I first met Rebecca on Milwaukee Ave. I think we were at a gallery opening. I had been talking to a friend about The North Georgia Gazette, an Arctic newspaper originally published in 1821; I wanted to reprint it somehow. At the time the project was a pipe dream and when my friend saw Rebecca, she ushered her over and said, “You should talk to Rebecca. She’s all about Arctic exploration.” At the time, I think I stuttered through the introduction. Like many encounters, the virtue of our handshake was not in what was said but a recognition of friendliness. Since then I’ve followed Rebecca’s work pretty closely. We put the Gazette together and even travelled to Philly at one point to put up an art show. We share a number of interests in book making and comics; her work has inspired my own in different ways. I’ve always appreciated its tactile honesty. There is something defiant about the unslick-ness of her tone, the efficiency of her energy. If she wants to illustrate a relationship with the ocean, she literally draws with it, or swims in it, or writes it a letter. She makes illustrated chapbooks connecting geographical exploration with a romantic biography. Or, upon recognizing weakness creates a ritual of exercise-as-performance. In everything there is a direct connection between the gut of her impulse and the resulting aesthetic experience. The distilled object–a photograph, a sculpture or video–is the result. Given her interest in exploration, it makes sense she would approach her practice so efficiently–it is as though she must employ economy in order to anticipate unknown distances ahead, in order to conserve energy and resources. Each piece is evidence of a new discovery within an interior landscape–a place that could be a country or a poem.
Caroline Picard: What does it mean to explore something? What is your relationship to the iceberg?
Rebecca Mir: When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time scrambling over seaweed covered rocks and investigating tide pools by the beach, or building fairy houses in the roots of spruce trees on Monhegan Island. I channel some of that excitement when I’m walking through a new place, or building something in my studio. Exploration is partly about the physical space of exploring, and then it’s all the pieces of the story surrounding the exploration. Some of my projects rely more heavily on the actual journey, to the water, or mountain, or the preparations for this journey. Getting directions from a deck of tarot cards for instance. Or the journey takes place entirely on paper. In a comic about exploring the sea floor and bumping into perished explorers.
Icebergs are explorers too. They break off of a glacier and set out a trip through the ocean. Sometimes they stop in shallow water and become an island. They are beautiful, but sometimes dangerous, to us. I am attracted to cold places and large bodies of water. It’s only fitting really that I think icebergs are sexy and fun to draw.
CP: How do you relate to the mediums you employ? How do you chose, for instance, whether something is made out of paper, or bound in a book, or constructed with plywood?
RM: When I first decided to be an artist, (somewhere around fourteen?) I was very old fashioned. I wanted to carve women in stone. I think this might be directly related to watching a film on Camille Claudel. I had a very romantic sense of the artist studio. Romantic and dramatic and devastating. I quickly gave up on figure drawing and sculpture for less figurative sculpture projects in fiber and ceramics. But I’ve returned to working with the figure and stone. I started drawing again, about five years ago, with comics. And I’ve been working with rocks again, in sculptures and drawings. It’s sort of tying up the loose ends of my roots. Choosing materials is sometimes a game. Figuring out how to build/draw/capture this idea with what is directly around me. Similar to the fairy house building in the woods. And sometimes this is just where it starts, and then I realize that I have to go seek the right paper, or wood, or rock. Or that I need to go make a photograph. Or find a video camera.
Plywood is great for making rigid things like ice floes and mountains. Paper is great for making water. I like the way crinkled paper makes me think of water stopped in motion; the light hits the crinkles in a similar way to it reflecting on the wavy surface of water. Paper is also great for writing on. When I want to tell a more linear story, I always go back to pen on paper. I turn them into books when there seems to be a group of stories, or a longer one. Books are easier travel companions. I can send them easily in the mail. They take up less space, but require more time.
CP: Do you feel your work is contingent on others? I suppose I am thinking of the photograph you took, where you are swimming in the ocean in the winter. It looks like you are utterly alone, but of course the photograph was taken by someone. I ask because I feel like there is an idea about exploration that it demands a kind of alone-ness—i.e. you are going into unknown territories without being positive that you can return—yet in the action of performing that exploration, or making an art object, or taking a photograph, it seems to me there is an implied ‘you’ or witness…?
RM: Explorations aren’t always alone. Often there are expedition teams. People who help you get to the cave entrance, or carry supplies up the mountain.
I have always been interested in solo adventures. I’ve read a lot of books of solo sailing trips around the world, solo flights etc. I am always curious about some of the worst moments. They seem small on the page, and in the past, but I’m sure they were huge in the moment.
My particular brand of exploration is about being alone. The photograph that you mention, was taken during a walk that I took with my sister, mother and aunt in Maine. We passed a rocky point with a stone church, that I’ve driven by a thousand times. It’s a popular spot to get married. There was a small rocky beach nearby, that I’d never been on before. We walked down and I decided to get in the water. I passed the camera to my sister with some instructions. I was most definitely alone in the water. But I was there to be with the water. So I was alone with the water. And now I’m sharing a racy photograph with you.
CP: All this talk of exploration and solo journeys, and of course, the devastating romanticism of the artist–are you into Bas Jan Ader at all? What do you think of his final boat trip, In Search of the Miraculous?
RM: Yes, totally have a soft spot for Bas Jan Ader. A friend told me to look at his work when I was an undergrad. There weren’t as many books in print of his work then, but I found a description of his boat trip and thought it was the coolest and most poetically self destructive art project I’d ever heard of. Still, I didn’t really think about the size of his boat much til last year. It was only 12 or 13 feet long. That is like paddling a canoe across the Atlantic. I just finished reading Susan Casey’s book about rogue waves (100+ foot waves, more common than you think…..and an awesome read), so I’d prefer a much bigger boat if I sail across the Atlantic.
I also really like his piece I’m too sad to tell you.
CP: What about Buffy? She seems like another hero in your work. I was thinking of the project you did where you did pilates while watching all the episodes. How did you come up with that as a project? How do you feel (if you do) like she fits into your artistic mythology?
RM: Yes Buffy is a hero. Super strong girl kicking lots of supernatural ass with total lesbo best friend – what is not to love? During the last episode of the show, Willow (Buffy’s best friend, conveniently a witch) casts a spell that gives all the potential slayers the super strength that Buffy has. And then they head into battle. There are lots of portals in the Buffyverse (as it’s sometimes refered to). So I started thinking about the TV as a portal to the Buffyverse. And if I had a ritual to do while watching the show on TV, then I might be able to access it/enter the portal via this repetition. So I had a pilates routine that I would every day in front of an episode of Buffy. The fight scenes were usually at the end of each episode, so I would also fight along with my punching bag at the end. For five months I had slayer training with Buffy every day, in my apartment/the Buffyverse. At the end I was indeed stronger. I also immediately noticed that my dreams were less insanely violent. And I stopped getting a cold every other week. The spell/ritual worked.
CP: How would you characterize your relationship to Chicago?
RM: Well, if the ocean is my lover, then Chicago is a great housemate. We get along really well.
I really like the city, and the people here. I’ve been here for almost ten years though, and I still get homesick for a rocky coast. But I realized a while back that if I left town every couple of months, and visited the ocean at least twice a year, that I could really be happy living in the Midwest.
CP: What is the handmade book for?
RM: Handmade books are friends. If you take care of them, and they stick with you and make you feel better.
CP: Will you talk a bit about the project/video where you walked around the lake with a homemade telephone?
RM: I have this thing for long distances. I think about them often.
In part because a lot of good friends live far away. And I had been in a series of relationships with people who lived elsewhere. (The romantic relationships didn’t survive the distance.)
I wanted to put a ridiculous amount of effort into talking to someone. I wanted to physically cover a fraction of the distance that we frequently communicate across. A tin can telephone seemed to be the right tool for this exercise. I needed a length that was both daunting (for this specific task) and nearly insignificant these days. I picked a mile. And began making the phone.
My friend Dan lives near the beach in Indiana, and I always remembered from visits that the beach was rather empty in the off season. The beach didn’t curve too much either, so it seemed like it would be ideal for unwinding a mile long tin can telephone. I drove out to Miller Beach with two friends, two video cameras, and some audio recording equipment. Andrea, Aay and I set everything up right in front of the path from Dan’s house. Andrea stayed with the two cameras at the starting point. Aay and I began walking away from her, and each other, unwinding the telephone as we walked.
The goal was to have a conversation with a mile of beach in between us. And if it worked, record it. It was a lovely walk for a while. A warm and windy and sunny April day. And then there were lots and lots of knots and tangles in the string. At first just a few. And then I got stuck and I couldn’t go any further. Apparently Aay had lots of knots in the beginning but then it was smooth unraveling. So Aay and I never got to talk on the tin can telephone. Which was okay. I was mostly interested in the experiment, and the walk. And the videos of Aay and I walking away from the camera (there were two cameras, one on Aay and one on me) and disappearing into the distance captured these sort of quiet adventurers off seeking a conversation.
CP: Another thing I notice is how you characterize dynamic and personal relationships with traditionally inanimate things (like books, for instance, or Chicago, or the Ocean)–I’m particularly struck by how that characterizations relates to your description of the failed conversation with Aay–the contraption of the phone seems as alive and integral as Aay, or Dan, or the beach. In other words, you seem to describe a deep feeling connection to your environment and the things that occupy that environment. I’m curious about what role you see your work playing in that equation?
I absolutely have a deep connection to environments. Partly because when I was growing up in Maine, the ocean was such a calming force for me. Environments have a strong effects on their inhabitants. And we effect our environments. (This is where I tell you that global warming is real. And I admit that I am a nerd.) I meant it before when I said icebergs are sexy. A lot of my work is about romantic relationships with the environment. The romantic sense of adventure and conquest, and also heartache (a.k.a. natural disasters, glaciers melting)
One of my ongoing projects is about my long distance relationship with the ocean (which is why I was in the ocean by myself for that photo, I was visiting her). I joked once in a love letter (sent by bottle via the Mississippi river) that if I waited long enough in the Midwest the ocean would make it to me. Seriously, global warming is real.
CP: Rubaccaquon! I can’t believe I forgot to ask about that–I just thought about it, because it also, as a project, seems to relate to the personal dynamism I mentioned before–in so far as you are defining a personal country, right? And then also how that reflect on the power and idea of naming something. Could you talk a little bit about that?
RM: I have a lot of nicknames. Rubaccaquon is one. (I believe Aay Preston-Myint is responsible) I started using it as a website name, an alter ego/placeholder name, since I had been toying with the idea of changing my last name. And when I decided to swap Grady for Mir, I started to think that maybe Rubaccaquon was really a place after all. I was thinking a little bit about Yvette Poorter’s backyard Canadian soil residency project. If she could bring Canada with her to the Netherlands, then I could certainly date the ocean and have my own country. So Rubaccaquon became a nation/notion.
Discovering things and places is fun. Naming them helps with the storytelling that comes after the discovery.
CP: What have you been working on lately?
RM: I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently. Thinking and reading and doodling about space. Both outer space and the space in my apartment. I am making some directional and time devices/sculptures out of wood, metal, paper and stones. I’ve also been looking at a lot of Victorian acrostic jewelry. I want my next love letter to the ocean to be in stones. A large scale series of stones set in sand instead of gold.
I’m making a mountain range for my apartment, out of plywood. And I’ve been making a lot of books. Some have been edits of things I’ve worked on in the past. I have an unpublished comic kicking around, that I’m finally going to print. And I made a new zine called SHE IS RESTLESS for the Chicago Zine Fest last month.
See more of Rebecca’s work by going here.