Conversations with Strange Beauty: jes sachse

Last week during the assembling of Strange Beauty, Tangled’s Communications Coordinator Lindsay Fisher found artist, jes sachse and a friend of theirs in the basement of 401 Richmond laboriously putting together 10 thousand red and white straws. Unbeknown to Lindsay, this large pile of pastel pink would eventually be used to shape Freedom Tube.

Tell us how you developed Freedom Tube.

You know this story but I’ll tell it again. It was on a weekend – it was one of the story telling workshop weekends with this project we’re both involved with – Project Revision. And it was day two, i think, that I was showing up for the workshop and I had my take out coffee with me. Eliza and I were grabbing snacks and coffee or something from the disabilities studies office and it occurred to me, as often conversations that happen in those spaces do when you’re around majority of folks with disabilities, and the little nuances of day to day get talked about in open space. I looked at my cup and I remember asking Eliza, “Eliza, are you able to do take-out cup lids, like, put your mouth on it and sip?” and she laughed and she’s like, “No!”, like I asked the stupidest question.

And I started explaining that generally I deal with the fact that I can’t do it either by using a straw. And without missing a beat, she turns her head around at me and says, “you mean ‘freedom tube’”. It was like one of those moments you have in life where, someone gives you this new phrase and all of a sudden you get this montage in your head and boom boom: I am seeing every time I’ve ever seen a disabled person use a straw, like this guy I can recall seeing drink pints of beer out of a straw and all of a sudden it became this phrase that transformed this object for me as something I normally associated with kind of my daily ritual – just one of the myriad of little accommodations I do for myself without thinking and it became this icon in my head, it was kind of pulsating. Around that time there was a call out to what was actually the inaugural session of the Intergenerational LGBT Artist Residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, on the Toronto Island that Tobaron Waxman started and I applied as an artist with no real media loyalty. I tend to do things that are more concept based, so I applied to this residency with this wild concept – I pictured myself on the beach with thousands of straws weaving them together into some sort of tapestry. I didn’t even know what I was talking about. When i heard I was accepted I was excited to actually see not just the realization of the idea of Freedom Tube but also what the materiality would actually look and feel like. So that’s kind of the background story of Freedom Tube. I can’t take credit for the phrase and I don’t think it’s an Eliza phrase but i think it’s one of those mysteries of the community movement, you know? Sometimes the origin of certain phrases, nobody knows. If somebody knows who came up with “freedom tube”, I’d love to find out.

jes sachse putting her straws together on a table in front of a laptop computerCan you visually describe for us, what the project looks like?

I do sort of see this as a work in progress so what you’ll see installed is not necessarily how it’s always going to look. Technically, it’s already had incarnations already. I had it on display during our open studio on the island. I also brought the straws with me to a the Common Pulse residency in Durham, not sure at the time if I would continue with the work there or not. So the straws have traveled around and they’ve existed for a year and a half under my bed.

So visually? I guess I would start with where I got them. I found a warehouse in Hamilton that a friend of mine entertained the whim of going on a little road trip to with me. I found this one brand, “Touch” (great name, eh?) and they carry a lot of different kinds of straws and different things for diners, institutions or camp facilities where you would need that kind of stuff in bulk. I felt pretty drawn towards the classic red and white bendy, although I got a couple boxes of these different neon coloured ones with the little scoopy at the end for slushies. I would love to do something with those down the road but I think as a starting place, I like the idea of an innocuous repeated image like the red and white bendy is prolific. They do come in other colours, you can get those packs that have yellow, green, blue and red but for some reason, I feel like red and white is the one that proliferated the most and I didn’t want to do a plain white plastic straw that doesn’t bend or just the solid coloured ones.

For some reason, I think it reminds you of milkshakes or it reminds you of kind of a whimsy while not deviating from its utility and becomes a repeated thing which was also important – thinking of my own relationship to the straw. Anytime I get a take-out coffee which, if you live in a big city, it’s constant – it’s a repeated image of my daily life.

A large box full of boxes of strawsSo visually, what they end up looking like when you start weaving them together and seeing them en mass which you don’t often do? Seeing so many, they do not look red and white anymore – they are this kind of ethereal pale pink, with a sort of translucent-ness to them. They have a neat tactile quality that is so visually apparent. When you weave them together into strands – people commented about this a lot at the open studio on the island – is how they became kind of plant-like. They are these tendrils, like jelly fish. I’ve always been kind of drawn to that kind of sculptural work. Like Peter Jung, an indigenous artist in BC, he does this kind of sculptural work. I believe he constructed a turtle from a bunch of recycling bins. He does beautiful large scale stuff with objects that are just mundane but they become quite fantastic. That turtle piece, forgive me, I don’t know off the top of my head what the piece is called but it takes up the space and transforms it through suspension. I feel that Freedom Tube achieves the same thing.

Aesthetically, I’m a little in love. I have a penchant for pretty things, and this is a very pretty thing. It’s pink and pretty and fun and I kind of feel like I’m at a birthday party. The straws are very uplifting en mass. I decided to make a waterfall like curtain, a foot from the ground to encourage approach, which is not something disability does easily. It could, but it does’t. Inherently disability is one of the purest forms of creative living, perhaps a little of why it is so feared. It defies a lot of laws of being. Freedom Tube defies some too.

I’ve only seen what’s on your blog. There are so many interesting things happening in this project. It’s sculptural, it’s photographic – the contrast of this form in contemporary space or nature is beautiful – the images of you with the straws at Gibraltar. And they’re also very much about the artist, about you.

I couldn’t have asked for a better situation with the Gibraltar Point residency with this specific work. I was over the moon to get accepted to that residency regardless but I was so thrilled that it was with this piece because what an incredible space to play and to have a materiality that already is in its nature so whimsical. Just sitting on the beach and having that colour contrast too. And in a context where, yeah, you probably could buy these straws at the beach with people drinking a soda and chilling out.

So what will happen to Freedom Tube after the festival?

Haha I have no idea. I guess nobody really knew what happened to it after the island, either.

Do you keep it, do you destroy it?

I don’t like the idea of creating waste so if there’s a way to store the materials well, that’s what will happen. In terms of conceptually, I’m happy to see this show happen again elsewhere but it’ll be a new show every time. It’ll start from scratch because the labour of this work is just as much a part of it. Although it’s very sculptural, it’s not a sculpture. It’s not a fixed object.

jes sachse's assistant putting together Freedom TubeWould you be happy with the description improvisational sculpture?

I think I would get a little more pretentious and say liminal, or temporal. Improvisation is certainly part of it but I feel like improvisation implies that there hasn’t been a lot of conscious thought put into the work and the space. I think that this piece was made to take its context into consideration. That it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been planned out. It just means that each new space that this concept goes into will collaborate with the piece.

The direction I’m taking it for Strange Beauty is post-modern in its visual influence. It is undeniably about identity and the myth of the autonomous individual. There is definitely a nod to Deleuzian philosophy here, as well as applications of Mia Mingus’ term ‘interdependence.’ Freedom Tube exists as many straws together. I can add and take away but it is always one and many. It’s an assemblage of self.

It also has notes of urbanism which I think is neat in the context of where space is. You can literally see the city from my venue – the city is the backdrop but also, given the timely-ness of the amazing retrospective at the AGO of Basquiat’s work which is so influenced by urbanism but also specifically influenced by Black artists. He integrated a very political identity, you know, the realities of being a young black man in America, into his artwork. The cannon of North American art has really turned its nose up “art can’t be that overtly political”. But this ignores contextualization, and white supremacy, because other parts of the world – like having recently gotten back from Chile – art there, there’s no “ok, you can be a little political but not too political”. The language is quite different. A lot of art is inherently dissident in South America and I think often, depending on where we’re making art, we get really tunnel visioned of the kind of art world feedback loop we’re kind of seeped in and so I think I too have absorbed some of that. I think “oh, I better be careful not to be too political if I want to make good art.”

jes sachse standing in front of window with a straw in their handIn terms of the art world and your work, would you call this political?

It’s cheeky. And it’s quite dynamic. Definitely it’s not overtly political. However it is impossible to just look at it and say “oh that’s a nice thing.” It is impossible to read this as just an aesthetic sculptural installation. There’s definitely a message embedded in it which is what I wanted. I was thinking a lot about how, given the space that we’re in, this work in particular – by being in the lobby, as much as I can give a fancy art talk this week – a lot of the framing is out of my hands. People are going to pass by this and not read any shit about it. So I needed it to not be something you can pass by and think an easy thing about. It makes you ask questions about what it is or what it’s trying to do which is what I decided was enough.

jes sachse is a visual artist, writer and curator obsessed with disability culture, public art, the post-industrial malaise of twenty-somethings living and breathing in Toronto, and puns. Foremost a storyteller, they use sarcasm and contradiction to juxtapose disability archetypes with self- representations, to pervade public and private spaces and present audiences with the invitation to look. Through the use of an interdisciplinary array of media, sachse has presented work on the international stage, including their recent curating of a unique disability arts program Criptonite for Peterborough’s Artsweek in 2012, and 2011.

jes sachse will be giving an artist talk Thursday April 16th in the lobby at 7pm.

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