Neon Saltwater (a.k.a. Abby Dougherty) is a Seattle-based new media artist whose specializes in creating digital interiors that exist somewhere between the pastel, neon glow of the 1980s and a perfect, fantasy future.
Dougherty designed real interiors before she began experimenting with her hyper-stylized digital spaces. In 2015 she coined a word to describe them: R o o m w a v e . The R o o m w a v e concept has garnered a passionate online following through various social media sites with members contributing found photographs as well as original artwork that reflect the R o o m w a v e ideal. Dougherty insists that that ideal is not purely based on aesthetics but also an enigmatic and elusive quality that even she, as the creator, finds it hard to define.
Night After the Mall
Christian Petersen: Tell us a little about the origins of your alternate name Neon Saltwater.
Neon Saltwater: Neon Saltwater started as a name of a music playlist that I shared with a (now estranged) friend. The name came randomly to me in kind of a flash as I imagined a scene in a dark room with big clear plastic tanks of colored water that were glowing. I named the playlist “Neon Saltwater Party.” It was the kind of place I imagined interacting with the person in. We always had this silent connection that was really bizarre and alien, as if it was from a past life. The energy felt supernatural and belonged to another realm and the music made it feel real. All the songs on the playlist had to capture the essence of that word neonsaltwater. As a visual artist, I decided to create visual representation of places where that energy lived.
The images I create have the same rules of the playlist. It felt natural to brand my art in that way as I have always really appreciated collections and series. People started to call me Neon Saltwater and I was ok with that. I think my personal identity as Abby doesn’t matter because my intention when creating this collection is to express mysterious emotions that other people have also felt before and that is what my art is always about.
“Badlands” for Crater
CP: What sparked your interest in using computers creatively?
NS: I have always been an artist and I have always felt comfortable with computers. Computers and 3D modeling programs allow me to really express things I can’t express in other mediums and I feel the most connected to myself when I am playing with space and objects in 3D. The possibilities are endless and it’s satisfying to create things that defy gravity.
CP: You also work as an interior designer. Which came first real or digital interiors?
NS: I was an interior designer first but I have always been an artist that loved spaces. I didn't start making digital rooms as an art form though until a few years after college.
This place isn't real but I know we were there
CP: How was your art school experience and what lasting impact did it have on your work?
NS: Interior design was probably the most non-typical “art school” major that Cornish (College of the Arts, Seattle) offered and most of the curriculum was more technical and meant to prepare us to go off to architectural firms. However, my class had an incredible teacher for most of our initial interior studio classes named Jon Gierlich. He made an incredible impact on my design process. He really valued conceptualism and abstract thinking when it came to environments. He gave us assignments that we thought were ridiculous at first but they conditioned us to develop a deep emotional relationship with space and to think about interiors as having an intentional energy. He always emphasized the idea that there was a live spirit in architecture and space and we grew to pour our hearts into our projects. I feel so lucky to have had him when we did: he passed away our senior year but his methods and teachings are still ingrained in my process.
It Kills Me
CP: What attracted you to focus on creating digital interiors and architecture in your art?
NS: In real life, I am actually an interior designer and I have always loved environments. I started rearranging my room about once a month when I was a kid and it would drive my parents nuts. I somehow figured out how to get my 10-year-old body to push a huge dresser across the room sometimes in the middle of the night when my parents were sleeping. Once I had the idea to do it, I had to do it right then and there even if it was not an appropriate time. I was obsessed with the change of emotion I felt from furniture being switched around. Now I love everything related from event design to home staging. I love aesthetic consistency and formulaic compositions of space. Digital media lets me create rooms faster more often than reality.
It's always with you
CP: What is R o o m w a v e ?
NS: R o o m w a v e is a term I made up that is inspired by an aspect of Vaporwave (music genre) that often expresses a romanticism with isolated consumerist environments. When I discovered Vaporwave, I got instant goose bumps because I realized the subconscious thoughts/feelings/weird memories that had always been in my dreams or thoughts were being defined by a music genre and people on the internet. I created R o o m w a v e as a Facebook group to share photos of rooms that gave me these strange mysterious sensations of déjà vu and fantasy. I wanted to know if other people felt these things too. R o o m w a v e rooms typically are just about over-the-top design, places that inspire us, offer an escape from reality. In my personal opinion R o o m w a v e isn’t purely aesthetic and has a quality that is kind of indescribable. It has an energy that often has to do with the way the room was staged and photographed and how it is. Sometimes rooms might have typical aesthetic qualities but no ounce of energy. R o o m w a v e is a living thing: it’s either there or it’s not, and that’s all I really know at this point. Defining the rules of R o o m w a v e in words has been almost impossible at times.
Lana Lang I
CP: How has your work with physical spaces influenced your digital spaces?
NS: After school being very hypothetical and conceptual, I entered a harsh reality of realizing that most spaces were based on budget, practicality, and material resources available. That discouraged me but my work experience in event design and personal styling has trained my critical eye to be quick and careful at editing. For a long time I was forced to put my personal sense of expression to the side and rely on my sense of design principles to complete projects I didn’t always love. Now I feel like I have more control over the aesthetic I am going for and I feel like I have an easier time channeling and executing the abstract emotions that I feel.
Guava Lounge Pet Shop
CP: In your upcoming UNVIRTUAL project you intend to make a “real” version of one of your digital spaces. Why is that important for you?
NS: I think this UNVIRTUAL project is just about melting my love for virtual spaces and real interior design together. Real life spaces aren’t as cinematic as they could be and they have to be durable and practical. UNVIRTUAL only has to exist as a temporary installation for a few weeks and doesn’t have to be functional long term. It gives me the flexibility to bend the rules and portray an ultimate fantasy space that people can walk around in. Neon Saltwater is a super lonely experience when viewing it as a flat image and I’m excited to twist that and make it a thing people experience around others.
CP: You are trying to raise money for the project through GoFundMe. Is this a reflection on the difficulty digital artists have in monetizing and funding their work?
NS: Most of the digital community that exists on Instagram and Tumblr and stuff doesn’t always have the same effect when printed. I think the general lack of tangibility makes it hard to sell because it’s meant to be consumed at any time on a screen on social media. My dream from the beginning was to bring Neon Saltwater into reality for people to experience in a non-isolated way, and thanks to the community and the fundraising platform, UNVIRTUAL will be the first step to do that.
Sick Sad World for Crater
CP: Was it a deliberate decision to never have people inhabiting your spaces?
NS: Definitely. It is a deliberate decision for many reasons. Neon Saltwater is about how rooms can capture emotions and feelings long before and after people inhabit them. It’s about the energy that lingers there. The only time I have ever put a person (me) in a space, I made myself blurry like a ghost. Second, the spaces are not defined by a specific kind of person that inhabits them, and are more about the general human experience. Putting people the space would influence or imply a specific narrative and it would destroy the mystery and obscurity of the space. The point is to invite any person to interpret the spaces by referencing their own experiences and sense of nostalgia.
CP: Your spaces tend to reflect a feeling of “generic, futuristic 80s, LA, dream luxury.” What interests you about that aesthetic particularly?
NS: For me it’s nostalgia mixed with a desire to exist in an era that was not afraid of color and texture. I think tropical settings have always represented an ideal escape or vacation from reality and a lot of people respond to that. It never gets old for me. Neon Saltwater definitely expresses moments I want to experience in reality. It has always been about making my daydreams into a digitally tangible thing.
Lana Lang II
CP: Why do you think so many young artists are drawn to the 80s as an inspiration?
NS: I think people that are my age are influenced by the 80s because it was still lingering in the early 90s. A lot of people don’t think about how decades are a smooth evolution into each other and they don’t abruptly end. As a child born in 1990, I grew up watching videos from the 80s and so it’s familiar in a very distant way. It’s very comforting, as if the imagery I saw as a kid is real memory.
CP: Can you let us a little about your process? How much are your spaces planned in advance
NS: I get flashes of “imaginary” rooms in my head all the time and I don’t know where they come from. I dream of architecture in high detail and wake up remembering how to navigate the spaces. I start by building those images in my head and they often change organically as I go. I don’t stop working on a composition until it feels done and sometimes it takes me 10 hours to get one right. It is similar to how I curate R o o m w a v e —by the end of rendering it either has the right energy or it doesn’t.
CP: There is a community of artist exploring similar themes to yours in different ways. Do you feel part of a community with those artists?
NS: I definitely feel like part of the community and it has been very fulfilling to find people out in the world that feel very similar things. Online has given me a chance to meet and collaborate with people on other continents I wouldn’t otherwise ever have the chance to connect with. Some of my all time favorites are Ethan Redd, Jess Audrey Lynn, Anny Wang, Max Seckel, Miranda lorikeet, Brit Ruggirello, Fvck Render, Blake Kathryn, lena ighpre, Mind PANIC, Ruby Gloom, Nicole Ruggiero, and so many more!
CP: Can you talk about your relationship with color?
NS: Ever since I was a child, I have zoomed in on color and analyzed it. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered I might have synthesia (Google it) because I have such an intense reaction to color. I see colors’ auras in days, months, years, decades, words, letters, numbers, people, sounds, and smells and it’s how I memorize information. In the beginning of Neon Saltwater I used a lot of pastel colors but it is not limited to that. I am inspired by almost every color. As Neon Saltwater evolves, you will start to see new color themes and relationships emerge.
Heartbeat Between Lives
CP: Would you describe your work as political?
NS: A lot of my art comes from a reaction of feeling very alienated and bummed out by politics and an observer of society rather than a participant. I always feel like I’m on the outside looking in (like an alien) and I can’t fully immerse myself into the reality that most people live in. I don’t think of my work as political but a friend once told me that virtual reality is political for being created in the first place.
CP: The new media art scene has been at the cutting edge of new feminist thought. Why do you think it’s such an important medium for that?
NS: Digital media can be produced and distributed on social media quickly and frequently and the constant exposure is a powerful tool to influence people. While there are so many criticisms of social media, there are also so many amazing artists that I admire taking advantage of the platform and publishing really positive and empowering imagery.
Gross Relations for Crater
CP: Seattle is a rapidly growing tech city but it’s new media/digital art scene is very small. Why do you think that is?
NS: I think integrating digital art into more events and the music scene will really bring more appeal to the medium. It needs to find a way to find monetary value and demand because it is so time consuming to create. I think the music and club scene has utilized my artwork in a way that is very impactful and there’s a lot of opportunity to collaborate with entertainment industry on a local scale.
CP: What else do you have coming up?
NS: UNVIRTUAL is the only thing solid and I am putting all my energy into right now. I like to do collaborations but have put those on pause for now. I have another project that is up in the air that may exist in mid-August.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.
(Image at top: Mall Feelings. All images: Courtesy of Neon Saltwater)
Tags: R o o m w a v e Neon Saltwater interior design Wednesday web artist, digital