Artist Brenda (Bz) Zhang Examines Sense of Belonging In the Built Environment
Gray Area is currently showcasing our first large-scale immersive exhibition entitled, The End Of You, inviting visitors to explore multi-sensory installations that encourage new ways of perceiving the self within the living world. Throughout this past year, artists participating in the Experiential Space Research Lab have been reimagining ways to radically shift perspective through the power of immersive art.
Visual artist and spatial designer, Brenda Zhang (Bz), brings her architectural and artistic training and background in community activation to the Research Lab. She co-founded the Oakland and Rio de Janeiro-based architectural collective SPACE INDUSTRIES.
Describe your background and your creative journey.
I am a visual artist and architectural designer. I create surfaces, objects, and spaces that are primarily concerned with physical and social construction as entangled processes.
I initially trained as a painter, then moved on to explore sculpture, furniture, installation, landscape architecture, city planning, and architecture in a sequence I see as a continuous (and enthusiastic) expansion of scale and scope. This work is heavily informed by an environmental studies background, specifically around land use and sovereignty, and by what I learn every day from organizing with communities toward housing, labor, and climate justice.
I am a founding member of the spatial design collective, SPACE INDUSTRIES, with a Master of Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley and a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Visual Arts from Brown University. Currently, I work as the architectural assistant to Lauren Bon at the Metabolic Studio in Los Angeles.
What are some of the themes behind your work?
In particular, my work deals with Home and Elsewhere as two foundational stories we tell to explain who and where we are, but which are both very fallible by definition. We draw the boundaries for each using principles of exclusion (who belongs? who does not?), which make Elsewhere closer to Home than we claim. Both othering and belonging generate the potential for compassion as well as violence. Themes of conflict, agency, and accountability all appear throughout my work through this lens.
Regardless of medium, a lot of my art practice involves translation in one way or another, whether it’s between a conceptual sketch and a construction document, from form and color into expression, from written and spoken language into visual language and back again, between scales, and so on, which I think comes from being a bilingual person of color, a descendant of immigrants in this country, a queer person, a femme person. The focus on translation comes from a deep inquiry into how power and narrative shape one another, and what that means for us in terms of survival.
Your studio’s project, ELSEWHERE, OR ELSE WHERE?, examines the idea of belonging and ownership in the built environment. How can we create a sense of place and belonging for audiences in experiential design? Do you plan on continuing this exploration in the incubator?
I often return to an idea from evolutionary biology — the survival of the most fitting (as opposed to survival of the fittest). Creating Place is not about people proving their fitness in a rigged system. Rather, creating Place is an opportunity to actually meet people where we are coming from, where we are, and where we’re going. In my own work and in the research lab, it means recognizing that as designers and artists, we too willingly become tools of exploitative systems, and we too easily perpetuate socially constructed boundaries (for instance, by designing restricted access based on gender, sexuality, mobility, religion, culture). It also means that we have a lot of agency in redesigning and re-presenting Places to which we can all belong.
What are some obstacles you’ve faced throughout your career?
I am extremely grateful for the wonderful mentors, peers, and elders I’ve had in my path. It is also true that navigating the arts within a national legacy of white supremacy, cis-hetero-patriarchy, and (neo)colonialism, as a person at the intersection of marginalized identities, is difficult. I have had to (and continue to) push back against assumptions that I do not or cannot belong to certain spaces, narratives, skill sets, and disciplines, or that I do not or cannot belong to more than one at a time.
For instance, I have been chastised as not being “serious” enough about one discipline because of my engagement with another; had my participation written off as filling a “diversity quota”; and been repeatedly misidentified as a secretary in a wood shop that employed me as a fabricator and did not employ a secretary at all. These are very common experiences for Black and indigenous communities and communities of color, queer and trans communities, Disabled communities, and any community systemically disenfranchised.
In my own path, learning to speak, and then speaking in many visual and spatial languages (art and architecture as my primary two) has been a critical way for me and for our communities to have a voice. Arts and built environment disciplines in particular often use bureaucratic or otherwise hard-to-understand language as a barrier to entry.
What led you to Gray Area’s Experiential Space Research Lab?
The most formative experiences I’ve had of space have always been what we could, in hindsight, describe as “immersive” or “experiential.” Coming from Chinese diasporic traditions, we have specific foods, colors, clothing, scents, dances, sports, and music for every festival and holiday. As a person coming of age in the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and New England, and living and working most recently in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the most impactful spaces have been artist- and musician-run DIY spaces, queer spaces, and shoestring-budget movement-building spaces. For me, that’s what makes Gray Area’s inquiry into experiential space so important — we need many strategies and explorations of how to increase access to and meaningful execution of these kinds of space for audiences and creators alike.
Much of my practice has been in dialogue with and, since the Ghost Ship Fire in December of 2016, in honor of our beloved Nick “Nicky” “nocky” “nicky goha” “nicky bromez-hall” Gomez-Hall, who, among an exhaustive list of illustrious creative endeavors, was endlessly reshaping spaces into powerful and meaningful places.
What are past projects you’ve worked on that resonate with the Experiential Space Research Lab?
One project that comes to mind is my undergraduate fine arts thesis, titled LIGHT BULB LITTLE BOMB (2013), which was a site-specific installation in the lobby of the visual arts building. I rolled out 800 square feet of (salvaged) Rhode Island sod and artificial grass and used live electrical wires of assemblage lamps to draw the topography of mountaintop removal coal mining sites in Appalachia.
The title is in reference to Picasso’s painting, Guernica, in which a light bulb inscribed within an eye at the apex of the painting represents the bombing of the city. In my work, the bombilla (“light bulb” / “little bomb”), in clusters of playful lamps on a lawn, represents both the dreamy illumination of domesticity and the horrific and explosive extraction of fossil fuels used to power our homes. Those entering the building had to first encounter this space, and visitors were invited to lounge on the grass, turn on and off lamps to change the lighting in the room, and learn about the sourcing of each exhibition material as well as the ongoing student-led fossil fuel divestment efforts at the university.
How do you consider your audience throughout the creative process?
Fondly, respectfully, sincerely, and with love!
For me, a successful artwork is thoughtful and intentional about how it is or is not accessible to many kinds of audiences, so to that end, my process in my personal practice, as well as on this artist team, has been to continuously seek to understand how each element embodies many points of entry, access, and interpretation.
What do you hope people gain from interacting with your work?
Room to breathe, room to reflect, room to care for oneself and others.
I hope this exhibition in particular can function as a proof of concept for just one of hopefully many alternate imaginaries and narratives. In that sense, I hope that people interacting with my work and our work at Gray Area will come away with a sense that their understanding of what is possible has been expanded — for a space like this, in a world like ours.
Your work at SPACE INDUSTRIES treats architecture as a social and cultural practice. Will you be approaching the realm of experiential space with the same regard? If so, what elements of social critique and justice do you hope to work into this new project?
Absolutely. Any space made into Place is political, regardless of intention. Our every decision changes boundaries, excluding some and including others, and in that sense architecture always takes a side. We are the ones who give physical relations and conditions social meaning. As SPACE INDUSTRIES, we are explicitly artists and architects coming from historically marginalized communities working in cis-het-white-male-dominated disciplines. Especially in the Mission District in San Francisco, especially on unceded Ohlone land, especially in a country with a white supremacist colonial history, we believe the practice of designing space is necessarily political, social, cultural. We have the same approach to experiential space: that it must be by us, for us, and be rooted in our pasts, presents, and futures.
Which of your projects with SPACE INDUSTRIES are you drawing from or using as a jumping off point for this project?
Our project, ELSEWHERE, OR ELSE WHERE?, begins with the premise that current ideas of Home and Elsewhere are no longer useful, then uses disciplinary tools of architecture to shape new constructions of what they could be (both physical and cultural). In the same vein, our exhibition, The End Of You, begins by challenging Western social constructions of self-identity and personhood, and the moral philosophy built from that foundation. Given that personhood has historically been used as a weapon by Western ideologies to subjugate people by questioning their humanity, we propose a new understanding of personhood in the context of climate crisis and invite a public conversation.
How do you intend on using experiential space mediums to reconfigure space and experiment with scale? What spatial qualities will you create in your project and what kinds of emotions or responses do you hope to elicit in its audience?
Especially in our cities, but increasingly everywhere, everything that makes up our environment is the result of intentional and unintentional decisions that (mostly) people are making — from obvious things, like specific objects and buildings, to less obvious things, like the dimension of a curb or the spacing of street lamps, to the almost imperceptible, like the composition of our water and air. These built environments can convince us that this is the only way things can be, which is dangerous but untrue. The social, cultural, and political potential of experiential space as a medium would be to convince us of the opposite.
Within the design process for this exhibition, I’ve been interested in finding ways to call out two specific visual and spatial languages in California: the playfully corporate, and the sublime natural — both of which are not actually as exclusive as they seem. As the lead person on overall exhibition design and art direction, I’ve worked with the other artists to collaboratively take apart and put back together the visual and spatial elements of these environments in an attempt to push ourselves and our audience to find new relations between and around them.
We need everyone on board to create an alternate future to the one we’re on track for, so we welcome you to come through and shape new stories with us.
Brenda Zhang (Bz) is an artist, designer, fabricator, teacher, and organizer who co-founded the Oakland and Rio de Janeiro-based architectural collective SPACE INDUSTRIES. Seeing architecture as a social and cultural practice, her oeuvre seeks to leverage tools of the architectural discipline to produce work that challenges aesthetic, cultural, and socioeconomic assumptions.
The End Of You is the culmination of a year-long collaboration between Gray Area and Gaian Systems, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to explore the potential of immersive art for social impact through the Experiential Space Research Lab. The open call for participation, Reworlding: The Art of Living Systems, invited artists to propose novel experiences to cultivate planetary thinking.
The Experiential Space Research Lab is an initiative by Gray Area studying how artists can work with immersive environments as critical thinking tools. The Research Lab supports a diverse team of artists exploring the potential of immersive art as sustainable creative practice, and as a tool for engaging with our world. Through research, field surveys, prototyping, and the production of new works, the Experiential Space Research Lab will ultimately develop a playbook for artists interested in creating immersive digital art experiences.
This interview was conducted by Miriam Abraham, Gray Area’s Creative Development Intern.
Portrait of Brenda Zhang (Bz) by Hannah Scott.