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INTERVIEW: Sougwen | DesignNotes by Michael Surtees

INTERVIEW: Sougwen

interview with @sougwen goes up tomorrow, here's her photo from our talk at Falai

I first met Sougwen at Joey Roth’s Sounds Like talk. She had been invited by Joey to draw on a set of speakers and was on the panel to talk about it. I really liked what she had drawn on the speaker so over the weekend I took a closer look at her drawings. Later that week I interviewed her hoping that our conversation would shed some light on why I liked her work. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation that we had in a small dinner over coffee and tiramisu.

On Drawing and Performance
S: I’m pushing a process with my work that counters the preciousness that some designers find fascinating. My performances are expressions of drawing as an activity, not about making a pristine or perfect image.

MS: A lot of music in it’s final form is perfect, but if you hear it at a live performance you’ll hear little errors.

S: Right, coming from a background in classical violin and piano inspires my approach to drawing as small exercises or meditations on form. At the end of the Sepalcure – Everyday of my life drawing video, it made a lot of sense to just rip up the piece as it’s not really about the composed image. The intent of the video was never about the final piece as a piece, the focus was supposed to be the performance. It was a bit of a dramatic statement to rip it all up at the end. However, I’m moving on from the live drawing for the moment — I feel that they’re a bit too static. I’m interested in working with motion artists and programmers to start animating the lines or creating some sort of drawing tool that I can perform with. I want to make it more exciting. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the economy of simple tools but coming from a background of digital design, I want to push it further.

MS: It’s like experimenting and trying to do it in a new way.

S: Years ago, when I started producing the work that I do now, I was struggling find my own voice in design. There are a lot of beautiful styles out there but to me it was never really gratifying or satisfying to mimic other people’s work. In order to develop my process, I started by scribbling on these little gridded notepads, filling all the pages. The ephemeral scrappiness was helpful in easing the pressure to be a really good designer and come up with a masterpiece. Through constantly drawing and getting into that headspace I found a love of form exploration that I’m developing further every day.

MS: That’s interesting when you noticed that shift.

Tools, Archiving, Traveling and Process
S: I’ve been cataloging a lot of these quick experiments online. It was useful to me to see how the work was developing, which I started probably five years ago or so.

MS: I read in a different interview with you that you packed your scanner with you.

S: I’ve spent the past year traveling a lot between Stockholm, Amsterdam, and NYC. I think I’m the only person at customs who a carries a scanner in her purse, as well as a laptop, a digital camera, three notebooks (a personal journal, a sketchbook & one for random ideas), a book that I’m reading… and my violin. I’m getting really good at packing.

MS: I’ve seen four or five videos with you on Vimeo drawing. How comfortable are you drawing in front of a camera?

S: Two years ago, I started live drawing after being contacted by Rabbit Content & Q Department Studios about drawing at their event. It was something that I had never really done before, and it ended up turning out really well. I think live drawing and that process of creation lends itself well to how I draw, which is by experimentation through markmaking. That I never have an idea what the final image will look like when I begin is a process that might be a bit harrowing for some digital designers.

MS: So how do you know when to stop?

S: My work is borne from a very exploratory intent, which I think gives them a kind of kinetic energy. I seldom have an idea of when they could be considered done.

MS: Yeah, in one piece I noticed that you ripped it up in the end. So how did you know when to do that, and did you even know ahead of time that you were going to do that?

SG: Most of my drawing videos are done in thirty minutes. I try to keep it to the challenge of half an hour and you’re done.

MS: So basically you’re time boxing it?

S: Yeah—exactly. It can become really meditative, though I’m looking to push the performance aspect a bit further. In January, I’ve been selected to contribute to a Visual Music Collaborative Masterclass at Eyebeam sponsored by Ghostly International. It’s going to be this crazy week of programmers, designers, and musicians coming up with audio/visual tools, instruments, visuals.. I’m excited to see how that week will evolve my thinking and approach to performance.

Working with Others
MS: Do you collaborate a lot with musicians? It seems like a lot of the stuff that I found out about you was with them or electronic artists.

S: I think one of the reasons for that began with my involvement with Ghostly International. I’m one of Ghostly’s visual artists so I do a lot of work with them, most recently a design for their new Dark Arts Apparel line. Between being in the particular label’s sphere and designing sites like Percussion Lab, http://www.percussionlab.com/ which curates live dj sets…. I guess I have done a lot of music-centric design.

When I was working on the Spectal Sound covers, I went through numerous different iterations, integrating illustrative line-work with the numbers 50 and 51, representing their catalog. I would send them five or six different intricate and unique renditions of what in could look like before we landed the final design.

MS: So for a project like that you’re the illustrator. If you were to flip it around with your design background is it easy to shift gears between being an art director to illustrator?

S: The two disciplines have always been fairly separate for me. It’s something I’m actually quite happy about. My design work doesn’t have anything to do with my personal projects. The two don’t really meld, especially lately, as I’ve had the opportunity to delve much more into interface design and information design.

In my personal work, I’m moving away from traditional mediums and more into a 3D space. I’ve been exploring a process of creating form inspired by texture through displacement maps. It’s been really rewarding, taking my line drawings into that space and using form to make something sculptural that inhabits an environment.

MS: I’ve been using my blog essentially as a learning tool. It’s like throwing things out there and experimenting.

S: In general, having an online presence has enabled some of my earliest collaborations. I’d seen Joshua Davis speak a few years ago, and somehow he was my friend of Flickr. When he favorited “Afterthoughts” on my photostream, I emailed him and asked him if he would be interested in working on something with me. We collaborated on this quick but visually successful piece, combining my ornamental forms at the time with what he was working on at the time. It had his palette and code, and my forms. It was a new experience for me to collaborate with someone of a different skillset to produce a generative visual series.

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