Sophia Sobers: How Life Might Look

Sophia Sobers, Power Tools, 2018, artist with plush fabric sculptures

Sophia Sobers started making site-specific and installation art in what she sees as a somewhat “meandering path.” She studied Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology while taking art courses at Rutgers. There she started learning about working with space, concept, and materials. Simultaneously taking Art and Architectural History as well as Theory, expanded what she imagined as possible in the arts. Site specific works by artists like Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark as well as architectural projects like the Blur Building by Diller and Scofidio, inspired her deeply and set her on a path of wanting to create large scale installations.

Sound seems central in your work. How does sound and sculptures interrelate in your work? Let’s take for example Structures for Sound and Plants.

Sound is a relatively new medium for me. I played the piano and violin when I was young but it fell by the wayside as I shifted my focus towards art. My first introduction to sound as an artistic medium was during the collaborative performance Four Quartets for the End of Time with Steven Pestana. After that, I dove into exploring sound as a means for shaping the experience of an installation.

Structures for Sound and Plants integrates sound into familiar themes I come back to within my practice: structure, systems, and how humans cultivate nature. I incorporated sound as a spatial element within a larger narrative of plants integrated and growing within abstract structures. This reflects on how cities and urban designs dictate and manage where green spaces exist within urban settings. The sound, inspired by studies of the effects of music and sounds on plant growth, was generated using analog synthesizers and granular synthesis. I created a series of 3 different arrangements of the music, each with lower or higher harmonics. As you walk around the installation, the sound shifts to create a spatial experience amongst the landscape of metal and house plants.

In your two person exhibition Some Are Connections you present a new version of Power Tools, inviting participants to play and interact with the soft sculptures. Did working with another artist impacted your approach to the show and how did the interactive element evolve?

Power Tools: Some Are Connections came out of an earlier exhibition shown at Wallplay: On Canal titled Power Tools. This is where I first explored exhibiting soft sculptures as interactive elements in a participatory installation. Some Are Connections was put together by YTG Agency who encouraged me to continue with the interactive series. I created additional soft sculptures to be shown for this exhibition and experimented with the addition of vinyl material and more abstract shapes that played off of the theme of USB connections. Ceramic work was added as a wall element to create an indication of a narrative on the walls. The ceramic pieces played with themes of plugs, hands, eyes and plants, tying back to the sculptural components of the show. A small iteration of Structures of Sound was included, with a new sound composition, to extend the experience sonically. While the exhibition was billed as two-person, the artwork was presented on two floors which were curated separately. The meeting point for the artwork was the experiential nature of our respective projects since we both work in installation.

Sophia Sobers, Power Tools: Some Are Connections, 2019, fabric, slide projector, sound, gels

Tell me about Power Tools: Plugged In. It seems to have a kinetic element – how does the idea of moving objects play in your work?

Power Tools: Plugged In was the starting point for Power Tools: Some Are Connections. The soft sculpture series was initially inspired by my process in creating Counter Weights. In that process, I made small fabric prototypes of various materials and approaches. One of those prototypes looked like a plush plug. I knew that the next project I wanted to make would be large, oversized plugs and sockets.

The first few sculptures in Power Tools: Plugged In followed the same technique used in Counter Weights, creating larger than life replicas of two prong plugs in sheer fabric, however they were created with the structural support that is found in Counter Weights. This resulted in limp, malleable forms which I integrated as hung ceiling elements.

While most of the movement in Power Tools is from audience interaction, the visual movement from the changing of slides in the slide projector, and subtle motion caused by wind, recent work I’ve been creating has incorporated kinetics utilizing motors and long appendages, which is part of my Communication series.

Counter Weights was created as part of Alloy Pittsburgh. What is the idea behind this project and what is Alloy about?

Alloy Pittsburgh is a laboratory for artists to investigate the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark and respond through the creation of temporary site-based artworks. I was honored to participate in this program in 2018 in Swissvale, PA. Artists spent a week getting to know the site and learning the history of the furnaces. Through this immersive research, I was inspired to recreate the counter weights I saw on the site. This was my first time recreating a specific object to-scale in fabric. I wanted to create a ghostly-effect. The historic furnaces held so much meaning for the region, and I wanted to honor part of the mechanisms which made this place work. Utilizing skill sets I gained from my time as an architecture student, I measured and documented the counter weight system and recreated five linkages in fabric. The fabric Counter Weights were then hung throughout the site to pay homage to part of this site and show how everything is interconnected. Each part needs to work to make the system work.

Sophia Sobers, Counter Weights, 2018, fabric, acrylic rods, rope

You seem to fuse organic, natural matter, and objects from daily life. How do you see the interconnection between them? Let’s take for instance At the Cusp of Dawn and Dusk.

At the Cusp of Dawn and Dusk is part of a series of projects where I worked with a loose narrative as a conceptual framework. This project and In-Between Occupancy both worked with ecological themes and how life might look if we cultivated a stronger cohabitation with nature and food. The central sculpture, a table with sweet potatoes growing underneath, and flowing fabric, was envisioned as both a table for cultivating, sharing, and having communal meals. The additional work interwove seeds into a fabric light sculpture and included a monument for house plants.

I grew up with a strong connection to nature and, as I moved to more urban areas, missed that immediate connection to the land. While we are always still cohabitating with the environment, I feel a sense of nostalgia for the environment that I grew up in. In some ways in this work and in my graduate work I was trying to turn living spaces into spaces for cultivating vegetation and plant life.

Sophia Sobers, At the Cusp of Dawn and Dusk, 2014, fabric, sweet potato plants, sand, light fixtures, repurposed windows, wood, thread

In-Between Occupancy you seem to utilize the walls. How is that different than engaging the inner space of a gallery?

In-Between Occupancy was in a group exhibition curated by Amy Leidtke as part of Tangible Thinking at the VETS Gallery in Providence, RI. There were several factors in utilizing the walls. Early on, I was intrigued with the utilizing the windows as an installation opportunity and made plans to create artwork for that location in the gallery. Working with the windows gave me the ability to constrain the size of the design and focus on narrative elements through incorporating recognizable objects as silhouettes and working with the natural light entering the space.

The gallery is part of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium complex and there is a flow of patrons who come through the gallery space. With this being a public space, I kept in mind accessibility and egress for the site, as well as the consideration that this would be an exhibition with multiple artists. Overall, I was very happy with In-Between Occupancy and hope to return to creating more permanent public art projects in similar spaces.

You also utilize light and video. Can you tell me about a project where light takes center stage and how did you utilize it?

Light has been an important atmospheric element in my installations. Changing the lighting of a space has a powerful ability to transform an environment and the experience of a space. Combining different types of light sources, like the simultaneous use of a slide projector and pink lighting in Some Are Connections and Power Tools, or the combination of video monitors with blue lighting in Garden Rooms: Recreating My Dreams, can create unexpected effects of luminosity beyond simply changing the color of a space.

Again, in my installation works, one of the general motivations is to transform the experience of a space. However, I’ve also used light as a medium in object-based artworks like Liminal Conjunction to give my sculptural work an otherworldly quality. There, it was key that the light maintained its “presence” despite the fact that the installation was presented in a brightly-lit space, so choice of light was important as well. White fluorescent lights will emanate a different effect than, say, an Edison bulb (or pink LEDs). I keep those things in mind when making my lighting choices and working within different lighting situations.

What are you working on now?

Over the past year I have been exploring artificial intelligence and machine learning to create wallpaper patterns inspired by nature and my study of astrology. I have been formatting these into videos and printed onto fabric.

The other project I have been working on is a series of three dimensional stained glass work using mainly clear or frosted glass and mirrors (so far, color is minimal). Some of these integrate the machine learning fabric patterns. One piece, [title], was recently included in [title of show], a group exhibition at Field Projects curated by [curator]. The series is still in the works but I’m excited about where it’s going.

Finally, I have been creating digital artwork combining creative coding platforms like TouchDesigner, MaxMSP and p5.js with gaming engines like Unity and 3D models generated in Rhino and Maya. These digital toolsets have long been part of my overall practice but never fully integrated until now. So far, I’ve been using them to build realtime responsive visual effects for live performances and digital artworks on Foundation. These will often include the plant imagery that has become part of my visual vocabulary, but also include insect-like chimeras which are new to my work.

Sophia Sobers, Themes and Variations of Connections (Left and Right) & Solstice in Three Parts (Center), 2022, glass, solder, copper foil, mirror

All photo courtesy of the artist.

Sophia Sobers is an artist specializing in installations, sound, and site specific work. Her practice focuses on creating connections to the natural world through the lens of technology. Sobers holds an MFA in Digital + Media from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BS in Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. She has exhibited nationally in the United States, with solo exhibitions in Boston, New York City, and Pittsburgh and has created public art in Newark, NJ, Providence, RI and Swissvale, PA. She has done solo and collaborative sound performances at the Knockdown Center, the Rubin Museum, and Wallplay: On Canal. Sobers is based in Brooklyn, NY and teaches at Pratt Institute.