An Interview With Artist Alex Younger

By Deborah Krieger

Trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault.

Courtesy of ALEX Younger

Courtesy of ALEX Younger

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.

Courtesy of ALEX Younger

Courtesy of ALEX Younger

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.

Courtesy of ALEX Younger

Courtesy of ALEX Younger

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.

Courtesy of ALEX Younger

Courtesy of ALEX Younger

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.

An Interview with Sophie Strauss

by Deborah Krieger 

Courtesy of  Bella Parisot

Courtesy of Bella Parisot

As I prepare to graduate from college (!), it's always incredibly interesting to learn about what my former high school classmates are doing. And when I saw Sophie Strauss' Kickstarter making the rounds in order to fund her upcoming EP, Yeah No Fine, I knew I had to get back in touch and get the scoop on Sophie's up-and-coming career as a professional musician. Back in high school, Sophie was often the star of the bi-yearly Coffeehouses, where her adept guitar-playing and tender, dreamy vocals made her stand out amongst all of the Windward High School musicians. Now Sophie attends NYU and wows the crowd at intimate venues all over NYC, earning recognition and praise from sites like Indieminded and PopularTV. 

I'm happy to report that Sophie's Kickstarter ended up earning $1000 over its $10,000 target. Yeah No Fine drops in April, and is available for pre-order on Bandcamp. You can check out her first single from the EP, "The Freezer," here.

Deborah: How did you get into making music and writing songs?  What instruments do you play?

Sophie Strauss: Growing up, I always loved to sing and perform in front of whoever would tolerate it. When I was two years old, I would come downstairs all dressed up in some giant, pink polyester party dress and interrupt their dinner party or whatever was going on and sing—usually something from The Little Mermaid. So for most of my childhood I just sang. In choir, in musicals, at home, with friends. I took guitar lessons and piano lessons off and on but never as seriously as I did singing. I also started writing poetry when I was really young, usually just in a diary or on my computer. And that quickly turned into writing song lyrics, but I just couldn’t seem to put music and lyrics together. I loved to sing and I loved to write but for some reason marrying the two felt impossible. But then when I was seventeen and taking piano lessons again, we lost an extremely close family friend, and suddenly I just had to write music just to deal with it. Not that music deals with it, but it helps at least for a little. So I wrote my first song out of some compulsive necessity, and then the whole thing cracked wide open; I realized it’s not so hard and I started writing all the time. 

D: What musicians and music teachers have inspired you most?

SS: I grew up listening to a lot of folk, classic rock, and Americana with my dad so that definitely informed my taste. He and I have almost identical taste in music—I like what he likes and he likes what I like. He played me a lot of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Sandy Denny, Mavis Staples, Elliot Smith, PJ Harvey, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, etc. And I’d play him Hop Along, Laura Stevenson, Jenny Lewis, Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, and Frazey Ford. But lately I’ve been listening to a lot of pop—new and from when I was a kid—and a lot of riot grrrl. It’s really hard to say which musicians inspired me the most because I think we are all constantly absorbing what we like and don’t like and processing that whether we mean to or not. But I do know that it was really inspiring to see female musicians of all kinds. To be a girl and see women like Regina Spektor or Michelle Branch up on stage playing their own music in front of thousands of people makes it way easier to put yourself in their shoes and think “Oh, I could do that! That’s a thing that’s possible!” I can’t express how powerful that is. That’s why, of course, there’s so much talk about the importance of diverse representation in media—because it fucking matters! 

In terms of music teachers who have inspired me, one comes to mind strongly: George Grove. George was my piano teacher. He was an 80 year old retired lawyer, lived in a studio apartment with just a fridge and a futon, and had climbed every major mountain in the world. He’s probably climbing one right now honestly. He was so patient and encouraging. He was always happy to take time out of a lesson for me to share something I had written, even if it meant spending less time on whatever piece he had assigned. He was so unsnobbish about whether I was writing complicated or technically impressive songs--to him they were always beautiful and worth his time. 

D: You’re a student at NYU. What kind of subjects are you studying, and do they relate to your music?

SS: You know, people always ask how I can balance music and being a student and I think that being both is actually super lucky. I never feel too busy to write music when I am in school. Instead, I find myself extra inspired to write stuff because I’m forced to think about things that would never cross my mind and that is an excellent environment for creativity. If I just sat around all day staring in a mirror thinking about myself I’d run out of shit to say very quickly. But when I’m taking random-ass classes on art history or translation or Spanish film (which I still know nothing about), I end up seeing all these connections between different academic subjects and my own life. I have taken many music classes, but they tend to focus more on the career of a musician in various forms and so they feel more practical than they do inspirational. 

D: What made you decide to become a professional musician?

SS: It’s funny, I don’t remember a time when I ever wanted to be anything else, but I think as soon as I started writing and performing my own music I was like “how did I not always know this is what I want to do?!?” I never questioned it after that. I’m also extra lucky that I don’t have parents who insist that I become a lawyer or an accountant or something, they’ve always been encouraging. I’m horribly fortunate to have them behind me and I think about that all the time. 

D: What themes and ideas/emotions inspire your songs and lyrics?

Well, of course there are all the love and heartbreak songs, those are unavoidable. But lately I’ve been preoccupied with hypochondria so that’ll creep in. Fun stuff like anxiety and neurosis but also excitement and confidence. The theme is rarely the thing I think of when I sit down to write. Instead I usually hear a word or a sentence or I think of some little line when I’m grocery shopping and I write it down and kind of let the rest of it unfold around that one little thought. Then the Big Ideas find their way in. 

D: Are there plans for a full-length album?  Can you describe the project(s) you are working on now?

SS: I’d love to record a full-length album! But I need to get this EP out there first. Right now I’m working on doing just that, but I’m also always writing. I have a handful of shows coming up in New York so I’ve been rehearsing for those with guitarist Mo Reynolds, who co-wrote two of the songs on Yeah No Fine with me and who is just an all-around brilliant and thoughtful musician. Maybe there will be a video or something soon too, who knows? 

D: How long does it take you to write a song? Do you write the music or the lyrics first?

SS: I write lyrics first almost always. Sometimes with a melody or a rhythm in mind but often really amorphously and then I have to rework them over the music I write. It’s hard to say how long it takes to write a song. Sometimes I sit down in one night and write music, melody, lyrics all at once. But sometimes I’ll write lyrics and then not touch them for months. 

D: What is your best memory of performing or writing music?

SS: A year ago, I was visiting some friends in Edinburgh, Scotland and they took me to this tiny pub called The Royal Oak. It’s just one room and most of the tables are pushed to the side and every night local musicians and bar regulars come and bring instruments and just sit wherever and take turns playing their own music or Scottish folk songs. It’s like a campfire in a bar with way more alcohol and it’s fucking great. I just had my little ukulele with me but they let me play a couple songs. The sound in the room was just warm and lots of the patrons would join in with perfect harmonies on whatever I sang. Then, a very drunk woman wandered in off the street and sat right in front of me as I played and decided to do a call-and-response with me. It sounded terrible. It was hilarious. I’d love to go back. 

 D: What is the most challenging aspect of being a musician?

I think the practical stuff is the biggest challenge. All the talk about how the music industry is not nearly as lucrative as it used to be is very true. Streaming services are amazing but also terrible for musicians. So figuring out how to make a career out of music—especially as an artist and performer—is not easy and frankly terrifying. 

D: What’s it like recording professionally in a studio?

SS: Recording in a studio is amazing. Every single person who I got to work with was talented and kind—from Jeff Elmassian who owns Endless Nosie Studios, to Grant Cornish who recorded and mixed and mastered the EP, to all the musicians who were involved. I’d never recorded in a studio before and I learned so much. You need to be really focused, but super patient. I was lucky that we all got along so well and everyone was so generous with their time and their talent—you’re collaborating with a bunch of people in this dark cave for like two weeks so you have to communicate really well and be thoughtful and driven. Then you emerge and you’re like “even if this EP never sees the light of day, at least we fucking made something.” 

D: Would you say your LA background or current New York City home influence your sound?

SS: Looking at the musical references I listed above, they all feel very California. I definitely think about the kind of music I’d want to listen to driving up the coast or something cheesy like that—but that’s my favorite way to listen to music so why not? But I’ve had way more experience in the New York music scene which has impacted how I perform and write and probably a lot of the lyrical content especially. It’s cramped here and it can be the most supportive community and the loneliest place all at once. It’s exciting and monotonous. I’m sure I have nothing new to say about New York, only tired cliches, but it’s absolutely there in my music. But hey, I’m still a California girl!