We had the good fortune of connecting with Zeina Baltagi and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Zeina, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Life is a series of decisions. Some may seem riskier than others. There is this myth, saying graphic design is a safer route than fine arts. The reality is far less concrete, yet far more personalized to the one involved: anything you do takes hard work and dedication. I believe we all have a purpose in this world – it is a natural human instinct to want to be of service to the collective whole. If we do what we feel we excel at, whether it be in the humanities; in tech, biology, graphic design, animation or law… We are more likely to succeed. I have taken quite a few risks in my career. One was quitting my jobs in plural teaching art and being an artist around Los Angeles, which I fully enjoyed. This was in pursuit of an elusive master’s in fine arts degree that may or may not put me in a better position in my art and teaching practice. I just graduated in 2020 from the University of California, Davis so I will see how it goes. I think we take a series of risks in our lives in hopes of a level up or sometimes for love. It can lead down tumultuous paths, but I am still here, alive, making art. So, I suppose it’s always worth it. Risk seeps into every aspect of what I do.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My work examines mobility in the collision of physical, emotional, racial and economic identities. I explore materials that carry collective memory and symbolism in relation to my personal experience with walking in my perceived collective surroundings. Objects such as currency, the national flag or the Cul-de-sac sidewalk hold collective memory through time. They are shared symbols with real consequences. I study objects that carry layers of memories that can-not be erased although unseen. I turned thirteen years old, on September 11, 2001. Overnight the political landscape of America changed. At that time, I was undergoing an experimental knee, tibia, and femur titanium endo- prosthetic replacement. I was asleep the entirety of the day, but what is important is the days after. I had to re-learn how to walk with my new limitations, including a newly sexualized and exoticized form as a teenager, a new political landscape, a new leg and a new urban environment now visible from a different bodily perspective. This is also where I discovered my mobility as a means of being connected with and vulnerable to others. Sidewalks are a delineated separation from moving traffic to provide an adequate buffer space and a sense of safety for pedestrians. But for whom? The sidewalk is where most of my work is pulled from and performances are held. It is the space between the private and the public. It is where we talk to our neighbors, where children play, where protests are made, where the resistance is discussed, and many people are assaulted, arrested, murdered. The ability to walk freely is a privilege often taken for granted. Our ability as to how far we can mobilize ourselves is dependent on ability, race, gender perception, and class. Whereas the perspective of one’s body walking through space in relation to landscape and other bodies was once undervalued is now at the forefront of our thoughts via an airborne global pandemic. The individual walking through space and on the ground brings their own self-perspective and interpreted interaction with the urban landscape. This year is the 20th anniversary of my prosthetic leg. One day postmortem I imagine my titanium knee, femur and tibia to be in a museum carrying the memory of where I have been from puberty to decomposition. I am most excited about my current work investigating surveillance. I received a wonderful opportunity through 11:11 A Creative Collective, who got me funding through the Department of Cultural Affairs LA. This allowed me to immerse myself in the examination of surveillance through a series of discussions, performances and art creation. Beginning with a series of conversations with artists and philosophers. I discussed the artists relationship with media with Ron Athey and Arshia Fatima Haq. Cultural policing and censorship with Yasmine Nasser Diaz and Loujain Bager. Inverse Surveillance, the gaze of social media and reality tv, algorithm manipulation and hacking the internet with Casey Kauffmann and Gretchen Andrew. What does it mean to be put under medical observation, organ donation, as-well as visible and invisible disabilities with Lechedevirgen Trimegisto, Panteha Abareshi and Ted Meyer. Concluding the lecture series and kicking off the physical residency, I spoke with artists Marton Robinson, Thinh Nguyen and Amitis Motevalli where we discussed the surveillance of the white gaze, what does it mean to be watched by institutions as an artist? What does it mean to be racially profiled? The lecture series ended November 22nd and recordings can be found on www.1111acc.org/air . Since then, I spent the last month of December visiting the mass amount of Liquor Stores in the San Fernando Valley. The corner market store is more than a place where one buys beer and gum but a place that is essential especially in a pandemic. This is found relevant as a common ground where people of all class, gender, race and ability intersect with in the space’s transience and its grounding ability for community regulars. This makes the Liquor store a fertile ground for the racial construct to be enacted into dangerous results. Please visits 11:11 A Creative Collective website to learn more www.1111acc.org/air
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
In Los Angeles I would take my friend to the wash behind the city. We would spend some time at the LA River walking around. I would go for a drive to Ventura County into Fillmore, California and up the mountains to see the stars and planets. We would to-go order food from X’tiousu. Kitchen, a Lebanese/Oaxacan restaurant located at 923 Forest Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90033 in Boyle Heights. Follow them on Instagram @xtiosu
I would also take my friend to get tested for Covid and quarantine them somewhere before doing some outdoor social distant adventures, because they are visiting during an airborne pandemic. We can enjoy each other’s company safely and go nowhere.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Shout outs: For my physical mobility: My prosthetic leg; I wouldn’t be able to walk without the tireless work and care of my dedicated surgeon, Dr. Richard O’Donnell, from UCSF medical center. I am alive because my mother, who not only gave me life, but saved my life on numerous occasions. Iman Baltagi is why I am breathing and have the huge privilege of walking on this planet. For my artist mentors, friends I admire, the guides, and experienced artists: Jessica Wimbley https://www.jessicawimbley.com @jessica.wimbley Samantha Fields http://www.samanthafields.net @samanthafieldsstudio Ron Athey https://www.ronathey.org @ronathey Thinh Nguyen http://thinhstudio.com@thinhstudio
For my musical collaborators I admire and work with such as: DHKC, who can be found on Instagram and Twitter by searching @the_dhkc And Derek Stein, a cello player who can be found at www.derekstein.com and on Instagram @dereksteincello
Other: You can always sign up for my newsletter via my website, slide into my DM’s or send me an e-mail to make contact.
All photographs are taken by film photographer Nathan Jorgenson. You can see more of his work on instagram @fotoapparatic. The image of the cul-de-sac sidewalk wrapped around a bay laurel tree and I walking across it is called: Daphne Materials: Concrete, rebar and sand. Location: The Domes, Baggins End, Davis, CA 95616 Coordinates: 38.543143,-121.765510 2020 The image of 2 concrete sidewalk squares stacked on top of each other with embedded kiffeyeh’s and a sandwiched Lazy Suzanne where I am standing on it spinning in place is called: I’m Spinning Materials: Concrete, rebar, steel spinning wheel, and keffiyeh scarves. Size: 50”x50”x8” 2020