Q&A: Melissa F. Clarke On Traveling To Greenland By Boat, The Kickstarter Model, And Hyperawareness

Categories: Interviews

Melissa F. Clarke sets sail for Greenland on August 3.
The discogs.com entry for Melissa F. Clarke is mercilessly brief, and with good reason. This New York-based sound artist doesn't go in for headphone music; she crafts immersive, science-fueled audio/visual experiences that demand observation of the interplay between images and sonics, like the haunted hum of Untitled Antarctica—which riffs on Sonogram-reading image onrush as it calls to mind the majesty of arctic ice while nodding at its depletion—or the nullifying, cornea-peppering turbulence of Bacteria, her collaboration with video artist Shimpei Takeda. (Her single-medium work is arresting, but her multi-sensory adventures are transcendent.)

Today, she sets sail on a three-week group voyage that will follow a course set by American painter William Bradford in the late 1860s and lead to the northernmost tip of Greenland. In the weeks leading up to her trip, SOTC emailed with Clarke about Arctic ice, the art she hopes to make on her journey, and the definition of a "work in progress."

You staged a Kickstarter campaign [to fund your forthcoming trip to Greenland]. How did that turn out?

I feel like "After The Ice," the Kickstarter campaign, was very successful. Beyond raising funds, Kickstarter is such an excellent platform for meeting people and sharing ideas. You know that most of the people messaging you and pledging support to your work are already intrigued by what you're doing and your project, so after that, it becomes a community of people really around an idea and a project. To me, you then have to release the authorship a little to the backers to be successful and let them in as part of the campaign process. I received quite a few messages from other artists working with similar media and also people in the education field, professors and elementary school teachers who really liked the integration of science, technology, and art in my work. These were the best messages, really. I had no expectations on reaching that audience, but I've always felt that self-expression and creativity were missing in science and technology education. It's important to allow people access to these disciplines without restricting how they enter it so much.

The other reason I felt the campaign was very successful is that I feel now much more confident about approaching people to support the work I'm doing—both financially and intellectually. It's not easy to get up every day and believe someone wants to financially support or exhibit your work, or give you that feedback and dialogue that says "yes, your work is important, keep going, the world is a better place because you're doing this." Of course all the feedback shouldn't be a bunch of "yay for you" platitudes, and I don't feel like they were, but more a sense of validation that comes with being part of a campaign like that, and the interaction you have with hundreds of people in just thirty days around your project.

In a lot of ways, Kickstarter is a mirror of campaign financing, isn't it? It's sort of the democratic model, where lots of people chip in a little to help an artist accomplish something instead of one wealthy donor or corporation bankrolling the whole thing. But is there any discomfort for you in the idea that you're beholden in some way, perhaps, to the people who contributed?

That's an interesting comparison, but Kickstarter is not just about pledging; Kickstarter projects offer something back in the form of art or some sort of take-away gifts. You stay in touch with your backers after it's over. I've pledged on their projects and been in communication with quite a few. I think that's important and distinguishes it as an art, publishing, design market, and incubator model. Many people would still back a project, but there is an exchange. It's a relatively democratic model, and it's true you are relying on the kindness and enthusiasm of many versus being backed by a large institution or a donor. But that's just the point: you're more in control and a little less at the same time. It's really a community that you're developing. On the one hand you, are accountable to all of these people, and the project has to appeal initially to a larger group, on the other it may alter your approach a little. However, if you are backed by a large donor or institution you may have greater limitations and influences over your entire project from start to finish. In that sense, as I mentioned before, this creates a great sense of validation, especially if you feel your project and approach stays relatively close to your initial vision, and considering only forty percent of projects are successful.

I feel totally comfortable with this model; I'm a collaborative person and I see it as having some collaborative elements in terms of approaching others, albeit it's not really collaborative in the full sense, but there is that feeling at points. Not to mention the work your core supporters do in helping get the word out, in looking over your copy, and all of the things a person can't do all by themselves. Of course there are a lot of downsides to it too: you do have to ask everyone you know to support. This can become a little intimidating. And there's the not knowing if you'll make it. The time you have to spend can be overwhelming; it kind of takes over your life for a while.

A lot of the audio/visual projects on your page are labeled as "works in progress." What does that mean for you? Is it a struggle to bring a piece to completion? Is ths something that you stress over, or something happens organically, whenever it happens?

This is an interesting question. I think I need to correct or rewrite where it says that. Really, I can show any of that work today, and I have. What I mean by "works in progress" really should be on going or something like that. The reason is because I'm still collecting material for those series, or I feel I'm still working on them, it's not over, so to speak. There are series or works that I feel are done, in the sense that I'm not still collecting sound or visuals, and still thinking about the form and altering it. I feel the Untitled Antarctica work, for example, has run its course. Many of my other projects I consider open ended still, and diary like, I want them to shift with the years. I don't stress about it, maybe I should. I've shown the work, and to many people it looks 'finished.' The subtext of work in progress is more for me.

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