As a demonstration, 2013. Acrylic vacuum chamber, electric bell, and steel, 22 x 25 x 22 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist, BAM/PFA, Berkeley, and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

Making Strange: A Conversation with Zarouhie Abdalian

New Orleans native Zarouhie Abdalian, who recently returned to her hometown after stints in Philadelphia and Oakland, is a multidisciplinary artist whose work often interrogates site-specificity. Using sound, performance, and sculpture, she draws attention to the overlooked by framing a space and restoring forgotten aspects of its layered history—for instance, projecting spoken words about industry into New York’s Meatpacking District to question labor relations or replacing sections of siding and fencing at the New Orleans African American Museum with mirrored glass to invite consideration of the site’s troubled past. In 2012, Abdalian, who earned her MFA from the California College of the Arts, was awarded a SECA award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Since then, her installations have appeared in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, as well as at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center.

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams: Could you discuss your shift from painting and printmaking, which you studied as an undergrad at Tulane University, to site-specific installations incorporating sound?
Zarouhie Abdalian: Even when I was working in two dimensions, I was interested in where the work would be encountered. How does the location of an artwork affect a viewer’s experience of it? For example, in 2004, I was presenting portraiture projects in unusual places such as parking lots and a homeless men’s shelter. These shows were early experiments in making work informed by its situation and addressed to various publics.

In 2007–08, I had a residency at the Episcopal Cathedral in Philadelphia. In exchange for studio space, the Cathedral requested that I donate a work for permanent installation in the worship space. Parallax (2008) is a light installation that formally echoes a skylight feature in the existing space; in the artwork however, an image of the Cathedral’s West Philadelphia neighborhood is projected into the space, inviting congregants to consider their location within the surrounding neighborhood. I finished that project right before leaving for graduate school at the California College of Arts. At CCA, a decidedly interdisciplinary program encouraged me to think broadly about the context and materials of my work. The experimental art and music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area offered both historical precedent and contemporary context for a broader range of art-making.

Hold, 2018. Ballast stone and gold plate, 2.5 x 4.75 x 4.75 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

ADVA: What was your path toward sound art?
My partner and collaborator of 13 years, Joseph Rosenzweig, is an artist, musician, and composer. When we moved to the Bay Area, he attended the MFA program in music at Mills College. There was a lot of back and forth between us as we worked through projects and our graduate programs. Many of the materials that I started using, particularly after school, were materials that Joseph knew a lot about and used in his work. It made sense to introduce sound into my installations. In conceiving site-based pieces, I’m often interested in the materials that are already at a site or that might plausibly be found there. Sound is one such commonplace “material.” Joseph and I work through my projects together and also produce formal collaborations, including Transport Empty and threnody for the millions killed by silicosis (both 2017).

ADVA: In Functions (2015), performed at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, you consider the work of Luc Ferrari and Pauline Oliveros. How do you think of your work in relation to these historical sound art figures?
For Functions, which is the only work I’ve made for performance, my historical research was specific to composers and artists who’d made prose scores or instruction pieces. That piece is indebted to Oliveros, Christian Wolff, Allison Knowles, and Yoko Ono. In general, though, I’ve focused my study mostly on artists working with sound and site—like Max Neuhaus and Maryanne Amacher. In the end, I’d say my work comes from decidedly sculptural traditions, whereas the artists I’ve just mentioned generally come from musical traditions.

Chanson du ricochet, 2018. Handwritten text in cursive and ink on wall, approx. 135 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist, Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

ADVA: How do you think about the relationship between visitor and work in your public pieces, including Occasional Music, installed in Oakland, California, in 2013, or Chanson du ricochet, installed in New Orleans in 2014, at the Whitney Biennial in 2017, and currently at MASS MoCA?
ZA: I learned a lot from working on Occasional Music. There were multiple audiences for the piece: there were the people who were already in the downtown area where it was installed, some of whom—whether interpreting it as art or not—noticed and became familiar with the bells that went off at a different time each day, articulating randomized rhythms; there were those who didn’t notice the work at all; and there was a group of very noticeable noticers—the art-going public, who would show up just before the bells started and look attentively around the public square. It was important that the work hailed a range of auditors, some engaged in activities other than evaluating artwork and some there for that express purpose. I think it was useful that there was nothing delimiting the space of the work. There was no particular object to look at—in fact, there wasn’t even an ideal listening position. Partially because of this, the status of the work’s “participants” was ambiguous.

Each installation of Chanson du ricochet has been unique, but its first iteration similarly sought to address a range of auditors. Though the work was installed at the New Orleans African American Museum, much of it happened on the side of the campus that faced the sidewalk and street. With both of these pieces, as well as others, I’m aiming to call the viewer’s attention to the histories materialized in objects and sites. To effect this, I often find myself working in ways that are subtle or that might be overlooked. This is intentional, because I don’t want the works to be too far outside the viewer’s everyday experience. The effect I’m after is one of defamiliarization, a making-strange that changes how a site registers in the everyday experiences of the viewer, beyond and away from the site and at the moment of contact with the artwork itself.

ADVA: Boundaries denote different things in your work. You have the boundary of the museum; then, the boundary of your sightline; and finally, the boundary of the sound. How do you think about these multiple boundaries?
ZA: Boundaries, borders, thresholds, and other features that designate the transition between spaces are interesting to me because they are the parts of material sites where one type of space might butt up against another, where one public might encounter another. The boundaries of art spaces are the places where one might address a broader public. For this reason, I’ve made a number of pieces for windows, including Flutter (2011) and Interregnum (2016), and works that deal with more subtle boundaries in public space, such as Occasional Music. The meaning of materials also changes along the boundaries that distinguish “art” spaces from their outsides.

Interregnum, 2016. Printed screen, 93 x 44 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

ADVA: Part of your practice, namely the sound installations, is very ephemeral; but another part, the sculpture, is materially based. You’ve used silk, plated security bars, tools, cockleburs, lamb bones, and piano keys. Can you discuss that difference?
I’m interested in thinking through the specificity of the types of spaces in which I work: outdoor public space, the gallery, the museum, and the art fair. From the time I left graduate school in 2010 until 2015, the bulk of my practice was site-specific. When I started making work for museums, I wanted to treat them as specific places as well. I was thinking about the language of the museum, using vitrine elements to make certain aspects of sculptures inaccessible, as in As a demonstration and Each envelope as before (both 2013). When it came to producing work for a gallery setting, I initially sought to address that space as a site of public exchange (the objects are there temporarily and then move on to other spaces and collections). This situation has parallels with gift-giving or making offerings—though the “gifts” that I designed were slightly duplicitous, as in the case of Posy (2014), which is a bouquet of cockleburs. Recently, however, my intentions around making objects have changed. Over the last couple years, I’ve been using objects to explore ideas initiated by site-based works. Many of the most recent sculptures came out of Chanson du ricochet.

ADVA: Do you make the sculptures?
I do, though there are certainly parts that I work on with fabricators—for instance, after I sanded and polished the tools in the “Joint” series (2016–17), they were nickel plated by a professional. I also work with other professionals, including programmers and welders, and, of course, I work with Joseph on realizing all manner of things. Several recent projects have been at a scale I could not achieve alone. For instance, to make Banner (2018), a group of six people, including myself, embroidered a large canvas over a two-week period.

Joint (ix), 2017. Mirrored hand tools, 7 x 7 x 10.5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

ADVA: Labor, specifically the exploitation of labor, shows up repeatedly in your practice, in Having Been Held Under the Sway (2011), Transport Empty (2017), and threnody for the millions killed by silicosis (2017), to name just a few.
ZA: Under capitalism, most labor is exploited labor. Most people don’t work for their own benefit. You’re working for a wage, and a capitalist boss is making a profit. Silicosis is an occupational disease that affects stone knappers, lens makers, miners, and others inhaling small particulate matter. As the title indicates, threnody is offered as a kind of wailing song, but at the same time, it depicts blunt power and force—the sounds depict the percussive act of knapping as it reverberates through diverse spaces such as a mine, a cathedral, a factory floor, and a dungeon. Through the sound installation, these disparate locations are connected. Transport Empty also depicts various spaces. It is made from field recordings at a number of worksites, including a machine shop, a commercial kitchen, a grocery store, and a construction site. It is exactly one hour long, divided into scenes from these worksites and silences that last exactly as long as the scene that follows. The piece mirrors in a condensed form the typical division of workers’ waking hours between “free” time and the time during which their labor is at the disposal of a boss.

Zarouhie Abdalian and Joseph Rosenzweig, threnody for the millions killed by silicosis, 2017. 4.1 audio, 45 min., dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

ADVA: There’s a certain level of irony with your interest in labor. As an artist, though you manipulate materials, you also engage in intellectual labor. It reminds me of the moment in the 1960s with the Art Workers Coalition (AWC).
I understand what you’re getting at, but I don’t think I’d characterize it as ironic. After all, it is the capitalist mode of production that seeks to divorce “brain work” from manual work. The advent of capitalism has seen a major increase in the division of labor into limited operations performed by specialists (a division that is meant to increase profits for a few owners). There isn’t an inherent contradiction, antagonism, or separation between thinking about materials and processes and manipulating materials. Even under capitalism, artists can work through the complete production process—conception, material testing, making the work. We work in ways that are not specialized; we are not “detail” workers. As a species, we are suffering because of over-specialization—because of the labor process being divided in ways that produce profit—and this siloing, division, and specialization results in nearsighted, profit-driven social arrangements that are not for the benefit of humanity. This is wrong, and I don’t think that I should understand what I do and who I am according to this anti-social system.

But, I understand your question to be one about class. One of the problems with the AWC seems to have been that, even while they sought to define themselves as “art workers,” as a group, they lacked working-class solidarity. Many artists work in direct service of the bourgeoisie. The stereotypical image of the artist is not usually a worker—many artists are involved in petty production—they are petit bourgeois and own the means of their production. (I include myself in this category.) But even if you are petit bourgeois, even if you have some financial security, the position is a tenuous one—one is always at risk of being driven back down into the working class. (Of course, I’m ignoring the many artists with family money, inheritances, or trust funds.) This unique class character is one of the things that has made artists potentially useful in a revolutionary sense—it also makes them untrustworthy and dangerous.

In the end, the artists who sustain themselves from art production alone are a privileged few. Most artists are also workers: the way they get by is to sell their labor power to somebody who has means and is buying their labor power, which is to say, exploiting their labor. If artists want to understand themselves as art workers, rather than being distracted by individualistic aspirations of success and security and “making it,” they should choose to work in solidarity with other members of the working class to win equity not just for art workers, but for all workers. In 1969, someone wrote an anonymous letter to the AWC proposing just this kind of class solidarity, suggesting that the AWC understand the slogan “all power to the workers” to mean “all power to all workers.” I think there is revolutionary possibility when art workers join with hospitality workers join with petrochemical workers join with cab drivers, understanding that class interests align.

Each envelope as before, 2013. Acrylic vitrine, solenoids, electronics, and steel, 47.75 x 70 x 38 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist, BAM/PFA, Berkeley, and Altman Siegel, San Francisco

ADVA: You were born in New Orleans and left in 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Why did you return in 2016?
When I left, I was always thinking about when I was going to come back. Though Oakland was definitely a home away from home, we felt like we couldn’t keep living in the Bay Area. Many artists were being made homeless or leaving because of the housing crisis. Artistically it felt very stifling to be there at that time partly because the community was so stressed and fractured. It didn’t feel like we could be useful or afford a future there. It was finally time to move home and figure out what living and working in New Orleans might mean for us.

ADVA: Critics say that your work is indebted to history, specifically the history of New Orleans. What kind of connection do you see between your work and the city?
When I was growing up here, I met an artist named John T. Scott. Mr. Scott would talk about what he called a jazz philosophy of art-making: you make work that is grounded in the present but with a deep sense of its past and a vision for the future. Time isn’t linear; what he described and understood was the spherical nature of time. The way I see it, if I diagram it out, is that the present is a tiny dot inside a bigger sphere that is the past. The past is around and is contained in the present, but there is this thing that radiates out, and that’s the forward-looking element, the future element. Mr. Scott challenged us as students to try to make art that would function according to this philosophy and understanding of time. How do you make a piece that functions that way? This is something I continue to think about with my work.