Sunday, May 31, 2015

Q & A With Jin Zhu

Jin Zhu is an MFA Student ('16) at UC Berkeley.

BA: So, graduation was last Friday. And you're done with school now?

JZ: Not yet. The second years graduated and we had a party for them, but I've still got a year to go. One more year til I'm a Master of Fine Arts! Our program is fairly interdisciplinary so I'm not specializing in anything, though I’m working more with video now.

And then? Not to put pressure on your future plans. But what do you expect the MFA to prepare you for? What was your motivation to begin the program?

At the beginning I was intent on learning some skills since I wanted to branch out from photography. I think it's also just a practical career step since many teaching jobs require an MFA. Now, having completed a year, I think about it slightly differently. It's still practical, but I see that part of the benefit is learning to calibrate your thinking with the rest of the art world.

What does that mean?

Not that you necessarily should, but it's helpful to learn how the art world at large will perceive your work. What comes through and what doesn't. Sometimes you think you are communicating one thing and everyone sees something else. Once you know that you can do with it what you will.

That's the whole fun of it, right?

Fun or...confusing?!

The origin of "Killer Yellow", from Jin Zhu's website

If everyone saw the same thing in artworks, it would be pretty boring.

True, but I think the calibration is so you don't feel like you don't have any control at all over how people perceive materials or content. I have to say that my experience is only of the Berkeley program. There are other programs even in the Bay Area that are very different. Some of them do prepare you for working in a commercial field like editorial photography, for example. 

So the MFA program helps you fine tune the message of your art so that it's received properly? Would you say the primary audience is other MFAs or other artists?

For example, I tried something with lumber and was really excited because I've rarely worked with physical materials like that before, but to the faculty, wood read as a very commonplace thing.

What was it? A sculpture?

I suppose you could call it that. I had printed lyrics I'd written on them through an inkjet transfer.

I like the idea of using a "commonplace thing." That's what photography is, really. It's the most common mundane media imaginable. The most democratic and accessible. Why would any artist ever use that form? That's exactly why. Maybe it's why you should use wood too. 

I don’t mind it when things are mundane, but not necessarily because they’re accessible. I don’t think art or photography loses anything from being easily replicated. You wouldn’t think a book loses impact from being printed 3 million times. But the wood piece had other issues too that I’m glossing over.

So your faculty steered you away from using wood? Or did they see possibilities?

They read it in a very specific way that I had not anticipated. To me that's a lesson on what you think you are projecting and what people actually receive. You could say that it's all good, everyone can see what they'd like, but the truth is that it isn't all over the place. They tended to see similar things. It's not like looking at clouds or more abstract work, where everyone sees something different. It's more like if you painted a rabbit and everyone saw a predator. That could be cool, but that could also not be what you want in the end.

That goes back to the question of audience. If your art is geared toward an MFA audience or art professor, they might all be expected to react in a certain way. I guess it's the eternal question. Who are you creating for? What is the purpose? All that artsy mumbo jumbo with no answers. But it sounds like you're finding them anyway.

It’s foolish to generalize about MFA programs.  You wouldn’t necessarily think of a literature degree as having the power to propel you to success or job stability, but somehow the MFA gets all this attention, as if it’s either a kingmaker or a scam. It’s just a useful tool that can be helpful or not depending on the costs and benefits. Recently someone posted an article in which Robert Storr claims that Saltz and Hickey, who have been very vocal about the uselessness of art school, are using that issue to grab a bit of attention for themselves. I’d agree. For me, Saltz jumped the shark with all the Kardashian talk.

I didn't mean to come down on MFA programs. I'm just curious about the whole process. And in some ways it's a fat target.

from Endless Stream

But the interesting thing to me about that wood piece was that I'm still happy with it. Because it came out of figuring out a physical process, because I had a good time learning how to do the transfer, I have positive feelings toward it. There have been other works I've made that people have liked and to me, I'm on the fence because it feels like someone else's work. People will tell you to not think about other people at all while making work, but at the same time, the entire school structure is geared toward letting you know how other people will think of your work.

There's only one judge that matters. And that's Jesus Christ.

God will judge your art too! You end up in heaven, your art ends up in hell...

Yeah, I like the idea of being surrounded by other people constantly creating things. That's probably healthy on many levels.

I really like the group we got this year. Everyone had a good sense of humor and gelled very well. It's a small program that only takes 6-7/year so there's a sense of camaraderie. But because it's small there aren't necessarily people working in the same medium as you, so sometimes it's harder to talk shop. The nice thing is also that if someone is in an MFA program, there's a good chance they're a lifer. So we all have the same hopes of making art for the indefinite future.

You mentioned that you wanted to branch out from photography. Why?

I looked at the photos I was taking and they were not telling the story I wanted them to tell. They were about something else that was also interesting, but I really felt compelled to try writing and whatnot to flesh my ideas out.

What story did you want to tell?

I'm working on a project that deals with the history of Spanish Conquest and Manifest Destiny. A bit hard to flesh out in photos. I traveled to a lot of historical sites and retraced trails, but of course there are very few traces from hundreds of years ago. What I ended up photographing was a lot of the trappings of tourism and re-enactment, which is fascinating too, but didn't quite hit at the displacement and conquest themes.

Which project is that on your site? Ziff Ziff?

I haven't put it on the site in finished form yet since it's still in progress, but some of the Carrier photos are ones I've taken while working on it. If you look at those photos, you get a sense perhaps of landscape and the West, but they don't say much aside from that. Maybe that's a problem of working methods too though - it's not enough to just go to a place and expect to find something of the past.

I always associated Manifest Destiny with American expansion. Is there a Spanish idea of this too? With conquistadors, etc.?

from You're No Angel

Yes, I've been reading about Cortes' march to Tenochtitlan. There's one particular figure that I'm obsessed with - his native translator Malinche, who was highborn but given to him as part of a group of 20 slave women. She's depicted at his side in a lot of old post-conquest linen paintings and her function is speech but there is no record of anything she actually said aside from her translations.

I'm not sure how you'd translate that into photographs. I tend to be much more literal when interpreting photos. I look at what's in front of me and take it for what it is. I love it when that interpretation is wrong. Those give me a charge. But it's usually not tied to larger concepts or history. Just absurdity. Zen koans.

Yeah, the problem is that history is no longer right in front of us! I'm curious about how other photographers have dealt with that.

So you felt photography was lacking in expressing your ideas about Manifest Destiny. What form are you using instead? Why not just write an essay?

I have! I've written 2 or 3 longform essays and took a creative non-fiction class this last semester. This last semester was strange for me. I realized I'm writing a lot as a part of a VISUAL arts program.

Maybe you're in the wrong program. You should be pursuing a history degree?

Haha. That's certainly occurred to me, but I think I'm interested enough in other media that it works. Definitely not the history degree though! I'm not sure there's any other field of study that allows you to mix and match as much as an arts degree. You can mix American history with personal history with strange photos with writing... I'm not sure the history dept. would be so into that.

Art is a passport to multidisciplinary stuff. Or else time travel to 1977.

Or 1521!

1521 to study the Spanish Empire. I meant 1977 was when academic programs seemed more interdisciplinary. Not as easy pegged and specialized. Now art is the last hold out, and even it's getting specialized. The experts march on...

What happened in 1977?

I didn't mean to pick that year in particular. But just symbolic of an era, the late 1970s, when a lot of ideas were beginning to break loose and interact across cultural barriers. To me 2015 seems much more goal oriented. You find your area, then funnel all energy into it. But maybe I have it all backwards.

That's true though. So many articles about how parents are helicopter parents these days. Kids must get into the right school or their lives are ruined.

I think the main goal now is monetary. The need/drive to get rich seems dominant over all other motivations. Even in the art world. I know it's always been that way. But in 2015 the market is everything. Everything!

I saw your convo with Missy Prince where she mentioned yuppies coming into town. Is that something that's starting to be noticeable there? I ask out of curiosity since it is bad here. We were evicted, so my interest in gentrification and housing have become a bit personal. I'm curious about the life cycle of a city, if SF has metastasized and if it's going to happen to other places.

The yuppies have been settling in Portland for a while but I'd say the pace has picked up in recent years. The area where Missy lives is undergoing rapid shift with increased rents, etc. The usual urban pattern. It's actually the neighborhood I lived in before bailing to Eugene in 2006. I saw the yuppie wave on the horizon, and it's crested since then. But I still don't think the scene is anything like the Bay Area. I mean, didn't Marin County invent the word "Yuppie"? So it's all relative. 

So the yuppies are why you moved? 

Yuppies was only one of several reasons we moved. But the basic mechanism behind yuppies —people with more money than they know what to do with—is something that has been infecting Portland for a while and was definitely a motivator. But I think San Francisco is still ground zero for that.

from Carrier

Do you feel like it's inevitable? Since I've started looking into this issue it's become clear that it's in many ways a story about political process. When people say gentrification is inevitable or that there's nothing they can do, it usually actually indicates that there are just too many financial and political barriers to overcome, in terms of the developer money thrown around and the city governments being amenable to taking that money. Is there any sense at all of trying to resist by preemptively  strengthening tenant laws or of passing new protections? I don't know how politically inclined Portlanders are...

I'm not sure if that situation is inevitable but late capitalism tends to create it, especially in West Coast cities. And I don't think it is easily reversed. Because money tends to follow money. 

What do you mean by late capitalism? 

The past 20 years or so. Over that time society has become increasingly stratified and the pools of capital at the top are mind boggling. All that money concentrated in one place puts pressure on society in all sorts of ways. The arts is just one area. I think the West Coast is especially susceptible just because it's such a young culture without traditional anchors to sort of blunt the momentum. Silicon Valley is a fucking monster. The rest of the Bay Area is orbiting its gravitational pull. And all those computer geeks want art to fill their walls. I guess their patronage is a good thing in one sense because it funnels money to art makers. But I think the art equation is controlled more by powerful economic forces than true innovation. 

Have you heard of the concept of the great inversion? It's the trend since the ‘80s of young people preferring cities to the suburban American dream of the ‘50s. Makes me wonder if that's why companies are buying up property in Detroit, in anticipation of any future resurgence. Money follows money and booms but then it seems it also seems to slip in during busts to sweep up. Money just seems to go everywhere. It doesn't worry you that eventually it'd affect Eugene too?

It might. But Eugene is pretty far off the beaten path. 

From a recent New York Times article: 
"The American Freshman Survey, which has followed students since 1966, proves the point. One prompt in the questionnaire asks entering freshmen about 'objectives considered to be essential or very important.' In 1967, 86 percent of respondents checked 'developing a meaningful philosophy of life,' more than double the number who said 'being very well off financially.' "Since then, though, finding meaning and making money have traded places. The first has plummeted to 45 percent; the second has soared to 82 percent."
When your interest is developing a meaningful philosophy —whatever that means— you may be more likely to draw from interdisciplinary influences. Otherwise the evaluation becomes Kevin from Shark Tank. Great idea, but how much fucking money does it make? Sorry, I always seem to fall into old guy mode, complaining about the good old days. I love the present too.

But in this case the old guy is backed up by data from surveys! In my mind the drive to make money comes from how bad off a lot of people are. It appears like greed, but really a lot of it comes from the wealth gap widening and wages stagnating. People just want security.

Security is tough for someone pursuing art. You've posted several items on Killer Yellow about this, and also in this interview. Do you think it's possible or likely for artists to be financially secure in the US economy? Or is that just a pipe dream? 

That’s a tough question. Is security possible for the majority of people regardless of profession? Most artists have accepted the fact that they will either have to have a day job or at least do freelance or part time work aside from personal work. I wish it was different, but as long as the art market is about selling stuff instead of supporting future work, this is the way it goes. Grants are the closest thing to no-strings attached support of future work, but they’re hard to get and you have to be organized and motivated to put together many many applications. That’s something I don’t enjoy (perhaps because up to now I haven’t been very successful at it!). It’s also a problem for people like me who jump around in different media. You have to prove you can work in a certain media before anyone will give you money. That makes sense, but it can be frustrating if you’re trying to learn new skills and media. That’s what school is great for!

If you want to be a professional artist, there is as much resume-building and planning as in any other career. The problem with art is that you then are trying to juggle two careers - the day job and the personal passion. I’m coming around to the idea of embracing amateur status. Making a living and making art are two different objectives for me. It’d be nice if I could hit two birds, but in the end being a professional means thinking about a career in a way that always stresses me out. I’ve seen this same discussion in photo forums - should you keep what you love free of stress or should you professionalize in order to get it in front of a bigger audience or acquire more credibility, make a living, etc etc.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Chris Adrian. He’s an author I love, and he wrote while pursuing a medical degree. If you read Children’s Hospital or some of the stories in A Better Angel, it’s clear that his work with children affects his writing. In interviews he’s been adamant that he wants to do something in addition to writing. It’d be nice to find a full-time career that does some good in the world and gives to the art instead of detracting from your ability to make it.

Let me back up a sec. How did you get into photography to start with? Before you branched out away from it?

Flickr! I'm a product of Flickr and that first wave of sharing online. I was following Radiohead around for a month during their 2005 (?) tour and on their band blog they began posting pinhole photos. I think that's when I realized that if you were photographer with a visual signature, people could see your photos and instantly know that you took them.

You followed Radiohead. As a groupie?

If only! I was really struggling with school, had no idea what my motivations for doing anything were, and had started to lose interesting in everything. Radiohead was one of the few things I still could get excited about, so I decided, screw it, I'm just going to do it. It was a good excuse to travel, so I hopped on a Greyhound to Boston and then took an Amtrak back.

How old were you?

Hmmm, 22? I should've graduated by then, that was how much trouble I was having.

You were at Stanford?

Yup. Speaking of the right school.

Not clear. Was it actually the right school? Why or why not?

Yeah, I was being a little sarcastic there. It was the “best” school that I got into, but back then I really wanted to go to the University of Chicago since Carl Sagan had gone there, or Berkeley because they had a Zoology department. But I wasn’t a rebellious kid and just did what my parents thought was best. I remember the day I got my Stanford acceptance - I saw it in the mailbox and saw the writing on the wall. I shoved it at my family and they opened it. I went to my room and said goodbye to my UChicago acceptance. Looking back on it now, it makes so much sense that I had as much trouble as I did. Other students were stoked to be there and some of them had been dreaming about it since childhood. I just didn’t want to be there even though I quickly realized that it was a great place with great staff and opportunities. Heart wants what it wants.

Did the Radiohead tour pull you out of your funk?

Wellllll. It was the first step. It was the turning point. I got back and decided to go to sound school to get away from my academic baggage. I think that was when I realized that I just wasn't going to finish if I kept trying the same thing and failing over and over. So try something different and break the cycle. A clean slate and all that. More cliches.

Sound school? Wha? Was that your undergrad?

That was 9 months at a school in Emeryville that offered a sound mixing/engineering focus, a graphic design focus and an animation focus... It was during my undergrad, but I'm afraid my undergrad lasted 10 years though I wasn't enrolled the whole time. I was majoring in Biology at the time, and got a Bio minor in the end. I still love the subject, but narrow research just wasn’t for me.

You dropped out of Stanford?

No, I eventually graduated. After sound school and coming back for another unsuccessful try, something finally flipped in my head and I switched to art. Busted that out in a year and a half. That's where the Radiohead-photography link comes full circle.

So that's when you began making photos? And also the Killer Yellow blog?

By the end of 2007, I had gotten into film and had taken an intro to film class at Stanford and started thinking it was something I could do. It just felt so right to shoot a bunch, make prints and edit them.

Film as in still photos? Not cinema.

Right. Geez, I don't even know how old my blog is. Is that like not knowing how old your kids are? I think you're right though. It was around the time of that class that I started the blog, as a learning tool for myself.

Do you still shoot film, or have any sentimental feeling for it?

I've never been sentimental about it, but I still mostly shoot film. It was just something to try, and then for medium format it was simply the cheaper option.

I've heard a lot of reasons to shoot film. But cheap cost usually isn't one of them.

Well, compared to a $$$$$ medium format digital back. I used to get expired 220 on eBay for $4, so it wasn't so bad, but now those stocks are all depleted, so it's more like $8 for 120. Not looking so hot now. But I shoot a lot less. 

I used to shoot 220 also. Got very expensive. Gave it up.

Lately I've really been thinking about switching all the way to digital though. I think it's the scanning and spotting that really drags on and on. But the FOV and depth of field are just too different on 35mm digital. I can't quite let go. 

I know you're pursuing other forms besides photography, but I'm most curious about that. How do you think the MFA process has shifted your appreciation for it. Do you look at some photos and wonder why you ever liked them 5 years ago?

I think my taste would change regardless of any academic program. I have a classmate who cuts parts of the emulsion out of prints - that certainly made me wonder why more photographers don't try crazier things with their practice. It's telling that she also ended up in an interdisciplinary arts program instead of a purely photo MFA track. Maybe if you do it too much though, it starts being gimmicky.

I saw on your website the mention of DJing at a college station. It looks like you still do that occasionally? 

Only really once a year. 

Yeah, it started a few years ago. no one ever is around during/after Thanksgiving, so it's a nice long chunk. But it's a marathon. I get it all out in 6 hours. 

Is there an anti-shopping tie in?

There really isn't. That would be too expected, wouldn't it? Though if you're listening to KZSU during Thanksgiving weekend, you're probably not much of a shopper. Mostly I just hang around and take some photos. KZSU was actually my first "serious" attempt at a photo project.

from On the Air: 90.1FM KZSU

Did you grow up in the Bay Area?

No, but it's the place I've lived in the longest. I was born in Beijing, grew up in CO and SoCal. I'm more comfortable in the Bay Area than anywhere else I've lived.

You're first generation American?

I suppose I am. I got here at age 7 though, so it hardly feels like I'm anything other than American.

Do you have any connections to Beijing or China now?

My grandparents still live there and we visit once in a while.

from Better City, Better Life

Sorry, I'm digressing. Away from what though?

Sometimes I do forget that I'm an immigrant though. I guess because it wasn't really a choice I made.

I keep coming back to your earlier complaint (?) about photography. That it didn't tell the story you wanted to convey. I think photography is a very limited form in some ways. To try to tell a story as a photo essay is sort of ridiculous. Why not just write it down? And certainly to try to tell Manifest Destiny or Spanish history is very difficult. But that severe limitation is what I like most about it. A photograph restricts information. It tells you not much at all. A 6 second Vine gives a million times more info. Then you start cutting out emulsion from prints, and you tell even less...A piece of wood tells more than a photo.

A piece of wood has more of a backstory as an object than a photographic print does, in a way that almost becomes political. But maybe that's simplifying things. Over the last few years I've noticed that I'm more attracted to photos that are more about form and color. To me, in some ways, the content is secondary. Even though most of my previous projects have been about specific subjects, I could never really be a documentary photographer. I think about the visual form of things rather than the provenance of materials or what kind of cultural references are in the work.

I’m interested in picking the right media for the right story. I could imagine that sometimes a photo really does sum things up more than a blob of text would, but sometimes, with abstract concepts or psychological concepts, it’s easier to use language. It’s context-dependent.

Every photographer is a "documentary" photographer by nature. That's just a starting point. The interesting stuff comes after that fact is internalized. 

There’s a whole niche of photography that doesn’t look like photography. Or rather, the point isn’t the photography. Would Matt Lipps be considered a photographer? Or a sculptor or a still life artist? This is why people say “artist who works with photography.” What about Roger Ballen? Is that guy really a photographer? Surely the photo isn’t really the point, but the arrangements. But perhaps that’s trivial. I wouldn’t demand to see the original subject of a portrait any more than Ballen’s setups.

Which photographers excite you now with form and color?

by Charlie Engman via Killer Yellow

I've been into Charlie Engman, who shoots a lot of editorial and ad stuff. He breaks planes and uses a lot of color. I like his still lifes and when he uses his mom as a model. It's strange because I like looking at his work but I would never shoot what he shoots.  I tend to like really flatly lit stuff. My more recent stuff looks pretty flat too.

I'll look him up. Do you still listen to Radiohead?

Not as much. It still makes me very happy, but I've moved on a bit. I think I had to after about 3 years of listening to almost nothing else

Who do you listen to now? I noticed Nina Hagen's Smack Jack on your last Black Friday playlist. I had that queued up for my show tomorrow. Weird coincidence. It's a fairly obscure song.

My partner is the one that turned me onto it. Have you seen the video? It's pretty great. I'm not as into her other stuff, but something about that song really does it for me. Some combination of camp and a certain beat. That's right - you're a DJ too. When did you get into it?

3 years ago. Fun. It's a good motivator to explore new music. The station has several thousand CDs mostly college/indie stuff. I've been slowly working my way through burning the interesting ones.

I listen to a lot of PJ Harvey and Joanna Newsom's Ys now. But a lot of random songs too. It's rare for me to find someone that I can say I'm an actual fan of. I find that I'm like that when it comes to art and photography too. It's more single works that I like.

Music has adopted the scattered form of singles. Spotify, etc. It comes in little fragments just like photos. That's our world. MFA students might need to fit into that box.

I'm glad it's going that way though. Do you remember when you had to buy an album just to get one song?

Yeah. Most of my music still comes that way...Can't go wrong with PJ Harvey. But the appeal of Newsom is lost on me. I've tried so hard. But I don't really get her.

Is it her voice? Or the tweeness?

Maybe the overall tone and mood? The songs that last a long while without really developing? 

The funny thing is I hated it when I first heard it. Back in 2006 one of our DJs was really into her, but I thought it was crap. Then for some reason two years ago I revisited Ys and fell for it. There's this strain of grief and coping underneath all the twinkly harp sounds that I don't hear in either of the other albums. I think of her songs as just delivery mechanism for her words. Ys is really just a giant long poem. 

I love it when that reversal happens. I think much of what becomes favorite material is stuff you initially hate. Maybe that's true meeting people too?

Hmmm, people somehow don't get that second chance as much...I didn't like Radiohead when I first heard them either. I bought Kid A and stuffed it into a drawer. Then six months later I suddenly wanted to listen again. Then I was hooked.

I hated Daft Punk for a long time. Hated T. Rex initially. And Dylan. On the other hand I used to like James Taylor a lot. Don't really dig him now. Hated Mike Disfarmer's photo when I first saw them. No, not hated. But I didn't appreciate them like I do now. Atget too. Creative objects tend to spur big swings in appreciation, not small ones.

I think Zadie Smith recently wrote an essay about this exact thing - hating music and then having a conversion moment:  

Hate is a strong reaction. It's the opposite of unaffected. So maybe easier to translate into love later.

Yeah, I don't know that I've ever loved anything that I previously was just meh about

Speaking (a while back) of Nina Hagen, I played one of her tunes for a friend once. Handed him the earphones with a song going. Lucky Number, I think? Was that the song? He lasted about 5 seconds before taking the phones off. Hate. I think she provokes that reaction. A very specific feel about it. An acquired love. 

Maybe it's that we misinterpret our emotional reactions. Anything challenging or ambiguous is interpreted as dislike.

So what do photos/music you hate now? Watch out. You might love it later.

Grimes. Courtney Barnett. It will happen - I will like them later! In fact, it’s already happened. I was not into Lorde a year or so ago, and now I’m coming around. I’m not a fan but there are a couple of songs I like.

I don’t know that I have the same conversion moments with photography. I tend to just forget the stuff I don’t like. I don’t think I’ve ever hated any photos. I don’t get why some things are so lauded, but usually that’s just confusion, not hate. But when I think about it, I don’t love any photography either. There are projects I like and respect, but nothing is as visceral as music. Maybe that’s why I started to move away from it.

All images above by Jin Zhu unless otherwise noted.

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