|THE OPENING is all about delving into the fascinating, quirky and wonderful visual arts in Vancouver. Each week we’ll feature an artist, cover an exhibition, discuss a lecture and everything else in-between to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!|
Zebulon Zang isn’t an artist. He’s an editor, a collaborator, a filmmaker, a labourer — at least, that’s what he’ll likely tell you at first. Indeed, the way in which he goes about his business seems contrary to the usual model. At the time of our interview, he didn’t have a website, a business card, or a Facebook account. His blogs are either password-protected or completely wiped of entries. He’s obsessed with production, often planning long-term, labour-intensive projects with no end product in mind. And most of all, he’s keen to collaborate, freely allowing others to change the course of his ideas entirely.
Zang’s remarkable lack of ego and almost saintly dedication to his work certainly doesn’t bar him from public acclaim. You’ll see his name attached to projects at institutions such as UNIT/PITT, where Zang curated a show around the silly but poignant idea of opening a store at the end of the world, and the relatively new Avenue, where his upcoming exhibition with Logan Sturrock and Scott Kemp, entitled [???] and opening this Thursday, offers only a paragraph of moody prose in lieu of any formal press release.
I met Zang twice over the course of a month to discuss his artistic process. Though highly complex at first glance, his film-based projects tend to come to into being around a set of self-imposed instructions — a premise that first became a possibility with the rise of conceptual art in the sixties. Speaking quickly and excitedly, Zang was keen to impart the intricacies of his most recent undertaking: a film whose script is composed entirely out of snippets of incidental dialogue he’d record in the ‘field’ — on the bus, at work, at parties with friends — and populated by amateur actors. He seemed most thrilled by wild cards and the unpredictability of working in such a manner. And though he shies away from the label, Zeb Zang is certainly an artist of the most enigmatic and intelligent kind.
VIA: So tell me about what you’re working on these days.
ZZ: Right now, I’ve finished shooting some preliminary stuff for the first scene of the movie that I’m writing the script for. I’m doing walk-outs with shots. I’ve started working with non-professional actors, because I like working with people who don’t necessarily know what they’re doing, so they don’t feel the pressure to stick to the métier of acting. They don’t have to deliver in a specific way — it’s more naturally enacted.
This is similar to the way in which the script was written. The script was taken from pre-recorded conversations that were then transcribed. The hardest part, though, is that people find it really difficult to have someone else’s words in their mouth. I’m trying to devise a few different ways to have the basic structural points of a script work for someone who isn’t really an actor, but can allow them to have their voice come out in it.
It’s taking these structures out of previous conversations, and re-framing, or re-situating them with new people, and having them create this new, clumsy dialogue by not giving them the full map — by giving them only the broad strokes of what a scene is, and what a scene could be, and where we’re trying to move from and to.
It’s a really dumb way to make a movie, because it takes a lot more time, and you need to work with people who are really into experimenting with you like that.
I’ve also spent a lot of time writing, and reading. I won’t go into that yet — that’s just going to confuse everything.
VIA: But writing is always a part of your process?
ZZ: Definitely. As much as I enjoy making things, I feel like writing is always equally important, though it’s never about the thing [that I’m making] specifically.
VIA: Do you find that these things run parallel to each other — that writing is in fact the beginning of each artwork?
ZZ: I think writing is a way for me to think in a very different mode from how I’m working. I’m never really that comfortable in writing about what I’m working on. I’m more interested in general symptoms or situations that I see occurring. From that, I will generate other ideas — a lot of kernels arise from the writing that then germinate other works. I can write fairly loosely, then go back in and refine and find the actual worthwhile things that are in there. There are these fun, absurd ideas that I work through in writing that I would not want to make art about. Writing is something that I can breeze through a bit easier, without worrying about it in the same way — I can’t breeze through art. I can’t be like, well, I made some art there, what’s up? I can’t.
VIA: I envy people who are like that — who can just swill some beer and paint a thing and be like, that’s my thing.
ZZ: I cannot, in good conscience, do that! It’s more about working and refining and refining. In some ways, I think that I really enjoy working itself, almost as much as finishing a work.
VIA: Tell me more about that and your drive towards process. In our written correspondence, you said that your work wasn’t really taking a physical form anymore — it’s more about the process and the organization of it.
ZZ: That’s been a part of it. Thinking about some of the ways it’s been mainly a non-physical form is that it’s become more things like organizational cues with people, organizing shows, trying to write scores or scripts for other things that can happen later on. At least in the present stage, not a lot of physical production has been taking place. It’s been more about planning and setting up possibilities. It’s a really basic conceptual art idea — having a set of instructions that an artwork is built around. But it’s not just conceptual art; it relates to film too, in that there’s a script and a set. I’m making things that aren’t definitive; they don’t really have an endpoint. They’re things that can be taken or reinterpreted or remade by other people, or they can decay in some way. They’re very unstable. I’m very bad at making nice things.
I think a big part of it is that I like — in terms of working, as opposed to being concentrated on this end product — setting myself up with massive amounts of work, and in doing that and being engaged in working for hours and hours on end, that’s where I begin to really understand what it is that I’m making. I don’t really understand the things I’m making before they’re produced. It’s always in the making of them that I begin to get a clear idea of what they’re all about.
For example, when I was working on the show that I curated for Unit/Pitt, building the set for it was a process where I had the general framework of the show understood, and it was all set up, and I had a very specific purpose to it, but as I worked on it more and more and as I spent time doing these kind of menial mindless workers’ tasks, like doing basic wall-framing or putting up drywall or whatever, through that, I started to understand what it was that I was actually doing in a much deeper way than I ever could have if I was just sitting there hitting my head against a book.
In the beginning, the show itself was meant to be a film set, which had as its fictional narrative that would occur within it, was that it was a film set of a store at the end of the world that was selling little objects for the apocalypse. It had come about this idea of the incongruity of consumerism and wanting to keep on buying things when you’re faced with the absolute destruction of the end of the world. There’s that irony there.
As I worked on it, it broke down into these different parts, like looking at the objects in the show and how they were defined, and looking at the model of capitalism and the need for the dissemination of objects, and looking at theatre and film. Those three things made up the basis for the exhibition. I had conceptualized those, but I didn’t fully flesh them out until I was working through them.
The objects in the show were meant to exist first as artworks, because they’re in an art gallery — that’s an expected assumption, that when you enter an art gallery, you will read the objects inside it in relation to art. Second, they existed as props within the narrative of the film. Third, they existed as consumer goods, as the objects were all for sale inside a store. So there was a confusion around the definition of what the things inside the store actually were. This confusion of a definition was really interesting, because with pretty much anything you encounter, to be able to consume it properly, it needs to have at least a fairly clear definition. It doesn’t need a clear definition to exist, but it does need one to be consumed as an idea or as a product.
It got to this idea of ambivalence around the framing of an object, and how that would effect how [the object] would be read and the way it would be responded to. In some ways, it was looking at the value of labour. If the same amount of labour goes into an artwork, versus a prop for a film, versus a consumer good, how much is that labour worth if you make the exact same thing for each one of those [definitions]?
So then I got into this idea of theatre, and how theatre and film and framing was a way to create these definitions and make them readable. It became this thing that comes around and eats its own head and becomes necessary for itself. Theatre doesn’t just exist in the realm of a play, but it exists in the realm of an art gallery and in the realm of a store, and that’s how these things are meant to be read as.
Looking at a kind of ambivalence of objects — this all came out of the idea of how funny it would be to try to sell things to people when they’re all about to die. What a dumb thing, what a stupid thing to think about!
VIA: With this project, and your new work, you have a big interest in engaging with people in a way that changes the actual work that you’re making. It’s not like you’re just hanging an image on a wall. You’re allowing people to actively participate in, or even change the course of the making of it. Could you talk about where that impulse comes from?
ZZ: In a lot of ways, I think people are a lot smarter than I think they are. I think that in so many ways, I don’t like just the things that I make, but I like the things that other people have made and other people are doing. I think there’s nothing less interesting than my interests. So it’s nice to go and work with people and set something up that takes a bit of what they produce without even thinking about it. People just produce really beautiful things sometimes, and I really would like to not have my work closed off from that, and to always have this possibility of being enriched from something like that, but also have this possibility that it could totally fail, and it could just become garbage because of it.
Some projects I’ve had have been these attempts to really minutely intervene in daily life and the way that people are doing things. I have no way of knowing if they’ve worked whatsoever. In a large part, I think it’s come from working in film — the basic collaborative aspect of it that comes from necessity. You just realize that you can’t make a movie on your own. You can’t be an actor-director-writer-producer-makeup artist-craft services. Realizing that, and making things in that way — with different people — and seeing the richness that comes from allowing your personal vision to go out in the world and get dented and f*cked up and enhanced by other people. Bringing people in, and allowing them the freedom to work with it, is really important.
Maybe I know what’s good when I see it, but maybe I don’t know what’s good before I see it. I can’t say, this is going to be great.
VIA: It ties in to what you were saying about how you are always looking to refine and clarify something. It’s a whole other process of doing that, but essentially there’s a similar goal, to go through all these steps and distill it down from a nebulous mass into something of substance.
ZZ: I guess a lot of art is like that — an open perception of as much as you can have. You have to be totally open to all these things, and try weed through them. In a lot of ways, I’m just an editor. I mean, literally, in film, but also in general, in everything that I experience. I take a lot of notes and I record a lot of things. An hour out is like ten hours alone, looking through those things that have been recorded, and trying to sift through everything. I’m not archiving it or anything like that — it doesn’t come out of this need to preserve everything. It’s this weird esoteric conglomeration of little bits and pieces. You try to stick it together, hide the cracks in it, and then show it as if it’s a whole when it’s back out in the world again.