Conspiracies of silence, of hidden agendas and of their repercussions, particularly the inequalities experienced by women in our culture, are the driving forces behind Rachel Ara’s work. Winner of the Aesthetica Main Prize with This Much I’m Worth, Ara uses programming as her tool to create a reflective piece that continually displays its own sales value. In the Aesthetica Art Prize call for entries countdown, we speak to Ara about her latest projects, which include setting up an artist collective called [ALLOY] with material based artists from the RCA and Glasgow School of Art.
A: You were announced as the Main Prize winner for the Aesthetica Art Prize. What does this recognition mean to you and how will it support the development of your career?
RA: Winning the Aesthetica Main Prize 2016 was a huge honour. The Aesthetica team and judges were not afraid to show and curate non-conformist and challenging work and put together a really strong show. The judging panel had a lot of credibility and experience in the industry so it made it very special to be selected by such a panel. For me, the most important thing I’ve gained from this experience is confidence and a feeling that my work engages people. I’ve always had a confidence in my personal relationship with my work, but not externally.
It’s made a tremendous difference in terms of the development of my career. Both myself and the Student Prize Winner have now been longlisted for the Lumen Prize. I’ve made connections with curators, funders, a collector and sold an edition of my work. I’m also confident it will assist my first funding application that I’m currently working on. The Aesthetica team were brilliant throughout the whole process. It’s the first time I’ve worked closely with a team setting up a big show and I was quite apprehensive. But the interaction, communication and guidance was really helpful and professional. Many of the artworks were highly complex and a challenge to install, but they got their heads down and did an amazing job working with the artists.
A: This Much I’m Worth uses complex data mining algorithms to display its own value sourced from the internet. Where did this idea and process come from, and in your opinion, how does it express your values as a practising artist?
RA: That’s an interesting question about where ideas come from. I don’t think of artworks as solitary ideas, they’re really an extension of my thoughts and conversations at the time. I spend most of my time absorbing information. I observe and listen to people a lot, ask questions and discuss politics and behaviours. All this information goes into my head and gets processed. I’m often quite surprised by what comes out, not always happy, but what emerges is an amalgamation of this processed information, a continuation of the conversation and interrogation of concept.
This Much I’m Worth evolved from a combination of issues around value, control, feminism, secrecy and misinformation. I knew very early on how I wanted this work to appear visually and because of my background the technical approach was relatively intuitive. It was complex to build and some elements were a big learning curve. At times the work felt soul destroying but I was determined to make the project happen.
In terms of my values it’s important for me to feel that my work is fully rounded, thoroughly thought through, engaging and has something to say. I don’t like to compromise on a concept, I feel compelled to stay true to the appropriate materials and techniques relevant to the piece. I work on many different projects that each use a unique set of technologies and materials so I’m having to switch into different modes and remember different methods. I have a huge GDrive of documentation for the development of this project. Even the user manual is 47 pages long… it’s intended for the gallery and curators, but it is also for me when I return to the project to remind me of the detailed processes.
A: The piece addresses two highly debated topics: the value placed on women and the values placed on objects. In which ways do these two areas converge, and how are these expressed in the work?
RA: In terms of valuing objects, I’m particularly talking about the artwork being the material object. By placing a monetary value on a woman, it consequently dehumanises her and relegates her to being an object. There are many parallels between the two, although my intention was to start a conversation about the values and how they are arrived at. The use of neon in the work was a nod to the sex industry and is based on a sign I regularly pass in Soho. I find it very upsetting the fact that women can be bought and sold (often without consent) in this day and age and that so little is done about it. How can you value a human being?
In terms of the artwork, the value is controlled by algorithms that I called “the endorsers”. These are on an external server and run nightly to manipulate and process mostly publicly available data to arrive at a price. These are hidden and only visible to the artist. We could even question whether the data that they have access to is ‘pure’ or has been selective. There is an ever growing and changing army of endorsers dealing with specific aspects of valuation. For example, one deals with gender which ascertains the current effect gender has on the value of an artwork. I’m currently having talks with a couple of organisations in the Sudan and Congo where I’m looking at handing over some of the algorithms to women programmers to expand on. I’m very excited about that and seeing what direction that’ll take the project.
A: You recently attended and spoke at Future Now: The Aesthetica Art Prize Symposium. Why are events such as these important, and what did you gain from this experience?
RA: The Aesthetica Art Prize Symposium was fantastic. There was a great selection of speakers; people running biennials, galleries, competitions, residencies etc… It was an amazing opportunity for artists to have access to these professionals; ask questions and gain more of an understanding how things work. It’s an essential resource for artists and people working in the industry to bring people together and broaden horizons and take things forward. The art world can be quite a challenging place for an artist so events like this help demystify the constructs. I really learnt a lot from the symposium.
Like many artists, I’m not a natural networker. I’d rather be alone in my studio working. I’m more comfortable for conversations to evolve naturally, but Aesthetica had set up the Symposium in such a way that it encouraged conversation and it allowed me to have my first alcohol free palatable networking experience. I made connections with people running big competitions, galleries and even a collector and some of these connections will evolve into tangible events.
A: How does your former career as a computer system designer inform your practice?
RA: I guess from a practical point of view, after so many years working in the industry, I have the capacity to take on large complex projects and complete them. I’m not a natural finisher, there’s always a newer more exciting project around the corner that I’m excited about working on, but work has given me the discipline to persevere and complete projects.
I’m much happier when I am working with my hands than with computers and wish more of my concepts would be better realised manually but ultimately I’m driven to use the best material for the job. As much of my work has a socio-political edge, being able to manipulate data through programming has proven very useful. Data in the hands of the political elite is a dangerous weapon so having the tools to manipulate and subvert it is empowering.
For This Much I’m Worth much of my material was data and my tool was programming. When you have a fluency with the materials that you’re working with, you’re not hindered by technicalities and can use that material more creatively.
A: Have any collaborations or new projects emerged from your conversations over recent months?
RA: At the moment I’m working intensely on three major works so I don’t have a great deal of time. In saying that I recently moved to a new studio in London and have set up an artist collective called [ALLOY] with four other material based artists from the RCA and Glasgow School of Art. They’re an inspiring and fantastic group to work with and are very dedicated and supportive. We will be having our first major group show in September 2017 at ThamesSide Gallery, a 250 square metre space in London. As part of the process of working towards the show we will be documenting our development; not only our research field trips, material experiments and individual works as they evolve but also how we work in relation to each other and as a group over the period of a year.
The connections I made from the Aesthetica symposium will also be really useful and contribute to the success of the project. From a social point of view I met some great artists who I’ll be keeping in contact with. I’ve already met a few in London when they’ve been down to visit.
To see more of Rachel Ara’s work, visit www.2ra.co
Entries are open for the Aesthetica Art Prize: www.aestheticamagazine.com/artprize
Rachel Ara, This Much I’m Worth.