Jessica Rajko on Why Collaboration Is Key in Her Dance-Meets-Tech Art

Rajko at the première of her work I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am.EXPAND
Rajko at the première of her work I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am.
Alexandra Gaspar

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 65. Jessica Rajko.

Jessica Rajko has questions. And through her art, the 33-year-old ventures to answer them. 

"I wanted to be in a career where I am allowed to ask questions and process them in my own way," Rajko says. "This is extremely special to me."

The Michigan-born, Scottsdale-based artist's inquisitive nature is the result of growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, people who were deeply invested in both their work and the people with whom they worked. "While neither of my parents are artists, they’ve always attended to their work with curiosity and passion," Rajko says. "I carry this into my own creative process." 

Rajko's natural state of curiosity results in a sort of work that shakes off distinct definitions. "My work explores the liminal space between movement, bodies, technology, and human-computer interaction design," she says. "Some of my work looks like dance, and some of it looks like interactive installations. All of my art is visceral, tangible, and multisensory."

Working with multiple disciplines lends itself to collaboration, something that's integral to Rajko's practice. "I am never the smartest person in the room, and I love that," she says. "The challenges given to me by others keeps my work from becoming lazy, unfocused, and predictable. My work rarely looks or feels the same, and that’s is because of the amazing contributions others have made to the process. My work is not about me."

Her current work explores ways of making data into something tangible. "I’m working with a team under the title Vibrant Lives, and we’re using infrasonic subwoofers to create tactile vibrations of data," she says. "People are accustomed to seeing graphs and figures of data, but what would it be like to touch it? I find this extremely fascinating."

The group debuted a version of the work earlier this year at Spark! Mesa’s Festival of Creativity, and Rajko's now working to incorporate data into a new dance piece. "All of the dancers are wearing self-tracking devices called a Jawbone UP3," Rajko says. "I will be using their data to create vibration maps across the dance floor."

Though there will always be new questions to ask and new disciplines to meld and morph into something thought-provoking and new, there's one question that shades all Rajko's work and informs her choices about everything from performance venues and costuming to collaborators and music selection.

"I don’t remember who asked me, but 'Who is this piece for?' is a question that has always stuck with me," she says. "It’s immediately humbling. Asking, 'Who is this piece for?' helps me see when I am making assumptions about my audience. There is no such thing as 'the audience.'"

A look behind the scenes at the Vibrant Lives video shoot.EXPAND
A look behind the scenes at the Vibrant Lives video shoot.
Sharon McCaman

I came to Phoenix with my 2001 white Ford Escort and an audiotape (yes, tape) of Prince’s Purple Rain. My parents helped me make the long drive down from Michigan in 2009, and I’ve been here since.

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I make art because it’s how I think, process, and reflect upon human experience. I am endlessly fascinated with our ephemeral, pre-linguistic life experiences. All of the stuff we can’t put into words: emotions, behaviors, sensations, actions. We are constantly doing and feeling things we cannot explain, do not plan, and cannot predict. I make art to better understand this.

I'm most productive when I work with others. Most of my work is collaborative, and my best work happens when I share conceptual agency with others. I like making big, complicated projects that typically require expertise beyond my own. I am most productive when I don’t try to do it all myself.

My inspiration wall is full of women. Most of my dearest collaborators and mentors are women. Most of the artists I follow in dance, fashion design, and physical computing are women. Most of the scholarly work I read is by women. Women are amazing.

I've learned most from being vulnerable. I feel most comfortable when the people I’m working with are happy and things are running smoothly. There is always a point when the project feels too big to manage. I’ve tried to control these moments, but it’s exhausting and often stifles the work. I’ve learned most when I let go, trust my intuition, and allow the work and my collaborators to move forward organically.

Good work should always be curious. Curiosity keeps the artistic process honest, nimble, and open to change. Curious work doesn’t believe it has something to say without doing a good deal of exploration and research. Curious work doesn’t make assumptions about what is “good,” “authentic,” or “valuable.”

The Phoenix creative scene could use more hugs. There is a lot of strong, amazing work happening here, and the creative scene is gaining more confidence. Rather than criticizing or dissecting it, we need to nurture, support, and love our creative scene. This starts by showing up and supporting each other. By being there. You can’t hug if you’re not there.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato
95. Jessie Balli
94. Ron May
93. Leonor Aispuro
92. Sarah Waite
91. Christina "Xappa" Franco
90. Christian Adame
89. Tara Sharpe
88. Patricia Sannit
87. Brian Klein
86. Dennita Sewell
85. Garth Johnson
84. Charissa Lucille
83. Ryan Downey
82. Samantha Thompson
81. Cherie Buck-Hutchison
80. Freddie Paull
79. Jennifer Campbell
78. Dwayne Hartford
77. Shaliyah Ben
76. Kym Ventola
75. Matthew Watkins
74. Tom Budzak
73. Rachel Egboro
72. Rosemary Close
71. Ally Haynes-Hamblen
70. Alex Ozers
69. Fawn DeViney
68. Laura Dragon
67. Stephanie Neiheisel
66. Michael Lanier

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