Side x Side

About Arca:
In Converstaion with Claire Scherzinger 

April 5, 2022
By Side x Side Contemporary

Claire Scherzinger has a BFA in drawing and painting and creative writing from OCAD University and an MFA in interdisciplinary arts from the University of Victoria. Her work has appeared in exhibitions across Canada and internationally in the US and UK.

She was a purchase prize winner of the 2015 Royal Bank of Canada funded Painting Competition and was shortlisted for the Equitable Bank Emerging Digital Artist Award in 2019. Scherzinger currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, and in 2021 became a member of SOIL Artist Collective in Seattle.

Thank you, Claire, for doing this interview with us. Tell us a bit about your background as an artist. We would like to get to know you more before we dive into conceptual aspects of your practice!

I’m originally from the suburbs of Toronto, and I was always a daydreamer, a thinker. Life in the suburbs was very quiet and so making art and reading were two ways I filled the time. I think I was lucky to have parents who supported my wanting to be an artist. As a child I was always drawing something and they encouraged me; they bought me art supplies and payed for lessons. Later, I went to the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto and ended up living in Toronto for the better part of a decade. During that time I learned the foundations of what it meant to be a creative professional; I rented a studio, made my art a priority, applied for shows, grants, did residences, and learned how to network. I left Toronto in 2017 to do my MFA at the University of Victoria, and refined my approach to being a creative professional. I’ve become more judicious about what criticism I accept, what shows and opportunities I apply to; I’ve learned when to say ‘no,’ which was a very difficult lesson to grasp! I’ve been working as an artist just short of a decade now, and I feel in a sense I’m only just beginning! I moved to US in 2019 and I’ve had to start over in a new city with new people. But it’s a fun challenge and I’m enjoying every moment of it.

Tell us a bit about your creative practice and the ideas that interest you. What are your inspirations?

At heart, I am a painter, even when I’m not painting. Everything I make is informed by painting: how I arrange compositions, the colors I use. My mode of working on an idea for a video work is similarly informed by how I would approach making a painting: lots of sketches, playing around in Unreal Engine and making smaller, shorter pieces that may later be incorporated into a longer work. I take most of my inspiration from science fiction books and tv and western art history. I read a lot, look at a lot of images in books or online (and whenever I can, in person). I let all of that information distill, sit, and then percolate up to the surface when I begin working. I used to work a lot faster when I was younger, but now I enjoy the slowness of thinking and making. I may not make as much, but I feel that the work I do make is much stronger—technically and conceptually. I also take a lot of inspiration and ideas from the natural world. My partner and I spend a lot of time outdoors gardening and hiking. Ideas come from my flower and vegetable garden, and from where we live (next to the Olympic Peninsula). I look at images of deep sea creatures and I take inspiration from movie and video game concept art.

You are creating a new world in your work that “depicts the uncanny as a way of resisting systems of power and considering better ways to live within western civilization.” What is this world like? What are the things you want to improve or what are some of the things that you are questioning?

I’ve been developing a world through my paintings and video works called Arca for several years. This planet orbits an F-class star. An F-class star is very bright—it burns much hotter than our sun. As such the foliage is leathery and waxy. The jungle areas are dense, the plains, arid. Bioluminescent reflective layers protect the plants’ surfaces. Most of the planet’s action happens at night when the atmosphere is cooler. Arca is also home to all kinds of life forms that are easily visible and others that are invisible to our eyes.

Invisibility is an important theme in my work. Mainly, I’m working with the thesis that you can’t ‘discover’ planets already inhabited. When the Christian European nations arrived at Turtle Island (or North America), they considered the land to be empty since the Indigenous peoples inhabiting the land weren’t Christian. Since they were not Christian (often derogatorily referred to as ‘savages’), they were not ‘real’ people, according to the Europeans. They were metaphorically invisible—people to be saved. This is described in more detail in Mark Charles’ book Unsettling Truths.

With this in mind, the goal of my work is to examine the future of space exploration and how many governments (but mainly the US and China) have expressed similar colonial attitudes to the European explorers. I worry that nations of the future will see potential worlds as ‘empty’ simply because a form of life—bacterial or otherwise—doesn’t fit their standard for what constitutes life. It’s very possible that the tragedies that befell Turtle Island could happen on Enceladus, Titan, or Ganymede. This may be ‘long shot’ thinking, but it’s a conversation that is worth starting now, as space colonization begins in earnest.

Landscape seems to be an important feature in your subject matter—mysterious landscapes with cool-toned color palettes and unknown creatures that instantly bring us into the realm of science fiction. These forms seem both to reference the body and underwater beings, liquid and at the same time solid, soft and pliable. Can you tell us more about the subject matter of your work?

Everything ever made on Earth by humans is somehow about the human body and how it exists in relation to the landscape. For the last four years one of my goals for my work has been trying to decenter the human body by painting landscapes, and microscopic paintings of cells. In my paintings I invented this microscopic cellular form by pressing the side of my hand into a mixture of drying solvent and oil paint. I’m using these invented cellular forms as the basis for the life that’s evolved on Arca, and biologically part of the blue glow that appears in a lot of my paintings.

My work also is about challenging Western Christian notions of intelligence, civilization and land use. So I’ve been depicting landscapes that are home to flora and fauna that practice social rituals, and have a sense of community and belonging in the landscape. I imagine the beings that exist on Arca have deep ties to the land, and it informs the basis of these rituals and communities.

In your videos and paintings, there is a sense of both exploration and trespassing into something/someplace unknown. How does this play into the type of content you are creating?

Trespassing and exploration are two concepts I think about a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that what’s known as the ‘colonial gaze’ is a large part of my work for better or worse. Where does exploration end and trespassing begin, especially when the other party can’t communicate with you? Is that other party now irrevocably changed because you’ve observed them? If you are (in a Star Trekian sense) invisible while you observe an alien party, are you still observing them? Should there be rules of engagement for space exploration to prevent trespassing?

These are questions I grapple with all the time for the purpose of moving toward some semblance of postcolonial science fiction. I don’t have concrete answers to all of these questions. However, these questions do inform the way I make my videos and paintings. Mainly, I film the landscapes I build in Unreal Engine and say that these shots are from an imaginary space probe that have set out to find evidence of life, whether alive or dead (as we understand the concepts). I try to get detail shots alongside sweeping shots of the landscape and then they are edited in Final Cut to make it appear that the console is cutting between the viewports of several different probes. The camera also moves very slowly. The slowness of the imaginary probe/camera is my attempt to bring a sense of reverence and awe to the people viewing the landscape, but also recognizing by putting the camera number in the viewport that they are voyeurs. It is likely that whatever life we come across we will experience first through machines, and so this relationship with machine, viewer, and the viewed is inevitable.

As an interdisciplinary artist who engages in various media from painting to video, writing to digital media, do you think your work is making a connection between the different mediums that you engage in? What do you see as the overlaps between digital rendering/video/sound/painting?

Everything I’ve made influences the next thing I make. Plants that I’ve crafted in 3D modeling software have started to appear in my most recent paintings. The colors I use in my videos are informed by the colors I use in my paintings. Working with sound and layering all the different harmonies and melodies is a lot like building a painting from the background to the foreground—it’s the same for video editing. As I’ve become more adept using sound and video editing software I also find I’ve been able to paint more methodically, seeing what layers need to be placed where and when.

Likewise, I paint in such a way that I consider to be more like ‘rendering,’ rather than just ‘painting.’ Rendering is something that also happens in the process of making a video or model, or bouncing a music track; the computer is generating an image based on the information provided. What I mean by rendering that alludes more to my painting style; I don’t use a lot of thick paint. I try to make all the lines look clean and smooth. I don’t like my brushstrokes to look messy. I most often use a short-handled angular, synthetic brush which is excellent for blending. My paintings often contain a sense of realism, but they still have a personal stylistic aspect to them. There’s still a small sense of the paint dictating the direction of the painting, based on how the solvent drips, or what forms naturally appear in the background.

Can you tell us more about how your work engages language and writing, especially language that appears incomprehensible or difficult to grasp?

That’s a great question. Language, when it comes down to it, is a tool and also a barrier. I’m interested in both of these elements because the languages we use change the construction of our cognition. When the viewer is presented with this illegible text they are forced to confront the limits of their own minds, and how they try to reconcile that limit with their surrounding reality is up to them. Many just walk away and don’t even try to consider the text. Some make up their own meaning. I think this is important, because how we conceive of the future, how we think in the long-term versus short-term is affected by the construction of a language. To that end, using something incomprehensible in a video work with a lot of moving images I find interesting; it forces viewers to make associations, categorizations, and develop metaphors in their minds about what they think they understand about the worlds they see through the fictive console screen (particularly in my video work, Anyder).

These ideas are definitely not new. I’m borrowing a lot from Kant and Nietzsche and a lot of visual references from Western SF. But I’m interested in this probing, and in future, going deeper with this element of my work.

Your work is quite interactive, and viewers seem to play an important part in your practice. Tell us about this feature of your work. What is the role of you as an artist and creator of this imaginative world and what is the role of your viewers as participants? How does this conversation overlap with cultural experiences of gaming and film?

As the artist, I consider my role to be the environment designer. I create the open world for the viewer to explore and, to a degree, fill in any blank spaces with their own imagination. This process and philosophy toward making models games like Dungeons and Dragons and Starfinder. However, the innovative thing that I’m doing is taking these aspects of gaming culture, science fiction, and fantasy, and painting them on large canvases and hanging them in white cube spaces.

I think it’s worth mentioning that I’m actually really interested in gaming and how its blending with the film industry. Funnily enough, I have a career goal of one day writing a video game. Not coding, but just writing the script and developing the world and characters. I think a lot of entertainment-related industries though are being affected by gaming—more and more everyday. I read a novel a while ago where I felt like I was reading the script/playing a video game. More overlaps are going to happen, and I believe that the relationship with viewers will be more highly valued by artists over time. An example I thought of are the immersive Van Gogh exhibits that are touring the country—large projections of his work fill entire warehouse spaces and you can walk through them. There are tons of Instagrammable moments in these exhibits, and the process of walking through these environments feel a lot like a video game. I think painting, not just new media, is going to continue becoming more interactive in form and content.

Is there an ideal space for your work to be viewed - in person, in a gallery, on a personal device or immersive VR experience?

As of this moment the ideal space for my work to be viewed is in a gallery, or on a computer, in person. A gallery is the best way to view my paintings. A computer screen is the best way to view my video work. I’ve yet to find the ideal space where I can show both at the same time. However, my hope is that one day I’ll be invited to fill a large space where I can display some huge works. Paintings and videos that fill whole walls and rooms, and the viewer can sit on a bench or lie down and slowly take it in.

What else are you working on and what do you have coming up this year that you are excited about? Any new projects?

These days I’m preparing for a few upcoming exhibitions in Canada and in the US. I’m trying to establish myself as an artist in my new home and community. I’m also working on some short stories, essays, and a novella that’s got me really thrilled; for a while I’ve been working on creating a new series of worlds through writing these stories. And I’m excited to see how they will affect my paintings and videos over the next few years.

*For more information on Claire Scherzinger’s work, please visit her website.

Interview by:
Side x Side Contemporary
Krista Brand & Mana Mehrabian

View some of the Video works of Claire Scherzinger here:

Claire Scherzinger, The Last Ansible Transmission, Audio/Video, Run Time: 20 minutes, Dimensions Variable, 2019

Claire Scherzinger, Anyder, Audio/Video, Run Time: 40 min, Dimensions Variable, 2021
© All Images courtesy of the artist

Image list: 
Image 1 :Claire Scherzinger, Death of the Giant, Oil and spray paint on canvas, 84 in x 84 in, 2019
Image 2: Claire Scherzinger, Death of the Giant (detail), Oil and spray paint on canvas, 84 in x 84 in, 2019
Image 3: Claire Scherzinger, Origin of Life, Oil and spray paint on canvas, 84 in x 84 in, 2019
Image 4: Claire Scherzinger, The Last Ansible Transmission, Audio/Video, Run Time: 20 minutes, Dimensions Variable, 2019
Image 5: Claire Scherzinger, The Strait, Oil on canvas, 40 in x 30 in, 2019
Image 6: Claire Scherzinger, Anyder, Audio/Video, Run Time: 40 min, Dimensions Variable, 2021
Image 7: Claire Scherzinger, The Last Ansible Transmission, Installation at Trinity Square Video, Audio/Video, Run Time: 20 minutes, Dimensions Variable, 2019
Image 8: Claire Scherzinger, Anyder, Audio/Video, Installation at YYZ Artist Outlet, Run Time: 40 min, 15 ft x 10 ft, 2021