Shay Salehi

Shay Salehi. Human in the Loop, 2023. Silicone, motor, gears, stainless steel, steel, cable.Made in collaboration with Gina D'Aloisio. Kinetic assistance from Cody Frost.

BIOMASS: Let’s begin on a joyful note. What quality or experience do you think brings you back into the studio again and again?

SALEHI: At this point, I have been working as an artist for 10 years, and I don't see any alternative. I am an artist, this is what I do. And that relationship can be a complicated one. There's times where I'm not in the studio and I feel guilty that I'm not in the studio. I've started to realize everything we do as artists feeds into our practice. So even when I'm camping or doing anything in daily life, I'm also researching at the same time.

        [cat enters screen, walks across computer]

Oh, sorry, I have a cat and she definitely wants to be around this. I think in the moments when I'm not physically in the studio, or feeling inspired, I’ve learned to be patient with myself, because whatever I'm doing, I probably need that time to be out of the studio and focus on just living. And usually, at the point when I start to get anxious about not being in the studio, something just clicks. I've begun to trust that process. I'll find something inspiring that I want to hyperfocus on, and I will start researching. And when that moment does click, I'm ready to enter this flow of creating artwork. That’s usually the beginning stages of my excitement to get back in the studio.

BIOMASS: I was recently looking into the difference between destructive anxiety and productive anxiety, and I'm curious have you found that line? Or is it more intuitive?

SALEHI: I think the answer ties into mental health. As a creative it's normal to go through moments of imposter syndrome and feeling displaced or like we don't fit in. I definitely still experience destructive anxiety, but I think now I'm able to just be like, ‘Oh yeah, that's there.’ I know it exists and being more familiar with it as an element in my relationship with my practice gives me more control over it and makes it easier to manage. Being located in New York City is so fantastic as an artist because there is such a large community here. But at the same time, it can be intimidating and odd to witness the capitalist side of the art market that can be very apparent here. Recognizing that this artist occupation doesn't really fit in the structure of capitalism, I often remind myself to stay grounded and true to my practice. It’s like  ‘Okay, you're doing something different, and that's okay’.

BIOMASS: You are now emerging from an arts education, and you also have training and skill in craft. How has that background informed your work? And I guess now, completing an MFA, how do you reflect on those years of education?

SALEHI: Yeah, I started out making work in a 3 year diploma program focused in glass and I didn't really know what I was doing. I was fresh out of high school and quite young. I think having roots in craft was actually an incredible experience because the craft community is so warm and it made me feel really safe to grow and explore. If it wasn't for those relationships I developed in those early years, I don't know that I'd be where I am today. My experience with my glass diploma led me to continue my education, but I wanted to move away from craft toward making art. I think my roots in craft is something I often bring into my practice, for instance, my relationship with metal working. I do strive to make materially refined work even though that’s not the dominant requirement when making an artwork.

When I decided to go back to school to complete my BFA at OCAD University, I already knew I wanted to complete my Masters degree. I’m very grateful for my parents, both being immigrants to Canada, for their support and sacrifice, as I’m the first in my family to have received a Masters degree. I was also quite fortunate to receive financial support from the Canadian provincial government and a scholarship to attend a graduate school in New York, so for me, an art education was a positive investment. After grad school I am definitely feeling more confident in my artistic voice and with my background with craft I am also blessed to carry with me a range of material knowledge.

BIOMASS: Thank you for sharing that, it’s valuable for people to hear what it takes sometimes to get access to higher education in the arts. Often, that support is opaque, where it comes from or how the whole thing works. Were there elements of how you grew up, that caused you to ask certain questions around, like ethical standards and questions of hierarchy, dominance? Themes that emerge throughout many of your artworks. I don't know if it's something that you can make a direct comparison with, but I think it's interesting, because these hierarchies are part of our social and capitalist structure. 

SALEHI: It's so interesting, my relationship to mental health has progressed through the years as my artist practice has progressed, and they've kind of been parallel with each other. So there's a lot of ties there. This kind of isn't direct to the question, but growing up with immigrants has taught me that struggle, what people go through when they're coming to Canada, or to North America for a better future or whatnot. And I think, again, not specifically answering the question, but just like growing up witnessing what my parents went through as like English being their second language. My Mother is Polish and my Dad is Iranian, for context. So my Mom has a background of World War Two, and her family has history there. And my Father grew up amidst the Islamic Revolution. So these are really dense histories. And, and then yeah, I guess just growing up around that and understanding how much work they put in to create stability, and then that is reflected in a way, my own work ethic that I'm like, “Okay, I'm going to do this.” But in terms of the ethical side, I don't know if I can draw a direct comparison. Currently my practice has become really interested in the human to non-human boundary, through the lens of exploitation, because I think the human to non-human, the human to animal boundary holds a deep relationship with exploitation.

BIOMASS: When I look at your work, and in particular the Human in the Loop, it brings up so many questions and synchronicities between other projects you have made. We are in the midst of a mass extinction event, right now. And forms of life, such as insects and pollinators are greatly affected in this particular moment. One could also make the argument that we're under existential threat due to human-caused climate change. There are these overarching themes within your practice that pose a kind of consistent question… there is a reframing that happens materially and technologically wherein your experimentation with different types of animal produced byproducts, or in the case of Road Casualties I-80, wolf and other animal carcasses are documented via Google maps on roadsides, to Humans in the Loop, where this macabre depiction of a human carcass is replacing the animal, and the body horror is flipped back and forth between human and animal. There is this finality to the digital insect feeding on a “human” carcass. To bring this back to your process, I would love to hear where the idea started for the Human in the Loop and what the collaborative process was like? 

SALEHI: Yes. Thank you so much for appreciating the work. I’m so interested in our relationship with our environment and the other beings within it and as the environment itself is changing so does that relationship. I approach this through the lens that is witness to the standardization of non-human species. My work draws from the exploitation of non-human beings to analyze the human-animal boundary. We typically don’t see how things are produced and now we are well into seeing the effects of production on our climate which in turn has a direct impact on the beings living off the land. As you said, this work is flipping the narrative so that it's feeding off of the human, at the same time, considering our relationship to technology, and how technology is altering what our relationship to our environment is.

It’s really interesting living in New York because in the city I have such little access to nature, if any, and then spending this month at the Banff Centre completely surrounded by nature was a great place to focus on making this piece. As I was at the Banff Centre, spending more time in the most beautiful scenery, I realized in my day to day life in New York, I don't do that, and I don't have access to that. Instead, coming out of graduate school, I have a more intimate relationship with my laptop and phone than the natural world and the work sits at this intersection between nature, the self and technology. I originally wanted to challenge myself in this kinetic butterfly piece, but once it was completed I was like, Okay, now what to do with this? A friend who saw the butterfly told me about this phenomenon in butterflies known as mud puddling. That’s when I wanted to push the work a bit further and reached out to Gina, my collaborator on the project. Gina has a background in hyper realistic silicone sculptures. I thought it would be interesting for us to combine our skills into making this piece between the flesh, or flesh- like silicone, and the rigidity in the polished stainless steel. For me, metal has frequently returned to my practice because I feel it accurately reflects the standardization that we see in both animal agriculture and technology, so it feels that it naturally ties into my work.

BIOMASS: What is your relationship to collaboration, and what perspectives has that offered you as a maker?

SALEHI: I really like working with people. I generally don’t like to be alone in the studio as I find it very lonely. So I often collaborate with other artists. Collaborating with me can be anything from getting fabrication advice from somebody or talking to close friends about ideas and topics that appear in my work. For example, I have a very good friend who works for this animal rights organization based in Toronto and I’m frequently bouncing conceptual dialogue with them. I consider that to be a form of collaboration. In this piece, there's a 50/50, both of us are putting the time in fabricating and contributing to the work. I really just want to team up with people and work with people. Specifically in making this work, Human in the Loop, with Gina D'Aloisio, we were not living in the same city. So that residency was the perfect opportunity to work side by side on a piece. I will say, that the time during a residency is so condensed. I was hopeful that we could have spent more intimate time in the production of each other's process but when you’re in a five week residency with the goal to have some finished work it flies by! There were aspects of the work where we wanted to play more, and that is kind of bittersweet.

BIOMASS: Like the work itself in a way to though, there is both warmth and isolation, perhaps due to the materials, perhaps due to the elements of body horror, and just this combination of the fleshy hyper-realism with the mechanical timing. This Frankensteinian butterfly... when you listen to the video, the sound adds such texture. I can’t help but notice the sci-fi and dystopic horror, there was a cinematic quality to the installation. The visceral experience of looking at a work is obviously very, very different from the process of actually making something. Can any artist really control the outcome of what happens from a creative project? I'm curious if in your practice, you've learned some strategies for yourself to kind of enter into that space?

SALEHI: This specific project was so unique. We were hopeful to play around a bit and find something unexpected, but it ended up being very rigid to get to what we want. And we got what we wanted. Generally it's like, in the process, something else kind of forms or there's some happy accidents that forms as you make the work. It felt we just had such a clear vision that we're like, oh, this is it, we just need to put it together. I definitely think in working with the kinetics, which I kind of do here and there. I'm very amateur, like a hobbyist I have no idea what I'm doing, [laughter] which can also be brave to take on. I do find joy in it, I guess maybe I enjoy the challenge. I think that's where the craftsperson in me comes out. When you work with kinetics, there's always this audio that just naturally happens when something moves, thats sort of unpredictable, or I just don’t really consider in the early stages. I think when we had all these butterflies moving like that alone, yeah, it does create this fuller population. The audio definitely activates the work. And really it's unintentional, because, you know, you can't make it silent. Like there has to be a sound when the pieces are actually moving. It adds an additional layer to the work and maybe the whole time I was waiting for this happy accident and once everything was powered on that was the moment that I was like, oh, yeah. This activation in the metal that you're not focusing becomes a whole other layer to the work that you kind of forget about until the very end.

Shay Salehi. Human in the Loop, 2023. Silicone, motor, gears, stainless steel, steel, cable.Made in collaboration with Gina D'Aloisio. Kinetic assistance from Cody Frost.

BIOMASS: I do think that cumulively, with more experience and the more time an artist commits to the process, strategies emerge. Buoyancy, resilience, strategies or useful habits emerge. And  there's the other side of that as well. We touched on mental health, which I think is a really important facet to what you have noticed in terms of resiliency tools. When you reflect on the past few years, what didn’t work? And what was clearly not a sustainable approach for you in your artmaking?

SALEHI: Well, I was supposed to go to grad school and covid happened so I deferred for a year, and that whole year I didn’t make anything, and then when I got to Grad School I hadn’t made anything in a year and I just wondered do I even know how to do this anymore?
I kind of had this year off, and that whole year I didn’t make anything. Then when I got to grad school I hadn’t made art for a year, and had a lot of anxiety around whether I can still do this. We go through stages as artists, and it’s totally fine to take a year off. Even when you're taking time off, it's going to feed back into your practice in a meaningful way. It’s a stage. We go through stages as artists like with anything else, and it’s totally ok to take a year off. You as a person is what makes up your practice, so what you do in your offtime feeds back into your work. When you make or finish a work, there is this little high, this little validation, maybe a grant or a show. But the majority of the time you are not in that stage, and you have to validate yourself. That is probably the hardest thing to learn, to continue to self-validate and self-regulate.

BIOMASS: So, what is coming up for you next? At what stage do you feel you are at now in your process?

SALEHI: I finished school, so yay! That was a big accomplishment. I’m applying for an 01 to stay in New York, we’ll see. I have a show coming up with this project, so that’s great. Reflecting back I never thought I would come to New York and get a full scholarship to go to grad school. I never thought I would get to do a residency at the Banff Center, I don’t think I necessarily saw these things coming. I think I’m at a new point in my career now, where I’m like “what is coming next?” I don’t really know yet – but given the pattern I know something cool is gonna happen. [smiles] I’m ready for whatever comes next, I’m ready to make new work.

Shay Salehi (she/her) is an interdisciplinary New York based artist exploring the complexities of human to nonhuman relationships.
Anchored by a passion against animal exploitation, Shay investigates the framework that enforces human superiority and the ownership and capitalization of non-human animal bodies. Her practice is a visual metaphor that analyzes outdated habits and challenges normative societal structures. Through this work, she provides the audience with an opportunity to contemplate themes such as dominance, domestication and the experience of deciphering our ethical standards.
In 2020, Shay received a BFA from the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCADU) in Sculpture and Installation. Previous to OCADU, Shay studied glasswork at Sheridan College (2011-2014), and continues to make sculptural glasswork. In 2023, she completed an MFA in Fine Art at Parsons New School in Manhattan, New York.