth.
AD: If you could transform, fix or change one thing about the world, I mean anything, what would you change and why?
CS: I would change the entire structure of human interaction. Does that count as one thing?
AD: Humans are not one thing, so this does not count, but I won’t fine you. Biggest misconception about your work?
CS: I don’t encounter many misconceptions about my work these days. Many years ago, I was painting these disgruntled, disturbed-looking girls, and often people would say they were “cute”. There was nothing cute about them at all; they were the opposite of cute, and it drove me crazy that some people couldn’t see that. But then I encountered the idea that our experience of “cuteness” actually stems from hostile or sadistic impulses that our conscious minds can’t tolerate, so we transform our understanding of those impulses and express them by finding certain things, people, and animals “cute”. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the theory, but it made me feel better about being misunderstood.
AD: That was a ‘cute’ response. I think you’re right. Our definition of cute should be redefined. Proudest moment ever?
CS: Pride is something I experience less and less as I get older. I have goals that I work toward, and I’m pleased when I reach one—and I have ideals of personal behavior that I strive to meet—but pride isn’t the right word for the feeling that results from these things. Although I guess I do tend to feel proud of myself when I learn a new skill. I have a long list of skills I want to learn.
AD: I’m only 12ish so I still feel pride & prejudice. Finish this line: “In 2022, I will be…
CS: …planning for 2032.
Carrie Sieh is a mixed-media artist whose work concerns intersections of ideas about gender and sexuality, technology, and the natural world. Combining culturally significant materials and techniques such as knitted magnetic tape and embroidered computer discs, her work employs contrasts in both concept and execution.
She received her BA in Art, with a double focus on painting and photography, from University of California at Santa Cruz. She earned a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University in California, which often informs the theme of technology present in her work.
Born in California, she now lives and works in Miami. She is currently a resident artist at the Bakehouse Art Complex in Miami.