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Creating Art Through Activism

Carol Zou is a social practice artist serving the largely immigrant population of Vickery Meadow, but her work as an activist is causing waves throughout Dallas.

by Hady Mawajdeh 15 Sep 2016
Carol Zou

Carol Zou is a social practice artist based in Dallas' Vickery Meadow. She manages the trans.lation project, which operates as a kind of  arts and culture center for the largely immigrant population in the neighborhood. She has her B.A. from Cornell University and her M.F.A. is in Public Practice from the Otis College of Art and Design.  Previously, Zou was an organizer of the art collective Yarn Bombing Los Angeles.

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

  • Carol Zou runs trans.lation and practices social sculptor in Dallas' Vickery Meadow. Photos: Hady Mawajdeh

Talk to Carol Zou about her art – social practice, also known as social sculpture or public practice – and you begin to see the furiosity that 28 year-old has for social causes.

“My practice looks at arts ecosystems,” says Zou at recent rally against the City of Dallas assisting the AT&T Performing Arts Center with is $151 million debt. “How do we build infrastructures and communities that are larger than artists’ individual practices themselves? Dallas artists need to be politically and civically engaged.”

Zou at the Arts Equity Now rally in September. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Zou at the Arts Equity Now rally in September.
Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Zou moved to Dallas about 18 months ago to run a project called trans.lation. It was founded by artist Rick Lowe through a partnership with the Nasher Sculpture Center, and began as a series of events, like pop-up galleries, in Vickery Meadow. It’s become an art collective and community center for the neighborhood.

“All of our programming is resident driven, meaning that either people from the community are leaders or they ask for that programming,” says Zou.

Residents of Vickery Meadow come from 120 countries and speak as many as 27 languages, so programming at trans.lation can be a bit all over the map. For example, they’ve got an Aztec Dance team, they teach language classes and they’re even starting their own radio station.

“People of color should be able to define their own spaces and to really have their own spaces for communion because historically that is something that is taken away from them,” says Zou.

Jasmine Quintanilla agrees. Quintanilla is a freshman at the University of North Texas, but she grew up in Vickery Meadow and started going to trans.lation about a year ago. She used to attend the project’s girls-only hangouts.

“It was a space for me to de-stress and to be myself,” says Quintanilla. “It’s kind of that safe space where you can go and complain about things like the neighborhood, or school, or whatever, and you don’t have to worry about being judged. You just feel safe.”

For Quintanilla it was also a place to chase her entrepreneurial ambitions. Zou was teaching classes about screen printing, and offered to teach her and her friends.

The young women came up with the idea of printing “cultural appropriation” in many different languages. They found other slogans, like “First World Problems,” that they thought they could put their spin on. Now they have a company called Bad Bunny Apparel that operates out of trans.lation. They run a website and they hope to one day have an entire line of clothing.”I know upstart businesses usually fail,” says Quintanilla. “But hopefully we can save enough money with these t-shirts to one day start making dresses and other types of clothing. We just want this to grow and hopefully it won’t fail and we can do more.”

Bad Bunny Apparel is a Dallas-based clothing line run by a group of young women of color. It started at trans.lation. Photo: Bad Bunny Apparel

Bad Bunny Apparel is a Dallas-based clothing line run by a group of young women of color. It started at trans.lation. Photo: Bad Bunny Apparel

The work Zou does at trans.lation is mostly arts-based. But many people see her as an organizer or activist. That is part of what she does, though  she wishes people would be a bit more open minded.

“So for example, if I get introduced to people as an artist they’re like, ‘Oh. But what do you make?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I run this arts center.’ and they’re like, ‘No! What do you do on your personal time?’” says Zou.

  • Artwork created by the children who take painting and drawing classes at Vickery Meadow' trans.lation. Photo: Hady Mawajdeh

Fellow artist and activist Darryl Ratcliff was an artist in residency during trans.lation’s first year – before Zou – and he agrees people don’t seem to understand what is being done there and why it’s considered art.

“I think Carol has quickly become pivotal to the Dallas art scene,” says Ratcliff. “She was able to bring a framework of organizing and activism and connect it to the culture here.

Zou is a social practice artist. Social practice is about artists collaborating with people in communities. So on a micro-level, Zou helps people in Vickery Meadow collaborate to create the community they need to be creative. On a macro-level, she tries to organize artists in North Texas to fight for equity. When considering equity, Zou says it’s important to focus on two groups: the audience and the artists.

“When you think about audiences, you need to think about race, disabilities, financial restraints and whatever else could keep them out of the galleries or the theaters. They need access. On the side –  the workers or the artists – there has to be representation not only in the galleries or on the stage, but in positions of power. We need people of color in the board rooms and making curatorial decisions.”

Art as social practice is not new. It can be traced back to the 1960s. The Occupy Wall Street movement sparked awareness in a new generation of artists. In fact that’s how Zou stumbled upon the idea.  Though she says she’s been politically engaged for as long as she can remember.

“Because of my cultural context, I’ve basically been a feminist since age four,” says Zou.

Sounds young. But Zou and her family emigrated to Colorado from China when the country had a strict one-child policy. She was aware – very young – that her family wanted a boy. That made her conscious of gender politics.

As new immigrants, Zou’s father went to school and her mom worked in a factory. They depended on government aid. Zou began to see disparities in her new country.

“Science fair would come around and I wouldn’t ask them to buy me materials. So then I’d end up failing but I’d paint on all this left over cardboard so everyone would be like, ‘Well, your display looks really great,” says Zou.

Zou can laugh now, but she says it’s probably the reason she’s an artist and not a scientist. It’s something she thinks about often in her work at trans.lation.

“I think that the resources you have access to really shape who you become as a person,” says Zou.

**Check out this Riot grrrl playlist curated by Carol Zou.** 

Zou has a MFA in public practice from Otis College of Art and Design. Her fervor matches the brashness and aggression of her favorite Riot grrrl band – Bikini Kill – especially when she talks about race and cultural equity.

“I would say that for me this is all about allocation of resources. That means you have to give up some of your power and control to people of color. And for white people this is super scary because whenever they have control they use it to exploit people.”

Zou is challenging the arts community to stop talking about cultural equity and do something about it.

“I already had a community and career in California, so that means, for me, people in the North Texas art ecosystem need to step it up.”

Zou speaks bluntly. The struggle is very real to her. She is 28 years-old and sacrificing other opportunities to do this work. But being outspoken can be lonely.

“For me working in the arts is very gig based. That means I don’t know if I’m going to be picking up and moving. And it’s really difficult in terms of my personal relationships, right? And it’s super difficult for my family,” says Zou.

Ratcliff understands where Zou is coming from.

“Carol and I rely upon each other for our sanity,” says Ratcliff. “Working in this sort of work is tiresome. The work has long hours. This work can be lonely in Dallas. So you need people that you can trust to be a container, both emotionally and intellectually so that you can sustain and do the work better and better.”

“Artists don’t get time off,” says Zou. “I’m literally on call 24/7. Artist don’t do leisure time or vacations, because people believe our art is our leisure time. But, I’m really bad at it.”

Zou’s parents, now living in Austin and working in the tech industry, wonder why she doesn’t go back to school to get a degree in something more stable.

“They always asking me, ‘When are you going to get a house? When are you going to have a retirement plan? When are you going to give us a grandchild?’ I’m like I don’t knooooooow,” says Zou.

For now, Zou will continue fighting to bring cultural equity to Dallas, one neighborhood at a time.

 

Zou stands in front of the first of three murals going up in Vickery Meadows that have been created by artists working at trans.lation.

Zou stands in front of the first of three murals going up in Vickery Meadows that have been created by artists working at trans.lation.

How does being here (in North Texas) affect the production of your art?

Wow! (laughs) Woooow!  I have found that I need to relearn a lot of things about social organizing that I took for granted when I was living and organizing in California.  So a lot of my work has shifted, because in California I used play a support role, right? There were all these amazing Brown Berets, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matters Movement – Patrisse Cullors live in Los Angeles. So I really felt like it wasn’t my role to be front and center. It was my role to really play a supportive and collaborative role and to really follow the leadership of those people.

Here in North Texas, there’s not that deep of an organizing history. So for me, instead of playing a support role, I often find that I am unwittingly either in a leadership role, which is a role that I really do not prefer just because of my politics, or I am in an educational role. So that’s perhaps the biggest change in my work ever since moving from California. Now I really see the importance of education, especially activist and organizing education.

Have you quit your day job? And if not, how do you maintain balance your life?

I’m so lucky! This is my day job! And I’m super lucky because my mentor/boss Rick Lowe has been doing this work for a long time, so he understands the need for artist sustainability and having a sustainable salary was a necessary part of this position. But for me, I am really bad at maintaining balance. So the problem, when art is your day job, is that I’m literally on call 24/7.

When did you start to call yourself an artist?

AHHHH! How about, when did I start to stop calling myself an artist? Yea. Let’s go with that question. It started maybe during the past two years or so, because I didn’t feel that the term was broad or expansive enough to really describe my interests and what I was doing. I think a lot of people have biases about artists. For example, if I get introduced to people as an artist they are like, ‘what do you make?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I run this arts center.’  And then they’re like, ‘NO! What do you do on your personal time?’ And for me that’s not – I’m very comfortable with how I see my own art practice, but I think just in terms of the societal bias of what people consider art, is that it’s more effective for me to refer to myself as an organizer or a culture worker.

So do you still consider yourself an artist?

Absolutely. 

Are you creatively satisfied?

Yes. I feel like I spend way too much time talking about the things that dissatisfy me in North Texas, but that has nothing to do with the creative aspects of my work. Creatively, I am enormously satisfied.

What have you given up/let go of to pursue your art?

Health insurance. (laughs)

I think I’ve had to give up the way that we understand human relationships, because for me, working in the arts is very gig-based unless you have an administrative job. And I am trying to not get involved in the administrative world as much as I can. But that means I don’t know if I am going to be picking up and moving in a year or two. And for me, that is fine in terms of my personal stability or my personal way of living, but I know that it’s really difficult in terms of my personal relationships. It would be hella difficult if I had a child. And it’s super difficult for my family.

What makes you different or special? What sets you apart from other artists?

My politics don’t believe in articulating ourselves as special snowflakes. I think one of the problems with organizing in the visual arts community or organizing artists is that all artists like to see themselves as special snowflakes and they don’t see themselves as part of a larger collective movement. And that’s what really gets in the way of a lot of organizing. But if I had to say what makes me a “special snowflake” in North Texas, I’d say that I am not afraid of the repercussions of being run out of town. I think that a lot of people don’t speak up because they would like to maintain their community or their career here in North Texas. But I already had a community and a career in California that I could go back to very easily – not saying that I would – and that means, for me, people in the North Texas art ecosystem need to step it up and really need to make this a viable and attractive space for me to be. So I don’t really tolerate a lot of nonsense.

So, you believe that art can bring about a revolution?

I don’t think art by itself brings about revolution. But I think that when we think about revolution, it’s also a culture clash. It’s the culture of whoever is in power often trying to suppress the culture of those who are disempowered. So I think culture is an important strategy when it comes to organizing.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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