“People kept telling me art can’t change the world; so I stopped calling what I do art,” says Carl Scrase, a young Australian artist who shot to local fame with his intricate fractal sculptures made from bits of stationery. Now he’s set out to prove the naysayers wrong by creating a global empathy virus at SymbioticA, one of the world’s leading bio-art labs. I emailed him to ask about some of his recent projects and what led him from labor-intensive studio work to developing collaborative social engineering projects.
Din Heagney: You hit everyone’s attention back in Australia with your meticulous and painstakingly detailed sculptures of amorphic stationery. Can you tell me some more about those early works?
Carl Scrase: I’ll tell a little story that may shed some light on those early works. When I was about fifteen, I did an aptitude test, you know, one of those tests that is meant to say what job you would be good at. Well anyway, it gave me two options: vending machine attendant or army. I think from that point forward, me and the man had a bit of a problem getting along. I set out on my path to become a creative being, vowing to overthrow a system that gives a young male two dead-end options in life.
Pens, rulers, bull-clips, and thumbtacks: they are the subtle manacles on the white-collar worker. Stationery (curious name) for me symbolizes a static way of thinking, a dogmatic belief in capitalism, profit, and endless growth. These are obsolete ideas, but people are stuck in outmoded belief systems that are going to be very detrimental to the human race in the short, medium, and long terms.
I know I sound a bit simplistic, reactionary, and militant, but I am not; I know it’s not a simple cause-and-effect relationship, I know nothing is black and white. It’s very hard for me talking about art in such a linear format as writing; there are always parallel, divergent, and contradicting motivations and meanings that end up imbuing each work I make. The stationery works are about a lot of things; they are about everything, are about an attempt to gain wisdom through play and perspective.
DH: So how would you describe your thinking?
CS: I have a series of core terms and concepts that seem to be sticking around and sometimes combining in volatile ways; words such as empathy, parallel thinking, free time, supra- consciousness, alchemy, perspective, imagination, collaboration, perspective, eternity, fractals, systemic change, creativity, and reality.
DH: I’m wondering why you moved from a more solitary studio practice into making collaborative works?
CS: Well… I might use some bullet points here:
- My hands started hurting from all the repetitious movements, I felt like I was getting arthritis.
- My chiropractor said I was forming a hunch from bending over and making so many fiddly sculptures.
- It’s lonely in a studio by yourself.
- It seemed to me that everyone started making found object reconstructions.
- I realized I had learnt everything I could through playing with inanimate objects.
DH: You then started on some larger scale festival commissions, like Flower Explosion and Generative Power of Opposites. This was a big shift in your practice, so what happened along the way?
CS: Basically, a series of events occurred that led me on a different path. I had finished all the stationery series ready for my first commercial show at John Buckley Gallery with about three months to spare. I was lucky enough to be one of ten creative people from around Australia chosen to take part in the inaugural year of an amazing arts lab called Splendid, held in conjunction with Australia’s most famous music festival, Splendour in the Grass.
For the first time in my life, I was hanging out with dancers, performers, architects – creatives of all kinds. We were provoked by some of Australia’s and indeed the world’s most experienced mentors. We were actively pushed to explore beyond the creative frameworks that we had built up for ourselves. We were encouraged to communicate and collaborate. I was one of the youngest, it was still only officially my first year out of university… I learnt that you can achieve things in groups that you can’t alone, I learnt that different art forms work best in certain circumstances. It was influential to say the least and, to be honest, I am still teasing out many of the ideas that were seeded during that time.
The Flower Explosion came through me being given the innocent task of creating a centerpiece for a dinner we had to put on as part of the art lab. I picked flowers from along the street and decided I liked picking flowers. So the next day I proposed an artwork where I would pick flowers every day for a year, then drop them out of a plane over the music festival. I ended up picking flowers every day for three months. Then I shot them out of a cannon over a heap of rich people at an opening of an art thing called Art Month Sydney.
As for the Generative Power of Opposites, this is a slippery story. Just before I went on the Splendid Arts Lab, a bunch of my friends and I were down at the beach and we were taking magic mushrooms. I was wearing a necklace and picking rubbish as we walked along the beach during a picture-perfect sunset and one of my friends flippantly called me a hippie. When my then-wife went to take a photo of me, I held up the peace sign in an ironic gesture. When she looked at the camera screen, she realized I was translucent; you could see through me completely. It’s a great photo. So when I went on the Splendid Arts Lab, I continued doing the peace sign. I think I was hoping to turn invisible again. Two weeks into the lab, we had to attend the music festival – three nights of booze, bands, and bizarre moments. When you are already on a natural high, it is surreal to say the least.
The summation of this story is: the amazing Flaming Lips closed the festival with an auditory and visual spectacular. Wayne Coyne, the prophetic front man, held up the peace sign and the thriving masses mimicked, except for the big guy in a black shirt next to me. I looked at him with a look of loving encouragement and held up the peace sign. He looked back in anger then proceeded to pull what we in Australia call the ‘up yours’ gesture. That’s when I realized that even a peaceful gesture can be perceived in a very different way than it was intended. This one gesture, with just the turn of a wrist, could signify two diametrically opposite concepts: peace and aggression. So I made a 14-meter high inflatable sculpture for the festival so that hopefully other people could also have that same realization.
DH: You recently returned from international travel and started a collaborative project, S.E.R.I., with concepts like the Empathy Virus. Can you explain where this idea came from?
CS: The Empathy Virus was another idea I caught while on the Splendid Arts Lab. We were likening art to a positive virus; a virus that, if realized at the right time in the correct place, could have spread out of humanity like an exponential wave promoting perspective and understanding. I kind of hoped my giant gesture in the middle of the Splendour music festival would do that. I don’t know if it did; it’s very hard to measure these things.
Anyway, after I returned from presenting the sculpture, Generative Power of Opposites, which is, by the way, a term the psychologist Carl Jung coined, my wife and childhood sweetheart told me she was no longer attracted to me and that she wanted a divorce. This was a shock to the system to say the least. I was already going to be heading to a residency in Edinburgh, but I booked a ticket to spend a month in India before that. The day before I left for India, I sent an email to all my closest friends and some colleagues asking if they wanted to join a private blog I called the Social Engineering Research Initiative (S.E.R.I.) and help me invent a biological empathy virus. A lot of them did. That group has since morphed into a collective we have called Wemakeus, and we are doing some cool stuff together.
DH: How do you see your upcoming time at SymbioticA shifting your practice and what sort of works do you envisage from scientific and empirical relations when combined with your social-based concepts?
CS: SymbioticA is a one-of-a-kind residency that lets artists collaborate with scientists in a wet biology lab. Since returning from overseas, I have been obsessively scanning through endless resources searching for anything to do with empathy. Neurology, biology, virology, pharmacology; you name it, I have been searching. And scarily finding some leads, there is some recent research suggesting that some people become more sensitive to social pain with a bacterial toxin that boosts inflammatory cytokine. In particular a cytokine called IL-6 that seems to boost activity in the brain region involved in empathy (Neuroimage, vol 47, p881).
It was great to get the validation from such a prestigious instituition. I had to be very rigorous with how I presented my research. I’m very interested in immersing myself in the semantics of scientific method while I am at SymbioticA. I think it will just add another string to my bow, or, if you will, another tool for gaining a broader perspective.
DH: Do you see contemporary art becoming more relevant by engaging with other industry developments outside the art theoretical/academic framework?
CS: I used to walk around, literally thinking, ‘art, art, art, art, art, art, art’; a never-ending mantra in my head. I don’t do that anymore, in fact, I don’t like to use or think about the term ‘art’ when I am creating. I started finding it constrictive; it was framing my creativity into preconceived notions like white walls, curators, and the elite. All I want is to come to some kind of peace about who I am, what this life is all about, and work out how as a human race we can stop thinking that our actions don’t have consequences. Can I leave you with a quote from someone I feel a real affinity with:
“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” – Albert Einstein
Carl Scrase is represented by John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne.