Swarm of Stars - Artist interview with Swarm

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a r t i st i nte r vi ew w i t h SWA RM


Featured Ar tist: Swarm Ph oto s and Intervi ew: Seli na Ves ely G raph ic D esi gn : Sulah Ki m / Blanck S tudio


Po r t a l Wo r ker s Unli mi te d / Re sin- c a st . Re sin, a c rylic paint , silic one mold . Swarm po se s w ith he r b ri c k p ro p s f rom her perform a nce p iece, in which she d re sse s as a Spac e J anitor and b uild s a wall.

To l e a r n m o re a bout Swa rm‘s a rt a nd te chniq ue, find her on Instag ram @sw _rm

Interviewed in December 2020

Selina: Can you describe the work that you do? Swarm: I’m an artist—I’m doing my undergrad in Fibres and Material Practices at Concordia. My practice revolves around making artistic inquiries into astrophysical concepts. Right now I work as a Research Assistant at the Initiative for Indigenous Futures at University of Concordia. I’m the Social Media Coordinator for Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, also known as AbTeC, and I love working there! I also assist in productions of artworks and machinimas in Second Life at AbTeC. I am slowly cultivating a Research-Creation project that I call Astro Fibres. I’m about to start a residency at Visual Voice Gallery where I will be creatively responding to the question, ‘What was the early universe like?’ I named my residency In The Beginning… On top of visual explorations I will also be creating a sound art piece, so I’m exploring, ‘What did the early universe sound like?’ I will be drawing inspiration from a book from my syllabus; it’s called Discord by Mike Goldsmith. He is a scientist concerned with astrophysics and acoustics. It’s about the story of noise in the universe, like the timeline of it. That’s where I found out that the Big Bang was silent!

Holy s--t. I didn’t realize you were involved in so much. So you’re living in Montréal right now. Did you come here for school?


No, actually I started going to school here about three years after I moved here [in 2014]. My life in Toronto fell apart while I was visiting Montréal for the first time. Long story short, I came here to visit and while I was here the house where I was living was very suddenly sold and I had to leave right away. I had nothing lined up and someone offered me an affordable room in Verdun and I took it. So I was like, ‘Alright, Montréal seems cool, let’s go.’ It was actually pretty traumatic, I’m sugar-coating it a lot. I thought I was going to live in Toronto forever. I felt really at home there, but now looking back I realize Toronto was not my home. After that house was sold, I went back to get my belongings and I moved here two weeks later. I basically threw my entire life on the curb and took what I could on the Greyhound. I felt like I had been dumped by one of my favorite cities, but it’s okay. I don’t think I would be the person I am now if I didn’t have that happen to me. I was very young and not established; I was able to establish myself here as a human and an artist.

Are you able to balance your time and continue creating art right now? I’m doing more long-term projects these days. I’m not producing at a rate that is unhealthy anymore. That is definitely because of the pandemic because I would hyperproduce all the time. But now I think, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I’m producing less, but doing longer-term explorations instead of short-term one-offs, and refining them. I’m not abandoning projects as soon as I finish them. I have a few performance art pieces that I’m going to be working on.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by tornados because they’re like black holes, in a way. They’re phenomenal, natural objects that could kill you.

I’d love to hear an example of some of those things? Are they in school or are you doing them outside of school in your free time? The projects often start in one of my classes. For example, I’m about to start the residency and I’m going to be doing a lot of sound art for it. I was planning to do exactly this kind of project in one of my studio classes last semester, but I had to drop that class because of the pandemic—the school just closed. I’m picking up where I left off, but outside of school. Oftentimes when I do something for a project for school, I feel like, ‘Oh, this is really just a sketch. Like, it’s not really the real thing.’ So I end up redoing things.

Using art to convey complex astrophysical concepts is pretty unique. Which came first, your artwork or your interest in the universe. How did you decide to combine the two? I’ve always been interested in astrophysics, particularly black holes. I remember the first time I learned about black holes, I was in grade three. One of my teachers talked about black holes and I was like, ‘That sounds terrifying.’ As a kid, I was always fascinated by tornados because they’re like black holes, in a way. They’re phenomenal, natural objects that could kill you. My interest in tornadoes transferred into my interest with black holes. I remember being on Wikipedia as a kid with chills in my shoulders reading about black holes. It wasn’t until 2018 that I decided to marry my art with astrophysics. I went to an artist talk by Bettina Forget. She’s actually the director for my residency, which is really cool! I went to one of her talks where she discussed merging art with science, and her work about moon craters, and women in STEM. She did a project called Women With Impact where she’s naming moon craters after women in science, because a lot of the moon craters are named after men. And I just think it’s so cool; the work she does is amazing. When I went to her talk, I felt like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Why haven’t I been doing this the entire time?’ I had already been on the path towards zeroing in on astrophysics, but had barely realized it. Then I started doing art about the multiverse theory. Seeing her presentation was like an ‘apex’ moment for me. Then I started to focus on black holes and eventually cosmology—it’s all related anyway. My dad is also a telescope designer and amateur astronomer. He does astrophotography and he’s been designing and building telescopes since he was my age, or even younger. So space stuff was always around, but I never thought to marry the two until recently and it’s been a wild journey.

B l ack H o le N et wo r k / N e e dl e - fe l t ing. M oha ir, a crylic fe l t . A hotp i n k n ee dl e -fe l te d net m ad e f rom m oha ir a nd acr ylic f ibres.

C e le st i a l Sp here / Pa int ing. Foa m , a crylic p a int . Ob se r va b le Unive r se s / Be a dwork , l a s e r- cutt ing , painting . Wood , g l a s s b e a d s , a crylic p a int , st a inle ss ste e l. Ea rrings mad e from pink g l ass b e ad s a nd laser- cut wood, then ha nd-pa inted .

It’s kind of interesting that your dad is very involved with astrophysics, but you didn’t become interested in it through him. You became interested through class and your own inquiry. Well, he’s not involved in astrophysics, he’s involved in astronomy. They’re not different, but they’re not the same. Astronomy is like observing, whereas astrophysics is seeking to know exactly how the universe works. My dad’s an astronomer. He observes; he takes photos; his speciality is telescope optics. I don’t do much observing. I do more reading about deep space objects that I can’t observe with my own eyes. I’m more interested in deep space phenomena. I’m more into radio astronomy because radio astronomy allows you to see into deep space and observe black holes. Multiver se Waff le We ave / Ikat d yeing tec hnique, weav ing . M erc erized c otton, b l ack dye. The color-variation in the cotton yar n was c re ate d using the ikat d ye ing te chnique, a n d the n wove n on a floor loom in a “ waffle we ave,” c re ating re ce sse d square s re minisc e nt of th e infinit y mirror effe ct .

Do you have any formal training or educational background in sculpture and performance art, or astronomy? Not so much in astronomy, but I took an Introduction to Astronomy class thinking I was going to learn physics… it was all geology. I got a D. Geology is cool and everything, but it’s not what I came for. I have formal training in sculpture. And I’m an undergrad Arts student so I am still doing my formal training. I’m trained in metal work, woodwork, fibres, and random sculpture practises that don’t have a name. I’m learning 3D digital sculpture like Blender and Rhino for digital artworks.

Your art is quite diverse in terms of its form. I’ve seen your performance art, you wear your own jewelry and a lot of your work manifests as sculptures, but you also use a variety of materials. Do you have a preferred medium, or is there one that you began with? The medium I began with was photography. I always think photographically because that’s what I’ve been doing since I was like 15. I started using a point-and-shoot digital camera, and I also lived in small-town Ontario where there was nothing to do but take photos or play The Sims. But I don’t have a preferred medium. I’m very multidisciplinary. I think of ‘sculpture’ as more of an umbrellaterm for everything, because anything can be sculpture. Right now I’m trying to focus on technology-based art and how I can incorporate them into what I’ve already done.

Omnip otent H and s / Painting . Satin, ac rylic paint . Satin g l ove s ad orne d w ith ac r ylic paint st ar s. BB Black H o le / N eedle felting . Ac rylic wool. A b lac k b all n e e dl e fe lte d from b lack acr ylic wool. Multiver se / Las er c utting , hand painting . Wood , ac rylic paint , stainless steel. A ne ck lac e crafte d from lase r- c ut wood , h a n d painte d w ith acr ylic paint and const ructe d w ith st ainle ss ste e l jewe lr y findings and chain.

When you have an idea in mind, do you already know what material you’d like to use? Which comes first: the material or the concept? Definitely the concept; the material forms to the concept. Sometimes it’s the other way around. That’s the way research creation works: you do research by creating, and you create by doing research. Sometimes the idea comes from the material and sometimes you need to find the right medium for the concepts. It always boils down to what’s best for the work itself. So I don’t commit to any materials or mediums because the point is to make a successful work of art.

What does successful mean in that context? What is successful art to you? I think successful art is well-executed, and the concept doesn’t always have to be obvious but it’s understandable. And it should be somewhat accessible, because I don’t believe in making art just for academics.

That’s interesting because I wanted to ask you, do you think that your art has educational applications to explain complex concepts? I mean, do you see your work as a potential teaching tool? I think some of it does have that ability. Sometimes I start from a scientific concept and then I get really philosophical. So yes and no, it depends on the piece. If I’m doing something illustrative, whether or not it’s a painting or sculpture, I see it as opening the door. You really have to let go of a lot of specifics to make art about these topics because there’s so much to it, and you’re just going to confuse yourself and everybody else if you don’t simplify it. On the other hand, my performance art is very philosophical, very sci-fi, not super educational— at least not scientifically. I think the Multiverse Waffle Weave could be seen as educational, even though most people see it as just a scarf. Then the philosophical things are the [Omnipotent Hands] gloves and the Black Hole Network. I don’t actually know that black holes are all connected. There’s tons of theories and I mostly do art about theory. The Multiverse necklace could be seen as illustrative, but I really don’t like to be too illustrative as an artist. I think it’s important to

leave things to the imagination because I’m not a science textbook, right? I’m an artist. There has to be another element, like a metaphysical element or conceptual element. There always has to be something left unknown.

What are your favorite educational resources for anyone interested in dipping their toes into astronomy or astrophysics? I love books. That’s where I do most of my learning. I really liked The Discovery of Our Galaxy by Charles A. Whitney. It’s about how we figured out that we live in a galaxy and the discovery of the Milky Way. That book—I actually kept it rented out from Concordia for, like, six months. I’m such a slow reader and I have a hard time focusing, and I finally returned it and then I found a new copy of that exact edition on eBay for so cheap. I felt like such an a--hole because I really wore down their book, but it was already wearing down to begin with; it was published in the 70’s. It’s a really old-school, well-made book. It’s almost like he was writing it from a philosophical point of view rather than a scientific point of view, even though he is a scientist. I really enjoyed that. I want to suggest A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, but everybody buys that book and doesn’t finish it. It’s the most popular book about the subject, but it’s really dense even after he simplified the subject so much. It took me months to read that book, maybe even a year. I actually only finished it during lockdown. I felt like my breath had been taken away by the end; it’s really worth sticking with! Even though it’s a coffee table book—people buy it to have it, but they don’t read it—I think people should pick it up because it’s really fascinating. Oh, this is a great recommendation: Astro McGill! It’s run by the McGill Space Institute and it’s a bunch of undergrads who are in Physics and they do public outreach talks every month. They give talks by scientists, they’re open to the public and they focus on mostly astrophysics. I go to all of their talks. That’s where I get most of my material, that’s where I get most of my inspiration. And then you can ask the speaker questions after! It’s like, ah, fantastic! They don’t do it on campus anymore because of the pandemic, but they’re still doing online talks and they live-stream all their talks. They live-streamed them before, so there’s a whole archive on their page. They’re so good. I think the most well-attended one I went to was the one about the black hole photo because the director of the project gave the talk. Usually it’s black holes that bring people out.

Are there any other artists exploring your niche that inspire you? As previously mentioned, Bettina Forget makes art about moon craters and exoplanets and other life in the universe. There’s also this other artist that I found out about this year, Lisa Pettibone. She does glass work and she does a lot of art about the universe. I love her work. And then there’s Sarah Nance, who was one of my professors in Fibres [at Concordia]. She does art about geology. I know I was hating on geology before, but her art is really f--king cool. She does spacey geology; she calls it ‘exo-geology.’ Another artist that inspires me so much is Skawennati, who does Indigenous futurism/science fiction work through addressing history. She also touches on cosmology in her work. Every time I see her machinima called She Falls For Ages I tear up. It’s so beautiful. Her work really brings emotion out of me. When she started paying attention to my work and we became friends. I’m always delighted when artists whose work I admire want to correspond with me. An artist should never be alone in the room—having peers is so important; talking to each other about our ideas is important.

As I was listening to you talk, I thought it was really interesting that I heard a lot of stuff about timing. I know that astrophysics talks about time. I’m wondering if you have an interesting relationship with time or if any of your art discusses time. I will be discussing time in this residency because the early universe and cosmology is all about time. My relationship to time is strange. Especially now, my perception of time has changed. The pandemic, being isolated… time passes differently. It’s been a year, but it feels like it’s been a decade, you know? I don’t see time as linear. I see time the way science and many cultures see it—not just scientists because they were not the first to think this way. Time expands, it goes outward. It doesn’t go in a line. Here’s a good example: a telescope is like a time machine because of the speed that light travels. It doesn’t matter how far into the sky you’re looking, you’re always looking back in time. It takes eight minutes for sunlight to reach Earth. Each time we look at the sun, we’re looking eight minutes back in time. So if you think about how long it takes for the Andromeda Galaxy’s light to reach us so that we can observe it through a telescope… it’s 2.5 million light-years away—a light-year is the distance light travels in one year—so we are seeing it as it was 2.5 million years ago. The further away something is, the further back in time you are looking in order to observe it, and you’re seeing an older version of that object through the telescope. So we can still observe the early universe—

—if we have the technology to look far enough. And we do have the technology, but it’s radio and it’s the same radio frequency as FM radio, between 50 and 150 MHz. So in order to be able to observe the early universe, you have to go to a place where there’s no FM radio stations. Unfortunately, FM radio is pretty popular, so that’s why they’re building more and more space-based observatories so they can look far back in time without interference. That’s what time looks like to me. Because if you think about the Big Bang and how the universe theoretically emerged from a singularity and expanded into what we have now, it’s not linear at all. You can still look at the early universe. I feel like whenever I go to a place that I lived part of my life in the past, I’m still in that time. I think time travel is possible. For example, a friend of mine passed away a couple of years ago. It feels like it was only a year ago though. Time is weird, huh? When I went back [to Toronto] for his funeral, I went to all the places where I shared space with him. I went to his old house, I went to the place where he gave me a bag of arugula that he grew with a huge smile on his face. I went to that exact spot and that spot has not changed. So I was still there. Now, there’s no scientific basis in that at all. Obviously it’s a belief that I have that comes from deep thinking. But I feel like I time travel when I go to places because something has happened anywhere, everywhere. Sometimes I want to go back to childhood places I’ve lived just for the sake of time traveling. The space is still there, but the time has changed, but there’s an intersection between space and time when you’re in that spot, at least for me. So that’s how I feel about time. I feel like it’s also relative, according to science, too. An hour can pass by really fast for somebody, and really slow for somebody else. We go through that every day.

Sometimes I want to go back to childhood places I’ve lived just for the sake of time traveling.

Do you have any type of feelings towards wearing your own jewelry that you’ve created; is that meaningful at all? Absolutely. I started out at OCAD in the Jewelry Design program. I’ve always been really into wearables and jewelry. Now I have an idea and I make it for myself. I see myself as a work of art that I like to adorn and I’m really into adornment as a medium, even though it’s not really what I do. It’s more of an everyday self-expression thing. It’s a big part of my identity because my identity is really complicated and only I can tell the world who I am through my art and what I wear.

Is it important for you to tell the world who you are? Obviously it’s more important to me than it is to the world... I don’t think the world cares. I do it for me. I’ll go out in some flashy outfit, but I’ll be like, ‘Don’t look at me.’ [laughs]

We didn’t even talk about the fact that you styled all of your clothes for the shoot! And you did a great job! Yeah, I did! I loved it. Thank you. I love fashion and I love self-expression in that way. I just don’t do it for money.

Ti m e Wra p / E m b ro i d e r y, s ewing. Thre a d, fa bric, batt ing. Or i g i n all y t he s ub j e ct of a perform a nce p iece, this piece consist s of a t u bu l a r fa b ri c ri ng ha n d- em broidered with st a r s. Mi rro r Ea r r i n g s / As s e m bl a ge. Mirror c a bochons, sup e r glue, ri n g bl a n k .

How did you come to find your name Swarm? I started my artist career as a street artist. I want to say graffiti artist, but it’s very ambiguous which one I am because I don’t do letters, but it’s not legal either. My first boyfriend had a friend who was a graffiti artist, and he came to stay with us. We ended up doing graffiti. I was like 18, 19 [years old]… I was just getting started so he was kind of like a mentor. And he was like, “Oh, you need a name. Usually it’s max six letters. If you have a long name, you do a short form.” And one night we were drinking and the word ‘swarm’ just slipped out of my mouth. And he was like, “F--k, that’s it!” And I was like, “F--k, that‘s it!” That’s been my name ever since.

Where can people find your work? I mostly post on Instagram. I feel like it’s a really good way to engage with my audience; that’s important to me. I’m not some artist who is removed from the world, high up in the sky. I want to be grounded. And I’m engaging people, because there’s no point in doing art about this stuff if you’re not getting people interested. Space art is still really niche. I think space art needs a hero and I’ve been meeting people who I would count as heroes, which is really encouraging. Before I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t see one more falsecolor galaxy painting.’

You’re saying you don’t like it when it’s not based on science?

Is there something that makes it less authentic if it’s for money? Or repulsive in some way? No, it’s not about authenticity or anything. If I could afford to hire people to do it, I would. I love my style and I love seeing people wear my stuff. It’s just that I don’t have the time and energy to duplicate things. Like this necklace that I’m wearing. I laser-cut this wooden circle and then I sanded it and then I painted it. That’s a lot of work. And people often expect machine-made perfection, which really messes with me. If I see one imperfection, I’m like, ‘Oh my God!’ You know? It’s too stressful.

Yeah. Like when it’s just cheesy pictures of astronauts and s--t like that. Some of it is good… I don’t want to come off as a snob. There’s a place for every kind of art in this world and people don’t have to be fantastic conceptual artists to make art, or to make. But I don’t like that the general population sees that as what space art is, because it’s more that. I’m really happy to be part of this movement. I hope that I can contribute something. It’s not everyday that artists see impact in their own lifetime. I just want to reach people. I don’t care about how many people I reach—which is hard because I’m very social media oriented. I sometimes get obsessed with reach. Obviously I want people to care about space, but if people only care about selfies, that’s where I get mildly annoyed.

That happens to me too. The pictures that get the most ‘likes’ are ones of myself. And it’s like, ‘Well, the other stuff was what I cared about more. It’s my work.’ Exactly. So I’m careful… if I post a selfie, it’s going to be based in my art. My art will be in it or something, it’s not just a selfie.

It’s a way to get attention about the stuff that you actually want to point towards. Yes, it becomes performance art at that point. There is a performative aspect in my work and my life. I feel like there is that aspect to everyone’s lives now with social media. That’s why I like to engage with my audience and get people thinking about this stuff, because it’s important. There’s so much more to life than all of these earthly delights. We’re in a whole universe, man. Like, it’s really vast. It’s scary to some people. What is the message that you want people to think about and why is it important? Our existence. We are born from this universe by chance. It just so happens that the universe evolved in such a way that we came out of it, and the conditions are just right for us to have emerged. Stephen Hawking talks about this in A Brief History of Time. Life in the universe is a miracle, because the universe is cold, and unsupportive of life, you know? This, of course, depends on your definition of life. What is life? I feel like capitalism has made us lose sight of this and we’re more concerned with material objects than we are with our existence and how much of a miracle it really is. I don’t want to say that people’s values are misaligned because I don’t like to tell people what to care about, but there’s a whole universe out there that most people aren’t paying attention to. I guess it is easier to focus on our little lives. I think the universe is too much for some people to think about—I think it brings people stress, but to me it brings peace. Just knowing your place in the universe is such an important thing. I mean like the Earth, the Milky Way, the galaxy cluster, the super cluster, the ‘cosmic address.’ That is quite literal, but I am also speaking on a philosophical level too. We exist because the universe exists. And if I’m speaking personally to your question, it really takes a load off knowing that the universe is vast and not everything that happens in my life actually matters that much. It becomes less heavy.

I think the universe is too much for some people to think about—I think it brings people stress, but to me it brings peace.

S p aceti m e Fa b r i c / B at ik . Silk orga nz a , wa x , dye. Silk org a nza fab ric t re ate d w ith the lab or-inte nsive b atik d ye ing proce ss to c re ate st ar s . Eac h st a r was c re ated by a drip of wa x , then the fa bric was d ye d and the wa x was re move d , le av ing und ye d d ot s.

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