Self-referential Investigative Corner: Web Edition!

On December 3rd, Bitch received an unexpected shout-out from artist Jerilea Zempel, who was interviewed on the Colbert Report about her brush with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.Zempel, an American citizen, was returning to New York after participating in an art show in Canada when she was stopped for questioning at the border. The problem? A well-worn passport and a notebook full of sketches of her latest artwork: crocheted doily-style covers for SUVs. Think Kleenex box and toilet paper cozies, only much bigger and way more radical.

The segment featuring Zempel -- which presented her as a faux terrorist threat -- included a shot of her relaxing on a park bench, leafing through a copy of Bitch magazine. Zempel spoke to Bitch from her home in New York.

--How did Bitch magazine end up on the Colbert Report?

The U.S. border guard who questioned me found an issue of Bitch among the things in my car. When the Colbert crew asked me to bring my sketchbook and my passport for the filming, I decided to bring Bitch magazine as well.

--What was the audience reaction?

Lots of viewers noticed. It was mentioned on blogs. Showing Bitch was like sending coded feminist language through the airwaves.

--What was the guard's reaction to finding Bitch in the car?

She laughed at the title. She said, "Interesting reading material." I told her, "You should read it. I'll send you a copy." She snickered. It was a girl joke between us.

--How did you feel about being stopped? Were you afraid? Annoyed?

I was annoyed, and then I was paranoid. When you have someone going through everything in your car...well, it's not what you think of when you think of constitutional rights.I initially thought, "You can't stop me and go through my computer, camera, cell phone, sketchbooks, and all my luggage for no reason. You have no right to do this." Then I realized that under Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, they did have a right to search me without cause. It made me think about the larger concept of American-style democracy that Bush wants to shove down everyone's throat. Maybe ours isn't the democracy to be repeated again and again in the world.

--What do you think should be done to make the U.S. more secure?

We need to stop being an aggressive, warring country. We need to use our power to make peace, not war, in the world. Morepeople have died avenging 9/11 than died in 9/11. And so many deaths have been indiscriminate. Violence is not a wise retaliation for violence because it never solves anything. It just escalates.

--What was it like being on the Colbert Report?

We filmed 10 hours of footage for a 3-minute segment. They played improv theatre games with me until they realized how bad I was at them. I was happy that, in the end, they focused on my work.But I was a little annoyed that they had to have a curator in the segment. Why is it always necessary to have an expert tell theaudience whether an artwork is significant or not? And he was a white male to boot. Maybe that was part of the joke, too. I don't know that curator and he's never contacted me about my work. Here's the twist: I got him on the Colbert Report! I helped his career!

--Do you think Colbert's "take" on your work was feminist?

I realized later that during the whole course of the interview they never mentioned feminism.

--Why do you think that is?

I'm not sure. I suspect he's very sympathetic to feminism, but he probably knows that word "feminist" is something audiences might have problems with. So he uses feminism without using the word.

--When did you start reading Bitch? What are your thoughts on the magazine?

I've been reading Bitch since the very beginning. Bitchfest is destined to be basic feminist reading material. The media's treatment of women and young girls is just heartbreaking, so it's great to see the magazine take that on.For example, after Colbert lots of people contacted me and commented on how I looked on the show. People told me that I looked great or not as great as I should've looked. That made me begin to obsess about my appearance in a way that was totally unnecessary. I'd like to think that I'm past that, but it came up so often that I started to get worried. How can younger women get past that?Body image and appearance is so central to people's responses to women. Talk about being annoyed and paranoid!

--Describe the Canadian art show you were returning from when you were stopped.

The show was for the Canadian Cultural Capital Festival in Sackville, New Brunswick. Nine artists from the US, Mexico, Canada and Europe created public art projects throughout the summer and fall of 2008. I went there to create an installation sculpture for the event.My project was a crocheted cover for an SUV installed in a public park.

I started the work in New York and finished it in Canada where I could tailor it to fit the car.The show was in a park designed as a water fowl habitat. Most of the other sculptures were romantic meditations on the environment, using natural materials. -- but I wanted to make another kind of statement about what we do to the environment. I wanted to turn a macho gas-guzzling SUV into an eerie ghost. I wanted it to be unexpected, a little crazy, seemingly impossible. That was the idea.

I find it tantalizing to put two things together that don't quite fit: cars and crochet. Let them argue, make love, have a good conversation, interact. It was exciting to see the piece finished on site and to watch people's response to it. Most were mystified at first then they warmed up to the absurdity of it. When you can't explain what something is, there's always the chance it could be art.

Canadians believe that it's important to support the arts across the board and not just a few artists who win the "art race." As a result, they do interesting, diverse shows in Canada. They treat artists well, like professionals. We were paid, given a per diem and travel expenses.In similar exhibitions in the US, artists are often expected to finance or donate their work and basically pay most of their expenses.

--You crocheted a cover for an army tank in Poland. Tell me about that.

Over the years, I kept upping the ante of objects to cover. Underwear, cars, chainsaws, guns. Then I had the idea to do an army tank. A Polish sculptor friend told me there were lots of tanks that had been just dumped in a military museum in her hometown of Poznan and that I should try to do something there. So I applied for and received a grant that allowed me to do it.

The tank I chose was a left-over, Soviet-era behemoth that had been used to quell local unrest so there was a back story to the project. Just after the breakup of the Soviet state in the early 1990s, there was no one in the Polish government who really cared enough to say no to my proposal. They were too busy rebuilding their economy and the Soviets were no longer there to intimidate them. In fact, I think the Poles secretly saw my project as revenge. I doubt it would slip through the same cracks today. And the U.S. Army would never let me near an American tank!

And by coincidence, my father's family was rumored to have come from Poznan...pure serendipity.Among the visitors to the show were some Polish soldiers who had fought in the battle at Poznan during World War II and they were never able to openly tell anything but the official story of the fight. Veterans began to tell their own remembrances and a lot of story-telling happened in the museum around the tank. It created an atmosphere of discourse, of oral history, of setting the record straight. It took on meanings I never intended. That surprised and gratified me.

Many foreign visitors came to the park and told me that their home countries are littered with tanks abandoned on battlefields. It isn't worth it to transport the big vehicles home, so they were just left wherever they were last used. War junk. Hearing that made me want to take my tank cover on a tour. Just go around covering all those stranded tanks. I thought it would be great idea but I could never find the money to do it.

--What are you doing this year with SCS (Subversive Cookie Society)?

SCS membership consists of a group of activist friends and their teenage daughters who just happen to like to bake. We started SCS in 2001, after 9/11. At Christmas that year we made cookies of the World Trade Center on fire. It felt a little creepy to do it, but it was a kind of exorcism.Now we bake cookies every Christmas and Valentine's Day. Each year we choose a different theme. One year, our theme was war, another year it was the environment.For one Valentine's Day, our theme was "twisted love."

This year we decided to wait until after the New Year to bake hope-themed cookies for the inauguration on Jan 20th. Obama cookies!We usually photograph the cookies, then give them away to friends as gifts or even eat them. I gave some of my gay marriage cookies to gay friends. Some of those cookies depicted sex scenes that just happened in the oven, I swear! Those gingerbread men went after each other in the heat of it. And the Santas! The ones shown on my site are the least naughty.

--Guns, chainsaws, SUVs, tanks -- are you covering them up and prettifying them the way women have traditionally done?

I think of it as a transformation...changing the identity of dangerous, nasty things. I don't try to make them pretty.

--What are you working on currently?

I've been traveling a lot and I've been taking photographs. And I'm always doing more guns; they're like haiku for me. I want to recycle some of my pieces; give them another life. I'd like to bring the tank cover to the US. And I want to show the SUV cover again. It's compact and stretchy, and it could fit other SUVs models just about anywhere. I'd love to do a Lexus because I like the name. It just sounds so nasty and villainous.

--You're a teacher as well as an artist. What kinds of messages do you want to get across to your students about art and social responsibility, art and civic duty?

I make art as much to educate myself as to communicate with others. I went to art school in the Formalist era, when artists were actively discouraged from incorporating politics in their work. The Formalists had the opinion that art has its own history and place in the world, separate from everything else. That's a skewed and narrow view of art. A professor once told me "You're never going to change the world with your art, so don't waste your time trying!"But so much modern art has been a reaction to political situations. You can see it throughout the last century and into this one, too.

Look at early 20th century German art. Those artists were dealing with politics every step of their lives. Russian artists as well. It's a delusion to think that art doesn't deal with politics. Even if it's just the politics of the art market.I think about that professor a lot. I'd like to have a conversation with him now.

--You mentioned in another interview that the Colbert Report staff shot hours of footage that they didn't use. You called that an "investment" of time, not a waste of time. Say more about that.

There's a popular sense that art is emotive, reactive, and impulsive, rather than meditative, contemplative or subtractive. Building your work up or paring it down is just another aesthetic choice. A lot of what any young artist does is R&D rather than product so it was another helpful lesson for my students.

--Do you think the art world is more feminist now than, say, 30 years ago? How has it changed?

I don't know if the art world is more feminist, but women artists are more aware and outspoken about how they are treated differently in the art system.A lot of artists used to argue that art and the art world were gender free. But the standards art was judged by were always male standards. The stereotype of the successful artistic genius was always a guy. Women had to try to fit in on those terms. Some even changed their names to sound like men and come off as one of the boys. It didn't work very well.

But if art is about life experience and we all know the life experience of women is different from the life experience of men, doesn't it stand to reason that women's work could be different? Women artists now realize they can define themselves as women in their work. And maybe they can create some networks of their own in the professional world to help each other out.

--What are some important movements happening now?

This changes constantly, so whatever I say will be incomplete. Contemporary art is more global. An artist has to have an international view to be well informed.Culture jamming is an interesting trend, inserting art into the real world, playing tricks to get the public to think, even argue, about issues. Examples are the Billboard Liberation Front, The Yes Men, the Brainstormers, The Billionaires for Bush and others.

--Do think fiber art is becoming more well-known? If so, do you think that's a result of feminist work to properly identify traditionally-female crafts as "art"?

Of course feminist art has broken down all kinds of barriers and I don't think anyone takes those old art hierarchies seriously anymore. But it is curious to think about how different cultures genderize art materials. In Ghana, West Africa, for example, the weavers are all men. We don't have too many male weavers in the U.S, and weaving and fiber art is thought of as historically female, a complete reversal.I'm not trained as fiber artist per se, so I don't know that world that well. Fiber artists might be be appalled at the craft aspect of my work. I use all kinds of materials in service to ideas. I'm also a horseshit artist and I feel really lonely in that field!

--How did you learn to knit and crochet?

I learned as a kid; my mother taught me. I had a Girl Scout badge in needlework. I hated it! It made me tense. But as an artist I picked it up as an idea, a reference to women's work. And maybe to my childhood and my mother.

--Do you have any knitting or crocheting tips for readers?

What's interesting about crocheting is that it has been done across cultures, throughout history. It's almost a compulsion, a repetitive activity, a technique that doesn't go away. It's mathematical: counting, one loop over and over to end up forming beautiful, intricate designs. Parts of the car cover were hyperbolic curves, a mathematical model. Lace is crocheting on a microscopic level. It's a historic continuum I plugged myself into.

--Do you have project management tips for out-size crochet projects?

Think outrageously. Then figure out a way to make your outrage happen.

For the print version of Janet Miller's conversation with Jerilea Zempel (as well as other exciting feminist critique), check out the latest issue of Bitch and see what the "Buzz" is all about! 

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

1 Comment Has Been Posted

gender in the arts

as a young woman artist, i've tended to view the art world as being very gender-oriented and complicated. but i think Zempel's view, creating networks to help each other out and defining ourselves as women in our work, is refreshing advice. it is also nice to see a promotion (in a sense) of <i>Bitch</i> on a platform such as <i>The Colbert Report</i>. hopefully <i>Bitch</i> reaches more people than before.

Add new comment