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Sara Cwynar: Questionnaire

Like many museums around the world, Remai Modern has closed as part of a broad response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although our program has been suspended, artists remain at the forefront of our thoughts. The museum has reached out to artists involved in our programming to gather their perspectives on the experience of these unprecedented times.

Sara Cwynar

Friday, April 24, 2020. 6:02 PM 

1. Where are you? What can you tell us about your current living situation, or the conditions in your neighbourhood/city?

I am in upstate New York right now in a small cabin. I was in New York City until mid-March and then I came up here. I miss New York so much. I plan to go back in a few weeks no matter where we are at (it feels like we will be in a similar place). I want to start returning to the studio, and I want to be where my home is—I think being away from New York is a bit like being in a limbo on top of the larger world limbo.

2. How are you continuing your practice during this time?

I literally photographed an orange from 20 angles yesterday just because that’s what I had to photograph here!

I’ve definitely been in a weird head space. I’ve mostly been reading a lot of texts and books that I’ve always wanted to read (for example, Susan Sontag, Brian Dillon, some Roland Barthes!). I’ve been reading particularly about time and how we conceptualize time and also how time feels like it has sped up in the 21st century. I was thinking about that in relation to the sudden slowness of this quarantine time and how all of our attempts to make things faster and smoother in our lives and our business led to the spread of this disease, and the result is that things have slowed down almost to a stop. I’ve also been reading a lot about healing and repair and how the body repairs itself and how that can have political implications too, like how politics could act like a body, and a lot of things about image culture and photography. And I’ve been watching a lot of films to escape my brain.

On a more visual note, I’ve been spending a lot of time too going back through things I’ve shot and B-sides, and also combing past videos and arranging screenshots of them in order to be able to see new things in my old work. I’ve been re-editing a lot of old video footage (I have a lot of footage of Rome, for example, and some shots of things in the MoMA in New York), and also organizing my old photos and outtakes and even just pages of inspiration under new organizational schemes (for example by color, or by formal connections like things with circles, and also under more topical categories too) and looking at them with new eyes or trying to find new connections between old things. I have been teaching and encouraging the students to do the same. I think it’s a good time for revisiting all the content we gather up all the time and set aside.

And I’ve also been spending a lot of time going through the MoMA website—it’s a cool (though very specific) virtual art history education! They have this thing where you can comb through old exhibitions, some of the really old ones are very beautiful and up until I think the 90s most of them were shot by the same guy on 4×5 film, and then if there is a famous artwork it will be labelled (they have this Google machine learning software that tries to identify familiar artworks in their archives) and you can click on it and it will show you an enlarged color picture of the work (most of the install shots are black and white). It’s really satisfying.

But this all sounds like I’ve been very productive, which I haven’t.

3. What things or ideas are you finding comfort in right now?  

Beers! Ha. Actually mostly reading. I find reading to be a huge comfort any time but especially now.

4. What work of art has been in your mind during this time?  

I have been reading Elaine Scarry’s Thinking in an Emergency which feels like it was written exactly for this moment. I’m only two chapters in but she’s talking a lot about how thinking and learned behavior (habit) become even more important during an emergency even though a lot of political interests and just plain panic would like us to turn our brains off or to act quickly and think less—these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Also Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki have been making amazing videos about what it’s like to be in NYC right now, starring two lizards.

5. What are you letting go of? What are you holding on to? 

I seem to be holding on to all the same old fears just with a set of new ones piled on. But letting go of a firm grasp on the future feels freeing in some way. Not being so beholden to making things for particular ends is good.

6. What are you looking forward to?   

Everything feels like it will be so wonderful when we get to do it again and I hope we can hold on to that feeling a bit. I’m looking forward to being in public space and being in the street in New York without the low-grade stress of distancing the most.


Sara Cwynar is an artist and filmmaker from Canada living in New York. Her work highlights how the once familiar becomes foreign; how the fetishized object loses its luster; how glamour fades. Her exhibition, Marilyn, is currently on at the Approach in London, and her series Modern Art in Your Life, commissioned by MoMA in 2019, is currently featured in the online exhibition Time Share on performa-arts.org/. A solo exhibition of her work will take place at Remai Modern in 2021.