By Deborah Krieger
Trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault.
Facebook has long been a useful way for me to keep up with the goings-on of past classmates. I get to see them pursuing their own paths in college, or find out the kind of work they are passionate about as they enter postgraduate life. However, some of the most impressive post-college work I’ve seen has been by fellow Swarthmore alumni with whom I may have interacted IRL only once or twice, but have since “friended” online, and thus I get to learn more about them through the types of posts they write and the photos they share. In the case of Alex Younger, who graduated from Swarthmore in 2012 and who is currently finishing up a post-bacc at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve been following her artistic practice—and the OKCupid adventures on which she bases some of her work—with excitement. Younger specializes in fiber arts and photography, the former of which is an art form I haven’t studied and thus do not know much about, so I was interested in talking to her about her practice on the basis of media choice alone. However, Younger’s choice of subject matter is also extremely notable and affecting. A survivor of sexual assault, her work deals with misogyny and gender in a variety of ways, from the aforementioned OKCupid messages from clueless guys to the way her assault was dealt with in an official administrative context.
Deborah Krieger: How did you get started making art?
Alex Younger: You could blame my parents, and they probably blame themselves. My dad was my first photography teacher. He had a darkroom when he was growing up and he bought me an Olympus OM-1 film camera off eBay when I was in middle school, taught me how to use it, and told me it was my responsibility. As an 11 year old, that made it my nicest and therefore most important possession. My mom is a weaver as well, so I’ve been around looms and weaving my whole life. There are photos of me as a toddler “helping” her weave. I don’t even remember when I started weaving myself, but I did it intensively in high school. I went to Emma Willard, a girl’s boarding school in upstate New York, and we had a weaving studio and an amazing teacher.
DK: What media do you use? Why?
AY: I work in fibers and in photography. My photo work is on film, usually both medium format and black and white, but I have also done alternative processes and I just bought a large format camera. My current fiber work is on digital jacquard looms: computer-mediated handlooms that control each warp thread independently so you can easily render text or image-based work. These media are partially where my background is, but I find they also have a lot to say to each other. The history of the jacquard loom is tied to the history of the computer – the original punchcard jacquards were the inspiration for Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s first analytical engine. I also find that I start thinking about the threads in relation to connected pixels or grains. The feeling of watching the image build as you weave it is a similar – but much slower – sensation to watching the photograph slowly appear as you agitate the developer in the darkroom.
DK: What subjects do you address in your practice?
AY: My work has been “political” since I was in college, asking questions about gender, identity, sexuality, and body image. My undergraduate thesis was a collaborative project with my subjects, interviewing them about their experiences with their bodies and coming up with a shoot idea together to represent a part of that experience. More recently, I have focused on sexual assault and trauma. I’m not interested in the assaults themselves, which I think pulls too much focus in our understanding of the issue, but in the emotional, practical, and legal repercussions for the survivors. I’m fascinated by routines, repetitions, coping mechanisms, and the ripple effects that surviving has on your everyday life. I’m also fascinated by the spilt narratives and fragmented accounts that come out of the legal process and the effects that those have and have begun to think of these narratives as a kind of performance all their own. On a lighter note, I’ve also been looking at the emotional burdens attached to online dating and the weight that streams of crude and impersonal messages build. I think it’s a weirdly singular experience, slightly different from catcalling or other online harassment.
DK: Are there any artists or teachers who have been particularly influential or inspirational?
AY: I have been influenced by so many people, it’s not going to be possible to list them all. I’m always looking for and at artists who are confronting political subjects in a personal way, like Carrie Mae Weems, Renee Cox, Cindy Sherman, Zanele Muholi, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Mickalene Thomas. Most of the artists I gravitate towards are women and many are women of color. After a lifetime of hearing mostly the perspectives of white men, I’m just not that interested in most of what they have to say. Lately, I’ve also been looking at more artists who use performance as a part of their practice like Suzanne Lacy, Sophie Calle, Ana Mendieta, and Laurel Nakadate.
I owe an incredible debt to so many of the teachers I’ve worked with through the years. Isabel Foley, my first formal photography teacher, creates work that I still reference. Professors like Janine Mileaf and Michael Cothren, who taught Art History at Swarthmore, and Prairie Stuart-Wolf, who taught me at the Maine Media Workshops, pushed me to consider every detail of my work and its importance. And I have never found more generous instructors than those I’ve worked with since coming to the School of the Art Institute. I would not be making the work I’m doing now without the support and input of Dawit Petros, Tim Nickodemus, John Paul Morabito, and Oli Rodriguez.
DK: Do you hope to continue making art as a career? What are your goals?
AY: That is the goal. But it’s very hard to make a living from art, and particularly from political art. So few of us can actually survive on our art alone, and ideally I want to be a professor. I have gotten so much from my teachers that I feel it’s my responsibility to pay that forward. I also worked in commercial photography in between undergrad and moving to Chicago to attend SAIC. I learned a lot from that experience, but I know it’s not a path I’d like to pursue again. I have been accepted to a few fantastic MFA programs, and it looks like I will probably be staying at SAIC and getting my Masters through the Fiber department.
DK: What has been your proudest moment as an artist?
AY: I have two. The first was when my undergraduate thesis opened, and I saw the gallery filled with my photographs. At the time, it was the longest and most ambitious project I had done, and I was seeing it fully realized. The second was receiving my first MFA acceptance letter a few weeks ago. I applied to programs last year and only got the postbacc offer from SAIC. As a highly type-a perfectionist, it was the first time I had ever “failed” at anything academically. I approached the postbacc as a year – a year to make work, to regroup and try again – but I had consciously low expectations when I applied this year. I also wanted to present my work and my position as honestly as possible, with a portfolio filled with work about my assault and a statement of purpose explicitly stating that I’m a survivor of sexual violence. If I didn’t get in anywhere, I was planning to change directions, start preparing for law school applications, and approach the issues I’m passionate about through civil rights or family law instead. Holding that letter, I realized that I could actually do this.
DK: What is the most challenging part of your practice?
AY: There are a lot of pieces of my practice that are difficult in wildly different ways. On a practical level, working on jacquard looms is extremely physically demanding. Weaving in general can be really hard on your back and on your eyes, but since the jacquards are a shared resource, pieces need to be completed in one session no matter the size or complexity. The Triggered bodies take between 6 and 8 hours, depending on the size of the piece and the size of the handprint in it, since those sections take nearly twice as long. The document pages from the Redacted bedspread were about 15 hours per page. Based on the size and height of the looms, it’s more efficient to stand while working on them and by the time I’m done my entire body aches.
I also do a lot of background research. Even for the assault work, which is more or less concretely based in my experience, I wanted to make sure that the angles I wanted to explore were common enough to have a larger significance. I end up reading a lot of psychology and sociology studies, and a lot of longform journalism pieces.
Emotionally, it’s also really difficult to constantly engage with some of the worst and hardest moments of my life. But I am almost constantly aware of being a survivor regardless, and creating work about it both feels more productive, and has made the facts of my case less traumatic.
DK: What do you hope people who see and engage with your art take away from it?
AY: I’m most excited by unexpected responses. My current work is so personal, I’m afraid of getting stuck in the mindset of what it means to me and what I want to telegraph. A male observer told me that he objectified the nude body in the Triggered pieces, then felt like he was part of the problem or was potentially meant to be placed in the position of the rapist. Someone said that the blanket edging made them connect the history of family quilts passed down through generations to the legacy of assault. Neither are connotations I was thinking about, but I like both of them, even though the first wasn’t said as a compliment.