Yael Kanarek is interested in the signs and systems that we use to quantify and communicate knowledge, specifically words and numbers. She focuses on the spaces where meaning is conveyed or lost as it passes through cultural and disciplinary frameworks, while her work fluctuates between painting, sculpture, and time-based interactivity. She has exhibited at The Drawing Center and in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and has received numerous awards, including a Rockefeller New Media Fellowship and an Eyebeam Honorary Fellowship. Kanarek is also the founder of Upgrade! International, a rhizomatic platform for dialogue between media artists that takes place in numerous cities around the world. Yael Kanarek: High Performance Gear was on view at Bitforms Gallery, New York, from April 18 to May 25, 2013.
Anuradha Vikram: How does this show’s body of work and concept evolve from your previous works that combine multiple languages toward a single concept or meaning? Do they relate to your history of working with technology, language, and systems?
Yael Kanarek: The evolution is that now we are networked nodes, on top of the individual or psychological self or the construction of the “I.” Our self has expanded and experiences another self on the other side of the globe immediately. This is new—we were always connected but we couldn’t feel it, and now it affects us. When my mom in Israel likes my Instagram images several times a day, I can feel her presence. Our imagination now is encompassing many more people; when something happens somewhere else, we experience it in our bodies. This is radical. That’s why I have been drawn to working with multiple languages. Words are the lineage of trade and exchange. When you follow the etymology of words, from orange, you get to naranj in Sanskrit. At the same time, the text of all these works, in many colors, only says white. All the shades of color appear on a spectrum between black and white, between light and darkness.
AV: Are you thinking of color and text as prismatic, combining to make white light but separating out the languages according to the spectrum?
YK: They come out of the conceptual white. This color palette is taken from my rainbow New Balance sneakers. What I like about fitness culture is the use of extreme, fluorescent palettes. You really see it on TV. You see the shoes running; you don’t even see the people running anymore. The piece is called Rainbow, towards a New Balance (Made in the USA) (2013). The composition came from an image of the infant universe at 380,000 years old. It triggers that feeling that you are connected to much earlier pasts. It was so past the capacity of our imagination in a way but at the same time so familiar because it is our nature to find forms we recognize, like with clouds in the sky.
AV: Our nature is to translate the unknowable into something that we can grasp.
YK: Otherwise there is no place for it to exist. We constrict it to our tools of perception. We share these tools to help create consensus and speak a language.
AV: Where does omission come in? We tend to neglect what we don’t understand. But we can’t all agree on what we understand and what we neglect.
YK: We have a threshold between agreeing and disagreeing; otherwise we can’t live. There is flexibility because we know that what we know will change. We know that we’re always, to a certain degree, wrong. The thing that really will bring us to our knees, collectively, and probably will bind us more together, is our relationship with our planet. If we destroy our habitat then we really have a big problem. We need a sense of liability, a sense that if somebody else is suffering, we are suffering too. Technology does that for us, because it extends our selves, our bodies, our minds, and our hearts.
AV: What about the transhumanist idea that technology might displace our selves?
YK: It doesn’t concern me, because we transcend with technology. We’re not creating something that is not ourselves. We already have parts like pacemakers, but most people are not going to be in a hurry to give up their bodies even if they’re offered that option. Because we feel in them.
AV: I remember that in earlier work there was a strong interest in the spirit and spirituality. Would you say that’s still true, and if so, where does it come in here?
YK: Very much so. Before, it was more dependent on geometric form that was explored in early abstraction. I feel more liberated now. If I can find it in the most ordinary things, my sneakers, then I feel that I can practice it in a more constant, efficient way. The teachings of Kabbalah from the particular source or tradition I follow are the ones that resonate with my inner field. I can turn them into actual experience.
AV: That makes sense, because Kabbalah is so networked and mathematical and at the same time mystical, and it comes from a strong Jewish tradition.
YK: The Hebrew language operates in Kabbalah like a code. There’s also a very clear goal: it’s the Golden Rule, and it’s very hard to achieve, so it keeps you busy! [laughs] Every time you try to love the other, you find out how much you hate them. That’s where you meet your ego; that’s where you do the work. You are working in constant resistance.
AV: Talk to me about this rope piece.
YK: I’ve been looking into Da Vinci, trying to understand his work as a gym for the mind. His urge for knowledge and investigation and his highly multidisciplinary interests, that ravenous curiosity, are things that I personally find in myself. His drawings are phenomenal, especially the one that is a popular design for a perpetual motion machine. He concludes that it’s not possible, but he retains the urge for perpetual motion. A perpetual motion machine is high-performance gear. Walt Whitman writes, “Urge and urge and urge, the procreant urge of the world.” I used professional mountain-climbing gear, designed to suspend our bodies from weights, for this temporal feeling. In the balls, the same proportions are translated; I used crochet and tried to bring in feminine traditions, homemaking. It’s called Perpetual Dream Catcher (2013). The balls, in the drawing, are supposed to spin the mechanical construction endlessly.
AV: Why did you choose the circle for these three wall text pieces? In this gold one [Sanctify Thyself No. 1], it reads like a Byzantine icon’s halo. Is that intentional?
YK: It started from a more technical place. I wanted to see how the gold pigment affected the materiality of the silicone. When I hung it, it immediately became clear that I had a halo. It worked with the idea of whiteness. Jane Hirschfield, the poet, talks about the ordinary Buddha. Not the constant state of bliss, but finding the Buddha in ordinary life, while walking down the street and looking at people. I thought that I would use this work to practice that idea. I invite people to sanctify themselves. In so many ways, museums and galleries are shrines for secularity, but when you have an opportunity to have a spiritual experience or an altered state of mind experience, you usually welcome that. We seek transcendence; we live for transcendence. It’s a fun thing, a participatory thing, an internet thing, and also people have a private, inward moment in front of the work when their picture is taken. I like that.
AV: That puts me in mind of the metaphysical aspects of Suprematism, these origins of Modernism that are also very transcendentalist. With these two word compositions, you’ve got the chaotic versus the ordered scene.
YK: Here are the sneakers. This is based on Kandinsky. MoMA was using his tiny watercolor to advertise its Inventing Abstraction exhibition. This is as close as I could get to translating it. The piece is called Deeply Concentric (2013), and the quote is: “Deeply concentric, each art is separated from the other, but on the other hand, they are combined by their innermost tendencies. Thus, it is found that every art has its own strength, which cannot be substituted for another. Therefore, we finally arrive at the encroachment of the power of the various arts upon one another.”  Here high-performance gear is the role of the museum as brand. Advertising has become the main creative medium of our times. How MoMA, the mega-museum brand, can explode a tiny watercolor into our consciousness.
Kandinsky is interesting to me for various reasons. There were others, such as Hilma Af Klint. She was highly spiritual, pulling from similar sources including theosophy. Klint was doing abstraction before Kandinsky, in this more isolated place. She made her living from landscape painting, and she would do these but not show them. In her will she requested that they not be shown until twenty years after her passing. Now she is representing Sweden in the Venice Biennale. But spirituality remains a dirty word in the contemporary art world.
AV: We seem to be craving a spiritual experience from art no matter how secular we want our art to be.
YK: Yes, but it’s a different kind of experience. Divine experiences have many different forms. You are not going to find the same experience in a gallery as you would find in a temple or as you would find in nature. They’re of the same family of feelings, but they have different colors. When we’re encountering artwork, we’re finding that feeling within ourselves. In nature, we’re finding it in relation to nature. In a place of worship, we’re finding it in the communal service. Art is often a singular experience, whereas religion is collective.
AV: How, as an artist working predominantly in an object-based manner, do you create spaces where mutual exploration happens? From a Debordian perspective, how do you keep everyone from being alone with the spectacle?
YK: The modernist self meets the self as a node in the network. It exists in me and in the meeting with other people. It has to have the meeting, always. I am an inward, contemplating person. For some people, the group is the easy place, and for me, the group is frightening. So that’s the place for me to do the work. A big part of my work is on the internet, creating that mental space of exploration online as early as 1995. There is this gold piece [Sanctify Thyself No. 1], in which the photographs go on Instagram. Social networks are a very big part of this exhibition. I’m thinking about multiple images and looking at the internet as a space defined by language, whether machined or spoken.
1. Vasily Kandisky, “On the Spiritual in Art.” English translation published by Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1946.