Cornelia Barber: Looking at Emma’s Dilemma






“There is No Scene Here”
Looking at Emma’s Dilemma (Henry Hills, 2012)

by Cornelia Barber

To look is to be curious, to be interested, to lower yourself. No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning. The word conversation is banished. I think that’s what best conveys the shame and pride. Every sort of community, whether of the family or other is hateful to us, degrading. We’re united in a fundamental shame of having to live.

 Margurite Duras, The Lover

I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to be an artist. You know its Emma’s Dilemma. Well what… what do I want to do? What do I want to be? Who do I want not to be?

 Emma Bee Bernstein, Emma’s Dilemma


Girls look. They look at each other, at boys, at their parents and at themselves. When I look at Emma looking I see myself as an adolescent. I see a darkness and a knowing that is intrinsic to many girls I knew at that age and still know. I see a weight bearing that is too heavy for someone whose skin is still so fresh and plump and who is just beginning to grow into a body that doesn’t yet belong to her. Girls look to reveal.

Experimental filmmaker Henry Hills’ digital video Emma’s Dilemma is made up of a chronological sequence of interviews between Emma Bee Bernstein and artists and poets who are friends of her parents, Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee, recorded when she was between the ages of 11 and 15.

The film is not a documentary, though it is a kind of documentation of Emma’s coming of age years, and there is no imposed narrative, “I don’t want a movie that has a plot because my life doesn’t have a plot.” Recalling techniques used in the Language poetry of her father, the film is highly dismantled; utilizing recycled frames and remixed sound to deconstruct dialogues into collage; juxtaposing sound and meaning, invigorating image and repetition. As Charles says to camera,

I’m interested in writing that doesn’t conform to patterns that are expectable, but actually violates those patterns and, uh, puts them together, joins them in a way that increases their energy rather than dissipates it. It’s a lot like what Henry does in his films in this elaborate editing process, which in a lot of ways is very similar to my aesthetic.

Through this deconstructive form, the film desires to let Emma breathe and become what she will become, without a plot, or acute regard for the boundaries between life and film, even as her life fills with more and more boundaries and demands—

Transitioning from middle to high school; dating; becoming aware of Henry’s role as a man and their intimate relationship (which she calls “icky”); traveling abroad; asking the question of whether she will be an artist, or who she will become, or won’t.

It would be easy to have made this film a family psychodrama. Or to view it that way in retrospect, as something like The Woodmans. There is certainly the appropriate footage for an Indie documentary. But the film won’t let us in, or anyway, it won’t let us out. So musings pile up without being framed: if her family is putting pressure on her or not, if her little brother, Felix, is inspired by her, or if Emma herself feels bound by her father’s esteem, mind, notoriety; if she feels like she has a lot to live up to. Ultimately obscurity and frustration cover over ‘answers’ and ‘secrets.’ This allows us, at times, to witness Emma on her own terms, regardless of who she is talking to, her own thoughts seem to take pride of place, “I’m kind of learning what I want to do with my life. I’m kind of learning what to do with my life.”

Emma is constantly looking. She is looking at the world around her and much of the time she doesn’t like what she sees. Neither in the broader culture, nor particularly in the responses she receives from her parent’s friends. Her room is covered in pictures of celebrities like Kurt Cobain and she refers to Chloë Sevigny as her idol. Even as Jackson Mac Low interrupts her and tells her that TV is a narcotic, her father tells Henry that Emma often calls for him to get her a glass of water because she is too busy watching TV to do it. And she says of her parents, “they’re not hip, they’re just artsy.” So for Emma, there is a preoccupation with culture that is beyond the limits or is not limited by “Art.” Yet, in this film it is “Art” Hills has her addressing. Her father says,

It’s the perspective of the culture. To be twelve years old is to be in a sense the royalty of the culture. It makes you super sophisticated at the same time you’re still a child. So this is Emma’s situation. Emma’s dilemma.

How old do you have to be to be a girl? Surely we are all girls—Ken Jacobs and Kenneth Goldsmith, Susan Howe and Carolee Schneeman—to be a girl is to be cultural royalty. In his Preliminary Materials For A Theory of A Young Girl, Tiqqun says, “The mission she has been given is to re-enchant a devastated world of commodities, of prolonging the disaster with joy and insouciance.” Whether we are hip or artsy, we all are young girls, attempting to eroticize our life world, in spite of our underlying despair, anger, and detachment.

Emma is looking. What she sees is disgusting. She is tired of New York. She changes her hair color, she decorates herself in varied shades of lipstick and eyeliner, and her reactions to things change significantly as she ages. From coy to deliberately shielded, to overly aged and exhausted. A Ken doll hangs by the neck from the ceiling of her childhood room. Neither joyful nor particularly indifferent, Emma is certainly not preening in all her young girl glory. Rather she is absorbing her mission dreadfully, aware and despondent from the lethargy, schizophrenia, and self-absorption that grinds the devastated world of commodities on.

Because Emma is not Tiqqun’s Young Girl, nor is she a cultural Icon, nor is she yet even an artist, the photographer she will become, or the news story, the suicide. Emma is a real girl.

To be interested in a real girl’s life and to take part in it, not as a patriarch, a commodifying voyeur, not as a teacher, a curator or a director, but as a witness and collaborator is an extremely difficult task. It takes patience on behalf of the interested party and it takes power on behalf of the girl: to teach and coax, demand and entice, said party into listening to her. It is never a seamless encounter.

On the one hand the film frees us from drama and plot, allowing us to look at Emma looking at herself without forcing us or her into something she is not. On the other hand we are aroused, through language, to see Emma’s situation as a dilemma, which imposes on her and the film a true dilemma, that there are two kinds of looking. The first, the way she looks at herself and the world around her, and the second the way that other people look at her looking; Emma the real girl vs. Emma, cultural royalty (Tiqqun’s ‘young girl’).

The question that is fundamental to this film is which one is more important? This is as much of a question of artistic form for Henry Hills as it is a question for Emma creating her own life while being looked at.

Can she preserve that separation?

Emma is ordinarily special. She is white, freckled, husky voiced, and fitting into her body well. She appears quick, decisive, and sweet. She does not yet have much understanding of her sexuality or how to use it to get what she wants, though she is aware or maybe becoming aware that there is a battle between being a child and being a woman, and that she can-not just ‘be’. To be is not an option. Emma is introspective, reflective, sympathetic. She is loved very much by her family and her family is loved very much by artists, who vicariously discover and love Emma. But then what happens?

She is alone in a room with Goldsmith and Hills, her every breath is being captured and she is neither shy nor performative, she is rather still, as if she is waiting for something to come— is she is waiting to be prey? Is she is waiting for the flow of other people’s words to overcome her? Is she thinking about what she will watch later on TV? And then the artist is off, riffing on about their art, Hills editing speedily, noisily, obtusely through their soliloquies.

Hills says to Emma, “I don’t think their [the interviewed artists’] material itself is sacred. These people can talk about their stuff endlessly.” In the middle of the film Emma pulls out some poetry she has written, “It’s just sentences I like.” In what to me would be a pivotal scene in a kind of deep engagement with Emma’s voice, Henry treats the scene as if Emma is another artist referencing and talking about their art. He dismantles any emotion, literally editing out the poem; cutting up the language and cutting out any sentiment that could be conveyed through it. In a sense, like Emma, what Hills is interested in is also not “art” or the “artist” it is the real girl. He is not merely pulling a postmodern grammatological move, and trying to dismantle her ‘authentic voice’ in favor of linguistic cut-ups. He is trying to get at something else, at the girl beneath the words. And like when Emma was eleven asking the late sound poet Jackson Mac Low if he likes chicken, the scenes where Henry is really looking at Emma can’t be the scenes where she is reading her poetry, but the scenes where she is fighting with her parents at dinner about whether she can study with a boy or not. But in cutting up her poem like that he is already referring to her as an artist which she is clearly hesitant about, is clearly questioning, and unlike the older artists, Emma’s poem is still a condition of her emotions and spirit, in her own words, “There’s no definition for a poem. Sorting out emotions or venting them in one way or another or putting them somewhere…” Her poem should be heard not because Emma is a great poet, but because she is a little girl with a strong voice who in ordinary speech has a lot to say about how she sees the world. But for this one moment in the film, we see that in many ways her fate is sealed, not just as a “young girl” or cultural royalty, but as an artist, and a highly experimental one too.

“Maybe I’ll be a lawyer and go against all the people we interviewed.” In this way her question of “what do I want to be? What do I want not to be?” is moot and suggests a progression for her life and for the film that is comparably as bound as growing up into a household of doctors and lawyers or creating a typical narrative film. Her voice is not important because she is a young girl with a deeply introspective mind, her voice is important because people see her as cultural royalty. The film assumes a fate for Emma, an adulthood that dignifies her as a great artist because she was born into it, a great person to know because there is cultural currency in knowing her. It laments the fate of the world as seen through her eyes without recognizing its own role in proliferating this image.

So Emma is a real girl whose transformation we can’t look away from because it is the transformation of the millennium, of the internet, of 9/11. The loss of innocence and the advancement of post-post colonial, post-post modern, meta-digitalization of the consumer self, the anti-self, captured fanatically obsessive on social networking, yet apathetically grieving the American Dream, the most sublime advancement of which is catching the next episode of the new glamour cyborg Kardashians before the world completely deteriorates. The world her brother finds to haunt poetry and art in his essay book Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry.

But is this really the world Emma sees?

Emma, referring to New York City, says, “There is no scene here.” She pauses and Hills mumbles something and she remarks again, “No scene of anything good.” Perhaps for Emma, the dilemma is exterior to her: it is in the scene itself. Maybe it is all those artists she interviews; who still, like Kenneth Goldsmith, can make her giggle uncontrollably, or pause with wonder. And yet there are some who seem to escape the deficiency of the “no scene,” namely, those stars up on her wall; empty idols, paradigms, objects for looking, harnessing fuel for her imagination of her own self-image. Stars who never have to do a ‘second time’ because they are timeless; forever glued to the purple walls of a pre-teen’s bedroom.

To look at Emma and see only a dilemma is not to look at her at all. We spend so much time looking at girls: sexualizing, demeaning, expecting, portraying, politicizing…even in a film that tries desperately to let her be herself she is still being looked at, watched, portrayed. If all looking means is that you project onto someone your own story of them, no one you look at is worth it, not even Emma.

Unless maybe, this is exactly what she wanted us to see. That is, if she wanted us to see ourselves looking.

Some of her last words in the film come when she’s in high school having recently returned from a semester abroad, her first trip to Italy, in high school, eight years before her fateful visit to Venice.

Its really different when you go to another country I’m not on a pedestal I just feel different I don’t wanna do any of the same stuff I used to do. I’ve become a hermit I think it’s also cause I have a boyfriend whose not here. I used to wanna go out and party and do stuff that everyone does, but now I much prefer to be in my room like reading a book or like studying something, I like sort of like I don’t know Europe like, I like had everything so much I like got it all I like can’t explain it I really grew up in Europe. Well like I was on my own and like um I lived like more of an adult so now when I come back I don’t feel like I can be in high school anymore. I really cant stand New York I think my problem is I just need to get out of New York I think New York is just really beating me down everything is too much my room is too much— sado liberalism is a new trend in New York; really being as pc as possible I just couldn’t stand the colleges that were so pc it really made me want to puke I’m getting really sick of everything like really cynical everything bothers me a lot maybe my boyfriend’s influence cause he is really cynical.

I feel ready to like move on already

Cornelia Barber is a poet and performance artist living in Crown Heights, NY. She has performed at Bureau of General Services Queer Division, Mellow Pages Library, The Cake Shop, and several private events in Hudson, Bushwick and Manhattan, NY. She writes at the intersection of Jewish Feminine Mysticism and experimental poetics. Her first poetry manuscript ‘Grace Holes’ is published as a work in progress for the Luma Foundation’s 89+ project.

Kevin Killian and the video:

You can watch Emma’s Dilemma on Jacket2.


The Men Around Here

Image: Roger Oulton, 2010, 127 x 101.6 cm, archival pigment print

The men around here huddle still and sudden as mountains. Their hands dangle like wrenches. Thumbs of sandpaper. Use me, they say. I’m ready. Hours gather, hard in stomachs. Overalls stiff,  scarred as the skin of elephants. There where the sparks landed, a hole, there where he dropped the blowtorch, a swath soft as the inside of birch bark. A way of walking that favours the right hip, a slight limp in the left heel, shoulders that have not been loose since they slipped through the birth canal. A relationship with sweat. Welding cap as yarmulke. Veins black in pleats.

-Sina Queyras


Evan Rensch: Enterprise

7 September to 14 October

An exhibition of a twenty-two black and white photographic portraits of ironworkers at the Fawcett-Enterprise Foundry in Sackville, New Brunswick, taken over the past three years by photographer Evan Rensch. Accompanied by a publication with essays by Robert Tombs and William Parenteau. Owens Art Gallery













Jen Benka: Poemgraphs

SQ: I love these, Jen. I’m amazed at how different they are, given the sameness of the type, the basic poem, as a visual from this distance. Can you tell me how you got started?

JB: Thank you, Sina. Well, I studied photography in college, in addition to writing, and have on- and off-again experimented with shooting text. I’ve also worked with filmmaker Cathy Cook on some of her filmic and animated interpretations of poems. And I’ve been informed by my collaborations with the visual artist Mark Wagner, who gave me a free education in the book arts. In an age in which the majority of our texts are disposable, I became interested in documenting the image of poems (or excerpts of poems) in their preserved state, in books, as well as celebrating the act of reading poetry. A kind of making poetic still lives.

SQ: But what was the originary moment? What was the first shot?

JB: I started experimenting by shooting some poems in Gregory Corso’s Elegiac Feelings American, holding the book and poem up to the big blue San Francisco sky, which seemed a fitting tribute to him. I didn’t get these quite right. The process cohered for me when I shot one of my favorite poems by Carol Mirakove. With that piece I began thinking intentionally about light, angle, and environment and how they bring something new to a poem.

SQ: Some of these are very transformative. The way the Brooks poem struts out, such a tall column of strength, but also, that kind of leaning and decorative bent. Very powerful and yet such a subtle twist on a classic poem. And I love the title (I’ll post this one). How did this one come about?

JB: Before I take any photographs I sit with the text. I listen and look for the parts that are reverberating. Sometimes it is a few words. Sometimes it’s the whole poem. To see Brooks’s best-known poem on the page, which is so visually successful, is to hear her in your memory reading it. How she punched the “we” while swallowing it. How “we” is the beginning and the end, everything and nothing. I wanted the word, which ends Brooks’ lines, to instead be the strong centerpiece of the photo.

SQ: You know I love street art/interventions and for a while I was working with found objects in New York. These are similarly sort of random, but also they evoke a new relationship to the text. As if it could be, or should be part of a landscape. Do you know the work of Allyson Clay? She’s a Vancovuer photographer. I included her in a folio of Canadian work for Drunken Boat. She is looking similarly at the text entering into other worlds through that text, though here the text isn’t the point. For you it is. Or is it?

JB: Thank you for sharing Clay’s work. I wasn’t familiar with it and she definitely seems like a kindred. Yes, for me the text, the poem, the book is the point. Sometimes, as with the Brooks piece, I am aiming to transform the poem visually. With other pieces, I am also attempting to inject and document the poem/book in the public sphere. There is something to be said for outing the poem.

SQ: Were you consciously thinking of another photographer? Are these translations then? Or reframing? Or, can we say they are a kind of biography of reading and walking?

JB: Visual artists who use text as their central element have provided great inspiration. Notably Jenny Holzer, whose work I’ve admired since the 80s. Also Joseph Grigley’s and Mel Bochner’s work in different ways. Because I studied photojournalism and not fine art, I am drawn to documentation and the street over the studio. I have always admired the work of photographer Bernice Abbott who floated in Parisian literary circles and then returned to New York to record street life and architecture. And lately I have been amazed by the work of Vivian Maier. Her work has only recently been brought to light and much of it is still being cataloged. She had an incredible eye, as well as a genius for finding the unexpected.

SQ: Do you have a favourite? Can you tell me about it?

JB: I am really pleased with the shot of Kevin Varrone’s poem because it is so simple and yet was extremely complicated to create. The shadows cast on the poem were produced by my holding another book at an extremely awkward angle interrupting the natural and rapidly fading dusk light streaming through my window. And though I am not necessarily interested in making literal connections, in this piece I like how the visual elements I introduced relate to the content of the poem.


Jen Benka is the author of the poetry collections Pinko (Hanging Loose Press) and A Box of Longing With Fifty Drawers (Soft Skull Press); the artist book Preamble, a collaboration with Mark Wagner (Booklyn); and co-author, with Carol Mirakove, of the chapbook 1,138 (Belladonna). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications, including Crossing State Lines: An American Renga (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Eoagh, Failbetter, How(ever), make/shift magazine, and a forthcoming celebration of the poet Etel Adnan (Post-Apollo Press). She has also organized several large-scale poetry events in New York City, including a 24-hour marathon reading of the collected poems of Emily Dickinson. Jen holds a BA in Journalism from Marquette University and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. She was recently named the Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets. She appeared previously on Lemon Hound in 2006.

In conversation: Zoe Strauss

(Photograph by Zoe Strauss)

If you reading this fuck you

Zoe Strauss is a self-taught photography-based installation artist. She lives and works in Philadelphia where she was born (at Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first), and with the exception of a brief sojourn in Nevada, where she was raised. Strauss comes from a close-knit family. Her parents both worked a variety of jobs before her father, who took the family to Nevada where his family worked in the casino business, took his own life. The family moved back to Philadelphia and in with her grandparents.

Not surprisingly Strauss’s work deals with the chance of people’s lives. Her candid, powerful street portraits have been described by Roberta Smith in the New York Times as “not without tenderness, but their harsh, unblinking force is a bit like a punch in the face. ” The aspect of America that Americans don’t want to see. I first discovered Strauss’s work randomly on Flickr, where she posts almost daily, then I found her blog, and then, quite by accident, I found myself at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia last summer, where her work was shown as a commissioned Ramp Project.

Strauss’s work is striking. In the tradition of Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin she gets into the world of her subjects. She is interested in “how we move around with the choices we are presented with,” specifically those with “limited choices. What do we opt to do,” she asks, “and how does chance play into that? How does luck and other circumstances move us in a variety of directions…” These questions resonate in her photographs, candid, emotionally rich, completely empathetic and unsentimental.

An avid blogger and involved citizen, Strauss recently completed a film project with a group of eight at-risk youth titled If You Break The Skin which you can see a trailer of here . As the New Yorker points out: “This is not America the Beautiful, and Strauss wants us to know it as intimately as she does .” And she generally makes that possible, taking her art out Under the 95 Ramp and selling photocopied prints at the end of the day for $5. each. She has recently been back to Las Vegas, where among other fabulous photos (reminiscent of Alec Soth’s Niagara series on view at the Gagosian recently ) she returned with one of herself riding a grizzly bear. She later explains the origins of that photo. Zoe Strauss and I recently had coffee at Philly Java on 4th & Lombard where she refused to let me buy her a coffee—her independent fuel of choice in her city of choice.

SQ: You are a Philadelphian. You have enormous pride.

ZS: Yes. I love the city. I love it. It’s non-stop.

SQ: How do you interact with the city?

ZS: I lived in a number of different places in the city. I have an active interest in how it was shaped, how it was formed, how it changes and shifts. It’s fascinating to me. I have great affection for it even in the most difficult circumstances. I’m interested in the whole picture.

SQ: So you must know the city, its layers of development, the stories…is there a particular place that interests you?

ZS: It’s wherever I am at the moment. But, in terms of my own interest, I’m interested in how neighborhoods evolve and what it means for the city on the whole and what it means for the United States on the whole… Sometimes literally and sometimes as a metaphor but it’s always interesting how it’s shifting.

SQ: So—

ZS: Sometimes tremendously…like right now it’s a very distressing shift. It’s been a very difficult last two or three years.

SQ: In South Philly? In the city?

ZS: Yah, I’ve noticed it in South Philly, Kensington and North Philly especially. All of those places. There is a different level of desperation, a different level of mean-spiritedness that comes back to, very literally, a tension that seems to have literally filtered down from the Bush-Administration. And I know that sounds grandiose, but it really feels like it comes from this specific climate in the United States, and it’s just been boiling down to this…disregard for human life. The need for wealth. A lack of real jobs, of real opportunities. It’s manifested itself as real, not just “oh that’s a shame.” It has impacted real life.

SQ: The implications are more immediate.

ZS: Yes, and I think it’s taken some time to get here. It’s not so slow in some ways. It’s pretty direct, but it’s a climate of fear and suspicion that has steadily grown.

SQ: Okay, well shifting to another kind of fear and suspicion. How do you walk into a scene and walk away with a shot like the one I saw on your blog yesterday?

ZS: Oh, the swastika guy? I love him! I mean how nuts is that?

SQ: How do you walk in to that situation and come away with those images?

ZS: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that. It’s just completely intuitive whether or not this will be a good interaction. I mean you can tell within the first twenty seconds whether this is someone interesting, someone I’ll feel comfortable. There’s just…it’s very immediate.

SQ: So you must have to interact before you take each photo?

ZS: Oh yes. I always ask. If it’s a portrait I always ask. They can pose however they want.

SQ: So you tell them what?

ZS: If I see someone who I think would make an interesting portrait I tell them that, I tell them why if I have a sense of why, sometimes I don’t know and I just say that. We usually talk for a second and it’s usually yes or no, and that’s that. It’s almost always a good interaction.

SQ: Is this why the portraits are so intimate?

(Photograph by Zoe Strauss)

ZS: Yes. It’s always a real interaction. It’s never surprising someone. Unless it’s a street scene—I’ll often do photos where someone is striding past an architectural piece, and I often don’t ask those people. Their presence is just movement in the photo not the subject.

If I notice that they’ve seen me, I’ll sometimes say you know, I took a photo, is that okay? If they seem adamant then I’ll chuck it.

SQ: Has anybody ever chased you down? You know—

ZS: With a machete?

SQ: Or—

ZS: Brandishing it? No. My interactions are generally good. Except once I was in someone’s house and it felt uncomfortable, and I just left.

SQ: Easy enough.

ZS: Yea, and it wasn’t even the interaction it was just a “difficult feeling.”

SQ: My partner and I were talking about this the other day how architecture can be so oppressive, how even a street has a psychology, and sometimes, you can’t put your finger on it, but there is a kind of psychic dis-ease in a random place.

ZS: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s no question, and sometimes it’s intangible, but it makes a big difference. Like in South Philly we have overhead electrical wires and it’s oppressive…if I were ever to move from South Philly that would be why because it’s like you’re literally under a weighty net… And there is all different things that make the feeling of, either the illusion of openness or closure… Once I read in The Moviegoer by Walker Percy about walking and how the “new” houses seemed haunted. Something resonated with me about that.

SQ: The new houses?

ZS: Yes, it’s not about the history it’s about the psychology.

SQ: Interesting. On the other hand, you can take a place that seems totally abandoned, lifeless, and to most people, terrifying, and infuse it with absolute joy…but there’s a lot of weight that goes with the territory of being a social documentarian. Particularly of a place like South Philly where you can feel, in some areas the tension is palpable. And the desperation is really evident block to block. Sometimes it seems you’re in a war zone.

(Photograph by Zoe Strauss)

ZS: It’s really block-to-block. My block has in the last couple of become gentrified, but yes, you can go one block and it’s…yes, it’s like Dresden.

SQ: How do you negotiate that?

ZS: That kind of dichotomy is fascinating because we live with it. That’s our lives. It’s not an abstract concept of this block is bad, this block is good; it’s very difficult to see and think about, but we’re all living our lives together at the same time. There’s no separate. People have these perceived ideas that this block is this, and this block is this, but it’s the same fucking block! You’re in the same neighborhood. For their own sanity people have a tendency to compartmentalize because we’re so packed in like this…and sometimes I think that’s healthy and sometimes not. I mean just to get by we don’t have to talk to every neighbor, but you need to know your neighbors and you have to be able to interact with them…

SQ: So, are you friends with everyone you’ve ever photographed?

ZS: Um. Ya. Kind of. Ya. I kind of love all of them. Without exaggeration there’s probably only one or two that I do not have a feeling of affection for…and you can really see it in those photos. They’re a little bit meaner… One guy, years ago, he was just a real racist, beyond the usual…you know working class white people can be sort of racist… I can have affection for someone whose ideology is absolutely abhorrent to me, but sometimes you can feel that someone is just mean-spirited. They are not a good person. Their ideas are like a giant albatross around their necks…you know we all come up with endless theories and ideas to deal with our lives, but the few times I’ve felt like “oh, my god this guy is like excessive” you can really tell in the photo that there’s not a connection.

SQ: Have you ever been terrified?

ZS: If I have I’ve blocked it… No, I haven’t been terrified. I’ve been uncomfortable with things people say, but no. If I felt I was in danger I would just immediately leave. I’ve felt scared, but not with people. Places yes, history yes, but not people.

SQ: Speaking of places…I’m from Vancouver, and I don’t know if you know this, but Vancouver has a very, very big problem in the Downtown East Side. A problem that activists, artists, politicians have been trying for decades to solve. Drug and poverty related.

ZS: I know, I’ve heard of this, and I thought, what? Canada?

SQ: Yes, Canada.

ZS: Seriously, it’s so shocking to me.

SQ: I know.

ZS: Mounties. Maple syrup. Friendliness.

SQ: Well, twenty years on when I go back and see it and know that little has changed. It’s difficult to remain hopeful in the face of such enormous poverty and suffering. How do you remain so hopeful? Do you feel that the work you do has some kind of impact, some kind of healing in your community?

ZS: This is an excellent question. I’m not really liberal in terms of this kind of ideology. I’m the far, far left here. I think you must do this yourself. Someone can’t come into a specific spot and as an outsider—I mean certainly there are a lot of things that can facilitate change and hope—actual daily living conditions for people, that’s important, that’s tangible, that’s a big part of the overall picture. That’s life. But I’ve also come to feel these people who want to come in and “do good,” “save people,” that kind of change cannot happen.

SQ: Liberalism out of context?

ZS: At its absolute worst. It’s a demeaning concept.

SQ: Enabling?

ZS: Yes, I mean, needle programs are great, but I think people get some romanticized idea of what they’re doing…they aren’t coming in on white horses to save people, they’re facilitating a daily need. Not, I’m riding in and here you go… I mean shut up you jackass. Are you kidding me? Does that make sense?

SQ: Yes.

ZS: Cause that’s totally how I feel.

SQ: Yes, I totally get it, and it seems as though that’s what you’re saying with the photos. Your photos aren’t portraying some kind of “lifting out,” they’re a kind of witnessing. Like you have two seconds you can choose how to engage with this person. It seems like you find the most strength and dignity in whoever you’re looking at and whatever situation they find themselves dealing with on that particular day.

ZS: I hope so. I’m very optimistic. I’m filled with hope and joy.

SQ: Speaking of hope—who inspires you? Who are your photographic heroines?

ZS: I love a lot of photography but I really feel connected to the WPA photographers. I feel like that was—you know Dorothea Lange—an interesting important moment. I’m fascinated by that idea, the interaction between the photographer and subject is the photographer’s choice in this instance. So many iconic images that come from that period we see without thinking of the choices of the photographer. So in terms of preserving the dignity of the subjects and meeting the needs of the assignment the project was successful in many instances.

SQ: Do you have a favorite Lange photograph?

ZS: The Road West, New Mexico. 1938. No Contest.

SQ: What about Diane Arbus? Nan Goldin?

ZS: Cindy ShermanTina Modotti. I’m a fan of all of them. Even if my own interest is unrelated to their work…they’re working within a very different framework, a patriarchal framework of who decides, you know, the gaze, and so on. I’m just like, go for it, go be your bad self. You really just have to put yourself out there for people to look at. It takes a lot of effort to put yourself out there—and pushing the work past the point where people will look at it. I mean it’s an enormous effort to get past the Jeff Koons set up of what we think art is…

SQ: 7%. Did you read that statistic? Only 7% (or 12% more recently…) of the artists in The Tate Modern’s collection are female.

ZS: Are you kidding me?

SQ: Modern.

ZS: We’re post-post-feminist, post, oh, we’ve made it. Like we’re a Virginia Slims ad. Fuck you.
(Just for the record, I’m a radical feminist and I believe that we’re still in the process of creating a feminist movement. I believe the idea that social movements are fixed or static is false and we’re as connected to Seneca Falls as much as we are to Tribe 8…)

SQ: But it seems “you have made it.” What happened? When was the moment for you? Can you take me back?

ZS: The Pew was pretty big. The Pew was a great moment. Things were kind of happening, but the pew set things in motion. It was like Wagnerian Opera. So good! So awesome!

SQ: So did you wake up one morning and think, oh my god I actually do this?

ZS: Yes. Yes, that was before the Pew. That was…

SQ: When was that moment?

ZS: That was the first roll of film.

SQ: Really? When was that first roll?

ZS: That was in 2000.

SQ: Get out!

ZS: It’s true. It’s good.

SQ: Wow. What kind of camera was that?

ZS: It was a Canon Rebel. The low-end automatic and manual, like $195 dollar camera.

SQ: How did that come about?

ZS: I had been thinking about it. I’d been doing other installation work and I wanted to do the 95 project…and wondered how I could do that and when I saw the first photographs I thought it was definitely feasible.

SQ: What did you do with your first roll? Where did you go?

ZS: I just walked around the neighborhood.

SQ: Of course. What kind of installation work were you doing?

ZS: Like two big boats smashing into each other in a parking lot.

SQ: Really?

ZS: I forced my mom, my siblings to go to 5th and Wharton to go push boats together…

SQ: How did you become an installation artist?

ZS: I felt compelled. I had to do that. I went to college and I was just like, eh. It was too tiring, I had to work full time, and I thought that’s not what I like.

SQ: You wanted to be out in the action?

ZS: I wanted to be making shit.

SQ: So the 95 project was before?

ZS: The 95 project started in 2000. So I thought, pick up a camera…and then I thought about the installation and went for it.

SQ: So that first roll?

ZS: Yah, it was pretty good.

SQ: What was on that first roll? Are any of the photos in your show at Silverstein from that first roll?

ZS: Yes. Yes, it’s a basketball hoop made out of a milk carton. That’s the one that remained.

SQ: That’s great.

ZS: I’ve always been happy with those first ones.

SQ: What about Monique Carbone? That photograph is so haunting.

ZS: Yes, that’s very sad. I’m hoping to meet her mother in the next week.

SQ: The photograph of the Grizzly Bear that’s on your site. Can you tell me about that?

ZS: How great is that? It’s from Circus-Circus in Las Vegas. You go in a booth and you have a million Photoshop options and I was like, my god, I have to get one of these. So I turn the page and there’s the photo of a woman in curlers riding the bear and I thought, that’s the one.

SQ: You’re having a lot of fun.

ZS: Oh, yeah. I’m having fun. I love it.

SQ: When you’re on the street you’re having fun.

ZS: Yes, I’m having fun. I’m not looking for despair; I’m looking for something I love.

SQ: In an interview with Jeff Wall I noticed recently that he said he had begun to think that the idea of subject no longer mattered. What do you think of that?

ZS: Are you kidding me? What are you saying? I have little tolerance for that…not that process, or theory doesn’t matter, but when it comes right down to it, “it” has to be pretty fucking strong to say that the “subject” doesn’t matter, and that the theory and the process are the finished work…that’s not a judgment on his work, but you really have to be on solid footing if you’re going to say the concept is more important. Did you see his show?

SQ: Yes, I know what you mean. I’m a big fan.

ZS: Yes, me too. That piece with the papers blowing in the wind is mind blowing, but to say that the subject…

SQ: Well, yes, I thought so too. And the extent to which the images are reworked and manipulated…

ZS: For me, something gets killed in the process.

SQ: The life gets beaten out in some way.

ZS: I think you can overwork a photograph, or I suppose a poem.

SQ: Absolutely.

ZS: …but really this is not a value judgment, it’s just not my interest…it gets flattened.

SQ: Speaking of process. How much time to you spend working with an image once you’ve take it? I assume it’s all digital?

ZS: Yes, it’s all digital. Not that much time at all. I color correct it, and sometimes crop, and I’ll clean it up. If there’s dirt, or often I get what look like oily spots, but that’s it.

SQ: What’s your camera of choice?

ZS: It’s a Nikon D70. It’s so good! I might want to get the D200 if I ever get some money…

SQ: Okay, so speaking of money. What’s next? I mean the Whitney, the Silverstein…this is a big moment. That’s a great gallery. I’ve seen some of the greats in that gallery. This is significant.

ZS: I know. It’s a great moment. It’s a great gallery. They have a great sense of history, the sense that photography is still a burgeoning art. That it’s just started! People think vintage photography is the genesis rather than a constant organic process, always reinventing itself. We’re just figuring out this new technology, and I think Silverstein has a great perspective…

SQ: They move from classic photography to new photographers and interesting group shows—the Jesus Christ Superstar show (which was fabulous!), the Kertesz

ZS: And the show before mine was E. O. Hoppé’s Amerika. It’s really heartening to me to be a part of this big picture.

SQ: So what’s next? Is the show going to tour?

ZS: No, it’s just going to end. And I have no idea what’s next. No plan. None.

SQ: What about a book? Can we expect that soon?

ZS: Actually, someone approached me about that last week. I was like, holy fuck!

SQ: You must be saying that a lot these days.