Above: Power Fall (2018), video. View the full video here.
︎ Valerie Sullivan Fuchs, Kentucky
Valerie Sullivan Fuchs
with Ian Carstens
Valerie Sullivan Fuchs (she/her) is a conceptual artist living in rural Kentucky. Fuchs investigates natural, scientific and aesthetic experiences through technological and artistic experimentation. At her homestead and down by her creek, Ian Carstens spoke with Sullivan Fuchs about her practice, her experiences in Kentucky, and their shared struggle with the tension between media technology and natural wonder.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ian Carstens: I’m going to keep looking out these windows without even realizing.
Valerie Sullivan Fuchs: It's a wonderful day to look out. I mean the trees are just moving—it's so beautiful. We may never get to this interview.
IC: Maybe we'll start with just you telling us who you are and how you describe yourself as an artist—if you describe yourself as an artist, designer, architect?
VSF: I’ve been noted for my new media work which more recently has included hydroelectricity and solar power. I’m trying to make a perfect kind of citizen like Aristotle talks about in Autarkeia. I love the land, I love being in the land; I grew up on a farm, kind of a working part-time farm but nonetheless we worked at the farm. And I have a real strong connection to the water, to creeks, to rivers and I want to see this world renewing. I just follow what I’m interested in mostly. I really love science and I love technology.
I love trees. I would love to have seen the Ohio River Valley when pioneers first went down - the trees, these big, beautiful trees that are gigantic like the Sequoias. I can only imagine what that would look like and to live in a world like that would be astounding. I think we can have that again. My work recently has been trying to find, trying to imagine that but also this invisible world.
A lot of my work comes from me just wanting to see things. Like one of my first pieces that I made when we returned to Kentucky was 01:02;08, (2002), which consisted of a video projection onto printed digital frames of a waving field of grass. I just went out and videographed it because it was a day like today with the trees and everything was just so beautiful and I thought, “I want to see every frame of that.” I want to see these invisible structures. That is kind of at the bottom of my work. I just want to learn about it. I want to see it. I want to know, “How does that work?”
And that's the same with my most recent pieces, Spooky Action at a Distance (2018-present). This is a series of artworks in progress and so I think of it like it’s an experiment, but basically it comes from Dr. Emoto, a homeopathic doctor from Japan. He discovered that when you tell water you ‘love it’, it makes a perfect shape when you freeze it. I was at the Festivals of Faith in Louisville in 2009 and I learned about Dr. Emoto and his work there and became excited about that idea. At the Festival, they had a water blessing ceremony down by the Ohio River, so I took a jar of my creek water so it could be blessed. I just love that creek water. I love it. I returned the blessed water to the creek and have had really strange things happen ever since. For Power Fall (2018) I took my little Go-Pro and tied a string on the end of it and threw it into the creek above the waterfall. The water took it down and over the falls, and after doing this all week, all of a sudden it got stuck under a rock and I couldn't get it out for a year. The string disappeared eventually and I thought I’d never see the Go-Pro again. A year later … I’m standing down by the waterfall and see the string kind of tied up like someone had tied it around a stick and then at the end of it was my Go-Pro. I have that footage that survived a year in the waterfall. How we interact with the natural world—you can choose to love it, you can believe in it, you can believe the good that comes from it. That energy you give it, is what you get back from it.
IC: On a theoretical level, filmmaking seems to be so much about certain technology, seems to be so much about a binary of truth and non-truth, but then for something like that to happen where you lose it under a rock and then you find it or you don't find it—I find that to be a really fruitful. A happy mistake, a glitch. So the tools that you use—how do you approach technology? Some of these technologies are pretty involved but there seems to be an element of chance too.
VSF: I love chance, where Duchamp, you know, dropped the string, Three Standard Stoppages (1913-1914). It’s so hilarious. With the waterfall in particular I just wanted to see what the water would make. What does it do? I don't want to have a preconceived belle vista, point of view kind of perspective that landscapes are about. I like to use the word “land” and I learned that from Wendell Berry, who's a prolific writer in Kentucky. I love how he talks about the land, that it is a thing of itself. I just have to let the land make what it wants to make. I want to let go, like Richard Long who made those long walks. I like that minimal intervention.
IC: Would it stop if you knew why? And how do you consider, or do you consider aesthetics?
VSF: I’ve been really kind of struggling with it. I go back and forth, I really am in love with aesthetics. I’ve tried to let go more and more and more of my preconceived way of making. It's tough to let go, it's tough to not impose your idea of fineness or how it should be expressed. If it's right for the piece, it's going to reveal itself, but you don't have to force it.
IC: I wonder how that might relate to how you live your life. There's an experiential element to your work, many different processes always kind of happening but not happening. Your life and your work, are they separate?
VSF: We’re trained architects and the sense of space is really important. We went out West once and it just really hurt my brain not to see green anymore. We couldn't live in Louisville very long or we didn't like living next to people where you could hear the vacuum cleaner. So I guess you could call it an aesthetic way of living? But it's more than that. I don't want to be away from this, I just feel like there's more here than just that tree. I think trees’ intelligence has been more equated to that of a dog. I don't doubt that. So when I’m with all these sentient beings I’m feeling much more than just aesthetics.
IC: I think there's something about the art that you make that's not about art. It feels very personal to you too.
VSF: I remember creating pre-kindergarten drawings and mailing them to my grandmother who was a painter. I’d go back to her bedroom studio which smelled like oil paints—I love the smell of linseed oil. My father was an engineer and he designed boats for the river. My grandfather was a riverboat captain. He hitchhiked from Illinois as a kid when he was 16 because he met this captain who was living in this beautiful boat. The captain's like, “If you ever want a job you come up to Louisville and I’ll give you a job,” and so he took that seriously and he left the family farm. So there's a real connection to water
IC: How do you arrive at an idea?
VSF: If I have an idea and I can't do it right away I write it down, and I rarely go back and look at it, but the good ones I don't have to go back and look at. And that probably directly relates to when things are duds or failures or mistakes. That’s so painful when you have failure that's public. I always find that things that I love, everybody doesn't love those, and then I think, “Someday that's going to be one of my best pieces.”
IC: I feel like in an artist interview it's very obvious to ask like, “Who are you influenced by and who inspires you?” Blah blah blah. But I just read something with Jasper Johns who spoke about getting to a point where you're no longer replicating anyone else, and then maybe you do end up just painting the American flag but you're the one painting it.
VSF: I go back and forth constantly. I do hang on to stuff though. I’ve been looking at this video I made in 2010 and that thing has been reiterated into so many versions: Future Falls City (2010) and Acoustic Landscapes Series (2010). Its most recent iteration has been these really huge murals.
Jerry Saltz was one of my teachers at the Art Institute in Chicago. Oh my god, I love Jerry so much. He brought us muffins. He would carry them on the plane from New York every class. Who does that? And then we would just sit there and look at slides, and he'd have us write like three sentence reviews so you had to be super crystal clear on what you were saying. I loved it. Then one day I brought in a bunch of coffee because I knew he was going to bring muffins but forgot cups and, in our room, there were cups and sugar packets and I swear to god, stirrers [that were] left over from something else. See what I mean? It's like, you know, it's just weird how things happen.
IC: You know the muffins … it reminds me, are there things that you don't include? Are there things that you keep out of art, if that's a way to think about it? Is that even a relevant question to you and your work because things feel very interconnected?
VSF: If it's boring to me, it's going to be boring to someone else. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. Frost said that and I think about that a lot.
IC: How do you think about accessibility or approachability? How do you, if you do, think about the audience or the space?
VSF: You know, you have really no choice but to rely on your own inner critic. So, I try not to think about the audience too much because it kind of wobbles and falls. I think you need to have the strength to say ‘I like it’.
- Valerie Sullivan Fuchs
Ian Carstens uses the documentary, experimental, and curatorial modes to create both interiorly personal pieces as well as multidimensional collaborative projects. Carstens currently lives and works in Bloomington, IN.
Valerie Sullivan Fuchs - Photograph by Robin Michals
01:02;08 (2002), 1868 frames projection onto 1868 inkjet prints, metal projector mount, wood pedestal. 8.5" x 11" x 41." Installation at Swanson Cralle. View the full video here.
Acoustic Landscape (2013), digital video still, vinyl mounted to glass. 47' x 36.' Installed at the Kentucky Center, Louisville, KY. Supported by artwithoutwalls.org and curated by Alice Gray Stites.
Spooky Action at A Distance (Language of Water) (2018-2019), 2 diptychs 18” x 12,” backlit films, solar powered light boxes.