Multimedia artist Alyce Santoro may be best known in the fashion community for her woven cassette-tape Sonic Fabric, but the conceptual artist, activist, and homesteader contains multitudes we’ve only begun to see. Once a member of a grassroots artist enclave in Brooklyn, Santoro now holds court in West Texas, where she lives an almost off-grid lifestyle accompanied by the hum of her solar-powered sewing machine. We caught up with the creative powerhouse to learn why she considers Sonic Fabric more conceptual art than upcycling statement, the reason she abandoned New York City for the Texan desert, and how she managed to whittle her electric bill down to $14 each month.
It’s been 10 years or more since you first created Sonic Fabric, and some may say that you were ahead of your time in terms of using recycled materials in fashion. How was this project an introduction to eco-friendly, DIY practices for you?
For me, Sonic Fabric has always been more of a conceptual art project than a sustainable textiles project. While recycling certainly plays an important part in its creation, plastic is never really going to be eco-friendly no matter how you slice it. I don’t even like to think about how the stuff is manufactured to begin with.
If Sonic Fabric was ahead of its time, it was really an accident.
It has been amazing and wonderful to watch the increased attention that has been paid to Sonic Fabric in recent years as more awareness is turning towards adaptive reuse, “smart” textiles, and conscious fashion. If Sonic Fabric was ahead of its time, it was really an accident. I was just trying to weave a fabric literally made of sound, and I decided to use a ubiquitous material that has played a special role throughout my life as a musician and a deep appreciator of sound. The recycling part was a happy byproduct.
What does your setup in rural West Texas offer you in terms of creative living?
In 2005, I had the opportunity to accompany a friend on a road trip to Marfa, TX. Marfa has become something of an enclave for artist types from both coasts and everywhere in between. Never in a million years could I have imagined appreciating the desert so much. As a person who loves the Atlantic Ocean—I have a degree in marine biology and have been a sailing instructor for most of my life, even in Manhattan—I was only coming to the desert for a token visit.
Standing in the desert felt like being at the bottom of the ocean, only I could breathe.
Upon my arrival, however, everything felt so wonderfully unfamiliar. The weather systems, plant life, the dryness, the darkness at night, even the vastness of the terrain felt remarkably ocean-like. Standing in the desert felt like being at the bottom of the ocean, only I could breathe. I returned to Brooklyn, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the desert. My work consequently was steered even more on the path to exploring sustainability and low-impact living.
I have always preferred to use found objects in my work, not only because they are “greener” and often the most affordable, but because they are imbued with an added intangible dimension.