Artist Caroline Harrison

Caroline Harrison is an artist wildly enamored with the immense power of the human body both in its ability to hurt and to heal.

The swirl of festering, scarred and necrotic tissue that Caroline draws on her subject’s skin are her way to express the internal trauma caused by invisible illnesses such as autoimmune disease and cancer.

By making visible the body’s betrayals, and rendering them in a form that is at once repulsive and mesmerizingly beautiful, Caroline’s work can provide a redemptive catharsis. The suffering is purged to the surface where it can be better understood in all its complexity.

Caroine lives in Queens which puts her in the epicenter of the pandemic. Because her work explores the vulnerabilities of the body, I wanted to know how she viewed the current threat of infection.

You live in Queens, New York. As recently as last fall you were working a day job in addition to making art. Are you still working? How has your daily life changed since the spread of Covid-19?

I still have a day job but I’m now working from home—which is lucky, I know a lot of people are out of work. I’m also incredibly lucky in that I haven’t gotten sick, and I haven’t lost anyone, though I do know friends who have.

Day to day, I’m no longer commuting and no longer going to my studio, and leaving my apartment is definitely a much more tense experience than it was before all of this.

Your Birth in Old Terrors by Caroline Harrison

At the time I’m writing this question, Queens County has the second highest number of reported Covid-19 cases of any county in the US. You’re in the epicenter of the pandemic. What is your perception of how things are being handled? Do you feel safe?

Queens is surreal right now. You hear ambulance sirens most of the time. The hospital about a mile from my apartment has a refrigerator truck parked outside because the morgues in the city hospitals have all or nearly all run out of space.

For a while, walking outside meant we were pretty likely to see a body being wheeled into the funeral home at the end of our block. I took out the trash one morning about a month ago to see someone being loaded into an ambulance down the street and there was a photojournalist documenting the whole scene.

Things in New York were mishandled pretty badly, and I could go on about this at GREAT length. But what’s even more frightening is that, as badly as New York handled this crisis, other states are already handling this just as terribly, if not worse. And the federal government is effectively absent at the exact moment that a coordinated federal response is most necessary.

I certainly don’t feel safe right now, but I don’t think anyone should. Compared to a lot of folks I know, I’ll probably be fine. I’m not in an at-risk population, I’m still employed.

But we still know SO little about this virus and how it will affect people in the long term, and we’ll need broad federal action to have any hope of saving the lives we’re likely to lose in the coming months, and recovering from the very real, very serious economic damage it has already inflicted on so many people in this country.

And that people are forced to choose between spreading disease and being able to afford housing is unacceptable. We should collectively be embarrassed and angry.

In an interview with you published last October on Dark Art and Craft, they asked you about an apocalypse and you predicted, “It’s definitely brought about by climate change or it’s something else that gets triggered by climate change (like a global pandemic or something) and it’s definitely already happening.” Seven months later we may not be in THE apocalypse, but we are experiencing a deadly pandemic. Did you really have any idea the danger was so imminent? You also said you were ill-equipped to survive. Do you still feel that way?

Oh god, yeah, I completely forgot I said that.

I think I’m just used to being a sort of worst-case-scenario thinker. I’m a pretty anxious person, and I’ve got pretty lefty political leanings, so I’m always sort of dwelling on how poorly most of our society is equipped (economically, structurally) to handle regular, every day problems. I think a lot about how we routinely fuck over huge chunks of the population at the expense of some economic bottom line that only benefits a handful of people.

But when I answered that, I definitely didn’t think that we’d all be shut in our apartments in the middle of a global pandemic in six months. And I know I’m currently privileged enough to be in a much better situation to weather this than most. But man, I thought I spent a lot of time being angry and sad BEFORE all this happened.

Caroline Harrison designed this interpretation of the logo for Saint Vitus Bar and Venue where she works as their marketing coordinator. The design can be acquired on a tshirt as a Kickstarter Reward for a short time. Saint Vitus is raising money to help it stay afloat beyond the pandemic.

You were a frequent participant in the music scene and you’ve recently done a design to help Saint Vitus Bar raise money to stay afloat during this emergency. So many of the cultural institutions of New York from the theaters, music venues, restaurants and I can only imagine galleries are at risk of closing permanently. What happens when these things are lost? On a personal level, what are your fears for the New York City lifestyle and what would it take for you to feel comfortable returning to these types of venues?

This is definitely one of the things about this whole situation that really fucks me up. I mean, New York City is not an easy place to live, but access to art and music really makes the whole horrible grind of this place worth it.

I’m so afraid that all of these venues are just not gonna be able to recover. The margins on all of these places are pretty razor thin to begin with. It’s been really amazing to see people contribute to all the various GoFundMe pages and Kickstarter pages. I’m actually currently running the Vitus Kickstarter (which is nearing $100K, which is INSANE), and while I’m so, so touched to see how well it’s done, I’m just so desperately afraid that even that isn’t gonna be enough.

I’ve been doing the social media stuff for Vitus since … maybe 2014? Maybe late 2013? and Vitus has been so, so important to me on so many levels. When the Vitus guys proposed using Kickstarter for their crowdfunding initiative, I kind of threw myself into getting that ready to launch for a while because it felt like maybe I could do some small thing to help something so important to me survive.

At the same time, I’m so fucking angry that these places have been reduced to asking people around them for money on the slim hope that they’ll get to reopen. Venues have been pretty much completely overlooked by any national legislation. The National Independent Venue Association, NIVA, has sprung up to try and get the attention of state and national lawmakers, but I’m so angry that the arts are so devalued by our political organizations that this is even necessary.

I’ve spent a lot of time just sort of helplessly doom-scrolling through social media and anxiously posting to try and raise awareness of this because it seems that live music probably isn’t going to be safe for at least another year or so—that’s if it comes back that quickly at all.

What do you miss the most about life before the pandemic? How does that loss affect you? Do you feel that missing out is temporary or permanent?

I absolutely miss live music and going to see art. There are two art shows I didn’t see because the whole city shut down and I was planning on getting to them in mid-to-late March (Firelei Báez at James Cohan and Jordan Casteel at the New Museum), and I had plans to see some live music in March and April, and, well, we know how that went.

Going to see art alone is one of my favorite activities, but losing that feels more temporary than losing live music. That one feels more permanent. I don’t know when or how live music will get to come back, and I don’t know when I’ll get to see the friends I used to see at shows, especially the people who aren’t local to New York.

As far as simple things: I miss reading on the train.

You majored in art and minored in “science, technology, and society.” It seems like that minor would give you invaluable insights into this period in time. This is the only pandemic in history where humans have access to so much technology. Can you share any thoughts on the interaction of science, technology and society as it relates to the pandemic?

Oh man, I LOVED that minor and if I’d figured out my shit earlier in college, I absolutely would have double majored.

Our current level of access to technology is definitely a positive since it’s enabled us to stay in closer touch with people we aren’t able to be near, it helps us keep more informed about what’s going on around us, and some people are able to work remotely. It also enables scientific and medical collaboration by allowing doctors to share what strategies they’ve been using to save lives, or log the frightening new coronavirus complications that have started to emerge.

But it’s also definitely enabled the spread of misinformation, and people with shitty intentions have been able to manipulate that to their advantage. Good recent examples are that stupid Plandemic video, or the tiny astro-turfed re-open protests that are getting disproportionate media coverage.

Your work focuses on the vulnerabities of the human body. The mutating forms you create visually represent the invisible illnesses that plague human beings. Now that we’re facing an actual plague, have you taken any inspiration from what Covid-19 does to the body in your work?

It’s funny because one of the ways COVID-19 is so dangerous is kind of similar to the stuff that interested me most about those so-called “invisible” illnesses or things like cancers. It seems like the coronavirus, in some patients, triggers a sort of massive immune response called a cytokine storm, where the immune system starts to attack the body’s own tissues and cells. This sort of overzealous immune response can be fatal.

A lot of autoimmune disorders are like this (think like, certain types of arthritis, or lupus) in that body’s immune system just kind of goes haywire and starts attacking the person who has the disorder. I’ve been interested in the metaphorical potential of illnesses where your body kind of betrays you (like autoimmune disorders or cancer) for a while.

I’m not sure how much inspiration I’ve taken directly from COVID-19 that wasn’t already something that I was exploring, if that makes sense, but it’s certainly made a lot of my work feel more acutely relevant in ways that it previously didn’t.

If Sugar Can Fill That Hollow Feeling by Caroline Harrison

Have you been, or do you expect that you will reflect on current events in your work in any other ways?

I’m in a weird position because a lot of what I already was reflecting on with my work is just … happening more right now. So much of my work deals with illness and anxiety and discomfort and we’re surrounded by all of those things all the time now. But current events have also been really depressing and exhausting, so motivating myself to do work has been difficult in its own way.

What role (if any) does art and the artist have at a time of crisis?

Art is where we collectively process reality, and where we go for catharsis. And in such a weird and traumatic time, those are both certainly more important than ever.

But, art is also harder to make than ever, as people struggle to feed themselves or pay rent or even just process all that’s happening.

People regularly glorify this myth of the depressed artist but I think most artists with depression or anxiety are working in spite of that and not because of it. Sure, making art might be a critical part of mental health for artists—lord only knows that it is for me—but you still have to be able to get out of bed or think that what you’re doing is actually worth doing, and depression and anxiety are definitely paralytic at times. It’s taken a lot of work for me to maintain a regular art practice.

Fear of contagion is currently omnipresent. Do your images take on a different meaning against the backdrop of the virus? How might they help viewers process their fears?

I feel like that’s sort of a hard question to answer since I don’t feel like I have a good handle on how other people connect to my work.

There was a piece I’d made a few years ago that had a veiled figure, and the face covering definitely feels like it has new significance now. I’ve also seen a few folks talk about connecting to the anxious mood of a lot of my pieces.

I think that, as violent and as cynical as a lot of my work is, there’s a weirdly optimistic bent to some of it? A lot of what I’m interested in drawing is a very tangible expression of physical human resilience in the face of really traumatic, awful stuff.

I guess I hope that folks who identify with what they’re seeing in my work might feel a little less alone, or might feel transported outside of themselves for a moment, or that they’re allowed to feel the range of things they’re working through. I hope it’s cathartic for someone.

What have you learned about how people relate to disease and the diseased through your work?

I think it’s not so much that I’ve learned about how people relate to disease / the diseased, so much as it is that I use my work to process what I’ve learned elsewhere.

Tell the Snow to Fall Faster is currently available through WOWxWOW Gallery

One of your most recent works, Tell the Snow to Fall Faster, was completed after things were shutting down due to the pandemic. Can you tell us what that piece is about? Did the work shift as all as the situation around you got worse?

I usually start this type of piece by trying to capture a specific mood with the pose (in this case, a sort of listless anxiety), and map a bunch of strange tissue formations on top of it and then go from there.

I think I started working on this in mid-February, so people were already being screened at airports and the quarantine in China was already very much in the news (some friends who live in Brooklyn actually got quarantined in Beijing for a bit around the Lunar New Year, so I was following their travel experience via their social media posts about it).

Some of that initial ambient anxiety definitely fed into the overall mood of the piece, but the actual process of drawing became kind of a therapeutic strategy for drawing into myself and escaping as stuff got worse and worse in the city.

Tell the Snow to Fall Faster was in an April group show that became an online only event. What do you think are the pros and cons for gallery shows becoming digital?

So this actually was always intended for an online show, oddly! WOWxWOW is an online-only gallery, and the show, Fiends of the Dark, featured a whole bunch of artists whose work could loosely be described as belonging to the dark art scene. The obvious pro, right now, is that it gets the work seen by people who aren’t able to get to a gallery.

But I cannot stress enough that seeing art in person is a totally different experience.

Caroline Harrison’s cover art for Pyrrhon’s upcoming album, Abscess Time

In the past you’ve collaborated with bands such as Pyrrhon, Yautja and Immortal Bird. In an interview with Dark Art and Craft you explained that some of your collaborations have come about because you show up to concerts and you socialize. With the music world in limbo, are bands still reaching out to you or has that work dried up? Additionally, what does your ideal collaboration look like?

Time will kind of tell whether that affects my commission schedule.

Right now, it hasn’t really affected it, and I’ve had a couple of bands reach out since all of this went down.

But I’m also kind of a weird case—since I have a day job, my available time is pretty limited so my commissions were already booked up kinda far ahead of time. I definitely expect that this will negatively affect most bands’ abilities to pay artists for work, and bands probably won’t be able to sell as much merch since they’re not touring.

As far as an ideal collaboration, I’m pretty lucky that I’ve effectively had that happen a bunch at this point.

Usually, if a band seeks me out, it’s because they like my work, so they’ve given me a pretty wide berth to do what I want. I’m not just randomly doing stuff that I don’t think will fit with the music or anything—if I’m not already familiar with their music, or if it’s related to an upcoming release, I ask for more details around song lyrics or album titles or demos they might have—but I’m also not usually getting stuff that’s a bad fit.

I also try and be honest with anyone who reaches out and has a very specific vision that isn’t squarely in my wheelhouse.

What kind of art and music have you been consuming during this time? Is this different from what you normally consume?

I’ve thrown myself into looking at art online because I can’t see it in person. At the beginning of the year, I’d started an exercise where I tweet a different artist every day in a single thread (haven’t repeated anyone yet!), and I expanded that exercise by starting an instagram account that collects art I like (instead of just posting it in the stories of my regular account for my work).

With music, I’ve been listening to a pretty wide variety of stuff, including things I’ve acquired on Bandcamp on the days they waive their revenue share. Probably the stuff that’s been on the heaviest rotation: older Mountain Goats, Blacklist, Nick Drake, True Body, the new Fiona Apple record (and When the Pawn), Oranssi Pazuzu, Parts and Labor, Emma Ruth Rundle, Claire Cronin, and Inter Arma (revisiting Sky Burial).

I’ve also been spending time listening to the Pyrrhon record that comes out on June 26th (I did the art / one of the band members is my partner of a bajillion years so it’s not a bootleg! Don’t steal music, guys!).

I just started getting into USA Nails too.

But then I’ll definitely listen to the same three songs like, ten times in an hour, because I don’t have the healthiest listening habits when I’m feeling depressed (usually some combination of Voices Carry by ‘Til Tuesday, Walking On Broken Glass by Annie Lennox, Minnesota by the Mountain Goats, Two Headed Boy Part Two by Neutral Milk Hotel, Drunk II by Mannequin Pussy, How to Disappear Completely by Radiohead, and lately, Unravel by Björk).

My music habits are still pretty in line with what they were before the pandemic, but I’m giving myself more dedicated time to just listen to music. But yeah, obviously music is incredibly important to me

The one thing that’s changed a lot is that I’m not reading very much. I finished reading this really fucking dense book when all of this started and I found myself having to read / re-read huge chunks of it so it took forever (Belladonna by Dasa Drndic, which was GREAT, but very dense). I’m falling back on poetry, graphic novels, and short stories now, since they’re a lot easier for me to read when my attention span is shot.

Are there any supplies or tools that you rely on or would like to have but are currently struggling to get?

Luckily, most stuff is available online, and I’m pretty well-stocked up. I prefer to go to Artist & Craftsman for most stuff though (since they’re employee-owned) and they don’t have as large of a selection online, so I’ll have to revert to Blick when I finally need to replace my preferred cheap nibs.

Has your financial situation been affected by the spread of Covid-19?

Pretty minimally: I still have a day job. I’m not taking that for granted.

Do you have work in any upcoming shows? Have you scoped out any digital gallery shows that you would recommend?

I have a piece in Gristle Gallery’s upcoming Knights & Monsters show online (opens on May 23rd, woo!), and the online shows at WOWxWOW (Microvisions!) and Gristle have been pretty reliably interesting online.

I think Richard Heller in LA is also doing some online stuff in the near future that should be really cool!

I also very much appreciate that Dark Art Emporium has set up a virtual gallery experience where you can click around their current show / their rotating back catalogue and see how it’s installed in the space. I do need to do some legwork to see who else is doing digital shows right now though, now that that’s gonna be how we see work for the immediate future.

What can we do to support your work at this time?

If you’re looking to support any artists right now, you can follow their social media profiles, leave comments about their work, and share it. The same goes for galleries you might like.

Galleries, especially the smaller ones willing to take a risk on someone like me, are also facing really rough times right now. Helping boost work online costs absolutely nothing, and I want to be sensitive of the fact that a lot of people are facing a tough time economically.

If you are looking for new and spooky roommates during your quarantine and you have spending cash, I do also have work available both through the Dark Art Emporium in Long Beach and the Convent in Philly, as well as at WOWxWOW and (shortly) Gristle, and prints both on my website and at Dark Art and Craft.

Thank you very much Caroline for doing this interview.

To see more of Caroline’s work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram.

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