Published November 8, 2022
Caroline Falby on the Realities of Being an Artist & Mother and Stigma of HIV/AIDS
Caroline Falby is a New York-based artist whose practice spans drawing, painting, and installation. She blends vibrant pops of colors, patterns, and recognizable imagery into frenetic bursts that resemble billowing clouds or canopies. Behind these canopies are rich backgrounds that reveal glimpses of fragmented figures and architectural elements.
For her most ambitious project, Falby tapped into her personal experience losing her father to HIV-related illness and the stigma that came with it, complex issues with an added layer of secrecy as he chose to remain closeted.
Falby turned to her artistic practice to connect with others who lost their parents to HIV, as well as those living with the virus. She began collecting oral histories and created an animated installation called The Animation of Mortality. An ongoing, immersive project, the piece resembles a digital, floral wallpaper. Viewers activate the work by touching the wall, turning on sensors that cause Falby’s floral pattern to transform, sprouting unexpected limbs and spreading like a virus. Recordings of the oral histories play out loud, eventually overlapping as the visitor continues to activate the wall.
Speaking with Falby, we discussed her journey as an artist and mother, her father’s passing, and the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS.
Caroline Falby, The Animation of Mortality: an interactive art installation about HIV
What was your life like growing up?
CF: I grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Toronto, Canada. I was “the Artist”, my sister “the Intellectual” and my brother “the Jock”. My mother worked as a high school librarian. She doesn’t mince words. By contrast, my father was genteel and refined. He was a prominent litigation attorney who, despite being closeted, outwardly appeared conservative.
When did you start making art?
CF: It’s just something I always did easily, but my family saw art as important to study, but not to make a career from. I took a couple classes at the Art Gallery of Ontario but never was provided much in the way of materials at home. It wasn’t until a middle school art teacher insisted that my mother enroll me in adult figure-drawing classes that she understood my skills needed to be nurtured. As a teen, I found Toronto too small, too conservative and too homogeneous. I came to New York City for college and have been here since.
In order to make honest work, I think an artist must create from a personal space. When an artist unveils a part of themselves, they truly connect with their viewer.
Did you study art in New York?
CF: I studied sculpture at Parsons in the mid-1990s. Sculpture was male-dominated, and I was taught to admire and produce minimalist steel sculptures. I was more inspired by Louise Bourgeois, Henry Moore and Mona Hatoun. This was also a time when “female” work was considered an insult. During my senior year, I worked with the critic Arlene Raven. She introduced the pedagogy of the Feminist Art Program and emphasized that we needed to figure out why we made things and how they reflected us.
How did you move to work on paper and mixed media?
CF: Like my mother, my ex-husband didn’t see my art career as viable. I needed to keep materials affordable and work in a small apartment with two children. Working on paper and using materials like magazines allowed me to continue my practice. I was drawn to old magazines like Look and Life from the 1940s and 1950s because they juxtapose events of war, social upheaval and civil rights against a utopian vision of domesticity. I also work with pornography. It’s considered taboo, but I believe pornography to be a more honest depiction of desire than what we represent in art.
When I first saw your work in August of 2021, you were in a residency at NARS (New York Art Residency and Studios), which is surrounded by dozens of studios in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn. What was your time like at NARS?
CF: The best part was being around other artists after quarantine. The studio visits that NARS organized were particularly helpful. As a mom, I wasn’t able to go to many openings pre-pandemic. Having few opportunities to meet people meant that every interaction with arts professionals felt like a networking event. I’d leave openings feeling desperate and dirty. The studio visits at NARS helped me regard these interactions less as auditions and more as opportunities to build a nurturing community. Since leaving the residency, I’ve been able to enjoy the social aspects of the art world.
What are some challenges of being a professional artist?
CF: The biggest challenge has been juggling parenthood. The art world is not designed to support women who are parents. Openings are scheduled around dinner and bedtime, residencies don’t offer childcare or family accommodations, most MFA programs require full-time enrollment and mothers are often perceived as less serious artists. It’s only the parents who can afford childcare that can participate in the art world. Limiting opportunities means that the industry is missing critical voices.
When did you start making work engaging with the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
CF: In 2008, I was invited to create a work for an exhibition about AIDS at the Queens Museum. At the time, I suspected my father was closeted but had no knowledge that he was HIV-positive. Since I had no known connection to the AIDS crisis, the work felt inauthentic. In order to make honest work, I think an artist must create from a personal space. When an artist unveils a part of themselves, they truly connect with their viewer. I vowed after this experience to only make work about issues I had a direct relationship with.
Tragically, though you didn’t know at the time, you did have a direct relationship with the issue. What happened then?
CF: In 2015, my father died from HIV-related causes. He remained closeted until death and didn’t want his diagnosis revealed publicly. Since my work was always so personal, I struggled to make anything for almost two years. I finally fell on an abstract iconography of cloud-like tumors that relate to the spreading virus and the spread of stigma. They also reminded me of representations of the heavens by Tintoretto. This allowed me to return to work without directly representing my father.
How did you conceive of the idea for The Animation of Mortality?
CF: As I built my iconography about HIV into large, mix-media works on board, I realized that I wanted to see them animated. I wanted the imagery to have a more visceral quality. Through a residency with BRIC, I created a 5-minute piece that combined cutout and digital animation to represent an abstract virus spreading through a projection of floral wallpaper. My father was a fan of Jacques Brel, so the audio was created by layering different renditions of Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” into a motet about loss. When the video was finally presented, I hadn’t shown art in many years. I broke down in tears and could barely deliver my introduction.
That’s really powerful. How did you begin to incorporate oral history into the project?
CF: I wanted to grow the work into an installation that included underrepresented narratives about HIV, stories about parents like mine with children who still felt the burden of secrecy and stigma. I also wanted to learn about Long Term Survivors and find out what my father’s life might have been like had he survived. The recordings are anonymous so that participants speak freely without judgment. Their voices can serve instead of my father’s. Together, I believe their narratives help viewers connect deeper to the history of HIV through common human experiences of long-term illness, parental loss, addiction, sexuality and societal stigma.
How did you come up with the idea for the sensors?
CF: I knew I wanted the piece to be fully immersive, but wasn’t sure how. After visiting an interactive museum exhibition with my children, I realized that I could have viewers use sensors to trigger animations and the stories I wanted to tell. With help from a number of grants, I was able to learn MAX/MSP/Jitter programming, rent a studio and hire two programmers to help build the software.
The Animation of Mortality was imagined as a portable room installation. What’s next for the project?
CF: We have been able to complete most of the programming with a few bugs and held a preview where activists and friends could test the sensors and projections. With a grant from the Puffin Foundation, I was able to secure a gaming computer capable of running the installation more efficiently. In the next few months, I hope to have the software cleaned up and transferred.
At the moment, I don’t have the funds to build a room to contain the installation. I hope that I can realize my larger vision after more people see the piece. Before running out of funds, we were developing a way to tag recordings so that I could tailor the installation to be site-specific to different exhibition venues. I’d like the artwork to become a library of oral histories about HIV. At the moment, I’m seeking spaces locally where I can exhibit the wall and hold recording sessions. Once I’ve figured out the logistics, I hope to travel the installation as a room to community spaces in other cities around the northeast.
Caroline Falby, The Animation of Mortality, a woman described contracting HIV while working in a health clinic.
How do you hope viewers respond to the project?
CF: I want viewers to understand that HIV is non-discriminant. I want them to see themselves in the stories that they are hearing. They may not be living with HIV or have a parent who was affected by the virus, but they may be dealing with chronic illness or can relate through their experiences with COVID-19. I also want to dispel the stigma about HIV, educate viewers that HIV is un-transmissible when treated, encourage routine testing and give a safe space to people living with HIV.
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