For some time now, Zeesy Power’s performance centered inquiries on our tacit social and cultural fabric has progressed further into what she is presently at task with—our engagement with digital technologies. To a great extent, Powers accentuates for us again and again, what may appear inevident or rather latent in our quotidian interrelations. Powers is painstakingly working along the ever-gaping learning curve to understand code and the technical complexities behind the mobile screens and gadgets that continue to entangle significant parts of our everyday experiences. “It’s so critical to how we are experiencing the world and will continue to experience the world but it is so abstract” Powers describes. For digital devices that are ever so ubiquitous and accessible they continue to remain foreign to the average individual user as to what the explicit make up therein is. Powers is interested in how these tools we use daily are put in place, the implicit structures behind them, and how they can impact us. “I think it is important that in all the work I do, to be really transparent about all of these structures because they are all running in all of our lives but we can’t necessarily see them."
For a better part of a decade, Powers has steadily created a wealth of work that has included at times absurd stages and social scenarios that shake up expected social and cultural norms. Her work and performances has circulated through places like The Power Plant in Toronto, Festival HTMlles in Montreal, PS 122 in New York, Cryptorave in São Paulo, and CCA Kitkyushu in Fukuoka, Japan. Our conversation with Powers traces back beginnings in her art making activities, where she’s at currently, how she wants to see her art continue to evolve, and her affinity for comedian Tom Green—among other talking points.
"in order to create an equitable society, the rules can’t be inscrutable. It has to be easily understandable by everyone. We need to know what is structuring our lives, how systems are put in place, how you can impact them and how they impact you. My goal in my projects, in the frame I set up, is to make clear to other people what’s really going on through inversions and jokes."
I’ll start off by asking you two questions to which you can pick one and hopefully lead the rest of the conversation. Can you share an early time you felt anxiety about your future or an early time you were torn between two directions.
When I was much younger going into high school, I had this fortunate opportunity to be able to focus on a field in the arts. The options where either going into a drama theatre stream or focusing on visual arts. I don’t know if mercenary is the right world for it but I loved both. At the time, the way it was conceived of in my childhood mind was like acting was something to get paid to do so why would I study it in school? With art you need materials. So if I do art at school, I don’t have to pay for art materials. Acting as a craft, especially how we do it in our culture, can be pretty empty. They are some people who do it well but for the most part can be pretty empty. We equate acting to movies. But it’s the director that makes the movie not the actor.
Being able to focus on object oriented things as a teenager was really nice. But I still really wanted to have my body present in whatever I made. As a child, being able to be seen was exciting and important to me. In my teenage years it was much less about being seen, I didn’t want that. I just wanted to make objects and make them stand by themselves. Once I was out of high school and becoming an art student, I had a freer context for my interest in performance. It was liberating to not do it for an ultimate goal of a TV or theatre. And to have more agency and I think—and I don’t want to speak for every performance artists out there—but it really is a way to put yourself out there and be seen with much more control on how you are presented and what kind of context you want to be seen in.
Now, I’m at this place where I don’t want my body to be on the line in my work. For me its always this vacillation between “here I am!” but "oh here’s this other thing you can watch.” It's always an experiment between what happens when I put myself in a situation or what happens when I create a situation. The point of being an artist is ultimately it lives outside of your head and it has to be accountable to other people’s interpretation of it. When it lives in the world you can’t control how it’s perceived anymore.
So that sense of agency is lost a little bit.
Of course. That’s why it’s good to marinate on something before you release it. Or be comfortable with however it’s going to be interpreted if it’s an urgent impulse to do it. If its something that is super precious to you and you don’t want it to be defiled by the gaze of others, it probably not good to put it out there. There’s a certain amount of letting go that has to happen. In performance works I’ve done, I’ve had to accept how its perceived. In some ways, its worse when its not perceived. There’s learning in that, that no one cares. And that’s fine. It’s terrible when it goes off in a way you don’t want and this happens all the time. But you either live with it or you go hide in the desert for the rest of your life.
I want to come back to that thought. But I want to go back to in between coming out of high school and going into art school, how did you first discover performance as a way to work as oppose to going into theatre?
That’s a good question and I think its always felt like a natural progression. The structure of theatre, the culture around it, felt very limiting - almost stultifying.
But did you think of it as performance or did you think of it as ‘I just wanted to try this thing out’?
For a long time, it was just a video I could put my body into. I was really inspired by what Kara Walker was doing. She was doing something that was performative that I kind of figured out later. But they are these environments you can walk into--and obviously, her subject matter is so visceral and intense drawing on so much scary social history but also very personal. The work that she was making was clearly for herself and that was exciting to see especially as a teenager that someone was able to take on huge risk like that. And it was risky. To me, the idea of; there are things that are troubling to me and I can explore that publicly—was really exciting and interesting to me just the way so many things were combined.
I [am] also a huge Tom Green fan. His work was so inspirational to me. The classic comedian thing – willing to do anything to get a laugh. The frightening way he put himself on the line, the willingness to take on serious personal risks in his relationships with his friends, his family, the community. But inside that, the impulse to see what happens when you act outside all expectations of social behaviour. Not just to freak people out, but to see what is perceived as funny, and what enters the realm of the disquieting.
I was really lucky and privileged to grow in these schools where we were encouraged to experiment with disciplines and media. In my mind, theatre was theatre. But art could be anything. You can make sculpture, you can make a painting, you can make something that moves. And being in Toronto and being able to see works by Simone Jones who later ended up becoming a teacher of mine at OCAD. She also was really making scary stuff. So, Simone Jones and Kara Walker and all these other artists I got interested in, they have these performance practices as well but what they were really making were these objects and environments that were very confrontational to the people who where entering them. The stuff that appealed to me was very confrontational in terms of how the artist presents their concerns. Ideas of self destruction come up a lot especially around women’s bodies. Our bodies as objects, people’s bodies as objects and how do we confront that. We still have to live with those histories. How do we confront it and be able to move forward? It is one of the big issues in terms of artists exploring within performance that interests me.
Video Still form I Will Tell You Exactly What I Think of You, 2014 (click image to stream video)
Let's switch here a bit. Tell me a bit about your family. Were your parents creatives in any way? Or did you have siblings who were creatives?
My mom was a painter. She was also a single mother who had to stop painting to feed her family. I grew up in an environment where any creative activity was encouraged. My mom like every parent wanted for me what she couldn’t have for herself and that’s definitely influenced a lot of how I live my life. She sacrificed so that we could have relative stability which is fortunate for me. It really framed for me that if you want to be an artist, it is all sacrifice in our society. Now at this point in my life I’m able to say; Yeah, this is what I do. And this is what I will do.
Is that a comforting thing to know for you?
I mean, who knows? I’m talking to you right now, but I might be cursing myself. I could be ground down by society. [Laughs] It is never stable. I’m sure this the same for everyone. But I think it is always a choice. We are always choosing.
What do you think you wanted to show or present like you said about wanting to be seen at a younger age?
I don’t know if it was conscious. It sounds so stupid but it was more just let see what happens if I do this thing. I think sometimes it is the easiest way to make something meaningful. To not think too hard. To just do it and edit later.
With stuff like Subjects or I will tell you what I think of you, that was really exciting to me, it was not about making something that looked good. It was more about creating a situation people can choose not choose to participate in.
What I think about the participants and the subjects is meaningless. It is more about what it says about me. Whatever I’m saying to them about them is a total projection. Ultimately, I’m the one being exposed. Even now, with the stuff that I’m doing with interactive video and VR, what’s projected onto people’s bodies, or these ephemeral environments.
We all do this all the time. We look at a person and the way they present themselves and the context of where you see them, you draw conclusions. Whether or not those conclusions are right…that's just life. And to put a ridiculous structure around it with a camera and an audience, is just highlighting what is happening all the time. For me doing this is just a constant judgement of my actions and perceptions. It makes me very accountable to my perceptions. And how lucky I am that throughout these performances people allow me to figure my own shit out. What’s weird is how we live like this all the time now. Everything has a filter on it, designed by someone else.
"as the technology gets more and more complicated, it is more and more difficult for each of us as individuals to change it for ourselves—even collectively, we need collective knowledge to be able to do that. The big challenge is how to illustrate and demonstrate that to people in exciting and interesting ways.
I read this thing, I don’t know if you wrote it or not. It reads: “Highlighting the unstated rules and narratives of society and seeing what happens when they become explicit” and that completely made total sense as to how the varying works that you do all comes together. How did that become known to you as to what you’ve been doing all along and another thing that I found really interesting about your work is the subtle humour that comes out of creating these platforms for situations to happen. Even your titles for your performances all make me laugh a little at the thought of them.
It was actually Adrian Dilena, one of the curators who commissioned me to do Subjects, who first put it so concisely. He was the one that pointed it out to me and it was the perfect way to describe it.
Throughout this whole conversation I’ve forgotten the funny parts. I’ve been getting more into making interactive stuff that dives into the really obscure digital structures underneath everything, and I keep having to remind myself that the technical details exist for purposes beyond just existing. The Averaging Mirror is this video mirror that when you look at it, it blurs your face. And I like making those kinds of stuff because its just like a one liner. Even like I’ll tell you what I think about you or 3-minute Girlfriend are all one-line jokes. The one-line jokes are a thing but, what you think that thing is depends your perspective on it. Some people go up to the Averaging Mirror and think that they are anonymous. You see it as being anonymous but the process that led to it, requires a very specific identification of your face. You have to be identified in order to anonymize. I’m interested in how it reveals what it conceals. It’s also basically a giant SnapChat filter, this thing that’s so normal now but blown up to this classical portraiture scale.
Concept photo for Averaging Mirror taken by Yuula Benivolski
I was fortunate to be introduced to the Brazillian artist/activists Fernanda Shirakawa, Natasha Felizi and Joana Varon through Festival HTMlles. Through them I was invited to show the Averaging Mirror at the Cryptorave in Sao Paulo, where I was also introduced to this group InfoPreta. InfoPreta is a cool organization that specifically work by and for women and queer people of colour to build and distribute computers to marginalized women with no strings attached. No judgement on what you’re using it for. Both groups are interested in getting into popular media as a way to normalise people’s experience, their real lives. Not as a way to say “there are no problems”, but to say “the way we choose to live our lives is valid.” And that really resonated with me because after all, that’s what we are really after. In order to create an equitable society, the rules can’t be inscrutable. It has to be easily understandable by everyone. We need to know what is structuring our lives, how the systems are put in place, how you can impact them and how they impact you. My goal in my projects, in the frame I set up, is to make clear to other people what’s really going on through these inversions and jokes. I think it is important that in all the work I do, to be really transparent about all of these structures because they are all running in all of our lives but we can’t necessarily see them.
There’s a huge learning curve with all the technical stuff in what I’m interested in but its also part of the reason why I’m interested in it. Its so critical to how we are experiencing the world and will continue to experience the world but it is so abstract.
Right now we are “users.” We are not actually able to have any impact on how it all functions and it works. It much more convenient to not go through the hard process of building it ourselves. And I don’t blame anybody for that. Even if we have the skills, as individuals we don’t have the necessary resources: the server farms and storage, the bandwidth, the access to privatised information. It is just the system we live under. As the technology gets more and more complicated, it is more and more difficult for each of us as individuals to change it for ourselves—even collectively, we need collective knowledge to be able to do that. The big challenge is how to illustrate and demonstrate that to people in exciting and interesting ways.
Demonstration video still for Averaging Mirror (click image to stream video)
I went to this talk by Richard Zemel about Machine Decision Making and how big data works but it was actually a social justice talk. There are structural biases within all of these tools, devices and codes especially when you consider who is creating the majority of it. Bias is implicit and it exists because people aren’t thinking outside themselves, and then it becomes entrenched as it forms the basis of decision-making structures. The best way to prevent this from being a problem is through civil society. It is us pushing against it. But to push back we need to understand why and how it is a problem.
Just living our lives, our everyday experiences, to turn it on its side just a little, or sometimes all the way on its head, we can get a better idea of what it really looks like.
My last question for you is if you can share a bit about how you think your economic background growing up has been able to help you gain a footing in having and sustaining a creative career but also help develop you thinking processes in how you create?
I was very fortunate and encouraged to do what I want artistically. I was really fortunate to have access in Toronto to incredible public schools that were arts based. From the age of 9 to 14 every single day was pure arts which was amazing. I was really fortunate to have that experience. My high school was also an arts high school. Every single day, I had 90mins to 3hrs of making art and a lot of this was subsidized so I was extremely fortunate.
I’m very aware of my privilege as far as how I present; skinny, blond woman, who speaks perfect English. These are huge advantages for me in this world. At the same time, I was raised by a single mom, we were evicted several times throughout my life, and these experiences of poverty were shameful, as this society frames poverty to be. These were not the experiences of the majority of my peers, and for those that shared them there was no place to discuss it. My access to excellent public education was due to my mom’s knowledge of the system and the school-subsidized fares that got me on public transit for hour-long commutes. In the Toronto Jewish community, there was this myth where people didn’t like to believe that Jews could be poor, where if you don’t go to summer camp or have a big fat mitzvah party you’re kind of suspect. My childhood experiences did a lot to form my “you think it’s this way but what’s really going on?” thought process. I have an understanding of what it is to struggle economically, or to be considered suspect by groups that should share cultural affinities, but I am constantly reminded of my blind-spots and ignorance. I also have a real chip on my shoulder from not having the economic advantages of most of the peers I grew up with. It could be described as hustle, but also entitlement. Aside from that, I’m really fortunate to live in a city that is safe and peaceful, and that has so much money floating around. I got to work paid creative gigs as a child, a teenager, and that was really important as a young artist to learn that my ideas, my skills have value. So while for a lot of my classmates dance or art or music was something your parents paid for lessons for so you could excel, for me it was a way to make money. Don’t let people tell you your work is valuable only as its own experience if you’re there to help them out. Money means something, even if it’s just an honorarium. You can’t always get paid to express yourself, but if you’re working to help with the facilitation of other people’s art don’t do it for free. You do most of your own work for free, because that’s the only way it gets done. But anyone who works as an artist, who isn’t fully supported by family money, knows this. Our limitations shape our work, or force it to end. That’s ultimately a choice.
Photo by Yuula Benivolski