VDB Asks... Sabine Gruffat

Lauren Pirritano
VDB Asks... Sabine Gruffat

Sabine Gruffat is a French-American artist who works with experimental video and animation, media-enhanced performance, participatory public art, and immersive installation. In this work, machines, interfaces, and systems constitute the language by which she codes the world. The creation of new ideas means inventing new ways of using existing tools, crossing signals, or repurposing old hardware. By actively disrupting both current and outmoded technology, Gruffat questions the standardized and mediatized world around us.

1. Can you tell us something about your background?

I am a third culture kid. I was born in Bangkok Thailand and grew up in Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and New York. My family is French (from Lyon), and we travelled a lot because of my father’s job.  

2. What inspired you to become an artist? 

Art was a refuge for me, but it wasn’t until my second year at Art school that I discovered filmmaking. We used a bolex and edited on a reel to reel with a guillotine splicer. I saw a Fernand Léger exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in the late 1990s and I saw a print of Ballet Mécanique. That changed my world. It wasn’t until mini DV that I got interested in video because I hated blacking ¾ tapes.  

3. Did you have formal art training/schooling?

I went to the Rhode Island School of Design and then the School of the Art Institute of Chicago so I am a complete product of the art school system. I don’t have a liberal arts education which is strange because I teach at traditional universities within a liberal arts curriculum. I am very aware of the difference between how I was trained and how my students approach art making.  

 4. How do you balance life and art? Are you able to make a living through creating art?

I teach digital art at a university. That is how I pay the bills. I have been fortunate enough to receive grants but I always end up spending my salary on equipment or travel as well. Balancing life and art is very difficult for me. Making art sustains me psychologically so I tend to prioritize it over everything else.  

Being in the world right now is so difficult, and I feel overwhelmed by the pandemic, climate change, and race/ equity issues. I am not sure how art fits in anymore. This Spring and Summer I spent a lot of time gardening and trying to create a native pollinator garden in my backyard. I love seeing bees, caterpillars, bugs, and butterflies. Gardening is world building. 

5. What influences or motivates you in the world?

My work is about interrogating structures and systems (whether it be technological, governmental, or communications). I purposely look at things from afar. I am not interested in foregrounding individual narratives but rather how those narratives fit into larger socio-cultural dynamics.  

6. What artists or movements are you following right now?

I am spending a lot of time in online exhibition spaces like Mozilla Hubs, Decentraland, and New Art City. Also I am looking at artists who work with motion capture and identity such as LaJuné McMillian and artists who critically engage with Artificial Intelligence like Lauren Lee McCarthy.  

7. What was the last exhibition you saw?

Aligned by the Sun (through the revolution) by Ghost of a Dream at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, NC where I live. I am supposed to write about it for the Ackland Art Museum website. I was excited to see Basim Magdy, Assume Vivid Astrofocus, and Ezra Wube as contributors to the project. 

8. What has been the best screening experience of your work?

I love screening at Union Docs because they a have a thematic perspective on the screenings and bring appropriate respondents. The venue is small so it is intimate and engaged.  

9. What are you working on right now?

I am always working on Cosmic Rays, the film festival I co-founded with my husband Bill Brown. And I just finished installing an exhibition and Virtual Reality game called AntiBodies about eating disorders and body image issues. I am also making 3D-animated still lives of natural aphrodisiacs that I hope to sell as NFTs. I am also obsessively shopping for a weaving loom.

10. How do you start a piece? How do you know when a piece is finished?

I tinker with things for months before anything is started. I experiment with new processes and software. My ideas change over the course of making and I add and subtract constantly. It is very inefficient. Each work has its own inner logic and I have to tap into that to figure out if the work is finished.  

 11. What are you currently reading? Watching?

Right now I am reading “le Chien Couchant” by Francoise Sagan,  and “Capital is Dead:Is This Something Worse?” by McKenzie Wark. There are so many online screenings to watch it is overwhelming! I am watching Lupin on Netflix and Dorothea Braemer’s retrospective of films on Scribe.org. I’m also obsessed with virtual reality boxing.