An Interview with Artist and Writer Emmalea Russo

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Emmalea Russo is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Using sculpture, installation, and text, she makes process-based works about voluntary and involuntary actions, the central nervous system, and repetitive tasks. She is the author of they (Gauss PDF, 2014), CLEAR1NG (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), and book of southern and water (Poor Claudia, 2013). She is pursuing an MFA in visual art at Pratt Institute and is a member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective.

I met Emmalea in a vegan cafe, a perfect setting in which to get to know this humble, talented artist. With her gentle demeanor, she emanates holistic creativity and a depth that makes you want to get to know her story. Lucky for us, Emmalea took some time to chat a bit about her creative background, her working process, and what’s drawn her to the world of textiles. Hope you all enjoy!

Q: Which medium came first for you- text or textiles? Do you see a connection between the two? How do you make the connection?

Text came first. There is a definite connection for me. The impetus to start working with textiles came from a frustration with the intangibility of language. I had long been taken with the process of writing – the physical activity. Textiles seemed like another way to process and a natural extension of writing. A few years ago, poet and visual artist, Jen Bervin, gave me the amazing gift of tons of thread. I’ve been using it since.

My writing and visual work are interdependent. I often think that I’m a generally nicer person when I get to work with my hands. It has something to do with patience and rigor.

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Q: In your artist bio you speak of your interest in questioning voluntary and involuntary actions, the nervous system, and repetitive tasks. Can you expand on that a little bit?

I’m interested in the mind-body connection. I like trances and meditations and typing, sewing, and walking offer those sorts of spaces. Sometimes work accrues. I might return to the studio – or wherever – and work with my own writing and research and/or the work of others. I am interested in tracking my intuitive connections between the body’s electrical wiring and the brain as a physical object.

Right now, I’m working with electroencephalogram (EEG) readings. I’m a beginner and the readings are vast fields of information that I don’t have access to right away. I have to carefully learn this new brainwave language. The level of control I have or think I have over my mind-body certainly influences my perceptions and decisions. Questions I’m often asking: How can I make this visual? How do I spend my time?

The central nervous system processes information but not always seamlessly. What happens when wires get crossed or communication is faulty? It reminds me of the internet. Often my work involves a visible processing of information that is hopefully not separate from my daily life. 

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Q: Does your environment play a role in your artwork?

Yes. This summer I spent a lot of time in Spring Lake, NJ. I found that walking near the ocean had a different impact on my work than walking here in Brooklyn. I made less physical work and was happy to walk eight or ten miles near the water. I loved when a good friend said “seems extreme.”

I also invite the environment or any number of elements to impact my work. John Cage called it “leaving plenty of room for the ‘x’ quality.”

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Q: If you had a day off and were free to spend it doing all of your favorite things in Brooklyn, what would your day look like?

In the studio. With my friends. Walking, too. Brooklyn is one of the best places to walk. Have you heard this term psychogeography? I’m interested in that – a playful gridded wandering and new routes around the city. Lyn Hejinian wrote: “In the city there are only four directions for a walk.”

Q: What are three things you always have in your studio?

Typewriter, thread, seltzer.

Q: My favorite stanza in they is Stanza V. Going through the typed and threaded text and then reading the they-transcriptions feels like being let in on a secret that you and Stein share. Thanks for letting me in on that secret.

Glad to hear that! I like the way you put it  - a secret. I think one of my challenges is letting people in on the secret (or non-secret). Hanne Darboven often said: “My secret is that I have none.”
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Q: I heard that you’ve taken a class here at TAC. Which class did you take and what was your favorite part about the experience?

Yes! I took an embroidery class a few years ago. I loved the intimate roundtable feeling and the practical skills given. I think I was just starting to work with textiles and wanted a little more of a foundation from which to work. Huge fan of TAC.

Q: Do you have any current projects you’d like to share with us?

I’m working on a manuscript which is one long poem about electricity, neurological histories, indexing. A recording of me reading from it at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn is here. Also working on some sculptural/installation projects having to do with intuitive research on electrical activity in the brain. I recently finished a manuscript called TH-READ in which I’ve tried to sort of use thread as a reading and writing tool. Or, treat words as physical material. I assigned myself recordings to listen to and searched the web while making the poems – sort of an attempt to keep all channels open. Excerpts are here here here here.

*All images courtesy of Emmalea Russo, Gauss PDF, and The Volta.

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