Liz Zito with Laura Parnes

© Liz Zito 

© Liz Zito 

“I’ve performed and created characters based on diary entries. Courtney from Wolf’s Canyon originated from being nostalgic for teen horror shows. I wanted to become the opposite what I am now.”

Liz Zito

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Liz Zito.

Laura Parnes: Courtney is a cliché of the teenage film and you seem to play around a lot with clichés. Is there a parody that goes on when you’re riffing on these popular references to adolescence?

LZ: I still relate to shows that are aimed at teenage girls–taking a closer look at what is presented to them–and it’s definitely a reflection of what has formed the person I am today. But I get frustrated when people think Courtney is an alter ego or has something to do with me. I’ve had a lot of conversations about how similar Courtney and [Nick Aliciati’s] Darlene are, but we have completely different relationships with our characters. People really like Courtney (I don’t like her) and want me to dress up like her and be this thing.

LP: I’m curious how you developed and wrote your projects, specifically Wolf’s Canyon.

LZ: I come up with a basic story line just so it’s not insane [laughs]–wait a second, it is insane–but, a beginning and an ending, so it’s almost followable. And I like working with non-performers, without set lines in the script, who can be lost and not exactly know what’s going on. I don’t really know what’s going on! If someone in the cast or crew has a better idea, I want to do the better idea–the funnier thing–and to allow for interpretation.

LP: However you set up the situation, you’re also in it, so you’re kind of pushing or controlling the direction of the scene in quite a few ways.

LZ: When I’m in the scene it makes people more comfortable but when I’m off camera I’ve had to prompt what is going on. I will feed lines if people don’t like improvising. Even in bad acting I’m surprised when it's a great performance. The performance is authentic in a different way. I feel like every character, at the end of the day, has taken a drug and they don’t remember what happened the day before or previous episode. Everyday is a blank slate. I’ve never asked anyone if working with me in this way is fun; I think it is. People keep coming back.

LP: I really didn't realize it’s mostly improv. The way people perform, they already embodying those different adolescent shows they’ve already seen. It feels like the lines are going through them.

© Liz Zito

© Liz Zito

LZ: It helps when their names are directly from the shows. If we’re talking to Mr. Fitz, the teacher from Pretty Little Liars, and it’s your friend Stephan performing, it feels like you’re talking to that television show character. Plus Stephan is a really good actor.

LP: And that mirrors playing out ideas of childhood, of acting out shows and scenarios, which took up quite a bit of time for some of us when we were kids. It seems your process, in terms of refining things, happens much more in the editing room, which is sort of different from when I’ve worked with animation where there’s not a lot of leeway in editing afterward.

LZ: I don’t know if it’s a result of an improvising comedy background, but editing is one of my favorite parts of the process. A joke doesn’t always necessarily work until I edit the piece together. And that’s the exciting thing. I also like the episodic. It leaves people wanting more–I don’t know if I’m going to give it to them–but it allows me to take a break while having material to come back to and re-edit. There’s a great gym scene that has yet to be released.

LP: I’ll waste so much time if I’m shooting extra stuff. For some projects I’ve controlled the script beforehand and pretty settled into what I wanted. But [for funding] I was constantly getting notes and rewriting. Those notes were based on what other people were telling me. So I let go of all of that and decided I could make it on bare bones. By turning it into an animation I could go back to all these crazy things I’d put in before that I didn’t think I could realize in film. It was a really freeing moment for me to give up the process of trying to get the financial backing you need to get for a feature film.

LZ: How do you know when something’s finished, like Tour Without End? Is it every going to end?

LP: It’s never going to end! No, I envision it being six hours. I recently went to Houston and did a show. It happened that one of my characters was in Houston and I shot another scene there at Sean’s Hair Salon. It’s an ongoing process but I’m sure something will tell me “you've got to stop.” I do have a lot of fun shooting it. It’s totally guerilla style. Whatever happens happens. There’s a rush of like me saying [to the actor], “now go in to that hotel and book a room” and “if they say this, don’t respond” and “don’t leave until it’s absolutely necessary.” We have a lot of fun doing that and everyone’s into it. It would be really different if they were like “I'm really uncomfortable” but they’re like “yeah, where can we go next?” We’ll get tired at some point. And since it’s about process, how long can my characters take working on this. I’m sure that will inform part of it but then there will be a deadline of the show where I just have to get it together.

LZ: One of the most exciting things for me is coming up with an idea–when the light bulb goes off. It sounds really dumb to say I don’t like performing, because I do it all the time, but I find it really difficult and exhausting. Sitting in front of the camera and having these rules for myself. I find it satisfying when it’s done and I know I have the right take. It’s like “whew, I don’t have to do that again.” It’s weird, but maybe it’s the high I get after a performance. And knowing that if I get a good take it’s exciting. That’s it; I don't have to do this anymore. Torcher!

Now I’m in the process of writing a film where I’m not in it at all. I’m taking a step back to trust other people to be the characters I’ve developed. I want to have control in a different way, to focus on other things I wasn’t able to when I was the performer. I’m at the point where I’m kind of a little sick of watching myself on the screen. I want to think about other things, like writing the story and developing the characters. Even for Wolf’s Canyon I’m talking to someone else about playing Courtney in the future. With the absurdity of the project I can allow someone else to step in.


Nick Alciati with Laura Parnes

© Nick Alciati

© Nick Alciati

© Nick Alciati 

© Nick Alciati 

“From the time I was little, I would develop characters. Around five years ago my brother and I created Darlene and Mildred, Southern sisters in their forties. Growing up gay in Syracuse was difficult as it is a sports town and all my friends were straight jock bros. It was really hard to find my place so I escaped to my bedroom where I could be whoever I wanted to be, which was often times, a female pop singer. I recently thought about my childhood and from there Darlene transformed into a pop star very much rooted in the fantasy.”

Nick Alciati

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Nick Alciati.

LP: Did I understand correctly, that the interior monolog that went on in your head, as a kid, was a forty-year-old woman?

NA: No, well, it was more like seventy. But about five years ago my brother and I developed these middle-aged women, Darlene and Mildred and they were obsessed with Jesus, Diet Pepsi and Wal-Mart. And Darlene always had auburn hair. So when I began graduate school I bought a wig and started to visualize her. At first I thought I could do makeup to look forty but then I thought why not just be a hot 1990s pop star. For me it was finally about being comfortable.

LP: Do you think your character Darlene exists in 2016?

NA: I’m kind of struggling at times because I’m very much present in 2016 and being comfortable with my own gender but I wanted to bring it back to those moments when I was growing up. The songs I’m referencing in the videos I’m making are from the late 1990s. That’s the time when I was developing as a young person.

LP: You have a very personal relationship to your characters. How important is that to your process?

NA: Over the past two years of developing Darlene, we’ve developed a relationship with each other. Sometimes, as Nick, I’ll even think as Darlene. My project came from a place where I was questioning my gender and sexuality so I felt the best person to play that role was myself. Also the empowerment of wearing a wig and heels is a high. And I’m much more confident being Darlene than being Nick. Since becoming Darlene I think Nick is becoming more comfortable with himself. It’s been a weird journey. At this point I’m kind of sick of Darlene and I think we might be breaking up after school. But it’s been really fun having that control as a performer.

LP: Some performance artists act out specific characters over and over again. Michael Smith’s Baby or Kalup Lindsay with his soap opera personalities. This is the case with Darlene, but once the audience becomes familiar with a specific character they feel like they can embody it too.

NA: I recently brought people into the studio to give me their best Darlene while I was playing 90s pop music. It was fun to see how people posed. Some of the males were really into it. I saw that feeling I get “this is different and fun.” And at other times some people were really freaked out.

LP: Have you performed as other characters besides Darlene?

NA: I bought a blonde wig and became a new character. Nicki’s the badass high school version of Darlene. Darlene’s the angel on my shoulder and Nicki’s the devil.

LP: How do you approach making work? Do you have a preconceived idea and then you set it up in a shoot or are you experimenting while you’re shooting?

NA: A lot is experimenting; I don't write anything out. It starts with songs; trying to recall memories I had at home alone in my room singing in front of a mirror. From there I’d research a certain female star and I think about the clothes and the location. I go through the whole song and lip sync and have someone helping me film. As I’m thinking of the music videos I'm thinking of the aesthetic and how they were originally made. The process ends up being this really repetitive thing until I have an Ashanti song stuck in my head forever.

LP: You just shot something in LA. Is that how you did it?

NA: Yeah. I really love performing on location in public–seeing people around me–and then watching myself on the screen. It’s definitely a little narcissistic. But if I was going to be reflecting back on the music videos of the time then it had to be multiple scenes to have a narrative. Lip-syncing is really difficult when you’re cutting between shots having to go back and redo it multiple times. There’s always a love/hate relationship at every stage of the process.

LP: Your work seems really connected to your own adolescence but also plays off of images and stereotypes of teenage girls as they are represented in popular culture. Your choices seem very specific in terms of what you reveal

NA: When I started visualizing Darlene I imagined her being completely female and as close to these singers as I could get. But growing up very much male–born and raised playing football–there are parts I can’t get rid of. So Darlene went from being this fun humorous pop star to me delving into ideas of gender. Suddenly I found myself wearing mid-drifts and letting my belly hair show. And, I’m not that great in heals. But I let those moments–those slippages–enter because I think it’s important to blur the binary. I think it’s important to tell that aspect of the story. Even as I’ve developed this character, I’ve developed my own gender identity. Darlene has allowed me to be more comfortable with myself.

LP: Do you think she’d ever play football?

NA: That would be fun.

LP: I’m curious about the blending or slippages you describe in relation to gender.

NA: I’m building a bedroom installation [for an exhibition] and I’m blending all those things together, [starting with my early years as a boy obsessed with Barbies, to me trying to blend in by playing football, to Darlene being a fantasy and eventually making her a reality…I’m blending both of us as characters but also as valid identities.] The next video I’m making is going to be Nick and Darlene going back and forth. That was informed through me shooting and realizing I can’t dance that well in heels, I do have traditional male body hair and I don’t tuck away any of my anatomy. I keep all that just there because it’s just me bring into question the constructs of identity and subverting that.

LP: It’s important for people to be aware that it’s not full drag.

NA: I don’t want to be passable as a female. I’m not trying to impersonate the stereotypes fully. I thought that was what I wanted at the beginning because it was fun. It was like I get to play dress-up at 27 and I could never dress up as a female when I was growing up. So it started with the baseline of “it’s fun to wear a wig, do my makeup, wear heals.” Then it moved more into delving into ideas of gender. That’s why I don’t call her a drag queen but an alter ego.

LP: There can be a power in that and an importance to it.

NA: In my experience of “high fishy drag,” as they call it, it’s more like the Hell’s Kitchen queens are lip-syncing to Britney Spears or Kesha or Madonna. They’re trying their best to be really feminine. Verses a lot of my friends in Brooklyn are sort of subverting that and not so much being the archetype of female but exploring more of an identity in a character through their performance.

LP: It’s interesting to hear you speak about an alter ego as opposed to drag.

NA: Traditionally it could be called drag but it’s much more than a performance at a bar or club. And a lot of queens have more than that as their personas.

LP: Well there’s a personal element in this character that distinguishes Darlene from just lip-syncing. Although lip-syncing to Keisha!

NA: There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fun.

LP: It can be important too.

NA: Absolutely, it’s important. It’s important for drag to allow people to feel empowered, not to just be what they were raised to be. And escapism–having this fantasy world to escape to and seeing people do that. When I became friends with a bunch of queens I thought, “I could do this.” They’d help me with my makeup and it turned me into feeling really empowered.

But Darlene is very rooted in me being myself. To some people Darlene might be vapid. She’s more than that to me. I struggle with getting beyond the humor and these fantasy videos. I want to delve deeper into where she’s rooted.

Forrest Grant Davis with Laura Parnes

© Forrest Grant Davis

© Forrest Grant Davis

“Most of my character development comes from people watching, being slightly introverted and sitting back in social situations, and having an acute awareness of what’s going on around me. Characters are built through trying to make sense of people’s actions.”

Forrest Davis

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Forrest Davis.

LP: The protagonist in your feature film defies viewer’s expectations in that he refuses to transform no matter what situation he finds himself in. Was that your intention?

FD: The goal in A Watched Pot was to show a character that’s fairly quiet and unlikeable. I was interested in how we connect with a lead character that is pretty reserved.

LP: In terms of story structure there is a cyclical element to it. It starts in the way that it ends.

FD: It is built around questioning if he has the ability to change or not. In traditional films you see a character go from point A to point B where in real life I don’t think that happens. With him it’s left ambiguous whether he has changed or if he ends right where he begins.

LP: What is your process of writing a script?

FD: I start with a stream of consciousness of writing, but with the understanding that in this scene, I need to cover certain points. Then inevitability I begin walking around and saying the lines to myself. From there I send it to an actor I’m working with. That’s when most of the improvisational work comes in, when we get together and read the lines. Then ask, “What doesn’t sound right?” “How would you say this?”

© Forrest Grant Davis

© Forrest Grant Davis

LP: You workshop it?

FD: Exactly. I’ve always worked with actors to try it the way we’ve rehearsed. But then if there is something else we want to say, or a certain emotion we want, we’ll try another take and see what happens. That’s where things change and come together. There are situations where something is still off and we’ll rewrite it right there. Being open to working with stuff that is staged but also being open to working with improvising to the extent to push so it doesn’t feel like actors are just reading what’s on the page.

LP: It definitely brings out more realistic dialogue, and it becomes a collaborative process, especially if you’re working with a talented actor who can really add something to the character.

I love improvisation. The activity of a groupthink, where everybody is working together and very interconnected. The writing process afterword is the real battle. It requires a lot of room for experimentation and the possibility of failure. It also requires lots of labor! I have to be steeped in this other world and focus large amounts of time and somehow know it backward and forward. Then I can finally solve the puzzle. It’s a struggle but it’s a fascinating struggle.

FD: My process is much more traditional. I like writing. It usually starts with a certain person or person’s action I saw and can’t understand. I’m trying to figure out what was in their mind that made them do it and build a story around that. The next piece I’m writing started with a specific shot. It was like, “How do I incorporate this into a story?” The whole film is based on one shot being placed at the most pivotal moment.

I also like working with the same people, primarily professional actors playing the main characters in the film where smaller parts are often played by non-actors. The merging of these two creates an authenticity that I believe an all-professional actors cast cannot bring. The actor I worked with for A Watched Pot has become a good friend and I'll write specific things for him now that we have worked together. We understand what each is looking for but are still willing to challenge each other.

LP: I like writing for specific people too. Right now I’m working with musicians and it’s a little like herding cats. They’re really brilliant and hilarious in front of the camera but you can put as much tape as you want on the floor and they won’t necessarily hit a mark. It requires having multiple cameras and being prepared for the unexpected. Sifting through things and to find that one performance gem is an essential part of process.

FD: Inevitably, when working with scripted material, going from paper to shooting is where some of the biggest struggles occur. But of all the satisfying moments, one is during production. It’s the moment when you’ve set up the scene, you have all the lights, you've done the blocking, and you just sit down and look at the monitor. It’s that realization that the picture you had in your head is really happening–the words you wrote–and every time you sit down and look, it gets very real all of a sudden.

Being able to recognize that the script is not necessarily going to be what I shoot exactly. It’s going to change. Trying to recognize where the character is going, or how the actor is working while shooting, can be where major changes need to happen. Scaling that back in post is where it becomes closer to what was written. When I’m editing, it’s not as much adding anything to the character, but taking things away. It’s wiping away dialogue and using more silences to get a character.

© Forrest Grant Davis

© Forrest Grant Davis

Yi Yi Lily Chan with Laura Parnes

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

“I don’t consider myself an activist; I’m too quiet a person. I work intuitively and don’t script things beforehand. Character is formed through questions I ask. The reporter in my work is me, but I consider it more of a disembodied character where it could be anybody. You can see throughout the piece that I’m self-conscious about my position as an artist.”

Lily Chan

The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Yi Yi Lily Chan.

LP: The characters in your work are related to the alter ego, via the artist-as-reporter, asking questions and not necessarily getting answers. It mostly starts with an intuitive process. Do you start by experimenting with the camera or do you have a set activity?

LC: I began with a question but I don’t know who to ask or where to project it specifically. There would be images that come up in my head and they linger to a point where I feel like I have to re-enact them.

Extract and Repeat, a performance I did in response to a crazy woman in the subway [viral video footage on the Internet], is about people and public places and the reasons why they break down under different social structures and political pressures. I question what it is to be like them, which I decided to only investigate in physical gesture. I don’t want it to come off as parody, but instead question the act of distanced shaming and quick judgments, as facilitated by the Internet. I wasn’t fully empathizing with or trying to justify her; I was just wondering what these bodies go through, and why people react the way they do.

LP: Do you think it’s searching for empathy?

LC: It’s very much about empathy but it didn’t start that way. My empathizing came after making the work and realizing that certain physical intensities cannot be reached without a mental state that is on par. I felt terrible about her position and I didn’t want to judge her, but question what puts us through these physical gestures and traumas.

LP: The trauma of someone having a psychotic break, or a toxic episode caught on tape and then amplified by the Internet, it’s an interesting way to develop a character and attempt to create empathy for them.

There are performance artists who feel the need to embody specific public figures because of their own relationship to them. It’s hard to think of you not personally being invested in the character based on your process.

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

© Yi Yi Lily Chan

LC: It’s personal but it doesn’t illustrate a personal trauma. I don’t need that to address the questions I'm posing. Because I work intuitively, most of the time it feels like I’m creatively constipated. When it does flush out there’s often no time to plan or delegate extensively.

In your film Blood and Guts in High School a lot of the characters actually came through, for me, in the editing, the time you allow them to pause and subtle kind of things you do with framing. To what extent do you storyboard your shoot? Are they products of improvising? What is your process?

LP: Blood and Guts was a very choreographed. I blocked out everything. There was always a rehearsal and if it wasn’t in the actual space it didn’t really matter. What really mattered was the framing. The movement is really important. Stephanie Vella is an amazing actress and brought a lot to the role and incorporated certain performance elements that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought.

But some of the people were non-actors and I had to choreograph everything and be very controlled with framing–tell them where to stand and exactly how to deliver their lines, often reading the line to them or feed them lines. In some ways it relates to theater like The Wooster Group. They often feed each other lines through a headpiece. You get this other kind of worldly voice. It feels disembodied and that’s very important to that piece in particular. The slowness, the blocking; it would be really funny if all those scenes were sped up. Because they are intentionally slowed down they give you no relief. Being so formally controlled and structured is part of that kind of suffocating feeling.

LC: I’m not tied down to a specific process but satisfied when my random thoughts, suddenly come together and make sense. It isn’t satisfying when I shoot something perfectly because I don’t get anything new from the process and I like working with accidents. I always have a vague idea or an image I’ll act out and because I never script what I do, the raw footage will tell me what I’ll do next. Of course I might have to go back and get more material, but it’s constantly changing. Change happens in the editing room by what I give accent to. It’s always a discovery.

But editing can be terribly lonely. Sometimes I watch the footage I’ve collected, or randomly put together, and think, “Okay this is a new lead.” Then it suddenly becomes interesting. The loneliness is gone. I would not have made some of the work I did if I gave myself strict rules to stay true to; to the character I had in mind from the very beginning.

LP: You’re often not fully in the piece. With the reporter character, it’s just the microphone you show. When we see performance artists in their own pieces often it is about seeing their face–their persona. Your performance is first person–seeing through the eyes of your character.

LC: That comes from seeing the self-conscious that’s increasing in degree. Because of my race, because of the questions I’m posing in this particular work, I don’t want to limit the reach of those questions and have them skewed towards identity politics. It’s not about my cultural background but more about a globalized peripheral question, a homogenizing experience. Inevitably if I put my whole body and face in it you’re going to read it a certain way, unfortunately. There are certain contexts in which I have to avoid that in order for the work to reach more people. This removal is not about habit or comfort, but what the work or the questions I pose in the work necessitates. I don’t have to rely on my face or my body to establish personality. Meanwhile, I put myself fully in front of the lens in the aforementioned Extract and Repeat, because the work is partly about navigating identity, ethnicity, and challenging what people expect from someone of my upbringing to say on issues of border politics and territorialized experience, all boiling up within the same national and racial framework.

       A Woman, Phenomenally   Tiffany Smith      


            © Tiffany Smith  


     When my family came to America in 1989, I arrived with confidence that my status as a citizen assured me a place in the society I was entering. I had no concept of the challenges to be faced in defining my identity as a modern American woman. As a child I watched Miss America and Miss USA pageants from our island home in The Bahamas with wonder, naively dreaming of growing up to become an archetype of beauty and grace. I would scan the contestants to find the one who represented a reflection of myself. Though I never quite found her, I remained unflinching in the belief that my adult self would be more than capable of elbowing out the competition to win the crown. Before coming to the States as a young girl, I had no real experience with being viewed as different or cast into the role of “Other.” I had no idea that the chances of my experiences and ideals of beauty being viewed as typical would be, at the least, a formidable challenge, and at best, an insurmountable goal. 
 Within the social and political climate into which I entered, I could never be Miss America. I was ready for America, but she was not ready for me. So began my attempt to define an identity that would embrace my multi­cultural upbringing, assert my multi-ethnic makeup, and oscillate between “visitor” and “native” in a battle of the pressure to assimilate and the desire to retain allegiance to specific cultural practices and definitions of beauty. 
 A Woman, Phenomenally explores the power of images and their influences on the formation of individual identity through the experiences of individuals descended from a mixed cultural or ethnic heritage. The work aims to challenge the often exotified and stereotyped depictions of people of color through the presentation of self-authored imagery that reclaim the subject’s agency over reflections of one’s own identity. The impetus to create portraits focused on women of color comes from a desire to redefine our role within the canon of photographic representation. It is a response to a history that too often casts our bodies as props and objects of exotification, our cultural practices as anthropological novelty, and our notions of self-identification as problematic until validated through a Eurocentric view. 


            © Tiffany Smith  


     When do we begin to redefine what is considered mainstream within mass culture in an impactful manner that creates concrete shifts in collective thought? How can we harness the power inherent to the photographic medium to inform and repossess authorship of our own narrative? This project examines how cultural influences are retained in the face of geographical separation and how individual identities are formed.  My investigation of this subject began with a fascination with turn­of­the­century ethnographic images depicting women of color. The notion of being exotified resonated with me and I was compelled by what was communicated by the gaze that these images documented. Who was looking at these women and why? How did these women view themselves and what control did they possess over how they were subsequently represented? I found that more often than not, the subjects of these photographs had little power over the authorship of their own images, a condition that, to me, was not too far removed from the experiences of modern women of color and their relationship to the media.      




     Considering the visual language and function of the gaze present in these ethnographic photographs, I began to craft images that employ a contemporary visual language to respond to some of the questions these images generated. My investigations resulted in the self-portrait series For tropical girls who consider ethnogenesis when the native sun is remote, which investigates formation of identity and the power of representation through my own narrative. These experiments helped me to establish a visual language that places emphasis on color and pattern, and a mode of production that creates site-specific environments for the subject, which rely on elements of installation and set design to evoke a sense of place. The images are performative in nature as I embrace the roles of both subject and ethnographer, incorporating cultural signifiers that describe my experience with attempts to mitigate my multi­cultural identity. As I engage in performances of “the Other” I counter the objectionable gaze of the ethnographic photographs referenced with an “oppositional gaze.” In composition and visual aesthetic, the work is not shy about making its presence known; as the author of the images, I am not shy about making my opinion heard.      




     In my practice, I am repeatedly drawn to themes related to the formation of identity and communities, the role of memory (particularly in relation to notions of cultural identity), and the experience of being or performing “the other.” The criteria that guide the investigation of my subjects are typically anthropological in nature and engendered by a genuine curiosity.  Manipulating the inherent power of the photographic image, the work presents portraits that are collaborative in construction and performative in nature as the foundation of an immersive multimedia installation that creates an environment that references a domestic space through cultural signifiers extracted from the collective diasporic memory. The concept of displacement is a secondary theme that unifies the stories and experiences of the subjects depicted.  The contextualizing installation of the images includes objects that refer back to the portraits and extend the plane of the photographs into three-dimensional space. Props used within the photographs such as artificial plants and tile pieces are combined with constructed sculptural objects that mimic decorative concrete block patterns and readymade objects that reference a domestic space to create the communal environment that the portraits inhabit. The aesthetic of these objects is decidedly tropical, manifesting from my own memories of a shifting home and referencing cultural aesthetics from the Caribbean diaspora.      




 Collectively, the work functions as an altar to the living, creating a space to reflect on the depiction and experiences of the subjects with compassion and reverence, expanding concepts from my previous installation work, particularly 5 Kings. Like the work of Mickalene Thomas and Ebony Patterson, the work relies on layering of color and pattern to create a transportive environment. Rashid Johnson and Hew Locke investigate similar themes from a male perspective, and also provide context to the work.  
 The images, video, and their presentation intend to create an idealized and constructed environment for the subjects to inhabit that reference the ambiguous social space that they navigate in reality. Collectively, these elements dissect personal narratives, drawing on memories of each subject’s respective “home” to create a representation that gives each subject a degree of agency in “performing the other.”      


            © Tiffany Smith

A Woman, Phenomenally by Tiffany Smith

Within the social and political climate into which I entered, I could never be Miss America. I was ready for America, but she was not ready for me. So began my attempt to define an identity that would embrace my multi­-cultural upbringing, assert my multi-ethnic makeup, and oscillate between “visitor” and “native” in a battle of the pressure to assimilate and the desire to retain allegiance to specific cultural practices and definitions of beauty.


       The Museum of Science Fetish   Zhangbolong Liu      






            © Zhangbolong Liu  


 The Fiction  I first met Jia Shizhen in 2003 when he was on a visit from the United States. A longtime friend of my grandfather’s, they came from the same village in China’s Hebei Province and both attended Tsinghua University in 1952. My grandfather and Jia studied theoretical physics during that post-war era, when China was trying to develop a nuclear weapon. While my grandfather went in another direction, Jia continued to pursue a scientific career. But with the Cultural Revolution of 1966, Jia was forced to stop his research in nuclear physics, and he began to work in theoretical physics: the field of scientific thought experiments. (Basically, a thought experiment considers some hypothesis, theory, or principle for the purpose of thinking through its consequences. The result is often so clear that there is no need to confirm the findings with a physical experiment. In other instances, physical experiments are not possible to conduct only thought experiments are used.)  Then, in the 1980s, Jia became as a visiting scholar in the Physics Department at the City University of New York. He returned to China for a brief visit in 2003, and my grandfather invited him to stay with my family. As a 14-year-old who was fascinated by astronomy, I was thrilled to talk to a physicist who could teach me more about thought experiments, especially when I learned that one of Jia’s had been explored by NASA.  In 2012, I also found my way to New York in pursuit of a master’s degree. Although my undergraduate major was material science and engineering, I was more interested in photography, and started by studies at the School of Visual Arts. While a bit reluctant to contact Jia and tell him that I had changed my focus from science to art, I eventually bit the bullet. Jia’s apartment looked more like a storage facility than a place to live, as it was filled with collections of all kinds of objects, and archive documents related to thought experiments. It was my entry, as an adult, to what science was and what scientists did. Their world was more playful and interesting than I ever thought. Throughout that afternoon I listened to him tell more stories about thought experiments, raising my interest in the history and philosophy of science.  
 I have become a regular guest. Jia has no relatives in America, and the history of his collections might be lost when he passes, so we have begun to build a filing system for archiving. I am also designing a website that includes every object, its description, and related stories. The website focuses primarily on thought experiments in the history of science, including Schrodinger’s Cat, Maxwell’s Demon, Quantum Suicide, the Twin Paradox, Infinite Monkey Theorem, the Lottery Paradox and Newton’s Cannonball.  The Fact      


            © Zhangbolong Liu  


     The goal of my thesis project is to build this virtual museum called the “Museum of Science Fetish.” Just like we’ve objectified and commodified about everything—inventions, social relations, politics, art, gender—science, too, has become an object of desire, a fetish. Museums keep fetish objects safe and promote their uniqueness. Although science is often regarded as an objective process, the ways we look at science is often the opposite—we fetishize it. My goal is to discuss the phenomena of science fetishism through the subject of thought experiments.       


            © Zhangbolong Liu  


     The collections consist of two major components; the first includes scientific instruments and laboratory materials. Take Schrodinger’s Cat as an example. Schrodinger’s Cat presents a cat in a box that may be both alive and dead, this state being tied to an earlier random event. But people can’t know that before opening the box, so the cat goes into a superposition of alive versus dead. The other objects in the box include a Geiger counter (re-designed due to its accuracy problem), a poison container, etc. For each of these scientific instruments and materials, the website features an audio guide that describes its function. These recordings reveal a fiction of history that is different from what has been written in most science textbooks. To present these narratives neutrally, a robotic voice is employed.   The other component involves the derivatives of thought experiments, particularly as they appear in popular culture. On one hand, these functions as false evidence of the processing of thought experiments; on the other hand, the commodification of scientific concepts is also the evidence of fetishism.   Many science-fiction writers have integrated the evocative concept of Schrodinger’s Cat in their work. In the Hellsing manga series by Kouta Hirano, one of the depicted Nazis is an artificial catboy named Schrödinger. In Libba Bray’s Going Bovine (2010), three stoners argue whether the cat is alive or dead, or whether the person who opens the box creates the possibilities.  Many films and television shows also employ the narrative use of thought experiments, such as The Big Bang Theory (2008), FlashForward (2009), The Prestige (2006), Futurama (2011), and all of these make mention to the concept of Schrodinger’s cat in one way or another.   Today, culture is awash in references to Schrodinger’s Cat and the Uncertainty Principle. The use of scientific language metaphorically and in relation to human experience is widespread. Popular usage even tries to capitalize on these theories or concepts in branding commodities like cruise ships and jewelry. People’s attitude towards science has shifted from being afraid of the unknown to accepting and even fetishizing scientific theories and language.   When I first began this project, I looked through some artists’ work that deals with science and its representation as reference, and the most interesting to me are the works of Zhao Renhui, Joan Fontcuberta, Mark Dion, Marcel Broodthaers and David Wilson. Zhao’s Institute of Critical Zoologists presents a number of questions regarding authorship and the authenticity of documentation and nature. Zhao uses this obvious paradigm as a platform to present a subtler blend of intricate folly and genuine ecological interest. Clearly referencing the language of the museum archive, this collection of half-truths includes Photoshoped images of altered landscapes, fabricated research documentation and objects related to animal capture and study (both original, artificial and a blend of the two). Fontcuberta works in a similar way with Zhao; he uses photography to examine the truthfulness of an image, and one project in particular, Sputnik (1997) has been an inspiration to my project. There is also a section in my project, Twin Paradox, which deals with the topics of missing astronauts and government censorship.      




     Dion is best known for his use of scientific presentations in his installations. In When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1994), Dion interrogates the perilous connection between the popularization of scientific theories and commodification: mass consumption of products that bear dinosaur images enable the public to indulge a fetish for the creature. This is closely connected to my opinion about Schrodinger’s Cat, which is also an overly commodified creature.       




     I have also learned a lot about how to create a museum from another artist, Marcel Broodthaers, whose project “The Museum of Modern Art” (1968) is a conceptual museum that had neither a permanent collection or a permanent location. Finally, David Wilson’s “Museum of Jurassic Technology” (1988-present) is similar to my thesis. This museum refers to itself as “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” The book Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, states, “The tension between what is real and imaginary is a source of its aesthetic tension as well as its subversive implications. Additionally, the work is ultimately playful. One could wax on about this, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.” This is also what I am seeking in my project.  All of the artists mentioned have challenged the ways that traditional museums present their collections and have questioned the extent to which we can trust the objects we see and the spaces we visit. A museum is not only a place to store and show artifacts and artworks, it is also a platform for discussion and interaction.       


            © Zhangbolong Liu  


     My project website will be as detailed as possible, like Fontcuberta’s work. It begins with Jia’s journey and how he started his collections of thought experiments. The museum will include three galleries and a small event space that can adapt to multiple functions, like screenings or lectures. The collections are categorized by each of the thought experiments. Viewers can find both original experimental artifacts and other materials (such as books, video and movie clips, and music) in each collection page.  
 The second and third “floors” of the museum will be used for permanent exhibitions, and I will curate special exhibitions on the first floor from time to time. In addition, the museum will “lend” its collections to other museums or institutions for exhibition. The first presentation of Schrodinger’s Cat, titled “Inside Boxes,” was held in Litmus Space, New York. The installation of my thesis project will include a computer (or Ipad) on which to show the website and allow visitors to explore its wonders; some posters of its recent exhibitions; a brochure with brief introduction of the museum’s history, collections, events and programs; a short video presenting a virtual tour of the museum; and finally, two or three objects from the museum’s collections presented on pedestals or in vitrines. 
 For more information on The Science Museum of Fetish. visit:  mosife.org

The Museum of Science Fetish by Zhangbolong Liu

The goal of my thesis project is to build this virtual museum called the “Museum of Science Fetish.” Just like we’ve objectified and commodified about everything—inventions, social relations, politics, art, gender—science, too, has become an object of desire, a fetish. Museums keep fetish objects safe and promote their uniqueness. Although science is often regarded as an objective process, the ways we look at science is often the opposite—we fetishize it. My goal is to discuss the phenomena of science fetishism through the subject of thought experiments. 

       Wolf's Canyon   Liz Zito      












     I am an observer of people and personalities and have always been interested in what faces have to say and the stories they tell. Shortly after college came a vocation in vaudeville, which led to documenting my acts and thus began my career in video and performance art. Through characters I mimic come the stories about lives that parallel
my experience. 
 Wolf’s Canyon is an episodic “television show” based on the pop TV culture of my youth, including Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and the recent teen-girl phenomenon, Pretty Little Liars. By taking their tropes and archetypal characters, I created a female-driven comedy series based upon the absurdities of the daily life of an orphaned 16-year- old girl who moves across the country to live with her uncle in a haunted town. Though similar to stories that have been told before, my version is absurd, abstract, and comedic, as it addresses the pressures that society places on women to hate themselves, their bodies, and each other. It is quasi-formulaic art and
comedic commentary designed to reach a community that is looking to laugh, as it critically revolutionizes how we digest female stories on television. It is aimed specifically toward young women whose window to the world is the screen in front of them. 




     Much of my prior work was performed solo and addressed aging. Those ideas took root as I transitioned into my thirties and became obsessed with the inevitability of growing old, and an inability to predict the future. As a way to break from the obsession, I developed the character Courtney, a ditsy stereotype teenager. She was a welcome relief, helping me take a break from analyzing Liz Zito. It was easy to make
Courtney the victim of trauma, loss, and loneliness. She is bullied at school, although she seems not to be completely bothered by this, as her general attitude is quite superficial. As a character, she opens the door to absurd happenings that surround her in the town Wolf’s Canyon.      




     Directly inspired by Twin Peaks, I wanted to create a community in the
Northwest that is home to a variety of unique and bizarre eccentrics. While the story of Wolf’s Canyon focuses on Courtney’s adventures, it is equally about its history and people. As the plot unfolds, so does the depth of our dimwitted Courtney. The outcome is a balance between good and evil in human nature and society. While previous acts of performing and filming myself were part of a meditative, creative process, and provided an intimate mood, for Wolf’s Canyon I wanted to have the opposite feeling. So I imagined a very large ensemble cast. Part of the development included asking colleagues what type of archetypal high school horror/drama character they would most relate to. Acquiring an improvised dialogue helped the relationships along as I chose untrained actors, to relate to and be inspired by characters. Their performance energy also added to the chaos of the aesthetics.      




     The film contains much appropriated footage. It is mostly shot with a green screen and the inserted backgrounds come from image and video searches. These appropriated environments, mixed with handheld filming, aids in creating a bizarre reality that only exists in the town of Wolf’s Canyon. A major artistic influence for this work is Mike Kelley, specifically in his stories based on found photographs: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions. Usually these images are of archetypal characters performing in low-budget, theatrical productions. The videos he makes from these photographs are placed in individual sculptural installations, which are often from the set of his films. The general feeling of these films is oddly reminiscent of a cultural past. His celebration of pop culture comes from a type of loathing of the mainstream world. I am making a mockery of similar television shows, which stems from indulging in it, and is thus a romantic relationship of sorts. Though I may not agree with the content, I can’t get enough of it. Where Kelley uses material from his past, the team of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch are infatuated with the present and creates hyper, neo-reality videos in which characters frantically communicate with each other using Internet slang as dialogue. The characters are carefully painted and decorated, ranging in tone from extreme florescence to washed-out white. They are placed in immersive installation rooms and visually blend into their environments, which aid in the storytelling. There is a connection between Wolf’s Canyon and the Trecartin’s work, which he states is influenced by the Disney Channel and MTV.  While making Wolf’s Canyon, I thought about George Kuchar, particularly
Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967). I connect to his view of the world and his techniques of storytelling in a time-based medium that unites the viewer to his vision. The film creates the sensations of Kuchar’s struggle with religion and sexuality, as well as feelings of romance, and the absurdity of family relationships and expectations. His storylines and enthusiasm for film paved the way for filmmakers to experiment with ideas of what storytelling can be.      




     In addition to Twin Peaks, other shows that have inspired Wolf’s Canyon
include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pretty Little Liars. Buffy is a show that I watched growing up, in which the protagonist is a high school girl who had to save the world over and over. Less supernatural, Pretty Little Liars deals with female teenagers who have too much life and death responsibility; and each is keeping a secret, much like Buffy. I find it undeniable that these shows have incredible success in pop culture and great agency in influencing maturing young minds. I continue to research why this genre has become of interest to so many women through an exploration of abjection in feminist, philosophical theory. In Wolf’s Canyon, Courtney is symbolic of a certain element of societal repulsion. She remains oblivious to her shortcomings and continues forward with minimal introspection. While other characters seem to evolve, she remains a product of circumstance. Ultimately,
Courtney represents an amalgamation of everything society has warned young women against and she embodies the paradox in what contemporary expects of young women.

Wolf's Canyon by Liz Zito

I am an observer of people and personalities and have always been interested in what faces have to say and the stories they tell. Shortly after college came a vocation in vaudeville, which led to documenting my acts and thus began my career in video and performance art. Through characters I mimic come the stories about lives that parallel
my experience.









     Darlene is a young lady who is a pop star of sorts. As a portrait photographer, what I find most interesting about Darlene is Nick’s relationship to her.   When Nick and I discussed his fantasy character, he spoke of her as though they were the same person. I had just finished a yearlong project photographing trans men and was very excited to see how I would translate or render Darlene’s identity through my lens. The aim was to create a quasi-magazine spread for her – something similar to Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone – but I liked the idea of the pictures weaving a line between editorial and advertising, with a nod to popular imagery that we see in today’s media.       




     I wanted Darlene to look impeccable, strong, raw, and beautiful. I chose Calvin Klein underwear for wardrobe because it is one of the most recognizable sexy garments for a young generation. Calvin Klein chooses high profile models, actors, and singers to sell their brand, and I thought Darlene would portray this ideal perfectly.  As much as she's making a declaration in her Calvins, Darlene also deserves to be seen as an earnest lady. She has a story to tell, and I imagined that she would want to show us her chic side wearing fur and an up-do.  Watching Nick become Darlene was the highlight of this collaboration. Nick required little direction, and quickly understood what I wanted Darlene to exude – lips slightly parted, eyes a bit starstruck, an attitude of take me or leave me, but please want me. Within seconds he seamlessly transitioned into Darlene, and revealed the many facets of her personality – just the way she needed us to see them.   Melody Melamed       




 Initially I had no idea that having an alter ego would take me on a two-year photographic journey. My thesis project “xoxo, Darlene” began as an unspoken hought, and soon this imaginary friend developed into a full-fledged, realized identity.  
 Darlene became a part of me throughout my graduate studies, but it was this carefully focused photo shoot that allowed her inner star to shine bright. With Melody’s direction,  a make-up artist carefully sculpting my face and a lighting crew, Darlene became the brave woman and heroine I wanted her to be. With the support of my peers, the mfa photo department, and a lot of trial and error with makeup and dance moves, I can finally say that I not only feel comfortable in #mycalvins, but also in my life.   Nick Alciati


Darlene became a part of me throughout my graduate studies, but it was this carefully focused photo shoot that allowed her inner star to shine bright. With Melody’s direction, a make-up artist carefully sculpting my face and a lighting crew, Darlene became the brave woman and heroine I wanted her to be. With the support of my peers, the mfa photo department, and a lot of trial and error with makeup and dance moves, I can finally say that I not only feel comfortable in #mycalvins, but also in my life.