Alicia Escott

Writer, Artist, San Francisco // January 2013
The work is about investigating the emotional disquiet of dealing with our time, and the rapid and specific changes we are witness to. How we cope with this on a daily basis in a world where we still have deadlines and rent to make is fascinating to me.

As soon as we arrived at Alicia’s studio in the Outer Sunset neighborhood, way out by Ocean Beach, she tossed a pair of more practical shoes my way and said something like, “You’ll need these. We’re going to the beach.” Lucky for me, the shoes fit and off we went. We didn’t do much at the beach— we stood on the sand dunes and looked out at the horizon and watched the waves and intermittently talked. We had a few silent moments too. It was an unexpected and stunning experience, and made me feel like city life was (for just a few moments) so far away. Alicia explained that she wanted to bring Klea and me out there because brief visits to the beach are part of her art practice. As much as she can she comes before going into her studio to give herself space and time to quietly engage with those sandy, gentle hills, wind-whipped grasses, crashing waves, and looming horizon. This ritual makes sense. After all, Alicia’s work grapples with environmental and evolutionary issues within the context of global climate change.

Alicia is a visual artist who often uses disposable packaging (such as repurposed plastic sheeting or single-use containers) as a medium for beautifully rendered drawings and paintings of displaced or dwindling animal species. She also utilizes video and photography to explore animal imagery, habitat, and branding— and more specifically, how this imagery is used to claim, fictionalize, or advertise a place or an idea, the realization of which often causes these very animals’ decline. Recently, Alicia’s practice has included the act of letter writing to further investigate issues concerning technology, conservation, rapid species extinction, and climate change. The ongoing project, entitled Letters Sent Sometime After The Continents Divorced, is a series of “love letters” written to extinct or soon-to-be extinct species; they are dated from the past or future and sent to friends and acquaintances alike. The letters also include old, often faded, found photographs in black and white of images that are loosely connected to the habitat of the extinct animal she is writing to.

While visiting with Alicia she read two letters aloud to us— Letter to a Whale: Balaenoptera Musculus and Letter to an American Pika: Ochotona Princeps. Her voice was steady, yet there was a tenderness there…a perceptible ache. Immediately, I was rapt with wonder. Alicia’s letters manage to play with language in a way I didn’t anticipate– she cleverly utilizes just the right words to elicit familiar feelings of nostalgia, yearning, and love but within the context of environmental/global change and the specific dilemmas of the species she’s writing to. It’s a well-played trick that taps into and triggers that universal feeling of heart-breaking loss we can all relate to. Here is a great example, an excerpt from Letter to a Whale: Balaenoptera Musculus which Alicia wrote for Art Practical’s Mail Art Subscription project:

It seems to me now we had everything then we ever needed for happiness, but we did not see it that way at the time.
Still I would like to try to tell you some things that have happened since you left:

Ironically there is more water here than ever.
It is difficult to reconcile my longing for you and our days by the sea, amid soaring pricing for landlocked real estate in a world much underwater.
Between the foghorn calls on stormy days sometimes I think I almost hear your voice.

That voice!
I have never shook it.
A ventriloquist’s trick speaking through time, like a ghost…

And another one from Letterto an American Pika: Ochotona Princeps:

After all, it was our best efforts to keep each other warm that started all the changes.
It was love then as it still is…

But I can still remember those cold winters—
It is a form of nostalgia I practice with snow machines and lift tickets and climate control.
Perhaps it all started with ice cream cones— which we loved best in summers.
We were always, even then, filled with contradictions.

Initially, Alicia’s work will probably perplex you. You might be confused about her varied materials, her conceptual approach, and the multifaceted topics she addresses— but ultimately, her work boils down to a rather straightforward line of inquiry: how do we (collectively and individually) deal with our own fast-paced evolution during a profound period in geologic history, and most importantly how do we confront the inescapable (and often raw and gut-wrenching) emotional implications of life in a time of drastic environmental change and loss.

What mediums do you work with?
I work in a number of mediums, and think my practice can be considered interstitial, a single piece may transform from drawing to sculpture to video, photography or performance. For example, kind of out of no where the work I did through much of 2011/12 was writing based, still I did dedicate much of my time and my schooling to learning the craft and cannon of painting, so there’s an off-hand relationship to medium yet it’s always paired with a very dedicated craft.

Over the long haul, I think that I would be considered one of those artists who is responsive to material and whose work changes with the medium. Yet I defiantly have consistent material themes that weave through my work over long periods of time. For example I have used plastic in much of my work for probably seven years. How this manifests has changed several times but it remains very present. Though there are also a lot of projects I work on which do not involve plastic.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I’m reckoning with what it is to be a human being alive and aware at this particular junction of time.

You work touches upon loss, specifically related to the environment— for example loss of habitat and the rapid extinction of species, but it also addresses the emotional disquiet caused by these changes. Can you tell us more about your interest in the psychological and emotional relationships people have to their ever-changing environments?
There is a psychological term for this emotional disquiet you are talking of, its called solistalgia.

But backing up, when you say ever-changing we need to address that part of the question. Certainly, my work deals with the relationships people have with their ever-changing environments. I think at some point in our lives, we each, through the ages need to individually address our mortality; that we will die, that everything we understand to be true is in flux, that even love is a momentary state and is fleeting, (commitment is of course different in that it’s a commitment to keep returning to that love; as a person attempting to learn about meditation is told when their mind wanders to just keep returning back) but really, the most solid and important things in our lives are, as you mention ever-changing either very slowly or quickly. Every generation sees the concern of its time as paramount and unique, and all this I am very aware of.

But that being said, my work also deals significantly (perhaps indulgently, but I don’t think so) in an awareness that we are living through a profound moment in the geologic history of the planet. For me this is also a romantic thing. As we do this interview there are three of us in this room, in terms of population, when my father was born two of us simply were not here… think about that. Reversely the rate of species loss in the last couple hundred years is on the magnitude of the dinosaur extinction (another romantic time). This level of change has occurred about six times in the geologic history of the planet (which is an awfully, awfully long time).

So for me the work is about investigating the emotional disquiet of dealing with our time, and the rapid and specific changes we are witness to. How we cope with this on a daily basis in a world where we still have deadlines and rent to make is fascinating to me. We wake up every day and make coffee and we start planning for a meeting; we measure time in terms of the work week or fiscal quarter or school year or any other human time scale, but when we step back and look at what is happening outside of those scales—it’s just such an incredible time to be alive; this fluctuation between the daily ritual and the grand picture is where much of my work stems.

The materials you use convey both a sense of being disposable and perpetual, and they are usually things that we use and throw out everyday. How do you go about choosing them?
There are a lot of rules in my practice. Because the integrity of the work is paramount I stop myself from making a lot of things. For example during my first year in grad school I was using single use not-locally-recyclable plastic containers, exclusively. Then later when they became recyclable, I recycled all the drawings. I then wrote my thesis on what happened to them after that and went to China to try and find where they might have been taken to for processing. Currently I am using my financial paperwork from the years since graduate school to make work, specifically from an old 401k I cashed out before heading to some residencies in 2009/10.

It is important to me to refrain from generating a lot of new objects in my practice. Sometimes I think this is dumb, because I certainly don’t look at the materials that I, or my practice is keeping out of the landfill as something that is going to have any impact, but my personal relationship to stuff remains important, so I guess these rules remain important.

The fact that my work plays with the perpetual and disposable is an important thing to bring up. The archivability of art work has never been a particular interest of mine. There are so many ways of documenting our culture and our time that I’m not sure the art object itself still needs to fill that role. The fragility of my work plays into the theme of loss, but still it also has a feeling of permanence, and I think this reflects the back and forth of thinking about time in human and geologic scales.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
Yes and no.

I embed false narratives in my work— even though every topic or image or material I use is thoroughly researched, even though I’m always seeking the truth and a better understanding of the world through my work, there is still a lot of fiction in what I’m doing. And I don’t want the audience to always know what they are looking at, or to be able to pin down what the final piece is. Often, whether it’s a drawing, documentation, photograph, or video people ask me, “So what is the final piece?”

It would be a mistake to say that the love letters are autobiographical, but they do utilize my vulnerability and that is authentic. So in the small or specific sense, usually no, but in the larger sense yes, it is inescapable I think.

Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
Yes. Certainly. But it is also important for me to have multiple access points for the work, multiple starting points, some of these points are easier than others. This is because I am interested in having multiple audiences.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
Right now I have three part-time day jobs. One is at a sustainable clothing boutique where we make locally produced organic yoga clothing, then I work for a woman who does public art consulting and art appraisals, and lastly another woman who is starting a raw holistic chocolate company. It’s been really interesting to work so closely with so many female entrepreneurs operating on different levels, and to see their successes and their struggles.

As an artist the absolute most important thing about my work schedule over the past few years has been its flexibility; I have been able to take time for artists’ residencies and out-of-state shows. That being said I make a hysterically small amount of money and have no benefits, so I don’t feel that I have very much insulation from the world, and that’s not something I can sustain forever.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Just having a space is very important to me. It would be hard for me to make work without a studio. Right now it seems important to me that my studio is this close to the ocean. I think a lot about what it would be like for the ocean to come in during a storm and take it all away.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Well, this brings us back to the ocean— right now I am really affected reading about hurricane Sandy and Manhattan. Generally my favorite thing to read is the science section of the New York Times. My three main topics of interest are rapid evolution and interspecies communications or relationships, then climate change, and then in the past few years I read a lot about physics and space. Currently I’m reading things from the 1960’s and the utopic ideals that were born and floundered at that time; I have been reading some interviews from the Woodstock music festival. This is for a particular show I have coming up.

Has there been a person or experience that has steered your work in new or significant directions?
Around the time I moved to San Francisco, I decided to not be an artist. I really questioned it. When I came back a year later, I decided to more directly address the issues that were important to me.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Well, I have a few ideas for shows that I am really excited about, I have a show coming up in February that will be titled And The Crowd Had Rushed Together, Trying To Keep Warm. I’m going to address some of the lost utopic dreams of the 1960’s, which was my parents’ generation. I’m using the metaphor of Koko, a now aging celebrity gorilla who we really did try to communicate with.

How do you navigate the art world?
Oh man…
Well, I try and have integrity. I am pretty unique in this stage of my career in that I’ve had some successes, but they have, mostly, not been in the commercial art world. When it’s time for that I hope to aim high. But, really I’m most interested in my 10 or 20 or 40 year trajectory, and how I maintain my practice and my ideas over time. It’s tricky because I deal with some ‘untouchable’ topics, such as animal imagery and environmental concerns, which people in the art world often either write off or have their own preconceptions about. I have to fight to ensure that the work is not misconstrued. This is part of why I took a break from making for a year or so and focused on the letters and the “readymades”— I was afraid I was getting pigeonholed.

Its also worth mentioning here that my direct contact with the art world is mostly centered around my community in the Bay Area, which has really been developing over the past decade; it’s a really exciting place to be. Though, sure, like everyone else I almost moved to New York a year ago. And I don’t really see large-scale exhibitions here as much as I would like, but still, exciting things are happening here; it’s growing and it’s nice to genuinely be a part of that.

What do you think is the function of art in society? Do art or artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular?
There are a lot of kinds of artists and roles for artists. For me, the role I am interested in for artists is that of a witness to their time.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I definitely see my work as part of a direction that seems to be realigning the arts and the sciences. I think this is a very positive movement.

Do you have a motto?
Ha! I have a lot of neuroses around integrity… that’s a motto, I guess.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I have an up-coming solo show, And the Crowd Had Rushed Together, Trying to Keep Warm that I am very excited about at Interface Gallery in Oakland, which is an alternative space with a community focus. The show opens this February 1st, 2013.

Beyond that, I am really excited to have studio visits and new dialogues which would not have been really appropriate a year ago. I took somewhat of a hiatus from showing while I was working on the letter project and I said no to some shows at that time (except for showing some video work where I was reading the letters over video chat). This summer I started making physical work again and was lucky enough to really get to focus while I was in residence at Djerassi. This was such a blessing.

I’m really excited about 2013/2014. As far as the letters, they were just featured in dANDelion Magazine, a literary journal out of Vancouver, which is available for purchase. They were also a part of the most recent issue of Landfill Quarterly.

To see more of Alicia’s work:
At Interface Gallery in Oakland this Febuary!
And at