Artist Interview: Gracelee Lawrence

July 28, 2021
Artist Interview: Gracelee Lawrence

Q: How did your interest in the relationships between food, the body, and technology begin?

I began using foods (and more specifically, fruits) as a stand-in for bodily experience in 2014. I was charting my own intake by making sculptures out of dehydrated juicer pulp and pineapple crowns dipped in salt dough, among other things. Fruit first entered the work as a material interest, based on the linguistic and image-based reciprocations with the body, and of course its intrinsic humor. Fruit is used to understand the size of a tumor or growing fetus, bananas are constantly invoked in phallic jokes, and for that matter the peach emoji is a perfect example. There is an active reciprocation of language around bodies and plants: to some extent they are both pruned, grafted, sculpted. They both ripen and decay.


Regardless of scale, there is a physical intimacy with food forms. When you see a banana in my work, you understand the sculpture differently if you know how it tastes, if you have felt the clammy peel in your hand, if you’ve noticed how similar it is to human skin, equally delicate and prone to showing the marks of its age and movements in the world. We have a preexisting sense of intimacy with, physical understanding of, and biological draw to edible plants. 


Not long after starting to use fruit material in my work, I began experimenting with digital fabrication. This allowed me to scan and reproduce fruits and vegetables in nearly limitless scales and materials. About one year later, I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand on the Luce Scholars fellowship where I taught in the Multidisciplinary Department of Art at Chiang Mai University and worked for artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. I began to think about technology, and the role of digital fabrication in my work, very differently. Technology became my primary means of connection, support, and care while in a new place so far removed from my previous community. I wanted to capture the translation of emotion and empathy through technology, so I began to use the tools available (my small 3D scanner and a 3D printer that I had shipped from the US) to play with this idea of pressing emotion from physical to digital space and back again. Digital fabrication quickly became much more than just a means to an end.


Recent studies determined that in 2019, the average American adult spent over five hours per day using a mobile phone. In this compressed screen space, relationships are built and destroyed; products ordered and reviewed, porn and cat videos watched, food is ordered and delivered to our doorstep. There is a waning tension between digital and physical space, and the boundaries are quickly dissolving as we spend almost one-third of our waking hours on our phones (and that’s not even counting computer time!). I’m interested in this new shift I’m feeling, ranging from my newly formed desire to draw emojis in the margins of the books I’m reading to the ramifications of the acceptance of dating apps as standard procedure in relationship procurance. My work is paralleling these translations and our shifting perception of reality that is no longer merely relegated to sensations of the physical.


Q: Your sculptures are manifested within a transfigurative space between physical and digital reality. Can you speak more to this?

My work is on the cusp of the physical and the digital, both in its symbolic core and its physical structure. It is entangled in the same complicated web of shifting experience that we are- caught between physical and digital reality in a time when they inevitably combine and crystallize into our collective and personal meta reality. My work is a record of this complication, translated into a biocyborg form. 


Q: When were you first introduced to silk polylactic acid filament? What are the challenges and benefits of using this medium?

Silk PLA filament is relatively new in my 3D printing practice. PLA is a wonderful thermoplastic polymer as it is derived from renewable resources like corn starch or sugar cane as opposed to nonrenewable petroleum reserves. I began using silk PLA about a year and a half ago for it’s glossy surface that nearly mimics the way that light refracts in digital renderings. It holds characteristics of digitalness both aesthetically and conceptually. 


Q: The commodification of goods is a topic of interest for you. Where has your continued research in this field taken you recently?

Recently I’ve been doing a deep dive on corn and its starring role in the food industrial complex. In 2019, American farmers planted 91.7 million acres of corn and 93 percent was genetically modified. About one third is used to feed animals in factory farms, one third is used to make ethanol the renewable fuel additive, and one third is used for human food, beverages, and industrial uses. Genetic modification leads into the idea of the biocyborg that I’ve been considering in my work for quite some time. Questions of hard and soft technology, an integral component of nature versus culture, are increasingly prescient in GMO foods. The link between GMO corn and the primary material 3D printing material in my studio makes printing replicas of edible plants even richer territory.


Q: A world traveller, having attended twenty residencies in the US and abroad, as well as being a Visiting Professor in the Multidisciplinary Department of Art of Chiang Mai University, you have a breadth of experiences to pull inspiration from. Is there one place or moment that stands out in particular?

I can never foresee the thaumaturgy that makes for a moment of inspiration. One of my favorite moments was the second time I visited Hong Kong, a city that continues to impress me. I was walking down a steep hill outside of a beautiful botanical park when I saw a squat post with two huge red flowers perched impishly on top. This arrangement struck me and ended up being the crowning component of She Thinks with Her Glands (To Die From the Cure), a piece that I made about my discomfort and inextricable implicitness with neocolonialism in Asia. The important thing is to stay receptive to the moments that offer revelation.


Q: What does a typical studio day look like for you? Has this creative space served a new purpose throughout the pandemic?

My studio has always been a space for solitary contemplation and during the pandemic this has been both a blessing and a curse. The current space I’m occupying is my first long-term solo studio space since grad school and it has been amazing to see all of the work together- finished and in progress, experiments and crystalized thoughts alike. Ideally I’m in the studio as long as possible as it takes me an hour or so to get settled and focused. For the first thirty minutes I’ll make a cup of tea, change out 3D prints or fix the inevitable issues 3D printers conjure overnight. After that I’ll settle into a few hours of 3D modeling or physical making, interspersed with a walk up the hill behind my studio into a beautiful historic cemetery. I’ll inevitable drink too many cups of tea over the eight plus hours in the studio :) 


Q: You've mentioned that music can be a creative aid for you. What are you listening to right now?

In the studio I’m most likely listening to NTS streaming radio or The Lot Radio. I love streaming DJ sets, especially dance music and techno to keep the energy up in the studio. Some of my favorites are Dorian Electra’s October 2020 frenetic guest show, Shanti Celeste for house and techno, and Maria Somerville for the deep ambient chill. Discwoman collective is also amazing! Every few months I’ll get on a podcast kick and listen to Rough Translation, the Memory Palace, and 99% invisible until I run out of episodes. There is always something playing when I’m in the studio!


Q: It seems art and technology are at a stage of intense convergence. What do you infer the art market will look like in 10 years?

There is a growing interest in digital art and I’m so pleased to see the upward trend. I’m predicting that augmented reality and virtual reality experiences/sculptures/art will become a dominant form as VR headsets become a commonplace addition to every home. Even now most smartphones are AR compatible. This is exciting territory that I can’t wait to venture into- be on the lookout for an AR project from me in fall 2021!