Joana Ricou

Joana Ricou

Joana Ricou has been a longtime friend of Slideluck. She showed a selection of her ongoing project, Surface Makers, at SLIDELUCK Bushwick III, our blowout celebration of Bushwick Open Studios 2014 this past May. Joana is currently on a trek around the world to elaborate on this body of work: when we caught up with her she was in Rio de Janeiro, but her walkabout is taking her to such far-off places such as Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore. Joana’s work spans several different media and her interests include such diverse subjects as microbiology and sociology.

Slideluck: Have you participated in a Slideluck before? Can you tell me about your experience?
Joana Ricou: I participated in two Slideluck events before: Red, White and View organized a show called “Nude York” to benefit Slideluck that I was in, and I also participated (with a set of photos from this project) in Slideluck Bushwick 2014. Both of these had wonderful artists and amazing crowds – loved it!

SL: How did the idea for your Surface Markers project come about?
JR: The idea of the Surface Markers came from doing a machine learning and art class, where we were discussing the idea of art that learns, art that arises from learning patterns, and gleaning insights by sifting through massive amounts of data. We did some fancy projects that involved actual programming and data, but I was most struck by “accidental” or “incidental” works that had to do with the same ideas. Like a somewhat famous image of a subway bench, where you can see the vague shape of two human heads on the wall, drawn by years and years of people sitting on the bench and resting their head back on the wall.

At the time, and probably influenced by the fact that I always carry a bag filled with random stuff, I become interested in the information carried by the contents of people’s pockets and purses and what it said about the individual and their context. In the same spirit, these pictures become more and more interesting as a collection.

SL: Did you meet some resistance from people who were uncomfortable emptying their pockets for you?
JR: That happens all the time. Some people immediately say “My pockets are boring, omigod, I’m really boring.” Much more often than not, they end up quite surprised by what they put in the tray.

SL: What’s the strangest thing someone has put in the tray to be photographed?
JR: Their underwear! I promise I clean the tray though.

SL: Your work has a lot to do with the body and identity and how the two may–or may not–intersect. You seem to have a particular interest in things that can’t be seen by the naked eye: cells, surface markers, molecules, cytoskeletons, etc. What is it about these microscopic things that attracts you?
JR: It seems that humans have a really spectacular knack to detect and decipher human faces, a true black box, that appears to start working right at birth. For this reason, I’m really interested in studying identity without looking at faces. Biology is a huge inspiration for alternate ways of looking at ourselves: at our cells, our memories, our skin, etc.

Cells are hard to identify visually so one of the key ways we identify them (and they identify each other) is through the unique shapes of the molecules (“markers”) stuck on the surface of each cell. Each cell makes specific molecules depending on their DNA and context. This way, each cell’s surface markers say a lot about the cell: who it is, what it’s doing, what it’s been in touch with.

Similarly, the objects we carry depend on who we are, what we’re doing and where we’ve been. Some “markers” serve specific, established social purposes but many more carry stories and histories, context and culture.

SL: I understand you are traveling right now to continue your Surface Markers project around the world. What do you expect to find that distinguishes cultures based on the contents of their pockets? Or that unites them?
JR: I’m very curious about this! In New York, Brazil and Portugal, I can see many similarities. There appear to be some common markers of “adulthood” or “independence”: a wallet/money, keys and a phone – although the model of the latter varies. I don’t know if this will be true everywhere. Money usually tells you where this person lives. Lots of simple clues indicate the weather: types of hats, umbrella, sunglasses. Personal objects seem quite similar, precious–if not valuable–jewelry is common. Most trays are quite gendered. Most kids’ trays are full of nonsense. I’m very curious to see what I might find around the world: will there be knock-offs of iPhones in the East, just like there are knock-offs of “ethnic” jewelry in the West? Is there even such a division anymore?

SL: What are the absolute essentials in your pockets, if you could keep only three things?
JR: My phone, three times? Seriously, though: phone, wallet, keys. The markers of an independent person walking around (at least in the West.)

SL: Do you think this project will have an end point?
JR: I don’t think so, it will only be more fun to start doing this over time. What will our pockets have in 10 years, or 50? Will we even have pockets or flying robots that carry our stuff? I’ll take pictures of those, then.

SL: Any other projects on your horizon?
JR: Surface Markers looks at the cultural extensions of the body; in Other Landscapes, I look at the non-human parts of the body: the microbes that are an essential part of our well-being, and that populate all of our world. I am in residence at a lab at Cornell University and at Genspace, where I’ll be studying human and environmental microbiomes, looking for the differences and the commonalities between all of us, all of our things, all of our spaces.

SL: Anything else you’d like to share?
JR: Some of the shots are at surfacemarkers.tumblr.com! I’ll be adding more during the trip.

Artist website – stay abreast of Joana’s travels, she’s looking for friends, collaborators and translators on her trip!

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