Other Investigations: Suzanna Zak

Previously featured on Make Space (here), Baltimore-based artist Suzanna Zak talks about her practice below!

On process and collecting:

Being out in the world, participating, observing, seeing, etc, is what comes first. Then there’s the capturing, which was my initial attraction to photography. My work often starts with going to an unknown place and recording those experiences.  These findings, observations, and materials exist in a plethora of formats. In my day to day, I often take cell phone photos of things like strange clouds, graffiti, vanity plates, plants, pickup trucks with good paint jobs, etc. I also carry a notebook with me most of the time, which is mostly for writing. My writing primarily consists of lists, such as place names, or short stories about girls climbing over fences. I think of this writing as scenarios for possible photographs, but sometimes I’ll let text will sneak into my work.

Whenever I go to a new place I usual photograph with a medium format camera. I’m always collecting things during my travels. These objects are items such as railroad spikes, rocks, glass bottles, or a pencil that says, “GET IN THE MOOD FOR NATURE.” Collecting has become a crucial component to my work. I am greatly interested in the concepts surrounding Chinese scholars’ rocks such as the idea that they can stimulate (shenyou) or imagined travel. Essentially, I want the objects I collect serve as “memory triggers” to an experience in a specific place. The forms are inherently linked to the place they came from. In regards to the objects I’ve collected for my thesis work, DRIFTLAND, some of the reoccurring forms are lighters and fake flowers. I like that through the process of decontextualizing the objects, new connections can be made between the forms.

Baltimore is blessed to have the Book Thing which is a free bookstore. For the last couple years, I’ve been collecting old travel guide books. I spend a lot of time with these books and love seeing the different methods and formats of recording an experience for the purpose of enabling others to do the same. I see the collection of these books as a kind of implied travel.

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On materials and medium:

The majority of my output is in the form of darkroom c-prints from medium format film. I feel so blessed being able to have the opportunity to print photos traditionally. On top of preferring the quality and “realness” of darkroom prints, I mostly am attracted to the experience of printing. Being in the darkroom for long stretches of time even feels meditative.  I’m still in awe of how images appear out of apparent darkness, or how -5 Yellow can completely change the mood of a photograph. It’s sad that these materials are being less and less available. The darkroom is a place that is also conducive to experimentation, as it is the perfect place to investigate altered perception.

Another portion of my output is in the form of hand printed photo lithographs. Nothing else can resemble oil ink on paper. I’m enamored by the physicality of these prints, from the final product to the initial image exposure. Lithography allows me to really dwell on one image. The process of making lithographs is labor intensive, to say the least. Pulling a piece of paper off the press bed is always an exciting and anxious moment. I like working through images, from deciding what paper to print on or whether to mix my black ink warm or cool. I’m also interested in the transformation that an image goes through as it starts from a film negative, a scan, a film positive, a lithographic plate, and the final print.  That being said, I’m also excited by the inherent degrading of imagery as well as the misprints and accidents that occur along the way. On that note, in regards to my collection of old travel guides, as printed matter, I love finding printing mistakes. One of my favorite instances of this is a book that has a two page spread of the badlands with the majority of the image being the sky. Each page must have been printed at separate times because the blue in the sky is different on each page.

On research process:

Going to MICA means I’m surrounded by other artists constantly. I’ve made a close group of friends, who I respect as artists and as people.  We’re in constant dialogue about each others’ practices.  The ability to visit all my friends’ studios and to closely see their ideas form and develop at a close range is what I’ll miss most when I graduate. So much of art making is really just creative problem solving and it’s amazing how much easier it is to figure things out if you have one other person to talk to. My boyfriend, Nicholas Gottlund is also an artist, so it’s another opportunity to have insight into someone else’s practice. We’re interested in a lot of similar subjects but have different approaches so it’s incredibly stimulating to watch his process. It’s great to be able to have people close to you that know what you’re trying to accomplish through your work, as they can give you the best critique. Nick also has an amazing book collection which still has me making new discoveries. Books are one of my favorite ways to encounter new work. I also really enjoy going to the MICA library not looking for anything specific and picking up books at random. It’s not long before you’ll find something interesting. Most recently I’ve been really excited by the work of Allan Ruppersberg and Carol Bove. In the end, though, the majority of art I see is on the internet. I also really love following younger artists tumblrs.

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On space and site:

My geographical location is probably one of the most pertinent aspects of my work. The majority of my photographs are taken while I’m away from home. Being located in Baltimore means I’m in close proximity to West Virginia, a place that has become the main focus of some of my work. For my thesis, I went on a one week “drive” through West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina simply based on a list of places names. I try to have no preconceived notions of place and let my actual experience guide the work.

Although not blatantly depicted in my work, Baltimore has a huge impact on me. Every time I leave Baltimore for an extended period of time I think I learn more about the place itself.  It takes leaving a place to know a place.  It really feels like anything goes here. You can even make a left turn on red here! It’s a makeshift kind of city and from the signage of a convenient store to spray paint on the sidewalk, I make visual notes of my surroundings.

I’ve actually only had a studio once for 4 months. It was a great time in which my work progressed immensely. I’ve started working more with sculpture so obviously it’s crucial to have space for this. Now, the majority of my work is stored in a flat file in the printmaking building. Meanwhile, the collected objects for my thesis work are all relatively small. I like thinking of myself as a voluntary nomad and that at any moment I could fit them into one small box and be on my way.