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.
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.
As a DIY practitioner, do you currently operate off-the-grid or are you experimenting with some form of homesteading? (We also heard a rumor that you use a solar-powered sewing machine!)
Shortly after settling in West Texas, I met and joined forces with a fellow artist—a musician/composer/gardener/activist/avid cyclist—who suggested we experiment with off-grid living on some nearby land that had been in his family for many years.
I definitely experience a sense of wonder when I’m sewing and suddenly realize it’s powered by the sun.
For us, homesteading means creating a home while caring as much as possible for our tract of land, as well as the environment and community around us. Our goal is to be entirely off the electrical grid within the next year. We have reduced our need for electricity down to the bare minimum—our electric bill is currently around $14 per month. The fewer resources we consume, the easier and cheaper it is to make the switch to renewable energy such as solar and and wind power.
My sewing machine is an ordinary five-year-old Singer. It just so happens that I plug it into an outlet that’s connected to batteries that are, in turn, charged by solar panels, but otherwise it runs just the same as any other machine. I definitely experience a sense of wonder every time I’m sewing and suddenly realize that the only power plant I am connected to is the sun.
You are currently a supporter of the Use Half campaign and its efforts to
draw attention to our consumption of nonrenewable resources, particularly our addiction to oil. How do you think that “use half” applies to fashion?
In the way of art supplies, household stuff, and clothing, I buy as little as possible new. I’d say about 90 percent of the clothing and fabric I’ve acquired in the past four years has come from thrift stores or clothing swaps.
Every time we favor personal creativity over the status quo, it’s a triumph for our health and society’s.
The Use Half project was conceived as a way to raise awareness about overconsumption, as well as to generate ideas on how we might be able to use less. How can a pair of jeans that costs half a week’s wages—by the time we pay the interest rate on the charge card—that is made by a child laborer in a sweatshop in a far-off land feel comfortable?
When we score a fashion find in a thrift shop that benefits battered women or the homeless, when we take the time to alter an old skirt found in an aunt’s attic, and when we support designers who are taking these deeper issues into account, we begin to reverse the cycle of senseless waste and social and environmental discomfort that is unsustainable. Every time we favor personal creativity over the status quo, it’s a triumph for the mental and physical health of ourselves and our society.
Where do you think that the sustainable design/fashion movement is headed, and what is your next project in the pipeline?
I think that sustainability in fashion, and in all aspects of life, is the way of the future. As we begin to realize the ethical implications of our actions, society as a whole has no choice but to shift its value system away from artificiality and excess, towards a kind of natural glamour, health, and beauty that grows out of being in balance with our environment.
I think that sustainability in fashion, and in all aspects of life, is the way of the future.
I am currently work on the The Miraculous 10.10.2010 Clothesline Revival, an open-source community to help people become reacquainted with the beauty and efficiency of a a length of cotton rope and a few clothespins. The ultimate goal is to establish permanent public clothes-drying areas so apartment dwellers and university students can proudly air their wash in a community environment.