East Bay artist takes a musical look at Oakland

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Zarouhie Abdalian, recipient of the 2012 Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art Award from SF MOMA, has her first solo exhibition with the Berkeley Art Museum’s MATRIX Program, presenting three pieces that show the subtle and dynamic relationship between sight and sound and interior and exterior spaces. Her SECA Art Award Project, entitled “Occasional Music,” will be displayed at the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Downtown Oakland from Sept. 14 to Nov. 17. Since coming to the Bay Area from Philadelphia to pursue graduate school, Abdalian has established herself as an up-and-coming artists in the East Bay art scene.

The Daily Californian: What aspects of the Bay Area, or more specifically Oakland, do you find compelling and made you stay after graduating from California College of the Arts?

Zarouhie Abdalian: First, the relationships I’ve built during graduate school with other artists and writers helped me stay after graduate school and helped make the transition fluent. My partner also went to Mills College. In addition to having the exciting art and music scene, Oakland specifically is the only place besides my hometown that I feel connected to. It has much to do with the working and art community, as well as other communities that I have been able to connect with. More importantly with me, I work with elderly folks in nursing homes, and connecting with an older group of people who’ve lived in Oakland their whole lives has been very important and one of the reasons that I decided to do a public art project.

DC: How did your experience as a CCA graduate student affect your art and career path, and what do you recommend for aspiring artists interested in these types of graduate programs?

ZA: One of the strengths of the programs from CCA is the connection you make with your peers and also with other colleagues in the community through advising units for the semester … Forming these relationships with others in this big and diverse community where people are making lots of different types of artworks made the experience very productive. There is also a curatorial program, and that was important, because the first shows I did were from people who were in the curatorial program, some of whom I still work with.

For aspiring artists looking at schools, look for schools with bigger communities that perhaps includes writers and curators. This will be helpful because these are the people who you will be working with when you become a professional artist.

DC: As an artist, what is your process for conceptualizing and building these pieces for these exhibitions?

ZA: No matter what the project is — whether it’s going to be more discrete objects or sculptures or something that’s a large installation or topic-specific — I tend to start the same way, which is trying to get as much information about where and when the exhibition will occur … Before beginning at the Berkeley Art Museum, I just sat around the galleries looking and observing the site. I try to get a sense of the time at which the exhibition will occur to gain the broader context of it … Then I start working with materials that I find interesting or inspirational during the research process. This involves messing around with the materials in the studio and thinking about how they will relate to the site or to each other.

DC: How does the Bay Area location reflect upon your other more location-specific works, such as your SECA Art Award project?

ZA: The SECA project, which is called “Occasional Music,” could probably happen at various times. But it is very specific to the neighborhood. These networks of bells on rooftops really made sense with me with the architecture of Downtown Oakland and how the area around Frank Ogawa was used in recent history and is continued to be used. The work is meant to be viewed within the context of this specific location, whereas the MATRIX project was meant to be viewed as individual objects and within the context of the MATRIX program.

DC: You’ve stated in the past that you were impressed by the Frank Ogawa Plaza for being a site for protests, such as the Occupy movement, and a public meeting place. What else made you choose this site specifically for your “Occasional Music?”

ZA: The idea for “Occasional Music” was one of those rare times I thought of materials and the general idea of what I want happening before I know the site. Thinking of these bells and neighborhoods, I tried to think about other places, but it didn’t make sense until it was in downtown, where it is a traditional place for bells to appear. But also looking at the specific architecture in Frank Ogawa Plaza, it is designed already to act as a center point and a gathering place. I position the bells at points to roughly make it the center where you might hear all the bells in a cacophonous way from the plaza, and outside of it you might hear more individual sounds.

DC: What kind of public responses or discussions do you hope you’ll arouse through your sound project in Frank Ogawa?

ZA: While I’m finishing this program, it seems elaborate, but I’m hoping the experience at the site doesn’t feel that elaborate. Understandably so, there was a broad range of associations with the ringing of bells. Historically, they’ve been used for various purposes — shift changes, alarms, the passage of time — so I think how the viewer recognizes the signal of the bell is determined by those associations and also within the context of Downtown Oakland.

There is also a possibility that these bells just become a part of the background noise in the city from the competing sounds. I have my own personal hopes for what happens, but I think it’s more interesting to just see what actually happens.