Sto Len is a printmaker, sculptor, painter, musician and curator with interests in improvisation and experimentation within a variety of media. His current body of work integrates the traditional art of Suminagashi with experimental marbling on found maps, books, and printed propaganda. Recent collaborations with nature, sewage and pollution in the New York waterways has made the Newtown Creek his second studio. Working en plein air from a rowboat among “bloated rats – with eyeballs hanging out,” Sto uses a process like paper marbling to print directly off of the water. Sto Len is based in Brooklyn with familial roots in Vietnam, his work incorporates these bonds connecting issues of both their history, environment, and politics.
What are we listening to?
It’s Yoshimi from the Boredoms, their solo-project, OOIOO.
I like to start each interview by getting up to speed with what you’re currently working on now, and we can work our way backwards.
I just finished work for my solo-show TSUNAMINAGASHI at the NO Foundation in Toronto, that is a combination of large scale monoprints and monoprints on found paper. It’s the first time I’m going to show some maps and other kinds of found paper I’ve been printing on top of, in addition to more explorations with color and ingredients in the “pool.” As you can see though I don’t have a pool, my last pool sprang a leak in the last studio, unbeknownst to me. It was a small leak, but a bad enough leak to freak out my downstairs neighbor who runs a printshop. Luckily it missed his stack of prints. It was as if there was a rain storm in his print shop. So I moved to a studio with concrete floors and I actually got this new marbling tray donated to me. I’ve kept the water really shallow in this. With a shallow pool, the water is really still, you can control it more. It’s been fun to experiment with shallow water. I’ve been wary of my water consumption too, so I’ve been filling it up, then working with it until it basically all evaporates. The natural prints have been something that I’ve been working on most recently and I’m working on this Vietnam show, which is a while from now, but I’m so excited I’ve already got a lot of stuff for it.
What are you working on for the Vietnam show?
I’ve been doing some mail art with people I met in Vietnam. They sent me all these old Communist propaganda posters on rice paper, so I’ve been marbling those.
What year are they from?
They are current, but the original artwork was done in the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of it is anti-US from during the Vietnam War. They are pretty cool, there is one that says something like “Nixon you baby killer” and has him portrayed as a monster, all these dead children, it’s pretty heavy.
The marbling also points to the psychedelia of that era.
Yeah, same time period, I think people there know these images really well. I’m sure they’ve seen them a lot. I’m excited to see peoples’ reactions.
How are the originals printed?
It’s probably inkjet, because when I put them in the water, all of the ink fades. It’s rad that they fade, because it ends up being like the fading of the history through time. I think some of them are more successful than others. My plan is to do a show of these and I want to go there and print the water. I already asked them if they could get me a boat, and they said “Totally!”
When is this going to be?
In October. We already started planning it. I never would’ve thought I could do a show there. There is something powerful about going to those places. I was so excited to meet Vietnamese artists. I was having trouble finding any online, but once I got there I found there was a lot going on actually. It’s definitely pretty underground. A lot of the artists are pretty underground because the government still cracks down on art. You can’t just publish a book, you have to get it approved for publishing. I met these poets that were publishing underground and hosting underground readings, it’s pretty cool. You can get thrown in jail for that. Even doing an art show, you’re supposed to run it by some sort of culture police. I don’t know what they might think about this stuff, it’s not overtly saying something, but it’s definitely playing with the imagery.
It is an interesting step away from just marbling on white paper.
Steadily progressing, I feel when I did the show with you at Booklyn that was the first time I showed the marbled prints, I was looking at the book we made the other day, in contrast with these prints, they look different. I can’t recreate those for whatever reason during that certain time period those prints came out that way, but now they look totally different.
Are you using the same materials?
There are definitely lots of different variables happening, but I’ve noticed that things just look different. I’m using the same process, but there is a different feeling to the past two years now that I’ve been steadily doing it.
Yeah, in the beginning too you were just using anything that you had around and just throwing it in there, and maybe too with the pool, it being deeper, you’re getting a different motion with it now in the shallow tray.
Yeah totally, I’ve been trying to learn how to be more minimal too, I think I’m going to work on a series of fairly monochromatic ones, I want to get better at carving out the negative space, keeping some white space.
What are you using to move the water and ink with?
I have an elongated brush, it’s essentially a bamboo brush that I tape to a long pole. I use sticks too.
It’s new that you’re using found materials to print on, before you were using found materials – found paint and accumulated dirt.
Yeah, but it was always on white paper.
It looks really natural on the maps, the process creates another layer that looks like a topographic map or as if it’s showing the change in elevation, you are adding new features to it.
Traditionally paper-marbling was used to create distracting end papers that would cover bumps or cords in bookbinding – and we both know book-binding is such a clean meticulous process, but in these works you are celebrating the chance and the messiness of it and accepting any buildup or grittiness that might happen. Is chance a big part of your work?
Yeah, definitely. I feel like in everything I do, I like there to be chance and room for accidents. I like to not know exactly what I’m going to do. Some people are real control freaks about their process, I’m not at all, I want to be surprised. Sometimes it’s a bad surprise, and I think it’s a failure. Sometimes it’s a great surprise that you would never have planned on, and that can lead you down a whole new path. I love being open to chance and definitely use it a lot visually and when I perform music. I’ve always been more interested in improvisation than a formula. With these works it’s all an improvisation, that’s the fun part, and that’s how I end up creating things that I’m really excited about, because it’s new to me. I’m slow and steady, but I’m constantly trying things out. I do like having something repetitive that I can do, that’s why printmaking was always attractive to me. You make a bunch of something and you know what to do, you can experiment with how you print, but the end goal is just to make prints. That’s how I approach this, I come to work, I make a bunch of prints, but how I make them that’s always the fun part. Especially when I just walk away from it, then come back and see something that the water has done on its own. Those are always the best surprises.
Do you ever get frustrated working with water or are you just so Zenned out that when any problems or mistakes arise that you just go with it?
Yeah, I get Zenned out. I like the process too, filling the pool up with water, and draining it sometimes. I don’t like when it leaks unexpectedly on a neighbor, I’ve definitely sprayed myself in the face with the hose and sprayed oil paint in my eyeball. There are some hazards. Or when I go out on the boat, I certainly don’t want to fall into the Newtown Creek, but that’s also part of the fun too. That you’re not supposed to do it.
That was one of my questions, have you ever come close to falling in?
No, thank god. Someone gave me a number of a hazmat team if I do fall in.
There was that video, from a few years ago, that guy that swam in the Gowanus Canal, he was an environmental activist, and in the end he reaffirmed that the water was so gross.
Yeah it’s pretty bad, but there are living things in the Newtown Creek. It’s a whole little ecosystem out there – lots of stray cats living on the water there too.
When did you start going there, what compelled you to print off of it?
I had the idea last spring, basically I’m making oil spills in my studio, what if I went to a real oil spill, what would that look like on paper. My friend, the artist Marie Lorenz, she builds boats and a lot of her practice is about water, she has this ongoing project called Tide & Current Taxi. She takes people on a boat somewhere in New York City. She keeps a really nice blog, it’s very well documented, it’s about these adventures she goes on with people. Last summer she invited me to do one, the theme for the summer was taking people to work. I had told her about my idea of printing off of the Newtown Creek. It was the first time I had been out on a boat on the Newtown Creek and I saw how easy it was to launch from the land and she schooled me on the laws. It’s perfectly legal to have a man powered boat in the waters. So I loved that aspect too that you could just do it. We went out together and I printed for the first time with her, and it totally worked. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was so excited after that trip with Marie, that I tried to find other people with boats, I couldn’t find other people that would willingly take me. So I just bought my own rowboat off of craigslist. After I did that I started going out as much as I could. I was going out up until Chrismas last fall, and found really nasty stuff to print and just got to know the whole Newtown Creek. I rode the whole thing from Greenpoint into Bushwick. It goes from the East River all the way to the Metropolitan avenue bridge.
And in this process you’re not manipulating what’s there? You’re just printing it as it exists?
Yeah, I’m basically rowing up to a nasty floating mystery substance, that you can visibly see and I’ll print off of what’s already floating. I’m not adding anything. It’s probably a mix of sewage, because the sewage treatment plant pumps into the Newtown Creek. Especially when it rains, all the overrun goes into the creek. So there is all kinds of sewage, trash, and then pollution that’s already in the creek from all of the industry around it. It’s one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country. Apparently the oil spill that happened there was 30x worse than the Exxon Valdez. We heard so much about the Exxon Valdez, it was a big deal, but I feel like the Newtown Creek hardly got a blip in the media. It’s a superfund site now, people are analyzing it and trying to figure out how to clean it up. The last 50 years of abusing it and dumping – who knows what kind of nasty cocktail is floating around. I go and find the worse stuff and print off it. I think the prints are beautiful, there are a lot of lines and sometimes shapes, some of the negative space ends being sticks in the water, a lot of debris floating on the surface create a sort of stencil. That’s endlessly fascinating, because for one – you’re out there, you’re exploring the water, you’re really getting in the sludge. You can visibly see the pollution, but you don’t feel like you’re at danger. I actually went to a city council meeting about the Newtown Creek and I was talking to some of the officials there and showing them pictures of what I do, they thought I was totally crazy and were kind of scared for me.
The prints are gross, but also really beautiful- the subtly of the color changes, I probably don’t want to know but I also really want to know what it is that’s making these patterns and textures.
Yeah, I want to know what it is too, I have to find out some way to analyze it.
Were you interested in environmental issues before starting this?
Definitely concerned, I feel like I’m fairly environmentally conscious, but this has been a nice way to interact with a problem, and get first hand knowledge about it. For one, it’s in my backyard. I do like the fact that the end pieces are the result of how badly polluted it is. It’s nice to make something beautiful out of such a nasty thing. So I do find something really nice about that.
You’re going to get sued by the sewage plant saying they made your artwork.
Right! People see me out there and they’re like “What are you doing? Are you fishing?”
I was expecting them to be a lot smaller, thinking they’d be easier to print and fit in a boat, but these are huge.
I have a lot of small ones too. It’s a funny situation when you have a large sheet of paper that’s soaking wet on a little row boat, how to make that print, get it back to shore, and get it back to your studio in one piece is a feat.
Does it weigh a lot when you pull it up?
It weighs a lot, and it’s so easily torn, I’ve really ripped some good pieces by just trying to move them. That part is tough.
Will you make books out of these?
I don’t know, you really shouldn’t touch them so much. They could be a book that people would wear special gloves to look at and a respirator.
You should teach a class on Newtown Creek printmaking, everyone would have to sign a waiver.
I’ve taken a couple people to some of those areas and they tend to not want to stay there long. It’s pretty bad, they smell pretty bad. It’s also beautiful too, it’s just fun to be on the water even if it is that polluted.
It must be fun being on the backside of all that industry and all those businesses.
Yeah, it’s all factories on the water, you see this part of New York that no one gets to see, this industrial wasteland. There are so many scrap yards, so much crushed metal.
What’s the grossest thing you’ve found in the water?
Definitely seen a couple dead bloated rats, big ones, with their eyeballs hanging out. That’s never nice. Lot of the trash is the same, lots of condoms, tampons, flushed trash. Typical trash, coke cans. It sucks just seeing how much we waste, it’s a lot.
Have you ever seen anybody swimming in there?
No, definitely not, but apparently people are fishing and eating the fish in there. It’s super fucked up, there are blue crab in there too. As a superfund site you’d think there might be signs but there really are no signs saying how dangerous it is, so I think some locals might not really know how bad it might be.
Having seen your work from the papier mâché days when you were recreating mundane and everyday household objects, to your work the marbling monoprints- you are recreating the process used for endpapers, white noise for bookmaking – and now to literally printing with waste. I see a connection in that you’re highlighting the mundane or the often overlooked.
I never thought about that actually, the connection between the sculptures. That’s totally true though. I always inherently find something worthwhile in the throw away stuff, I’ve always liked digging through trash for that reason - finding something that I think is magical in someone’s trash. I love subverting the endpapers and making them somehow not just these things that serve a purpose. Artwork is purposeful and purposeless at the same time.
And it’s ironic to make a whole book out of endpapers.
Right, totally. That sense of humor isn’t lost on me. Those papier mâché sculptures I thought were hilarious. I would like laugh to myself when I was making a papier mâché refrigerator. Something about spending that much time too on these objects like appliances and coffee cups and things we tend to not even think about.
I think there is a lot of different places, you can go with it. The work has evolved even from the first marbled pieces, to using found materials, and now to using found spills.
There is so much more in this process that I want to explore. I think my next year will be a lot of exploring different bodies of water and trying to print them. I’ve pretty much just been with the Newtown Creek. I started venturing out more recently, but I’m excited to go to the Gowanus Canal.
Visit http://stoishere.com/ to view more of Sto’s works and follow his various projects. You can see his work in person at the upcoming NY Art Book Fair in September, or in October at Manzi Gallery, Hanoi.