Frankensteined Forms: Metaphysics Meets Whimsy in SYZYGY Collective

Frankensteined Forms: Metaphysics Meets Whimsy in SYZYGY Collective

Installation view of Super Ultra and the Soft Between, SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2020, New York, NY. Courtesy of Katie Hubbell and SYZYGY Collective.

November 23, 2020 SPOTLIGHTS

Frankensteined Forms: Metaphysics Meets Whimsy in SYZYGY Collective

 Cornelia Smith

Looking at images of Super Ultra and the Soft Between—SYZYGY Collective’s debut show at SPRING/BREAK New York this past spring—it seems as if a playground was erected in the shadows of a hallway, not for children but rather for some extraterrestrial life form that derives pleasure from overwhelming sensorial experiences. Squishy, squelching forms, organic and bulging, fill the room. Everything is shiny, oversaturated, soft yet somehow hard, with delicately placed, abstract shapes in three dimensions. A mirror encased within a tufted, cotton candy-colored yarn frame reflects some of the room’s contents; a sculpted clam shell resting on an iridescent corner shelf holds a swollen, overstuffed, pink-dusted pearl; a silvery sphere hangs from the ceiling by wormy chains. 

Sometimes I wish I could revert to this kind of alien life form and occupy a different dimension. Even though I can’t, I still wonder: are the circular projections on the walls portals to another realm? If I squeeze the florets of the neon green tree-like sculpture, will goo splatter in my face? If it did, I assume it would be sticky and runny like maple syrup, with the puckery taste of sour apple Jolly Ranchers.

Toeing the line between nightmare and dream, the installation Super Ultra and the Soft Between evokes a fantastical space reminiscent of cartoon worlds. Objects are animated not only by video projections, but by their texture and scale. The accumulation of oblong objects and bristly, chalk-like forms makes the viewer unusually aware of their own breathing, slippery body, an awareness that is only enhanced by the neon lights illuminating their shadows. 

SYZYGY is in fact a real word that describes the alignment of three celestial bodies in a gravitational system. The three celestial bodies in question—artists Katie Hubbell, Danni O’Brien, and Kenzie Wells—collaborated on Super Ultra after realizing the seamlessness with which their work comes together. I spoke with Katie, Danni, and Kenzie about their new collective, as well as their individual motivations behind making art that evokes multiple senses. Read on to discover more about what goes into making their surreal, magical, and immersive works of art.


Cornelia Smith: How did the collective come together? I know it started at the Wassaic Project, but was there a moment where it clicked, like ‘Oh, let’s start this thing’?

Danni O’Brien: I don’t know if it started at Wassaic, but we were all at Wassaic at the same time. We connected really well and there were a lot of similarities amongst our work. For me, I think it was SPRING/BREAK Art Show, which has always been something I’ve really hoped to apply to one day if it felt like a proper theme, or if it was congruent with my work or a collective work. And so — wait, I forget, what was the theme this year katie?

Katie Hubbell: Excess.

DO: [throws her hands up in the air] Excess!! Duh!! And that’s what it was. And as soon as I read the call for proposals, I just started thinking of Kenzie and Katie and what we could all do together.

KH: That’s how I remember it being too. I don’t know if we talked about it at Wassaic at all, but it was just part of the overlap, or the connection between our work. And Danni sent the message and it was kind of like “Yeah! Of course!” And as we were working on the proposal, I think it was actually clear from the beginning that we were just gonna go full force into a collective. 

DO: Yeah, to come up with a proposal was kind of a daunting task because we didn’t have much time to develop it or fully flesh it out. So we kind of went hot and heavy really quickly. And then we were like ‘oh we’re putting in all this energy to get these ideas and words together, we should think about using the same sort of language for us as a group in future opportunities.’ 

KH: I think for me it just clicked so well writing the application. It clicked immediately. It was a perfect fit, no questions.

CS: So it was kind of in the process of putting together the application and the exhibition that SYZYGY was formed?

[It is at this moment Kenzie hops on the call. She is in her car, driving home.]

CS: We just started talking about how SYZYGY came to be, so this is perfect timing. 

Kenzie Wells: Okay great, awesome.

DO: I love this point of view.

KW: I don’t have a thing to put my phone on, it’s gonna have to be right here. [The phone is on Kenzie’s lap, facing their chin.] 

CS: We really just started. I just asked how SYZYGY came together: so I heard about the application for SPRING/BREAK and kind of how Danni started this idea and made the ball start rolling. And I was just about to ask exactly how it was established that SYZYGY would be a collective, and how the name came about. 

KH: I guess it developed through a lot of conversations, and we had a lot of ideas about the name. It was something that we decided to take a while thinking about — we didn’t want to rush into it. I think Kenzie was the one who first suggested the name. SYZYGY is when three planetary, celestial objects come into alignment. So we thought not only with the work and the way the show was developing, but also all three of our work. We talked a lot about layering different things. So it just kind of made sense.

KW: Yeah! It was one of those words that was funky enough in and of itself that we weren’t really concerned. The concern mainly was ‘no one really knows what that means.’ But we were okay with that because the way it sounds is so interesting and the way it’s spelled is so interesting, too, in that it’s kind of this abstract word. And then you learn about what it means: three celestial bodies in alignment. I think a longer definition also talks about oppositional factors of bodies, of opposites coming together, sort of like yin and yang but more like a pairing of three instead of two. So we were kind of thinking about our work and ourselves, as well as using opposite material despite them being similar. Does that make sense?

CS: Yes! I looked up the definition too just to solidify my understanding, and I think what really brings to the fore the oppositional aspect is the gravitational system that it’s part of. So I think that also lends a very visual, visceral aspect to it that makes SYZYGY a perfect name besides it being about three bodies. It comes together really well. Are there certain elements that each of you would say brings your work together?

DO: Oh, there’s a lot of elements. I think most obviously there are certain textures and forms that each of us are attracted to, how we approach material, and how we allow material to be itself, its natural self in our work. 

KH: I think our material sensibility is what brings it all together. We all have different but very similar ways of working with things.

KW: In terms of materials, there’s definitely a material and textural crossover. And there’s also this way of making work in modular pieces, like lots of modular material pieces. We collect small objects and things without necessarily knowing what the end point is. 

DO: Totally.

KW: That way of working was what made our installation sing because it allowed us to piece together our work so well and seamlessly. We could take small pieces from each person’s work and kind of Frankenstein them back together. So I feel like making work in collecting small things, and making lots and lots and lots of stuff all the time was also part of that. 

KH: Going off of what Kenzie was saying, there’s a playfulness to it, in a way, that I think is present in how we all approach our practices. So bringing that altogether was really creative, fresh, exciting work.

DO: Another thing, Kenzie, that you just talked about—about making lots and lots of things all the time—I think there’s sort of this compulsive attitude each of us takes in our own studio practice that makes it so we can be playful and—haphazard isn’t quite the word—but compulsive in the way of taking smaller objects and combining them together.

KW: Definitely.

CS: Everything does seem to really piece together. I especially like, with the SPRING/BREAK Art Show, how your work effects such sensory impulses. I want to ask a few questions about your individual practices, but feel free to play off each other. So Katie, Emily was really drawn to the color palette that you often have that she said is somewhat galactical, which incorporates both organic and alien forms, sometimes insect-infected. What drew you to that type of aesthetic, and how do you see your work evolving from that?

KH: I don’t know if I can quite pin down what drew me to that, I think it’s just the colors that I like. The question kind of nails it: I really am interested in things that could be microscopic or galactic. There’s a cross-over that I’m interested in, especially with colors that feel almost too much. They’re so saturated that it’s hyper-real in a way. So again, there’s always that pull as well where it can be a little bit repulsive, or off-putting. So sweet it’s sickening—or can be. But I also just really like [the colors].

Installation detail from Super Ultra and the Soft Between, SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2020, New York, NY. Courtesy of Katie Hubbell and SYZYGY Collective.

CS: Danni, in your work — actually in all of your works — there is a lot of playfulness to it. Emily mentioned to me how your work reminds her a little bit of Dr. Seuss. 

DO: You know that’s so funny you say that because I just had an installation—the only one since SPRING/BREAK—and someone wrote a quick little review in the Washington Post online, where they said one sentence about each artist, and about my work they compared it to Dr. Seuss’ world. I feel like I’ve heard that several times, which I think is okay, but I also want to develop my own way of capturing whimsy, and playful chants, and silliness without it being tied to Dr. Seuss.

CS: I don’t necessarily get his same types of forms from your work, but I get the comparison. It almost seems like there’s not too many things to relate whimsy to right now, so we have to hearken back to what we can all collectively understand as whimsical.

DO: That’s such a good point. I’m constantly hearkening back to things that I was really into as a child, that’s a big part of my practice too. But I think especially with COVID  and things just being so bleak, I’m really attracted to ultra familiar things and processes, and old movies and books I’ve read before. I want to get back to familiar things, so I get that totally.

CS: Kenzie, I noticed when I was scrolling through your Instagram this mood board you made back in May of all these fun things. The one image that really stuck out to me was Steve from Blue’s Clues, and also Polly Pocket, which goes back to this playfulness that all of you share. Especially the spongy, gummy, plastic, glittery textures that you incorporate. And I guess I can direct this at Kenzie but also to all of you: is there or has there always been an impulse to create a very sensory experience, or is that more of an after-effect of how you approach your work?

KW: That’s an awesome question. Yes. I think it’s become more direct and more intentional within the past couple years. When I was making work 5 years ago, I would say ‘what are you talking about—it is just tactile!’ But now what I’ve realized is that I can’t necessarily say that I have synesthesia, but I have experienced different kinds of symptoms related to it. I have a friend who is a synesthete, and that just means her senses are kind of misfired and aligned in a funky way. And hers is very specific to textures. We would go on these walks together in Tucson—that’s where I live—and there are all these adobe houses that are painted in bright colors, with lots of dirt and sand and spiky textures. I tend to think of food when I see textures like that, so when I see an adobe house, I think of a spongy cake, and then when I see cement I sometimes think of ice cream cones. 

There’s lots of desserts that I think of when I see material textures in the urban environment. For me, that kind of funny crossover is very immediate in my head, but at the same time it’s just similar formal textures. That’s why I like making mood boards because it’s almost like a brainstorming activity. That crossover has recently become more and more intentional. At this point, I’m really interested in the geology of the urban environment. Like material layers of the urban environment, including consumerism, and the layers and layers of toys, and then memories related to toys, like Blue’s Clues.

CS: You mention a lot about layers, which is important to the group collective when you made the works for SPRING/BREAK. Katie, I was going to ask you the same question about sensory experience.

KH: I think that’s very important to me. I thought about what Kenzie said about the ice cream and the associations between objects and senses, and I don’t always have that, but I really like that idea. I don’t know why or where that came from, but I’ve always had this really tactile interest. When I was a kid I remember crawling under the bushes and playing with mud. So for me, it’s definitely something that i think about a lot; it’s something that feels safe, and that sometimes makes me want to touch or lick or something. For my individual work I am really interested in ASMR—these really absorbing sensory experiences. With sculptures that I make as well, it’s really important to me that you can somehow sense the way they feel or taste without actually experiencing that.

Installation detail from Super Ultra and the Soft Between, SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2020, New York, NY. Courtesy of Katie Hubbell and SYZYGY Collective.

CS: It’s like the Madeline story from — [here is where I embarrassingly blank on the name Proust] — anyways! I am curious to learn a little bit more about how you incorporate elements of the human body into your work, like mouths and fingers. And in some works you have text. What motivates you to put those elements in your work?

KH: I think I am really interested in the performer, or like a character—I think there’s a character in my work. I see it as one singular character that talks throughout all of it. So I guess it kind of depends on the specific piece: where it calls for there to be a body in the work, or text. With the text I’m really interested in the way that it’s spoken as well, so it’s not just the words, but the voice and the enunciation. I think it just connects back to the character behind it all.

CS: On the topic of characters, I read in one group interview that you all did, that Kenzie also has a character, the Queen of the Night. Is that still a character in your work?

KW: Yeah definitely. You know, it’s not as intentional at this point, but it’s definitely something I still think about a lot. Now, I’m kind of thinking about there being multiple characters within the work. I like the human body as sort of a material in my work that takes away the function of certain elements in the objects and forms that I’m using. So I definitely feel like it’s kind of shifted as another material within the work, instead of being a direct character. But I do think that being the Queen of the Night is a character my work is still subsumed by. My work takes place at night, as seen through the lens of this person who is nocturnal. I haven’t written about it directly or spoken about it directly since then. It’s still a work in progress. Didn’t we talk at one point guys about having characters? I think we all could create characters from our work.

CS: Danni would you say that you have a distinct character in your work?

DO: Hmm. I don’t have a distinct character in mind, but kind of like Katie said, I’m interested in the performance, or the theater of making work. I think about that a lot. I have this thing that’s kind of weird and I don’t know if y’all do it: I think about what if someone was watching me while making my work. I sometimes imagine that there is a video camera on me while I’m working, which is a really weird feeling. So I think a lot of me making work is seeing this one person theater production in this strange set design-y place. It’s kind of strange — I don’t know if I’m making any sense. This is all sort of just popping into my head. Sometimes I think about making things where I’m sort of the character, but I’ve never thought of a character that isn’t me. Like I can morph into different characters and have these different roles, but there’s not a specific character character.

KH: That’s really interesting. I’m really interested in how you’re talking about watching yourself because that’s something I’ve really been thinking about. I did these big sculptures, and halfway through making them I was more interested in the way that they felt around my body, the act of making them. And I can just picture you in your studio [Danni] twisted, touching these little…I don’t know, I can just picture it in my head. And then Kenzie literally puts people in the installations—anyway, sorry, I got excited when you were saying that.

DO: No that’s great! I’m glad that you’re having similar feelings.

KW: When you said set design, that’s something I thought about a lot because I love old ‘90s TV sets, like Double Dare 2000—do you guys remember? Like all of nickelodeon.

DO: Oh my god.

KW: Those are the best.

KH: I feel like when we wrote the initial proposal for SPRING/BREAK we actually did talk about a set at some point. Maybe that’s why we’re all having this ‘Oh!’ moment. Maybe this is our next work.

KW: Yeah. Totally. I think that’s another similarity between our works, and what happened with our first installation with SYZYGY. The installation was almost like a set. Thinking about the people, the viewers, that came through it as performers in the work, like actors in the TV show finding ways to interact with the work. We are literally creating spaces that people have to move and walk through. They [the viewers] are kind of forced—especially through the projections—to interact with the work in a certain way. Like how a set is a fake world. I can definitely see how we all tamper with that in a way.

DO: I agree with that. Especially how people had to maneuver through the space that we installed. And I was also thinking that, in addition to people moving through the space, in some ways I feel that the video projections Katie made were like some sort of beings occupying the sets that we came up with.

KH: For me, also, I’m interested in the shadows—how the viewer’s shadow interrupts the work, or becomes part of it. Kind of how the viewer themselves becomes enclosed within the projection.

CS: I really like when I hyperrealize myself within an exhibition, specifically an installation. There’s something it evokes that I can’t quite describe, at least right now. It does make you feel part of a different dimension. And with all of your works that idea is enhanced, especially with the color palette and the abstract forms and the fluidity of it all. Is it easy or natural to work together when you’re creating something like that? What goes into creating a project as SYZYGY?

KH: I feel like when we were in the space it came together very naturally. There was one piece when I was working on the projection when Danni and Kenzie were like “what if we do this? And what if we do this?” and it was just like ‘Yeah of course!’ In that way, a lot of it was natural in how the different components fit together.

DO: I definitely share that sentiment. I feel like because we work so modular-ly, we’re coming up with these small objects that can be reconfigured really easily. So much of what we all brought, including just the funny, weird material scraps that we each had in our studios, were just remnants of what could be something that on our own didn’t turn into something. But together, it all became new work really quickly. Once we were there [in the space] things were rocking and rolling. But also we were on a strict timeline—which isn’t to say that it wouldn’t have happened so quickly. I think, at least for me, I felt like it was fun and playful and seamless.

KW: I definitely agree with that. I know that me and Danni share this obsession with rearranging things—I don’t know Katie if you do as much of this. Just arranging materials looking at things differently. One sculpture can really be twenty different sculptures. Especially if you’re into the idea of cutting the leg off and rearranging. And I think we all have that mindset, where it’s just like ‘cut it up!’ We have a relationship with materials and objects that we think ‘this could be literally anything.’ Sometimes there’s more specificity with that, but with the materials we brought to Super Ultra, I feel like we all had that mentality going in. So building the space together was very organic and natural because the art is sometimes in the act of rearranging, and being open to rearranging and changing. Being able to work in that way is one of the best parts of why we work so well together. That’s kind of what made the installation so seamless.

KH: For me, it was magical to see some of the things that I had in my studio for years come to life in this unexpected way because they were mixed with Danni and Kenzie’s work, which is so different from mine.

DO: I feel the same way. It was so fulfilling and rewarding, especially when super unexpected things—maybe things that one of us brought that we were like ‘eh we probably won’t use this’—become the centerpiece of something crazy. I love that feeling.

KW: That was so exciting. Honestly the root of it is just having fun with the materials, and in the space. You could tell how we were having fun — it was just a really good time. Magical.

CS: I mean, looking at the work, it does seem that one person made it because it flows and moves so well together. There’s a lot to say about how it’s important to be open to things changing and rearranging themselves. I feel like each of you lets your work be free from yourself. And if the work changes beyond your control, then that’s part of the process. I don’t know if that’s something that you do feel, but I definitely get that from the work [Super Ultra and the Soft Between].

KW: I 100% feel that. That’s really awesome that you picked up on that because it’s something that I always do. If I have a plan for something and it outgrows that plan, and morphs into something else as I get started with the materials, then I let it become that new thing. And it’s usually much better. And that’s sort of the approach we took putting together Super Ultra.

CS: I’m a really big fan of Shana Moulton, so coming upon your work felt familiar and comforting in a way. It is nice to see art that isn’t so constrained, or contained, or smushed together in a white cube. 

KH: I love that.

CS: Are there collaborations currently happening, or projects in the works for SYZYGY? I know all of you live in different areas right now. How does that affect working collaboratively?

KH: We’ve been in communication about different ideas. At least from my perspective, I feel like this year has just been weird. But we definitely have some ideas we’ve been talking about.

KW: I feel like there’s so many things that SYZYGY can make a show around since we all have a similar interest in alien forms and outerspace landscapes. The galactic aesthetic is something that runs through all of our work. We’ve talked about the concept of wormholes as a show concept. Katie just edited a lot of our photos from SPRING/BREAK, so I think we’re still putting together a solid portfolio as SYZYGY. Moving forward we may be inclined to open calls and that sort of thing. But obviously this year is just, you know…it’s odd to be making work in general right now.

DO: I totally feel that. I feel like I don’t even know if I can get out of bed and be a real person some days. I’m sure we’re all feeling that weirdness and uncertainty. So coming together to collaborate and having a show sounds really exciting, and a really welcome event, but I also don’t know when that will happen next. For me, I’m not even seeing my parents face-to-face because of COVID. So traveling isn’t so much an option. I’ve definitely felt stifled by COVID in general.

KH: We are all still working on our individual stuff. And that’s the great thing about SYZYGY: if we wanted to have a show tomorrow, we could get things together—it just depends on how the building blocks are put together. And I know we’re all pushing forward on different parts.

CS: Honestly, the idea of even having a plan right now is absurd. Katie, I know that you are a co-director of Practice Gallery, so how is that space and project going now?

KH: Yeah! We just started opening up again for just a few members, so things are starting to get running again, which is exciting. I feel like since this pandemic, we’ve actually been in more communication with the galleries in the building than before. It almost feels like we’re a collective of collectives. It’s nice to see things open up in a way that feels safe. But it’s also strange. We had one outdoor show. There’s a limited number of people allowed in the whole building.

CS: I haven’t actually been to any museums yet, but I’ve been to a few galleries, and—at least for the smaller galleries in New York—I feel more connected than I did before because I have to make appointments. And then I’m the only person there with the director and we can actually have a conversation, and just talk about art without interruption.

KH: I feel like now you’re spending more time with the actual work itself than an opening.

DO: That sounds really special, I didn’t ever really think about that. I haven’t seen or been to a show—I’m in Baltimore, and to my knowledge there’s not much going on. But I can imagine—oh wait! I lied, I totally lied. I went to one show, and it was really nice because I was the only person there with the director. And it wasn’t a show I was super crazy about or had a close connection with, so I don’t think I really got a whole lot extra out of it, but i can imagine finally seeing a show by an artist that I really admire, or just someone whose work I really like, and then feeling a deeper sense of intimacy and connection to the work.

CS: You kind of mentioned this earlier, but how is it making work right now? I know some people are feeling a lot more inspired, while other people I know can’t work right now. Is it [the pandemic] affecting your practice?

KH: I’ve noticed that I just want to make physical things. I’ve been thinking at this particular moment a little more abstractly. I wonder if that’s because the world feels a little overwhelming, especially coming up to the election. I guess my brain is just trying to process things — I don’t even have words for it. I guess I’ve been thinking more abstractly because in a lot of my work I feel like I do a lot more planning and conceptualizing when I start a new project, and now I’m taking different approaches. I don’t know if that’s just this month or the next few months.

DO: I really struggled to get back on the studio train. I think what pulled me out of it was having an installation to do, having all the components for it, and having a place where I knew it was going to be shown where people would see it. Like ‘ok, here’s this thing I really need to commit to.’ Before that I was sort of floundering. So that helped pull me out of my funk a little bit. My practice has been a lot of me sitting in my studio and not really doing a whole lot other than thinking about the materials I have. For a long time I’ve been collecting diagrams and manuals that I think have strange or peculiar illustrations. I’ve been thinking a lot about contextualizing things because of the news. I’m pretty obsessed—maybe in a bad way—with political news, and I just listen to C-Span all day.

I’m interested in context and people receiving news and information without context. I’ve thought about taking these diagrams and removing labels or other text from them so they become these really abstracted images. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and what it means to totally remove the context from something, especially something that had a very specific purpose. Right now I’ve been going to thrift stores and collecting books and diagrams that have these weird images. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them, but that’s where my practice is right now. Lots of sitting, and some dancing. But that’s about it.

KW: [Just pulled up to their house, and someone was in their parking spot]. I actually just graduated with my Master’s degree during COVID, and because of that, my thesis show got canceled. With that, I’ve had this huge body of work that has been basically half-finished sitting in my lap this whole time. The drive to finish and document that work has helped me continue working. There was definitely a pause—I got kicked out of my studio for about a month and a half so I did not have access to anything sculptural—so I started drawing and making small things and paintings for most of May and June.

I live in a studio apartment in Tucson, AZ, so during that time it’s about 110 degrees outside, and working outside wasn’t an option—even though I did it quite a bit on my front porch, just sweating a lot. I’ve basically dedicated myself to this body of work and I felt like I needed to see it through and finish it just because getting your Master’s is so much work. I felt like I had to see it through for myself. If i wasn’t getting a degree during COVID, or if I had my studio, I don’t know if it would have been as easy to continue working. I think I probably would have had some difficulty. Definitely in the very beginning, in the months of May and June, I did have a slow-down. I ended up repainting all walls in my apartment instead of working on any art for three weeks. So I definitely took some solid breaks and put my energy in other things for a little bit, too. A lot of sitting and staring and pondering.

DO: I relate to that. I’ve been so obsessed with rearranging my apartment. I visited my partner for two months—they live in Kansas—and when I came back I was like, ‘Oh my god I hate everything in here! Change it all!’ So I painted some of my walls, and swapped out some of my plants and furniture. So I feel like the creative and compulsive energy that is normally put in my studio has been instead put into making my apartment a happy place. I have a live/work space, so that kind of meant rearranging my studio and trying to make my studio walls nicer. For me, I can’t be comfortable making work if I feel like my house or studio is a total disaster. I think a lot of my energy has been put into making the place comfortable or safe for myself to work in again.

KH: I guess I did a little bit of that too, but it was so long ago—but wait, that was just this year. I guess things have just switched back to messy again.

CS: The things that happened in February feel like a couple years ago. It’s nice to hear that you’re all also sitting. I was just telling my friend the other day that at least 30% of my day is just staring out the window.

KH: I feel like it’s been a good time for introspection, growth, and asking questions, for me at least.

CS: I think the compulsion to rearrange and make a comfortable living space is almost a necessary adjustment in trying to adjust your own mental state. Especially with all of you being very tactile artists, feel is very important. And translating that to daily life is important to creating or realizing something that is comfortable and safe. One last question I have for all of you: do you see yourselves in your work, and if so, to what degree?

DO: A lot of my work—like the armatures for objects, as well as some of the other things I embed in objects—are the objects I’ve collected, so a lot of the times there’s not really a rhyme or reason why I choose something that I like that when I find it. If there’s no rhyme or reason then it has to be this personal thing. That’s the only way I can explain it.

CS: Do you think your process of collecting is intrinsically part of who you are?

DO: I’ve been collecting for a really long time. As a child I scavenged for things—I collected rocks for a long time. I used to collect a lot of bugs to “study.” Collecting is something that feels really natural to me. The things that I’m interested in doing, my hobbies, are going to thrift stores and taking walks. And those are the two places I find most of my materials. So in that way, my studio practice is a weird extension of these things I really like to do. I find ways to support the things I do by giving them a purpose. Like ‘Ok I’ll go thrifting, but I will be looking out for materials that I can use,’ versus just finding clothes.

KH: That’s a good one. For me, my body is often in my work as well as my voice, so that’s an easy way to see myself in it. I also feel like my work, when I try to separate it from myself, feels really contrived. I feel like it has to start from my own personal experience—whether I feel overwhelmed, or feel a certain pressure. A lot of it is this push and pull.

CS: When you force something to not be related to yourself at all—

KH: —it just falls apart, every time. It has to start somewhere personal, even if it gets pushed to a different place. Sometimes I overthink it and have to bring it back to my own experiences. But I try not to talk about that.

KW: What both of you said really resonated with me. Especially what Danni said about walking. I go at least three miles every day, just walking through Tucson, and I collect textures and colors and all of my source materials from those walks. The urban scene is definitely something that is inspiring for me as a person. I’m both nonbinary and queer, so I feel like making these spaces, making the work, and combining all these materials makes me feel more comfortable in my own identity. Especially because I’m from Tennessee, I went really long time being uncomfortable. And my work was always finding comfort in these in between moments.

I’ve realized more and more recently that [combining materials] has become a means for survival, in terms of that comfort, that I need as a nonbinary queer person. Creating these spaces and works out of all these materials conglomerated together helps me visualize the feeling of being in between, of floating around binaries. It gives it a physical form. Like ‘this is a thing and it’s justified as a thing, just like I am.’ It’s definitely a matter of comfort and a matter of justifying collecting things. Just like Danni was saying, it’s about collecting things and giving things a purpose even if they didn’t have a purpose before. Until very recently I didn’t realize how tied my work was to my identity out and about in the social sphere. But it also goes beyond that in some ways.

CS: I think that the way all of your works are freed from themselves, and you letting them be free, adds to that dimension of giving itself purpose, and being comfortable being anything specific. It’s reassuring to know these spaces are being created.

Stay up-to-date with SYZYGY on their Instagram, and follow KatieKenzie, and Danni to see the magic of their work in its continued evolution.

Installation detail from Super Ultra and the Soft Between, SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2020, New York, NY. Courtesy of Katie Hubbell and SYZYGY Collective.
Installation detail from Super Ultra and the Soft Between, SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2020, New York, NY. Courtesy of Katie Hubbell and SYZYGY Collective.