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Zak Arctander: Endless Want

If there is a common subject within Zak Arctander’s photographs, it is that of the pursuant gaze, a subject in a relentless search for the often intangible object of its desire. We sat down with Zak to talk about butterflies and being alive.

Kyle Laidig

Kyle Laidig

What defines an American perspective today? What does an American look like and more importantly how does an American look? Our society privileges the self, it is a culture that valorizes consumption and idealizes “self actualization”. In short, we live in a society that dictates humans as agents of desire. It is from within this infrastructure that we struggle to create and foster communities. In a self-centered social order, where do we come together and what do we gather around? Although there may not be one succinct answer, all of us are looking for it. If there is a common subject within Zak Arctander’s images, it is that of the pursuant gaze, a subject in a relentless search for the often intangible object of its desire. I sat down with Zak to talk about butterflies and being alive.

VICE: Tell me a little about your background.

Zak Arctander: I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, a place called Arlington Heights. I made skateboard videos throughout high school. My parents and my sister are all artists. 

How did skateboarding videos lead you to the work you make now? 

When I was filming/photographing skateboarding it was pretty similar to how I work now. The street was the stage for the drama; I was freezing and framing action. What is different now is I’m not so closely collaborating with the people I am photographing. They are mostly strangers that I encounter briefly.

It is clear from the images that your subjects are being captured in moments of telling inbetween-ness: not a decisive moment, but the fugue state between. There is a darkness that pervades the images, a darkness that seems to be located in relation to human desires. Are you ever disturbed by the images you create?

Disturbed isn’t a word that ever really crosses my mind. I have felt shaken. I definitely think about desire and how everyone is reaching for something outside of themselves. It sounds sort of ridiculous but when I consider what I’m after I still turn to Delillo’s phrase “magic and dread.” 

Your work seems to address spectacularized culture not only in overt ways such as the series around The Bean but also in smaller ways such as a long shadow from a Coke can. Can you talk about your understanding of the spectacle as it relates to your work?

The impulse to gather and have communal experience is in the work. Flesh Made Steel is about this ever-shifting group of people experiencing an artwork together. The strange thing about The Bean is that the spectacle is a warped image of yourself. You look up and you see the crowd you are standing in. 

The Coke is actually a Winter Coke, which feels important. There was this whole fiasco where they made regular Coke look sort of like Diet Coke and everyone hated it. People bought cases of the wrong drink but they also just didn’t like the idea of other people thinking they were drinking a Diet Coke if they actually weren’t. It was a short-circuit in brand identity. Seeing that unmarred object on the ground was jarring, like a piece of technology had fallen out of the sky. 

Your work often locates people in moments of shared looking, a community of viewers. What kind of community are you photographing?

In Flesh Made Steel the community is united in a layered kind of looking that is now totally commonplace. It’s simultaneously insular and public. Visitors are bumping into strangers and taking pictures for each other but then also posting pictures to their own feeds. I don’t think I am photographing just one community but maybe you already brought up what links a lot of my pictures—the idea of looking for something. 

Looking for a car perhaps? Looking at Cars is a document of aspirational viewership, a kind of looking that is tied to ideas about the American Dream and the culture of capitalism. What do you feel is the challenge in documenting American life today?

My pictures are fictions that resonate with how it feels to live here. It’s a little like asking a fish to describe water but for me it has been a mix of aesthetic vibrance and endless want. There is a lot of beauty but then a lot of things turn to ash in your mouth.

So is the challenge for you in finding the balance between the merits of the search and its often lackluster dividends?

Maybe it’s that value resides in desire and not in dividends. 

Desire is a divisive subject today. Would you say that there is an element of critique in your work?

In Stephen King’s “It” the real terror afflicting the town is a calcified adulthood. King proposes desire and friendship as potential antidotes. Desire reveals idealism, but its objects are easily mischosen. I empathize with the difficulty of choosing, and I want to locate the poetry within our often inscrutable circumstances.

Let’s talk a bit about the photos you have in this year’s VICE Photo Issue. The images are very sly. You have interwoven two seemingly disparate locations: the purity of a butterfly garden with the vice-laden grounds of a rave. It seems that the images are about the poetic commingling of innocence and experience. Why this combination?

For about half a year I had two subjects, one was the Butterfly Haven in Chicago’s Nature Museum and the other was parties around the city. I joined a rave message board so I could see where they were. It started as two different projects but when I began editing there was a productive friction in mixing the pictures.

The haven is beautiful but also terrifying. Children damage the butterflies with improper handling or outright smash them under their feet. Having this room in a museum presents nature as separate and manipulable. I saw a connection where the approach to the world taught by the haven could relate to brazen experimentation with one’s mind as a teenager. 

So the butterfly garden and the rave ground are both sites of anxiety and idealization?

Right, the romanticism of both places is lined with casualties. 

Zak Arctander (b.1986) is an artist currently living in New Haven, CT. He will receive his MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2015. See his contribution to the 2014 VICE photo issue here.

Kyle Laidig is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.