Alyce Santoro finds tender meaning in the obvious. In an age of intensifying social and ecological strife, documenting the marvelous becomes an act of defiance, reverence, and deep longing. A scientist-turned-artist, Santoro samples the sublime, records the subtle, defies dualisms, and conducts absurd experiments with rigorous care.
Atmospheric landscapes, expressionistic sound collage, and painterly illustration emerge through a practice of attuning to visual and auditory phenomena. In a state of immersive presence, observer and observed may, for a moment, merge. Entanglement becomes tangible.
For Santoro, field studies, philosophical questioning, and delicate investigation of natural phenomena—flora, fauna, terra, and aqua—become portals through the Anthropocene into another present era.
As a young person enthralled by the heady scent of decaying bark, the trill of crickets, and the ever-shifting textures of wind on water, I set out with a straightforward goal: to make visible the invisible wonders of science and nature. Feeling compelled to grasp the inner workings of potential subjects before presuming to render them creatively, my plan to combine art and science began with intensive studies of biology and scientific illustration—I wanted to be a good scientist first.
After years of being an artist in practice, however, I became increasingly curious about the seeming incongruities between study based in the empirical vs. subjective; while the good scientist must strive to remain as objective as possible, art, by its very nature, is an expression of an artist’s unique affinity for the entity of interest.
As it turns out, the primary—and most radical—invisible wonder I have been inspired to illustrate is that otherness—objectivity—does not hold fast. Can a “good scientist” exist both outside and inside the experiment simultaneously? Can sensations of the sublime, marvelous, strange, though unquantifiable, constitute valid forms of data? Such paradoxes pervade my work in all its forms, with my desire to express them magnifying in urgency as the fragile state of planetary ecology becomes increasingly evident.
My art consists of experiments inspired by science, though respectfully unbound to it. To look for unexpected interconnections I’ve collected sound-samples through field recording, layered them into dense collages, recorded the collages onto cassette tape, and woven the tape into an audible fabric. To show how sound affects matter I’ve devised apparatus to make the audible visible in flame. To reveal hidden patterns in musical intervals and modes I’ve graphed them using color. Through assorted projects involving drawing, painting, sculpture, video, printmaking, sound, and text, I have invited contemplation into inherent entanglements between self and other, human and nature, looker and seen, listener and heard.
In 2018/2019, RISD’s new MA program in the environmental humanities provided a vital opportunity to re-examine in-depth the conceptual underpinnings of my work relative to the current state of the field (and the world), and, in mid-career, to chart a course forward. My thesis explores the ways that some socio-ecologically-minded artists, scientists, and philosophers (including the Romantic Naturalists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, among others) invoked absurdity and wonder to undo dualist, hierarchical, mechanistic logics embedded in European Enlightenment philosophy. I propose current forms of creative practice grounded in sustained, compassionate, dynamic noticing may similarly serve to upend outmoded rationales and catalyze shifts toward an “ecological imaginary” — a collective sense of self as apart-yet-a-part of every-thing/being.
My work since 2019 has involved rigorously testing my own hypothesis. I have been simplifying, recalibrating, deeply connecting with the finest details of my immediate surroundings and returning to—and branching off from—my roots in science and scientific illustration. Atmospheric landscapes, expressionistic collage (both sonic and visual), and painterly illustration emerge through a practice of attuning to sensory phenomena. I strive to capture the moment when, in a state of immersive presence, observer and observed may, for a moment, merge.