Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words ρ or 4. or □ / Interview with Jen Reich / Cynthia Quarrie


Cynthia Quarrie: Tell me about where these pieces come from.

Jen Reich : How weird is it that after all these years I’m making something similar to the stuff I made before—out of stainless steel, wire and glass back in 2002—and it’s all come about after working for this abortion clinic? They put me in pathology, which is making sure all the tissue is there, making sure it’s a complete removal. So you’re dealing with fetuses, starting at four-five weeks and in Michigan, up to twenty-four. It’s not something I ever would have envisioned doing, not sure anyone does.

CQ: It’s not something you think about. The abortion, on the other side, ends in the recovery room. You can easily forget that there’s a whole other invisible side to that process.

JR: I’d never thought about it myself. I mean it makes sense, but it’s not part of people’s experience. Patients can choose to view the tissue after it’s removed, which I think is correct in terms of, it’s your body and you should have every choice, though I never recommend it. There’s an example they can see, but it’s weird, especially when it’s just a blob. And you know, after a while it gets a little… traumatic. But I remember one of the doctors saying to me, “I bet you’ll find plenty of inspiration here,” and I was like, “Hmmm”. I wasn’t thinking about it that way.

I mean at ten weeks there are limbs and a translucence, and you can see veins. That’s when you have to start counting limbs, because that’s when they’re formed enough to remain identifiable post suction. That look was something I was trying to find, in a visual sense — they’re on a light box. It’s pink, but you can see veins, and there’s this light coming through it. After a few weeks it’s still very small but you get more density, and at 24 weeks, it’s, well… I didn’t even know! And we deal with fetal anomalies, and those are crazy, both in terms of what people are going through, but also in terms of what you see.

I mean I’m not deluded—there’s something outside the body that inside the body could be alive, that is no longer alive, but most of the time [an abortion] is how someone allows the life to continue that already is. I mean most people who come in have kids, they have lives, they have things they want to do, or whatever. In a way it’s a circle, in a sense. This end allows for a beginning, or for someone to continue to travel in the same direction.

It’s funny because I was thinking “I probably shouldn’t write about bloody fetuses for my artist’s statement,” you know?

CQ: [laughs] I can see why you might think that! But it’s really interesting context. I see the work in a very different way now, and I don’t know what word to use here but visceral, actually. It’s like you’re re-constructing after having deconstructed.

JR: Well and I’m talking back to what I was making years ago. I mean there’s plenty of difference, but the similarities… it’s just so weird to think, what’s in your mind, before it ever comes into play, things that are themes or are visually part of your consciousness, but it’s strange to think that something so clear—to me at least, not just the forms but the way that they cycle—something about the look of them, I guess they were always there.

CQ: SW doesn’t necessarily look like a body part, though it has very organic elements, but “Lung” obviously does.

JR: Those aren’t the [final] names [of the pieces]. And yeah I wanted different things for each one. The names for each one come up when I’m pretending I don’t know what any one is. The names are just so that I can keep track of them, in my files. 

CQ: So the two-letter title (SW for example) is a way of not letting it get trapped in denotation, in a fixed idea.

JR: My friend said it’s like my Rorschach test. And it kind of is: how I’m identifying the form that has come out of what I was envisioning. They’re not exactly bodies, but they end up being creatures, in a sense, just because they evolve.

CQ: What is the final product? Is it the documentation, the video, the process? Because in the last images, the creatures are shriveled and blackening—so it’s funny to think about them as the telos, that you’re making them to get to that final stage. Because it seems like you’re making so that you can see the whole process. 

JR: Yes, it’s the process. The “piece” is the photos, the video. I mean I have the final pieces. If anyone saw my refrigerator! They’re so small—if I pulled one out you’d be surprised. 

CQ: I couldn’t tell from the photos. The string on “SW” could be industrial twine.

JR: It’s thread. I used that thread to sew a button onto my sweater. They’re microcosms. They’re so tiny. My close-up sight is very detailed. It’s always been that way, with fine details as to texture. I remember in school wanting to make something larger, and a former teacher / friend told me to make a mock-up so I could make it larger, but in the end, I keep thinking about these in terms of that storyline—they are these weird little things in a dollhouse or something.

CQ: And in the context of your job, it’s relational to that, to both start small and end small.

JR: I think sometimes things start out of necessity. I’m in an apartment, I don’t have a studio space, and you work inside your parameters. It’s sort of a drive—in some ways those limitations direct you. I feel like the photos make them larger. You’d crack up if you could see the photo studio in my closet. 

They’re about this big [shows about two inches between fingers]. “Lung” is the largest of them, but it’s smaller than your hand. I guess I do think about the tissue. I do think of the fact that people get to live their lives, that life comes out of [the women having had these abortions]. It’s also about this amazing process of our bodies that I would never see otherwise. I mean you know it, but you don’t necessarily think about how something develops, and the details… like when I first saw one where the veins had a marked difference… from a blob to… something. There’s the experience of my pieces drying and going crusty, and all of those things played in.

Something I never understood before is that the number of weeks a pregnancy is counted at, starts before conception. It’s because, I get it, it’s your cycle and your body preparing for pregnancy, and the egg is part of the process, the gestational length. At work, we have these cardboard wheels, and you put it at the beginning of the last period and the date now and you get the number of weeks. It took me so long to figure it out but it made me think that it’s so strange that that is counted as part of life, before there’s conception (which destroys the anti-abortionists’ arguments by the way).

CQ: It changes the temporality, the timeline; it recenters the woman’s process and the woman’s body, when “life” doesn’t start with the moment the sperm enters the egg and makes the zygote.

JR: It doesn’t start with “the act.”  It’s a different way of thinking about it. It becomes—I mean the more pregnant someone is, the further along, the more “life” we attach to a baby or a fetus or whatever it ends up becoming. But women have those two weeks every month! You think about how much is just chance. I mean our bodies expel it, but look at how things grow and develop. Looking at something that’s the beginning of life is very weird. I mean look at a seed and the way it grows, it’s all life cycles.

CQ: If you think of the life cycle of a plant, you think about when the seed sprouts. But if you’re thinking of pregnancy starting before “the act,” then the soil is full of life before anything sprouts. It enlarges your conception of what a single life is, and the boundary between one person’s life and another’s, one person’s processes and another person’s processes — it really blurs that line.

JR: It’s true! And the thing about the soil, is what makes the soil nutrient rich is what happened before. Why certain things grow where they grow, the minerals that are in there because of the history of that place, the volcanic ash, or that something died there. You think about wine and terroir; what’s in the ground affects what you taste. When I worked in fine dining I asked a waiter, if you didn’t know anything about the wine, how would you choose a cheese to pair with it? He said he’d pick a cheese from the same region, it’s going to pair with it naturally. There are all these cycles we don’t usually identify—because who can stop and do that every minute of your life—but certainly they’re ever-present.

With the pieces I make I do think: the moisture is what leaves. What changes the look? The one big difference, I mean it’s one big gelatinous blob, and the big difference is air and moisture.

CQ: What is it made of? What is that gelatinous stuff?

JR: I combined recipes for Silly Putty and DIY bouncy balls. It’s clear Elmer’s glue, with borax and water, and a drop of mineral oil, a baby oil, or sometimes a drop of lemon juice, depending on whether I want some acid. Yeah, it’s weird. I clean the metal and soak it in vinegar as an acid etch, so it’s prepared to take the patina. It doesn’t show up immediately but it’s a vinegar, salt and hydrogen peroxide patina. I coat it in that, the acid etch makes it clean enough that the goo sticks. The color is the rust from the steel, which is accelerated through the patina. It’s drawing something out that’s already there.

CQ: How long does it take, the process?

JR: A while. I keep them in the fridge to keep the goop from moving. You have to keep it cool enough, you have to keep it controlled. I remember watching some silly crime show where they talked about mummifying something when you keep it at consistent temperature and humidity. So, in my own way, I’m mummifying them.

I mean, I don’t let them just sit in there. They’re in a container, with support systems to help them keep their form. My food is all a little too cold! Then when I want to start drying I’ll open the container in the fridge, and then gradually over time…

At first I was nervous that they would shift, but once they’re dried there’s no more liquid to come out. It’s a dehydration but with the skin intact. It’s a contraction.

I think about how we’re mostly water, and in terms of life… I had to put my cat down years ago, and instantly her fur felt different. The only thing that’s different is that there’s no longer energy or animation. It’s immediate and so weird.

These pieces age. They’re not exactly dying, but I do think that as far as moisture and so on, it just goes out into the air. It’s still out there. The pieces don’t move, but the material moves, in a controlled range. If I didn’t control it, it would be just a puddle. I prop it up with a little wax paper; they have to be cold; I can make a slightly firmer mix. I have to push them back into form, sometimes. Sometimes I have to work it a little. I keep them cushioned so they can’t move too much until they’re solid.

CQ: So there’s a series of photos, but eventually the series stops. There’s a final picture, a point at which they stop changing.

JR: Yeah, no more change. I think if I left it out in the sun it would crack. But all of the moisture is gone, and that’s the big shift. There’s still the chemical reaction with the patina that’s inside the goo. At first it makes it more gooey, in a weird way, it unsets it and makes it more sticky. But it still is going to continue rusting as long as there’s moisture. That’s the process. I mean we all die, eventually, you know. It’s part of our cycle. It’s like elasticity. Why does our skin wrinkle? I haven’t done all the research, but I mean, we wouldn’t be trying so hard to come up with the fountain of youth.

CQ: I mean there’s a billion-dollar beauty industrial complex that is all about how we lose collagen and so on.

JR: Yes, things become something else while they stay the same. Nothing continues forever, but the cycle does.

CQ: The shapes look so organic, even though you’re intervening, the shapes change in an organic way. But the material: I mean you have wire, which is I suppose sort of organic, at several steps removed, and thread likewise, but the goo just looks organic, like slime or snot and then amber, then carbon and blackening. So the goo looks the most organic, but what you’re saying is it’s actually the most mediated. It’s a very chemical process, and there are several stages of human intervention and shaping. 

JR: Right, it’s a mimicry. But at the same time the process—if I didn’t intervene it wouldn’t adhere. I have to tweak the recipe and so on—I have to make the right mix that will do the things I want, for it to become this creature. I’ve been working on it for a while to get the mix I want. 

CQ: So it looks organic and kind of accidental, and like it has its own kind of agency. But what I’m hearing you say is that you’re letting it do that, but you shape and mix and support and reshape and cool it. It’s mimicry, and the process is highly mediated by you.

JR: I don’t think you’d know that, looking at it. But for me, it’s controlled. That’s one of those things, when you’re discussing sculpture, how much hand do you have in it? Are you just allowing the materials to do their thing? In cooking, you have to learn to cut with the grain, and not fight it. 

CQ: So the material is directing you? You don’t impose a vision?

JR: No, I have a vision, and I find the material I need for that vision. I mean, I watched little kids doing DIY videos figuring out how to make their own bouncy balls. I did so much research. The idea drove me to find the material. I know how the material will interact with the shape. But I can’t help the fact that in my mind, the wire will always have the element of bone.

CQ: And the thread is the sinew.

JR: Exactly. I always understood that, but you don’t really understand until you see it. Like [in my job] having to find specific things when there’s nothing specific left [in the tissue]. It’s gross. You get over it, but it is a thing. Some of the process [during the medical procedure] is to soften the bones. Which I didn’t know before, why they do certain things. 

CQ: What relation do the pieces have to each other? I don’t want to suggest that they’re parts of a dispersed body, but how do you see them relating to each other. 

JR: These ones don’t relate to each other. These ones are very self-contained. They’re part of a larger body of work, but their shapes are closed, even though they’re open. Even “swirl,” it’s a closed form even though there’s a hole that goes through it. 

CQ: So variations on a theme?

JR: There are two others that could—theyre different but they could interact with each other, but no. They’re of a certain family almost. The one with the non-title of lung, it’s very different from the others. I only sent pictures of that and “swirl,” but there are others with thread and wire. It depends on their form. The form dictates their ability to interact. Something that encases itself, or encases space, is a closed form of sorts.

CQ: If you were to show these pieces, how to do you imagine people interacting with them in space? With the videos?

JR: I do have a fantasy of a flip book, but it’s hard, it has to be the same shot in exactly the same place—I don’t know if the work really lends itself to that. I thought about pieces on the wall. But I know what a gallery is like, there’s a lot to see there. The space doesn’t allow what you need. If I were to show these pieces, I have a hard time imagining that people would relate them to the photos. 

CQ: I mean, people could be directed, there could be explanatory signs, arrows.

JR: But that’s why the video started. I thought about the stages. I think it might take away from the images to see the actual object. But I wonder if that’s because they’re part of my world and don’t belong to anyone else. They’d be so vulnerable, so small and not seen. And they’d be these dried-up husks.

CQ: Okay, now I want to curate: a series of rooms where people encounter the films, and then you’re led to a display case with all these tiny objects.

JR: Like a reliquary! I didn’t know if they could even survive outside of the refrigerator. I learned how to control that. Like I had to figure out at what point they become room-temperature safe.

CQ: It’s funny because you’ve said they’re vulnerable, and that you want to keep them safe. But the whole process is about going through this organic cycle, where they become shriveled and blackened, where they’re returning to some other form, ashes to ashes, returning to the earth, but you still don’t want to leave them out, leave them exposed. You’re keeping these little desiccated forms, safe and alive in your refrigerator. 

JR: It’s not that I wouldn’t show them in a gallery, but I wouldn’t show them if they weren’t going to be seen. If somebody was just going to be like, what’s this tiny little thimble-sized thing? Like if there were a magnifying glass or something, maybe. In the beginning there was no video, just photos, and I wondered, would I have to have a refrigerated platform? But I like the idea of a reliquary.

 CQ: It puts them in the context of a Victorian museum of rigid classification.

JR: And of saints! Saints, and their body parts.

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