Interview: An Education

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An Education

An interview with Sasha Amaya on her installation work

The past twelve months have been full of news about migration, oil prices, the Euro crisis, and other topics of global concern — in short, a year of news about how we are affected by market changes and international corporations, those abstract things outside of our control which impinge on the details of our lives so much. I felt this particularly acutely when studying abroad last year, where costs were high, where the value of my money fluctuated, and where my right to exist in a certain place was not given but always up for question. Conflicting feelings of privilege and precarity are hard to capture, but one way I, and many of my peers, manifested our anxiety was in a fixation on costs, that is to say, is it worth it? A small and domestic embodiment of so many of the greater debates we see today, the experience of being a student and a student abroad is one of asking ourselves and each other if the situation in which we find ourselves is one we want to continue to exist.

Costs come in all sorts, but I began to track all of my purchases, big and small. Were these purchases reasonable, feasible, justifiable?  At what cost, metaphorical and literal, does education come? What began as neurotic accountancy soon turned into an artistic obsession. Having now collected hundreds of receipts, from the lunchtime sandwich to the cross-atlantic plane ticket, I have a collection which physically, materially, and exactingly shows each cent I have spent. These financial splinters are insignificant on their own, but as a collection they not only strive to give physical form to the intangibility of our financial system, but also prompt us to consider how we want to proceed with our own education, which is becoming less affordable, and more oriented toward profit, each year.

— Sasha Amaya, An Education

At the closing reception of An Education, Teddy Zegeye-Gebrehiwot sat down with Sasha Amaya to ask her about the intentions behind her installation, reactions to it, and her plans for the work.

Teddy Zegeye-Gebrehiwot: Tell us about your installation An Education and your intentions for this exhibit.

Sasha Amaya: This exhibit is about my time spent overseas and about how we think about finances and money. I collected every single receipt for everything I spent all year. What does education cost? How do we value things? How can we physicalize and materialize a financial system that is in the abstract?

T: Through the creation of this work, do you feel you have answered some of those questions?

S: The interesting thing is that I have been thinking about it in terms of money and financial systems, and money and worth and capitalism. But at the same time, once I put it together, once I set it up, it also became personal and nostalgic. I would look at individual receipts and remember this is the first time I went to a film with an acquaintance who is now a very dear friend of mine, or this is the receipt from my last dinner with someone whom I haven’t seen in ages. So it has become a collection of quite powerful memories.

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Train receipts make up one of many chains throughout the space.

T: Did you know how you wanted it to look from the beginning?

S: There were specificities of form that changed, but I did want to create something that both had a lot of visual impact, but that had movement, that played with light and shadow, that played with form and height and depth, and that people could walk through and experience. Those were all factors I wanted to have from the beginning.

T: Do you feel this work connects to other works you have made in the past?

S: I think formally it connects very strongly to other works I have done in the past. I am very interested in shape and light and movement. I think it is more obviously political than other works I have made in the past.

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Shadows shift and move across the gallery wall.

T: How does this shift feel?

S: It was important for me that if I made something that was more obviously political for it to also have a very strong aesthetic component so it was still speaking in a language of visuality and art and space. At the same time, because it is political, a lot of different sorts of people have been able to respond to this exhibit. So people that care about how it looks and how it moves can come and ask me questions, but I have also overheard other people discussing the exhibit — how much money I spent on something or why I made certain choices or whether this is a good representation of money — so I think it has opened up certain conversations.

T: What have reactions been to An Education?

One thing a lot of people have said is they feel it is very exposing, which I find interesting because in a way it is — there were a few things I was embarrassed about putting up! — but a lot of it is grocery receipts and bike repair, and I feel that those things take place in public — they’re not super private. But a lot of people have said “I would never share those things,” or they have said “I would never want to know how much money I have spent” — many, many people have said that! [And that is] probably the most common response: not wanting to be aware of the way our money moves around.

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The didactic is set.

T: I like what you said about it being a collection of memories… what are your plans for this work? Is it going to get bundled up or is it the tip of an iceberg?

S: It has been interesting having this installation up and having this receipt project finished in a certain manifestation. One of the things that I find extreme pleasure in now is purchasing something and saying “I do not need the receipt!” I think that I won’t be collecting receipts in the same way for a time. I have really enjoyed letting that go.

I would like to show this work in the UK. It is about being in university in the UK, in England. I am showing it in Canada because I wanted to think about Canadian education. We have an extremely different system and different costs. The home tuition fee [in the UK] — the home tuition fee, that is, if you are a UK student — is about $18 000 – $20 000 [Canadian dollars] a year. That is just tuition. That’s not living or materials. And so I think we have a very different idea of what things cost here. And I wanted to start the conversation about what things cost here and the future of our educational system — contrasted against a very different, but in many ways similar, educational system. But I would really like to show it in the UK so I hope to do that before I have to decide where this exhibition lives permanently.

You can find out more about Sasha Amaya’s work at http://www.sasha-amaya.com