Thursday, November 1, 2012

Questions for Sonny Rae Tempest by Maria Damon

What is your background in terms of artistic or mathematical or any kind of formal training?

Unfortunately, I do not have any formal artistic training beyond books that I’ve read. I do, however, have a long history of mathematical training. The Bachelors degrees that I have (Meteorology; Nuclear Engineering Technology) as well as the Naval training that I’ve been through (nuclear reactor chemistry engineer; pilot) focused strongly on math in all aspects. I don’t find that I use this knowledge much in my work, if at all really (at least for now). Actually, the training that has helped most in my work occurred in the computer camps that I attended as a kid. In the early 80s, I was able to experiment with LOGO on the Commodore 64, which in turn gave me the confidence to learn BASIC and to create games at home. Sadly, once I entered high school, this type of creation fell by the wayside, as the guitar became my sole creative outlet. While the chicks dug it, I was an incredibly mediocre guitar player. I promptly stopped playing after graduating. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I moved to Louisville that I began creating works on the computer again. It turns out, those computer camps helped shaped the way I think (in discrete, logical steps) that made it easy to pick up modern computer languages that have evolved from BASIC. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a strong coder. Aside from Assembly language, which I needed to thoroughly teach myself in order to make my Atari game poem triptych Monday, I have a very superficial knowledge of the languages in which I most often work (python, javascript, html). I only know enough to piece together code from online how-to’s, and shape them to suit my needs.

What is the role of amateurism in your practice?

None of the work that I create is intended to make a profit. If I were worried about perfection and marketability, nothing would get finished, and they certainly would not see the light of day. There are very few pieces that I’ve spent considerable time on, enough to call “professional” work, which would Monday (almost 2 solid years of my life devoted to that), and my larger x-stitch pieces (you know firsthand how long that takes). Most of what I create is done so through my Moment Art practice, which came about as a reaction to The Artist’s Way morning pages. I’m sure you’re already familiar with The Artist’s Way, but if not, the morning pages are a method of writing to maintain creative momentum, in the form of stream of consciousness, diary-like writing, to be accomplished each morning. According to the author, these daily exercises are to be kept in a notebook and stored away, never again to see the light of day. I did not like this idea. Instead, I came up with the concept of Moment Art, where one spends a minimal amount of time during each day making something creative, be it art, poetry, or whatever. Once the Moment is finished, it must be released into the world, freely available to all to see. For me, this usually means posting it to some social network, but could very well include sending it as a message in a bottle. The point is to give birth to these works and then set them free into the world, instead of locking them in a drawer. I find this method perfect for those like me who spend most of my waking hours at work, where the time to make elaborate pieces simply does not exist. As a result, much of the work that I create is left unpolished, so that it actually will be seen and enjoyed, instead of sitting somewhere waiting for me to “finish” it properly.

Now don’t get me wrong; I do spend a large portion of each day thinking about one or another creative project. I am fortunate enough to have a job that does not require a lot of brainwork, so while execution time is limited, each piece is usually in a mostly-finished form mentally before I even begin creating it physically. For the UnderAcademy classes, each assignment was conceived and developed over the course of a day-a week on a forklift at a trade show (just an example), and produced at night when I found the time. Would I like to spend more time polishing all these pieces to perfection? Absolutely. Unfortunately, my time is limited and my ideas are numerous (and I’m totally addicted to a sense of accomplishment), so only a select few things receive that time and attention that they deserve. At the moment, this includes a chapbook of poetry, and an upcoming UAC class that I’m excited to have the opportunity to teach.

How did you find your way to Underacademy College? You mentioned that it was through following Chris Funkhouser on Twitter, and that it was his books that in turn drew you to that.  How did you find his books and what area of your own interest does it most overlap with? The historical? The merging of visual, digital and literary/poetic?

It is also through Twitter that I discovered Chris Funkhouser. Somebody (can’t remember who) retweeted his new book New Direction in Digital Poetry, right at the moment when I was delving deeper into the e-lit community, discovering a host of ways to compose poetry/art that I hadn’t before considered. I bought a copy of his first book (Prehistoric Digital Poetry) in order to learn more about what I was doing, and what had already been done in the field of digital poetics (which is what I’m most interested in). I am a huge proponent of learning the history of what I’m doing, so that I not only have a deeper appreciation for what’s being created today, but also to map out methods that have yet to be addressed/created. I am very much interested in trailblazing, so it helps to have a map of the known world at hand.

What is poetry to you?

I’ve tried and tried over the years to address this question, to no avail. The best thing I can say is that poetry is any expression that is made with poetic intent. To me, this can mean a host of things. If you look through all the work I’ve created under the moniker “poetry,” you’ll see an array of completely different projects. These run from traditional text to static paintings to generative code to games, and all exist in a variety of media. Even though I call myself a poet, very little of my work consists of text only.

How do you define your practice(s)? How do you integrate these practices into your daily life (worklife, family life, affective life, spiritual life): do you experience this process as disjunctive or harmonious?

As mentioned, most of what I create is done so through the Moment Art process. This process integrates wonderfully into my work life (keeps my mind occupied when it would otherwise be drooling on itself), and as a result many of my processes are expressions of my feeling toward my work.

Family life can be hectic, especially with five children. We are all a creative tribe, but since a lot of the work I do is at the computer, it can be anti-social and not conducive to quality family time. It is usually late at night after everyone is in bed that I have the chance to truly sit down with my work and move it forward.

As a whole, this process is my spiritual life.

Tell me by way of a biographical sketch how you got started in the kind of creative production you do for your Underacademy College work, your x-stitching, etc., and how you have evolved to the present?

As mentioned, the work I do for UAC is the result of my Moment Art practice. Cross stitching, however, began when I was very young. My mother and grandmother are incredibly crafty people, and raised me to be in a constant state of creation. Among many of the things they did was cross stitch. At the time, I was very much into my Nintendo, and realized that the pixels on the screen translated perfectly to a cross stitch pattern. Instead of making hand-stitched Marios and Zeldas and Metroids for me, my mother taught me how to do it myself. I began with simple sprite stitching, but quickly found that I could make anything that I saw on the computer into a cross stitch pattern (back then, I was hand-drawing images pixel by pixel on an old Tandy 1000 computer, mostly album covers). I was not very interested in traditional cross stitch patterns of cats or farms or samplers, but to a young boy, the idea that I could stitch Mario onto my backpack was the coolest thing ever. Again, though, once I got into high school, the quest for popularity squashed my interested in crafts. It wasn’t until many years later (2006, I believe) that I began spending more and more time with my grandmother and got back into cross stitching as something to keep the hands occupied while chatting. Most of what I stitch still revolves around my love of classic video games, though I have done some portrait work as well, since now, 20-30 years later, modern computers allow for simple one-click conversion of an image into a pattern. I’m not sure how many more 200-colour, 200x200 pixel projects I’ll do in the future; I’ve done a few, and they’ve eaten up months of my life. I have been considering how to use cross stitch poetically since Eric Snodgrass’ Nō Code class at UAC, where I experimented with stitch patterns as a way to represent digital code in a non-digital form. I am very much interested in seeing where this goes.

Do you ever collaborate?  If so, can you describe the process and practice?

I have yet to collaborate on a large project. My experience with collaboration on a creative work has gone no further than 2 painters 1 canvas.

Did you have a “poetics” or an “aesthetics” for your artworks beforehand? Do you have one now? Does it matter? or is there a better question for getting at what satisfies you in a work or how you understand the underlying principles of your endeavors?

I don’t usually begin with a certain aesthetic in mind. For my larger projects, I try to do is to use/create an aesthetic that relevantly matches the theme of my poetic expression. Everything else is usually just a sketch, where the aesthetic is far less important than the message. Most of what I do is play. I enjoy the process of creating my pieces far more than I enjoy the product.

What do you DO with the visual work? where is it kept–the x-stitches, for example? do you give it away? keep it? Is there any “bibliography” of its circulation? What would be some ideal ways of circulating it, if you wanted to do more.  Do you document the items in any way?

Most of my cross stitch pieces are gifted. Otherwise, they’re rolled up and put in a drawer. As I mentioned, it’s the creative process that I appreciate most. My Moments are typically uploaded to whatever social network site I’m currently using. Any of my larger or more serious works are posted on my blog, freely available. There is a limited collection of my work on my website, though I am working on gathering everything for a more “professional” website. If I have spent considerable time on a project, I will write a blog post or a post-mortem about the process, which is as extensive as documentation gets. When a work is finished, I try to make it available as soon as I can, because I will likely begin another piece immediately, and forget about the one just completed. I’m running into the problem now where the more I create, the more daunting a creation of this collective website becomes. I have so many things that need to be moved from my folders into the world.

Under what circumstances do you make your art? (do you even call it “art”? What do you call it?) Late at night? With music on? At the computer? Spread out on the floor of a room in your home?  What prompts a piece: an assignment? a conversation? a nagging feeling that something must be done? a shape, color or word in your mind's eye? A recognition of relationships (numbers to letters or colors)? All at once in one go or over the course of a few weeks, months, etc.? Is there "revision"?

As I said, the bulk of my work is mentally processed while I’m at work, and completed at night while everyone in the house is asleep. I could be at the computer or in my basement studio, generally with either soft music or silence. I find it hard to remain focused on production if there’s anything going on around me.

Anything could prompt a piece, though most times it relates to my family or work. Chances are, I will try to get the idea completed as soon as possible, usually within a day or so. Otherwise, I may sit with an idea for weeks or months before I attempt a go at it, during which I will mentally revise throughout the day, day after day, until I drive myself, and everyone around me, absolutely crazy. There are times where I may go an entire day without speaking, simply because I’m hyper-focused on a certain piece. These are the times when physical revision is minimal, since the work is more or less “completed” before it’s even started. Other times, I may jot down some ideas in my notepad (which I carry everywhere, and at all times), which I can use to fall back on when I’m creatively fallow. In this notepad, there can be a single sentence, pages of the same thought, or lines upon lines of crossed out and rewritten words that later become something more concrete and meaningful. Once a piece is completed and released into the world, there is rarely any further revision. But then there are times, especially when I’m working on longer textual works, that I may go through dozens of printed drafts before I consider the work finished.

Much of your work could be described as translation. Do you understand it as such? What does that mean to you, if anything? What’s the thread of continuity, the “thru-line” in all your work? Is it code and coding? Transposition/translation from one form of systematicity to another?

It’s like a wave riding onto shore. The beach becomes inundated. Things begin to move. The water recedes, and there is a moment when a swath of wetted sand teems with bubbles and mollusks. It is this disturbance of baked beach and brackish water that I find so fascinating, the ephemeral instability caused by hybridization in a holistically stable system.

Code is just a language I use to express a thing that English has no word for.


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