Emmalea Russo is a multidisciplinary writer and artist living in Brooklyn. Using language, sculpture, and photography, she explores edge spaces in physical environments and human consciousness. She is the author of several chapbooks, most recently in collaboration with Michael Newton, Eternal Apprentice (DoubleCross Press, 2016) and an artist book entitled they (Gauss PDF, 2014). She has performed her iterative slide presentation, Units of Plexiglass, an edit, at Poets House, Ugly Duckling Presse, and Flying Object, and she has presented a talk on Robert Seydel at the Queens Museum. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and an MFA in Sculpture from Pratt Institute. She is a member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective. Her first book, G, is forthcoming from Futurepoem in 2018.
Currently, she is a participant in the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace program. She invited me into her space, and the view was beautiful; as the sky darkened and the city turned on, we spoke.
How has this space influenced your work?
It’s been amazing to have a space and to be in conversation with other artists. The space and the conversations create a momentum that I would otherwise have to work much harder to create myself.
And it’s close the water, which is great for walking. Does this influence your work in anyway?
I’m not sure. Maybe it creates a kind of spaciousness. I like edges. And now, being in residence at LMCC, my studio is at the edge of Manhattan. I think walking also helps keep me (relatively) sane — and walking along edges is my favorite kind of walking — the coastline being in my mind the most dramatic edge. In my work, I can’t help but write through dramas — though I try to connect any of my own romantic, mental, emotional dramas to something else — like Woolf’s writing or Smithson’s giant sites.
I love what you said about being in conversation with Woolf & Robert Smithson in regards to work you’re currently writing. Can you explain this process, and how you decided to begin it?
Virginia Woolf’s amazing essay On Being Ill — where she interrogates literature’s lack of focus on illness, the collective obsession with the drama of romance over the drama of often inseparable physical and mental ailments — has been a jumping off point. So, I’m writing though some of my own experiences via Woolf and also some other artists and writers. I’m looking at Robert Smithson — the way that he separated his work into sites and non-sites. Other Earth artists, too. I guess I’ll just say that I’m thinking through ways of interacting with the physical world — being an artist — while being ill in some way. I like a lot of 70s artists. And the Whole Earth Catalog. And the mind-body connection, neurology, feeling grounded. So I’m often trying to figure connections between all of these elements.
What different types of media do you currently use in your work?
I use language, installation/sculpture, and photography — oftentimes together. And some lecture/slide presentations. I jump around.
When did you begin making multidisciplinary work?
In 2012, I took apart Anne Carson’s accordion-fold book, NOX, and sewed it back together using blue thread. I took photos and wrote an essay about the whys and hows of it. This is when I really started to think about different ways of reading, navigating, and being in conversation with the physicality of texts and the environment. I was living in Louisiana for a brief stint at the time. I went to a set of railroad tracks and took photographs of the book spread out in its entirety along the tracks. It felt really good — like another way of reading and considering a book. Maybe it sounds a bit utopian-la-la-land … but something changed.
We talked a bit about economy / using recycled materials; can you further discuss how and why you work using sustainable materials?
It’s partly environmental in that I don’t feel comfortable using lots of new materials in my work. It’s partly about finding some freedom in limitations. I like the idea of having a finite set of materials and finding new ways to arrange, explore, contextualize them — only adding to the mix when it feels totally vital. And then, it’s practical – “wow I have so many cardboard boxes – I should maybe make something with them.” It’s also aesthetic. I like discrete objects – the instant of deciding whether or not you’re going to stop and look at something.
In regards to your sculptural and visual work, how has it shaped your writing?
G, as well as projects I’m currently working on, have visual elements that are inseparable from the content of the work. The sculptural stuff really drives it. So, I can see an idea for a piece of writing more easily than I can think of one or hear one.
You have a book coming out soon, G, that has an interesting structure. Can you explain your inspiration and how you made this work?
G is coming out with Futurepoem in 2018. There are sixty-four text blocks, super-loosely based on sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. Each block has a corresponding prose expansion/translation beneath it. So I was thinking a lot about expansion and contraction and wanted to make my thought process visually accessible. It’s in two parts and the second section opens up into an essay which talks about the relationship that is referenced throughout the first part of the text. The letter G becomes a sort of unit of measure. And, a stand-in for the destructive/generative qualities of this relationship and simultaneously the act of building a garden. I was also thinking about yin and yang energies in TCM and Alfred North Whitehead’s ideas about panpsychism.
All images courtesy of Emmalea Russo.