Artist Tavares Strachan on conquering the impossible and the invisible
From working with SpaceX to building a game-changing art centre in Nassau, Soho House’s ‘artist inspirator’ talks about his explorations of history, race, and science
Tuesday 7 June 2022 By Andy Morris
Tavares Strachan could smell the cosmonaut bar before he saw it. Even now, 18 years later, his abiding memory of Star City, the military training camp just outside of Moscow, is the overwhelming odour of homemade spirits. ‘It was hardcore,’ he says. ‘You could smell the vodka in the air.’ Strachan stood out for a few reasons: he was a handsome Black artist who grew up in Nassau before moving to New York, training for a multimedia art project rather than any kind of mission. As part of his work, Orthostatic Tolerance, he underwent training to understand the experience of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, the first African-American astronaut who died in a supersonic jet crash in 1967.
Physically, the experience was gruelling. ‘You are just doing sh*t to your body that your body doesn’t like,’ says Strachan. ‘One of the first things you do is you sit in the vestibular chair. You’re told to keep your eyes closed. And then you spin. It’s creating disruption in the organ right behind your ear that’s responsible for keeping your balance. Your body does not like it. At. All.’ The conditions and his fellow trainees were equally hostile. ‘I don’t speak the language fluently, but you could just tell. Comments, people touching your hair, people making jokes. It was helpful for me to frame those experiences of people who had done stuff before me. Like Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, I can only imagine what he had to go through 50 years before.’
This is not the first time Strachan’s ambitions set him off on the path of extreme exploration. His first major project saw him transport a 4.5 ton ice block from Alaska to the Bahamas, and his second saw him following in the footsteps of Matthew Henson, an African American who may have been the first man to visit the North Pole. Named Soho House’s debut ‘artist inspirator’ in New York in 2014, he has since conceived a 15,000 entry compendium of ‘forgotten people’ entitled The Encyclopaedia Of Invisibility, sent a sculpture into orbit with SpaceX, showed at the Venice Biennale, and filled 400 Californian desert craters with neon tubes.
Recently, Strachan collaborated with Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye OBE to start construction on OKU, a world-class art museum in Nassau. Not only is this intended to draw talent from across the diaspora, but they’re also giving scholarships to thousands of Bahamian six-year-olds ¬– held in trust until they are 18, which they can use for studying, learning a trade or starting a business. During a recent flying visit to London (still wearing his Bahamas Aerospace and Sea Exploration Center hoodie), Strachan discusses philanthropy, erasure, and the importance of building creative trap doors.
‘It never gets old people saying you can’t do it. If you’re pushing, you’re going to pull on more weight. So, the more you can lift, the more resistance you’ll get’
Your OKU project in Nassau sounds incredibly ambitious…
‘It’s interesting to be working on a community project, even though I’m not living only in that community now. Thinking about it in that way really does make it an art project, because you’re disrupting expectations… which is what art is all about.’
Did lots of people say it would be impossible to make Nassau a world art centre?
‘Yes, but I’ve been told that my whole life. That’s everything I’ve done. It’s funny – it never gets old, people saying you can’t do it. It happens all the time. If you’re pushing, you’re going to pull on more weight. So, the more you can lift, the more resistance you’ll get.’
How do you actually work on The Encyclopaedia Of Invisibility?
‘We’re adding to it right now. We’re doing a bunch of research on the history of martyrdom. Black martyrs and invisible martyrs, and people who may or may not be deserving of a certain esteem – and society just decided we’re not going to do it.’
Do you ever intend it to be shared online?
‘There’s this quote from Ralph Ellison, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”. All the information is out there. It’s just not compiled and organised. That’s what I’m doing. For instance, Steven Biko is someone who I am interested in including – a South African murdered in the late 1970s. Obviously if someone was mistreated and mishandled, that means their story is going to be mistreated and mishandled.’
What are your criteria for including someone in the encyclopaedia?
‘It changes. A part of the reason why I don't want to release it is because I still get to treat it like an artwork. It’s not public domain, it’s not a huge debate. It’s a thought experiment. It wouldn’t be as interesting to me if it became a purely noble exercise. I think so much of art is about making “the trap” your “thing”; some people call it a “niche”, but that’s a trap. I don’t build traps; I build trap doors. Because the whole reason why anyone wants to be an artist is because their soul desired freedom.’
How are you pigeonholed by people?
‘It is difficult, particularly for an artist of African origin from the Caribbean. When someone visits the island and says “People are so nice!” I think “Yeah, because they need the money that you have.” So, what happens when you interact with a person from the island who is not part of the cycle? A huge part of going to the North Pole, for example, was the opposite of what anyone could expect from someone from an island.’
What do people get wrong about you?
‘In one article, I’m sitting in an art studio with paintings behind me and the headline is “The Artist Whose Medium Is Science”. I make artworks. I’m just using different languages. Science is a language. I would never disrespect anyone by calling myself a scientist. They’re taking risks that have implications: nuclear reactors blow up if people get them wrong. I’m not doing that. But at the same time, there was a period of time pre-science – call it “alchemy” – where there was more of a fusion of creativity and research.’
What do you wish you’d known before you got famous?
‘I always try to make work for my younger self. I didn’t realise that until five years ago. I don’t think that would have made it easier, as you’re still dealing with cultural conditions, shifting times, shifting landscapes, shifting politics. One day it’s uncool to be Black, the next it’s super cool… but people still treat you weird in hotels!’
What’s your creative process?
‘I work nine to five, same as everyone that I rely on. When you’re making things that rely on engineering or processes that are dangerous – like glassblowing or casting – it’s not like romantic artists saying “Oh, I’m just gonna burn the midnight oil”. A lot of the work is technical. You can’t be programming a kiln at 1am. You’re going to burn some sh*t down.’
How many projects are you working on right now?
‘Ten. I work with really good, competent people who I trust implicitly. Two of them are Bahamian who I grew up with – it’s one of the things that keeps me grounded. For me, that’s extremely valuable because I can focus on what I’m doing versus being paranoid.’
How do you stay motivated?
‘I think that belief is hard, man. So much about being successful is not about technique or skill or any of these things. You saw the Kanye documentary Jeen-Yuhs, right? He was in there with his homies and they were telling him ‘You are not a rapper’ because they decided you weren’t. Honestly, that’s part of why he’s f**ked up now. Because he can’t listen to anybody. There’s no one to trust.’
Did you interact with Elon Musk during your work with SpaceX?
‘I didn’t speak to Elon directly without Gwynne Shotwell. Gwynne actually runs SpaceX. I’m gonna say something that’s counterintuitive, but it doesn’t make sense that someone at her level is so personable, so honest, and so genuine. Obviously, those are the characteristics of someone who’s gonna lead a multi-gazillion dollar space company. She was phenomenal…’
What do you like about Soho House?
‘When I became a member, there was a woman named Rachel Smith who brought me in. It felt like they were genuinely trying to be artist friendly. What is interesting about it is it allows for me to have a particular level of interaction that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t a member. And I hate lines, I hate waiting. So, you can just roll up and someone will squeeze you in – especially when you have a busy life, you don’t have to make a reservation. That’s really nice.’
Discover more about Tavares Strachan’s OKU project at isolatedlabs.com