Take Five is an interview series asking people what’s up.
Mission Loc@l: In an earlier work (Gaijin), you explored the concept of foreignness. Your upcoming show Baggage Allowance that opens on May 20th seems to explore a related theme.
Pamela Z: I love language… and themes of language and the sound of words themselves seem to pop up in all my works. Gaijin was really inspired by my six months of living in Japan. This new work is really more inspired by a lifetime of traveling various places, a lifetime of accumulation of things (both tangible and intangible), and the “weight” of forever carrying those things around.
ML: Its imagery is evocative. An x-ray machine revealing secrets, a woman weeping inside a steamer trunk…
PZ: I like choosing a theme that is rather broad and open-ended in nature, then letting the work explore its various facets… For me, this subject is relevant in my life and the lives of most everyone I encounter — in ways that include very literal references to actual physical luggage, as well as deeper issues around attachment, memory, and emotional baggage. In my own frequent travels, I find myself constantly packing and unpacking, and it’s curious examining my own attachment to certain things that I always take (even on short trips).
I so frequently live out of suitcases that I find that I identify with my baggage as if my bag is me. Those bags are often laden with necessary things and comforting things, and often my most treasured things. They embody my sense of adventure, my loneliness, my stored up sorrow.
In this work, I address the concept as it relates to life-long attachment to things–and all the emotion and history that is embedded in these things. I conducted a number of interviews with people in which I asked them a broad range of questions about “baggage”.
I not only asked them to list what they put into their suitcases when they travel, but I also asked about memories of moving themselves and everything they own, about things they may have in storage or in their parent’s cellars or attics, whether they worry about what will happen to the belongings of their aging parents, whether they’ve ever lost or found treasured items etc. These questions brought up a lot of very rich responses and stories, and in a few cases resulted in the biting back of tears. So, yes, there is a lot encoded in our belongings and our baggage.
ML: In your live multimedia solo performances, you seem to extend out of your body and embody the space, accompanying your own vocals with sounds controlled by your gestures. How do you master instruments whose strings are invisible? And can you tell us about what technologies are involved?
PZ: The two kinds of gesture controllers I use the most are the BodySynth (created by Ed Severinghaus & Chris Van Raalte) and the UTM Ultrasound controller (created by Donald Swearingen.)
The BodySynth uses electrode sensors which are worn directly against my skin and measure the electricity generated by my muscles. It is really the same technology as medical equipment used to measure your EKG in the hospital. So it is, in essence, a bio-feedback device.
The UTM (which I nicknamed “the Swear”) uses ultrasound information. Both sides of the device have an emitter that generates an ultrasound signal and sensor that recognizes the return of that signal. So as I move my hands near of the device, It can sense the proximity of my hand the same way that a bat senses the cave walls using echolocation.
When playing these instruments, it’s really a matter of learning to control subtle movements of the body, which is, in a sense, related to the process of playing an acoustic instrument. One refines her technique by practice over time.
ML: After incorporating these technologies into your art for so long, do you find the fusion of body and tool carries over to daily life? (For example, when you raise your hand to stop a taxi, do you sometimes hear a sound sample repeated in your mind?)
PZ: I don’t know about that, but I do find that working with these gesture-activated controllers does inform the quality of my movement even when I’m not using them. There’s a kind of inner-calm and inner-stillness that one achieves when working with instruments that respond to the slightest changes in electrical impulses in the muscles.
Also, the constant use of a computer certainly affects my interactions with the real world, and I do sometimes find myself wishing I could use “Command-F” to retrieve physical things I’ve lost, or use “Command-Z” to undo my mistakes!
ML: Still, when composing, you always start with your voice. Why?
PZ: Everyone has natural tendencies when it comes to the tools they have a knack for or comfort with. For me, the voice is the most immediate and the instrument with which I have the most facility. I also am very attracted to the things that happen sonically when speaking and/or singing voices are layered and looped, so I guess I’ll always incorporate that combination of voice and technology with whatever else I explore.
ML: How are you collaborating with Bay Area Video Coalition?
PZ: BAVC has worked with me from early on in the project contributing to aspects ranging from some administrative functions to providing a cameraperson, equipment and studio for video shoots, to some technical mentorship on some of the video aspects of the work.
ML: You’re one of the neighborhood heroes in the mural outside Horace Mann Middle School.
PZ: The mural was actually a surprise to me. The artist who supervised that project forgot to mention it to me, so I found out by having someone tell me “I saw you in a mural in the Mission District.” I didn’t believe them at first, and assumed there was just someone who looked like me in a mural, Then I saw the mural myself. I laughed out loud that I had doubted my friend. It was a very nice honor to be depicted there.
ML: With arts at risk from budget cuts, how can young people explore and develop new frontiers in arts and technology ?
PZ: I think that curious children will always experiment with things on their own regardless of what happens in schools, but I still feel that it’s absolutely essential for the health of our society that the arts be taught in schools. It’s criminal that so many people see this as an unnecessary luxury. I really feel that art-making and art appreciation is a key part of being human, and should be taught, nurtured, and encouraged from early on.
ML: Did the Icelandic volcano eruption alter Baggage Allowance?
PZ: My experience of being stuck in Europe with a very limited amount of luggage at a time when I was working on a piece about baggage certainly stirred things up for me so, although I don’t know if I can point to anything specific in the piece that came out of the experience, it definitely affected me, and all of that winds up in the work somehow….
Pamela Z’s BAGGAGE ALLOWANCE
Multi-media solo performance world premiere
Z Space at Theater Artaud
450 Florida Street
Thursday-Sunday, May 20-23
8pm (Thu-Sat), 3pm (Sun)
Tickets $20 General, $16 Student/Senior
Baggage Allowance is a new intermedia work exploring the connections between people and the belongings (and memories) they cart around — baggage as impediment and baggage as treasure. Composer, performer, concepts, video and sound design: Pamela Z. Lighting designer/ visual director: Elaine Buckholtz. Produced in collaboration with Bay Area Video Coalition. Check out the trailer on YouTube.