"Chin Up, Tits Out, It’s Showtime"
An Interview with Artist Sarah Zucker + more!
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A Conversation with Artist Sarah Zucker
Sarah Zucker is an artist and writer who lives in Los Angeles.
Her art, in her own words, “merges the gorgeous and grotesque through humor, psychedelia, mysticism, and the interplay of cutting edge + obsolete technologies.”
When I started digging into Sarah’s work, I felt out of my depth. Her style and outputs did not feel immediately accessible or understandable to me.
But after spending many hours reading her blog, scrolling her Instagram, and perusing her tokenized artwork (including all her captions), I began to relax into her esoteric, psychedelic, magical, nostalgic reality.
Whether or not Sarah’s work resonates with you, there is no debating its originality. In a world full of imitation, regurgitation, and bland and familiar aesthetics, Sarah’s work is incredibly refreshing and beautiful.
I’ve followed Sarah on Twitter for a while (@thesarahshow), and in addition to trying to better understand her art, one of the reasons I wanted to interview her is because she is funny, wise, and a great writer.
In this expansive and insightful conversation, Sarah shares more about her childhood, her experience winning Jeopardy, existential dread, whether she wants to live forever, her favorite LA restaurants, and much, much more.
I hope you enjoy this conversation as much I did!
MDM: Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
SZ: I grew up in Canton, Ohio in the nineties/early aughts. I was given access to a computer around the age of 2, an unusual blessing for that time, which allowed me to prepare myself for the future we experience now. The early Internet was my window to the world, and I’m supremely grateful that I had access to it at such a young age.
I had a lot of fun as a kid, as I’ve always been good at play and make-believe. But I think, even then, I felt a lot of weight on my shoulders and worry about the world. I was lucky that I had friends who “got” me, but I also often felt at odds with the dominant culture around me. In elementary school, I got tired of being asked why I was “weird,” so I told the other kids that I was an alien from the planet Zardoff, and kept a spaceship in my basement. That made sure that my kind of people stuck around, and the others mostly left me alone.
You rose to prominence making viral animated GIFs. The term “viral animated gifs” would be utterly nonsensical to anyone living in the 20th century, which happens to be when you grew up. What did your childhood self want to be when she grew up, and what do you think she would think about current Sarah?
When I was little, I told my parents I wanted to be a clown. Then they took me to the circus, and I realized that clowns are terrifying! So I changed my answer and told them I wanted to be a muppet when I grew up.
I think… I may actually be living that dream. My child self would think my grown-up self is like, beyond awesome. Which is a great feeling.
What was your first job?
My first job was working in the housewares department of T.J. Maxx one summer in high school. I spent my days unboxing decorative jars of pickled peppers and folding rows and rows of towels. I ended up being allergic to the packing material and nearly went into anaphylactic shock, so I had to quit the job.
Later that year, I got a job at a video store, which was perfect for me. This was during the DVD era, so my manager let me create curated selections of the VHS tapes, as no one really rented them very often. Thanks to that job, I know how to splice and repair videotape, which has proven crucial to the work I do now!
Were your parents or family ever worried about you pursuing art as a career? If so, tell me how that felt and how you dealt with that. And what do they think now that you are, in your words, “a 10-year overnight success”?
I showed a strong interest in the arts when I was very young, and I was fortunate that my parents fostered that interest in me, even if they didn’t fully relate to it themselves.
I majored in theater in college, and then got an MFA in screenwriting. I think my parents’ feeling was that it wasn’t their realm, so even though they expressed concern about my career prospects, they never tried to dissuade me.
I have always felt that I had to forge my own path as a creative person, which is both a blessing and a curse. It can be isolating to feel you aren’t fully understood or don’t get a lot of external validation, but it makes your successes entirely your own.
My parents seem to be pleased that I have found a more solid footing with my career as a working artist. It took a while, but I told them I would get here eventually!
What does a day in the life of Sarah look like right now?
I get up and have breakfast with my spouse Bronwyn (who is also a talented artist), and give ample pets and butt-slaps to my cat, Ginny. I drive over to my studio, where the magic happens.
Some days I work in the photo studio side, filming footage or doing interviews and taking meetings. Other days I get to play at my video altar, the ever-expanding rig of vintage video devices I use to create my visions.
Then I come home and do yoga, or take a long walk with Bron in my beautiful neighborhood. If I have time, I like to whip up a tasty meal – I love to cook. No one leaves my house unfed!
You and Bronwyn work together at the art + animation studio you co-founded - YoMeryl. What is the best and worst part about working with your spouse?
The best part is that we understand each other and communicate so well, it makes our workflow incredibly efficient and enjoyable.
The worst part is that we both end up working so much that sometimes no one has time to cook dinner.
With your first mints in early 2019, you were verrrry early to the NFT scene. Many people consider you a “Crypto OG.” Can you remember how you first waded into this world? What attracted you?
I knew about the potential for NFTs as a digital art editioning technology as early as 2013-2014. I had been experimenting with dogecoin to familiarize myself with the basics of how cryptocurrency worked. When Ethereum hit the scene, organizations like Rhizome were doing experiments with tokenizing artwork on the blockchain, and that was a huge “a-ha” moment for me.
I had been a digital-first artist for several years at that point, and felt strongly that digital and screen-based art was the defining medium of our times. Photography was my original art practice, which is how I got familiar with the concept of editioning and fine art sales. I knew once the blockchain tech was ready to support widespread tokenization of artwork, it would have a massive cultural impact on how digital art is valued and celebrated.
Once I heard about the existence of SuperRare through an artist in my network (visionary artist Yura Miron), I knew the time had come. The Digital Art Renaissance was nigh!
When did you buy your first crypto? What was it?
Even though I experimented with dogecoin, I never bought it! I only ever received it through Reddit tipping and faucets. I bought my first crypto the same week I tokenized my first artworks – the first week of April 2019. I bought enough Ethereum to pay for gas, and have been running with it ever since.
You won Jeopardy, which is amazing. How the heck do you prepare for something like that? Like, do you just show up? Or did you employ some preparation strategies to optimize your chances of success?
Thank you! In some ways, you just have to have a certain kind of mind. I have a semi-photographic memory, so I have always been pretty crackerjack at trivia. All those years indulging myself in Wikipedia rabbit holes really paid off!
I had about 2 months to prepare before I taped the show. There are certain trivia lists you can study, like periodic tables and kings and queens and stuff like that. None of that ended up being useful. I won because I apparently contain a vast knowledge of Shakespeare, bluegrass music and bears. Who knew!
In 2019 you made a GIF sticker called “Kindly Regard My Existential Dread.” In an Instagram post about it, you write:
This isn’t the only reference to existential dread in your work. For example, it also comes up in your piece Swamp. I also have a fraught relationship with existential dread, and I think about death every day. How is your relationship to existential dread right now? Besides creating, do you have any other strategies or tips for dealing with the experience of existential dread?
I wish I could say I have less existential dread now, but that would be untrue. I continue to struggle with the burden of existence, and the fear of encroaching non-existence.
Aside from creating, the best relief I find is companionship. Having friends and loved ones you can talk and laugh and dance with is immensely soothing to the soul.
Also, therapy helps.
If you could live forever, would you? If not, what would you say is your ideal lifespan?
I do not think I would want to live forever in a scenario where I remain embodied in this body, at least as it exists now. To have to experience the pain of physical decay forever would be an unimaginably cruel fate.
However, I would be interested in extended life in a scenario where I could be disembodied or re-embodied. I think my naturally slippery disposition and psychedelic journeys have prepared me for that possibility, and it would be quite exciting to self transcend in that way.
Besides death, what other fears do you have?
My sense of self-preservation tells me to be wary of the hysteria of groupthink and tribalism. Our technological paradigm shifts are going to make this a century of major social unrest. I feel trepidation around our willingness to come together as a global organism, and worry that the psychic forces of fear and division will triumph to destroy us.
When was the last time you cried and why?
I cried because I saw a dog. This is not uncommon for me. I saw a man who had limited mobility crossing the street, and his little dachshund was being so sweet in walking a few steps, then looking back and waiting for him to catch up. It was such simple and honest behavior, but it was so loving. It touched me deeply.
There is so much talk of “screen time is bad for kids” or we should “limit screen time.” But then I think about the next Sarah Zucker, some young girl exploring her curiosities, and the medium that speaks to her happens to be a screen. “Screen time” is a bad/blunt phrase because it is monolithic. On one hand “screens” are incredible portals for creation and exploration and learning, on the other hand, they can be the source of addiction, passive consumption, and excessive comparison. How do you think about the push/pull of technology/screens both in your own life, and in the lives of children today?
Like everything in life, balance is necessary. The bottom line is, there is a happy medium somewhere in the gray area, and we do ourselves an immense disservice when we view things as simple binaries.
When I was in high school, there were a lot of ads on TV warning parents that their children may have an “internet addiction,” which seems laughable now. It’s a flawed notion to think the life we live mediated through a screen is somehow separate from the life we live in the physical realm. This realization is perhaps one of the silver linings to come out of the pandemic.
Excessive consumption and compulsive behavior are harmful, regardless of the form they take. When it comes to screen time, I think everyone has to examine themselves and/or their children based on their needs. Drawing hard lines in the sand that refuse to acknowledge individuality typically harms more people than it helps.
Have you had any tension or conflicts with friends or family over your decision to go big into the NFTs/crypto?
Thankfully, I’ve had no direct conflict with close friends or family over the work I do in the NFT space. My dad is very interested in crypto, and my close friends can all see how this is an organic evolution of the work I’ve been doing for most of my adult life.
I’ve lost some followers on Instagram, and gotten flack from acquaintances who’ve been tainted by misinformation. But, I think it’s always a gift when people reveal that they don't have your best interests at heart – it gives you permission to take distance from them without a second thought.
When you feel unfocused or overwhelmed, what do you do? Do you have any routines or practices that you use to help yourself relax or focus?
My Iyengar yoga practice has been my saving grace for over five years now. I particularly like this form of yoga because it’s precision-oriented and designed to instruct every type of body in proper technique. I find it’s not only hugely beneficial for taking care of my body, but it has also been a huge help in quieting my (often chaotic) mind.
Your annual self-portrait on the blockchain in 2021 was titled The Light Witch - a nickname you affectionately use for yourself. Tell me more about the conception and creation of this portrait - what about it represents “Sarah?”
The Light Witch is an alter ego who embodies my innate gift for manipulating light and color. I have taught myself many skills in my life, but the special “je ne sais quoi” of my work comes from my inner connection with the alchemical properties of light itself.
I began envisioning this character years ago when I was doing a lot of work with projection and dioramas and felt like I was a sort of rogue magician, lighting up my cave with mystical visions.
You recently participated in the PROOF Collective Grails Project, and your piece Dream Loaf was minted 23 times prior to the big reveal that you were behind the work. Can you give us a peek behind the scenes into how that all went down? When did Kevin [Rose] and the PROOF team approach you? Did you know the other artists? You were asked to create outside of your signature style - how did you decide what to make? Any other tidbits worth sharing?
It was so much fun being part of Proof Collective’s first “Grails” release. Kevin contacted me about it in January to see if I’d be interested in participating. We were given free range to create whatever we wanted that we felt would fit the release mechanism well, and were asked to consider working outside our signature style to help keep our identities a mystery.
I was doing a lot of experiments using VQGAN + CLIP back in the fall to see if I could incorporate it as a tool into my workflow. “Dream Loaf” was my favorite outcome from those experiments. It fit well into my ongoing “Loaf” series, and also celebrated the feeling of living the dream, as the studio where I created it is located across from the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.
I knew if I made *anything* using my analog video tools it would still be recognizable as my work, so I chose to mint the original AI-assisted vision (and not any of the digital-analog experiments that came from it).
I was absolutely riveted by the Grails release. I was lurking on the Proof Collective discord and delighting in seeing how much my artwork confounded people.
Some folks guessed it was me given the subject matter, but a lot were thrown off by the AI technique. A group of people even thought my piece was created by Cozomo de’ Medici!
If anyone had dug deep, they would have discovered I did an ongoing series of AI and neural network-based artwork prior to my adventures with NFTs. I've become known for my work combining digital and analog video techniques, but I have had many explorations as an artist in the digital realm!
It was an absolute honor to be one of the inaugural Grails artists. It set a new bar for how engaging and fun a collection release can be. I do think the pieces minted from this series will live up to their name – they are grails indeed!
What advice would you have for artists trying to enter the NFT space?
Make friends. Be humble. Learn to crawl before you walk. Price reasonably from the start, and don’t immediately raise prices as soon as you’ve made a few sales. Find a rhythm for minting and pricing and be consistent with it. Recognize that this is a cumulative endeavor, and don’t let past fears push you to act erratically or make blatant cash grabs.
Always remember that you must demonstrate you know how to build value for your collectors. Be careful that you don’t make moves that make your current collectors feel like you’re devaluing the work they collected.
Know that there is no one right way to do this – you have to find the right way for *you* to do this. 1 Art ≠ 1 Art. You can be inspired by others, but only you know what’s right for you.
What do you think are the downsides/dark sides of Web3/NFTs that people should be aware of?
This space is experiencing such explosive growth, that it does feel like you’ll lose your spot if you get off the ride. I think this can have really debilitating effects on folks’ mental health, and leads to the experience of burnout. The dopamine cycles of buying and selling are highly addicting, and I don’t think everyone is well suited to participate in the space in its current form.
This technology has so many widespread uses, that it does, unfortunately, get co-opted by unscrupulous people. It puts those of us who see the positive benefits of web3 in a tricky position because our defense of the technology ends up leaving space for scammers to operate. And the scams end up getting the entire space maligned in the eyes of mainstream culture.
Lately, it’s got me thinking a lot about this H.L. Mencken quote: “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”
A few rapid-fire questions to finish up:
If you had to articulate a mantra for 2022, what would it be?
Chin up, tits out, it’s showtime.
Are there any pieces of work that you are particularly proud of?
I am so proud of my entire oeuvre on the blockchain. I have been very thoughtful and particular about the creation and editioning of every single artwork.
There are two projects I’ve created that are not (yet) on-chain, which seem to really touch and tickle people. Nervous Systems is a series of GIFs and Videos I created in 2019 that explore the concept of the Internet as the functional extension of the human nervous system.
I’m also very proud of VisionVision, a video performance art collab I did with the artist Edgar Fabian Frias. It’s a wild cosmic channeling!
If you could have dinner with any living artist past or present, who would it be?
Music you are loving right now?
Really been feeling La Femme’s latest album, “Paradigmes.”
I also, for some reason, have listened to Abba’s “Chiquitita” on repeat about 9000 times since last summer. It’s just my jam these days.
A book or books you often gift or recommend?
Now for rapid-fire questions, Los Angeles edition…
Most underrated LA neighborhood/area?
Favorite LA museum/gallery?
MOCA Geffen, LACMA
1 - 3 LA restaurants you love?
Shojin in DTLA, Joy in Highland Park, Gracias Madre in WeHo
Best day trip outside of the city?
I’m a big fan of the desert…love the vibe in Yucca Valley, or hitting up an OG midcentury spa in Desert Hot Springs.
Are there any underrated artists you would like to shout out to help bring some eyeballs to their work?
My dear friend Edgar Fabian Frias is an amazing visionary artist working across mediums. I absolutely love how they mix playfulness, joy and interdimensional weirdness with social commentary.
I’ve really been enjoying the work of Colette Robbins, who creates sumptuous digital sculptures and hybrid works.
Finally, how else can readers keep up with you and support your work?
🍣 Salmon Bites
A few quick morsels of fun before I sign off:
1. Tweet of the Week
2. The Week of CC0
CC0 is the opposite of copyright. CC0 = public domain.
CC0 means something is in the creative commons and no rights are reserved by the original creator. Anyone may use the asset for anything, including commercial purposes.
This week, following the acquisition of Punks and Meebits by Yuga Labs, there was a big surge in CC0 interest and projects.
It will be interesting to watch if/how the NFT world’s embrace of CC0 influences legacy artists, brands, and companies.
3. Artist I am Watching
What did you think about this issue of The Monty Report? Please head over to Twitter and let me know. Be sure to tag me - @MontyMedici - in your post so that I see it.
Until next Monday.
🐾 Monty 🐾
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