Interview with Sarah Rara

Sarah Rara is a Los Angeles–based artist who works with video, film, photography, and performance. She is also a contributing member of the band Lucky Dragons. Rara was most recently an artist in residence at Headlands Center for the Arts, where she worked on a new video, Broken Solar, and a libretto for a new opera, Neglected Treaty, that considers the sonic impacts of climate change and the underutilized potential of solar energy. Using the aesthetics of renewable energy, Rara activates the sun’s power through sight and sound to heighten our sensorial perception of climate change.

Sarah Rara. Broken Solar, 2016 (video still); video; 29:00. Courtesy of the Artist.

Vivian Sming: What was the first thing you did when you started your residency here at the Headlands Center for the Arts?

Sarah Rara: The first week here I worked on a libretto for five voices on the theme of climate change for an opera called Neglected Treaty. It’s a collaboration between Luke Fischbeck and me as Lucky Dragons. It’s part of my thinking about the state of the oceans, the state of the air, the state of the soil—thinking about oil, coal, and carbon—and the kind of reaction we are seeing unfold already. Folding all of that into a piece of music that was very focused and pointed. I made Tyvek costumes that can unfurl to be a shelter, like a tent, to cover yourself in an extreme weather event, or unfurl to be a protest banner, with part of the libretto painted onto each garment. Folded into [the project] is a reflection of one’s own implication and collaboration in speeding the process of climate change. It definitely points a finger at big industries, like agriculture and fossil fuel, but I also point a finger at myself.

One of the ideas is that you can hear climate change. The loss of biodiversity, with every moment of species loss, is audible. Even in my own lifetime, the atmospheric sound has changed. As species drop out, we go from a really complex environmental sound to approaching a drone—a human-generated drone. The arc of the opera goes from complexity to simplicity and back to complexity. In that sense, it has an optimism built into it, which is that we can do something to restore biodiversity or to protect the biodiversity that already exists. A lot of people feel like they can’t directly perceive the loss of ice and the raising temperature of the ocean, but in fact you can. If you listen to the complexity of sound in your environment, you’ll know how it’s doing.

VS: In your work, light and sound are intertwined. We tend to think of light as coming first, because it travels faster, but in your videos, neither seem to precede the other. How do you approach light and sound? Are they understood separately or always intermingled?

SR: You’re right—for me, one doesn’t precede the other, or there’s no hierarchy there. I’m just approaching these things as information and finding ways of framing it and presenting it. There’s information in light; there’s information in sound, and that information itself is translatable into heat, into electricity. Once you locate this packet of information, you have a lot of agency. I feel very fluid in terms of media because a lot of times it is just based on observation.

Sarah Rara. Broken Solar; installation view, Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.

Sarah Rara. Broken Solar; installation view, Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.

VS: The idea of light as information ties in with your current work in progress, Broken Solar, in which you’ve been researching how sunlight is transformed into energy. What are the different parts to Broken Solar, and where do you hope to arrive?

SR: It’s in progress, so of course it’s really difficult to say where it is going. Chapter one, which I worked on at Headlands, is looking at the materials for harnessing the sun. The research I’ve been doing has been looking at solar technology for the past two to three thousand years—not simply the solar cell from the 20th century, but the human desire to harness the sun, an energy source that is so tangible and present, yet underutilized. A lot of the work has a very low-tech look to it because a lot of the materials I’ve been looking at are photovoltaics and very reflective materials—Mylar or things that trap or reflect heat. I’ve been moving through these materials and how they interact with light, time, and the landscape, because the landscape [at Headlands] is so present.

The second chapter will look more at infrastructure, grounded in this idea of trying to harness the sun. How do you build a city from that? How do you build a home? How do you build a social network around the sun’s energy? I’ll travel to Arizona and look at some of the larger solar arrays. That’s where sound comes in: Electricity is translated, the waveform is shaped so that it will go back into the grid without creating interference. I’m thinking about the electrical signal and sound.

In the third part, I want to bring language in. I feel like these first two chapters are very ineffable. The third one—this could all change—will have different speakers, who will each voice a simple monologue related to the sun’s energy, from the most abstract level to the very concrete.

Sarah Rara. Broken Solar; installation view, Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.

Sarah Rara. Broken Solar; installation view, Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.

VS: In the first chapter of Broken Solar, there are these industrial materials, but also living and organic things, like poppies, which seem to be able to harness the sun’s energy so easily. How much are you looking at living organisms?

SR: Flowers are like elegant reflectors, shifting over the day to orient themselves toward the sun, and that movement is similar to this kind of overdetermined movement of the solar panels and some very breakable motors. I’m really interested in the life of organisms that translate the sun’s energy to necessary nutrients to sustain themselves. I am also really interested in how linked to the sun phytoplankton is, and how huge organisms like blue whales are basically solar-powered, if you think of how they feed on phytoplankton and krill. It’s both on the level of metaphor and also very direct—this idea that the sun is powering everything. It’s just how many steps of translation you are from it, and the fewer steps of translation seems like the cleaner way of living. Looking at the blue whale as this massive organism feeding on something that’s directly photosensitive and getting all of its food and energy from the sun, it’s just so elegant. When I look at some of the photovoltaics, they also seem very simple and very complicated at the same time. Being here at the Headlands, this is where my mind has shifted to, so I’m interested to go back to a more urban setting and looking at it again.

Sarah Rara. The Pollinators, 2014 (video still); video with sound; sound by Luke Fischbeck; 65:00. Courtesy of the Artist.

Sarah Rara. The Pollinators, 2014 (video still); video, with sound by Luke Fischbeck; 65:00. Courtesy of the Artist.

VS: There are so many different meanings assigned to the sun, from the mythological to the everyday. What is your relationship to the sun’s meaning?

SR: I’ve limited myself to the very secular physical and tangible uses. It’s difficult to discuss light without feeling, and that in itself has been interesting—the emotional valences that occur even when I’m trying to avoid that territory. I’m trying to have a more neutral view, and yet there is this very emotive quality to the sun. It’s tied to that sense of well-being that’s very much part of California ideology. What does it mean to live in so much light, in terms of land use, architecture, city planning, quality of life, sustainability, and climate change? I do see that within the work a connection to nature does have something to do with a mythology of the sun and a kind of California ideology of well-being and life. It’s complicated and hard to untangle!

As I’m filming this, I’m adjusting my serotonin levels by being in the sun so much. It feels so complicated, because there’s a kind of dread built into it: a dread of the loss of biodiversity, the effects of needing so much energy to sustain a human population. There’s a sense of doom, but also a sense of beauty and possibility. The solar technology we know today is not new, but it’s maintained this feeling of newness for so many generations because it hasn’t fully come to fruition. It still feels aspirational.

VS: There’s an additional layer of the artwork itself as the host of energy—that through art, energy also transfers.

SR: I hope it does come out in other forms that I can’t really quantify or qualify. When someone comes in and then leaves, it carries the signal some way. I don’t know exactly how, and I like that it’s a bit untraceable, mysterious.