In the early 1990s, in Brooklyn, American artist Andrea Zittel began what would become the ever developing project of a lifetime: The A–Z Enterprise. “A–Z” for her initials, of course, but also because the project’s ambition was to question everything, from A to Z. A global work, it covers architecture, sculpture, design and many aspects of daily life such as food, gardening and clothing. Each space and each moment is a pretext, a site for testing, evaluating and understanding “human nature and the social construction of our needs.” At the beginning, in her modest Brooklyn bedsit, Zittel designed prototypes for multi-use bowls and, through a newsletter, reported back on the precise uses to which they were put by their various purchasers. “I didn’t have enough money to live like other people, so I started inventing other practices, ways of doing things that would be just as interesting but would require fewer, or different, resources.” At the turn of the millennium, she left for the California desert, not far from the Joshua Tree National Park, where she developed A–Z West, a research centre about life in general, with ceramic and weaving workshops and, above all, a dozen futurist cabins set down in natural surroundings, for which A–Z West would soon become famous. Intended to be rented out, the cabins were deliberately Spartan so as to encourage their occupants to confront nature, solitude, scarcity of food, and so on. Zittel also has her studio at Joshua Tree, and now lives there all year round, developing residencies with researchers and artisans. Numéro met her after she’d just unveiled her Planar Pavilions, a series of outdoor sculptures, as well as inaugurating an exhibition at LA’s Regen Projects gallery.
Numéro : Where and what did you study?
Andrea Zittel: I have a bachelor of fine arts in painting and sculpture from San Diego State University and a master of fine arts in sculpture from Rhode Island School of Design.
How much did your up-bringing influence you?
The context that I grew up in was very formative. My grandparents were ranchers in Imperial Valley (not too far from where I live now) and there were many aspects of their existence that I have melded into my life in the desert. Though my family was well informed, they were completely unaware of contemporary art – I think growing up this way has made me realize what a vast audience there is out there beyond the art world. This is one of the reasons I chose to live and make art in a community that is not necessarily part of any art centre.
How did you figure out you that wanted to be an artist?
It never occurred to me to study art, and as a teenager I was extremely confused about life. But when I took my first art class in college something just clicked – it was the first time I ever felt that I had a true aptitude for something, even if it took me at least another decade to really figure out what art was. I feel extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon this field in which there is still some freedom to create one’s own structures when it comes to thought patterns, ideology, ways of living and working, and so on.
What was your first encounter with art?
My first exposure to contemporary art was when I was about 20 and went to an Allen Ruppersberg show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. If I remember correctly the show included photographs of people sitting on sofas in their living rooms and a bunch of cast-concrete heads on the floor. I was basically totally confused and perplexed by his work – I love that feeling. Being profoundly confused but curious is perhaps one of my favourite sensations when viewing art.
You’ve said you’re interested in the ways that mental structures manifest themselves physically.
Literally everything in our built environment has been created or designed by an individual. I’m less interested in “designer” objects than I am in more pedestrian objects that might normally go unnoticed. For instance even a salt-shaker on a restaurant table says something about its maker – her assumptions about how the object should look, how much salt should be dispensed, or feelings about what sort of curves or details are pleasing or tasteful. Usually these decisions represent a complex web of associations and relationships with other objects and historical or social reference points that could be mapped both culturally and psychologically.
How do you think domestic and public spaces influence our behaviour, and how do you articulate that in your practice?
When I first started making work I was very much influenced by notions of architecture and social control such as Foucault’s ideas about surveillance and the panopticon. But since then I’ve realized that all spaces are spaces of control in one way or another. It’s quite likely that the invention of the suburban ranch home with private bedrooms for each child was responsible for forming people like myself who crave privacy and have a hard time co-inhabiting with others. I know that my work tries to reconcile a lot of what I see going on in the larger world, without necessarily trying to “cure” the problems. Instead I take them as fact and then explore what the possibilities are. For instance, my most recent sculptures are composed of walls and boundaries that isolate us, but that also provide shelter and protection. I also like how these newer works are fairly abstract and at the same time offer even more possibilities in terms of function than some of my earlier works, which I feel were very prescriptive.
Your project is about researching “what gives life meaning” and “how should we live.” Have you come to any conclusions?
As humans we are meaning-driven entities – I am absolutely convinced that meaning is a crucial force that each of us needs in order to feel fulfilled, even though this same meaning may be totally constructed, and is generally different for every person. My own personal “mission statement” is always evolving, but I’ve found that there are certain conSarah Lyon, courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles stants that have to do with personal emancipation from illusory structures, ethical conduct and simplicity – or at the very least clarity – of lifestyle.
Design is central to your practice, but what about architecture?
I probably have more of a love affair with architecture and built space than with the designed object – but there is something about the inherent authority of architecture that I find problematic. I love architecture because it has the ability to create a completely contained universe – and I find it problematic because it has been relegated to the jurisdiction of “authorities” – architects – and is governed by a sea of bureaucracy and codes and regulations, as I’m finding here at my project in Joshua Tree. Design, on the other hand, is smaller, more mobile and fits under the auspices of these larger authoritarian systems. In the best instances design has the ability to subvert architecture through very economical means. The problem I’m having with design right now is that currently much of it functions in service of these existing systems of hierarchy and authority. Design has become a commodity and status symbol, rather than a proposal for social change or intellectual exploration.
“I believe we all need to be more aware of how we function in a culture that controls us by manipulating our desires, fears and longings. Because of this, I think we need to re-evaluate how we judge ‘success’ – and whose power the commonly held criteria of success are playing into.”
Arguably the Planar Pavilions you recently installed in the desert relate more to sculpture than architecture.
The Planar Pavilions are a series of ten cement-block structures that are distributed across a large piece of land between my home and the nearest highway. While fairly abstract, they still create the illusion of small rooms or dwellings. I view these works as a hybrid between public sculpture and abstract architecture – even though they don’t have roofs, they are spaces that either protect or hinder the body. Their dual role as vehicles of repression or liberation is just as important as their location, which is in an interstitial area, a fringe zone between suburban sprawl and wide-open native desert land.
Your project at large challenges limitations in general. Do you think there’s an alternative to the globalized society we live in?
When I was young I often used to think that the world we live in is so structured, bureaucratized and organized that there was no way to truly be free. All that was left were small personal acts of resistance – for instance choosing to opt out from specific consumer activities or limiting one’s actions to such an extent that any larger authority becomes redundant. Although I do feel more empowered as I grow older, I still believe that embracing personal limitations can often be the key to emancipation – the fewer needs you have the freer you are. Keeping things small makes you less noticeable to larger systems of authority that may want to control what you do – a very important principle I sometimes forget and then have to relearn the hard way. Fluidity and the ability to embrace change mean you can retool at any time and adapt to adverse circumstances before they start to affect you.
Is there anything that you’d like to make people conscious of through your art?
I believe we all need to be more aware of how we function in a culture that controls us by manipulating our desires, fears and longings – and I want people to feel more open to live in their own way and on their own terms. Because of this, I think we need to re-evaluate how we judge “success” – and whose power the commonly held criteria of success are playing into.
You’re the central pivot in the ongoing A–Z project. Do you think it could function without you?
That’s always been my goal – to make an organism larger than myself that could continue to play some vital role even when I’m no longer around. But lately, as I grow older, I question this motivation and wonder sometimes if it isn’t really a kind of vanity to want to leave some sort of eternal and permanent entity? Maybe it’s better to allow the next generation to build their own organisms?
What’s coming up for you?
In about a week I’ll install the last show on my schedule and then everything opens up. At any point in the last decade I could have told you exactly what I was going to start working on next, and then what was going to come after that, but right now I’m relishing this wide-open time and trying not to fill it with anything. I have ideas for new sculptures, and also new ways of living that I’d like to try out. So hopefully I’ll get to realize some of these for myself without the restrictions that come along when making works for exhibitions.