TEXT ME Leeuwarden 2023

Zhao Zhou — Black Tempest

Written by Aymen Gharbi. Published on 16 June 2023.

The Stationskwartier in Leeuwarden is a temporary creative space that hosted again the MEDIA ART FRIESLAND Festival in February 2023. The festival annually selects emerging artists, designers, and makers with innovative approaches from the Dutch academies as well as from a network of international partners. For years, the international light art project INTERFERENCE in Tunis, which I direct, has been part of this network. In this year’s program, we have emerging talents from Tunis in the curatorial team, in the artists’ selection, and in the TEXT ME collective. We share the idea to foster emerging talent who feature light and light-based media in their approaches. Not for the first time, we are impressed with the choice and quality of artists that are on display. MEDIA ART FRIESLAND has become an inspiring scouting platform for us.

Let me focus on Zhao Zhou and his installation “Black Tempest” as one of the great examples — although not at first sight. We walked the exhibition with the TEXT ME collective. We were making our way through the halls that have been planned as a post office and had been empty for a while now. On the upper floor, we entered one of the transit spaces of the YOUNG MASTERS’ exhibition at the LUNA Festival in Leeuwarden. The space is somehow bare, bathed in a reddish-pinkish light. On the wall an installation consisting of a supporting structure and a series of cones, all in black — we wonder what this is about.

Occasionally the cones emit air swirls accompanied by popping sounds. Passing by, the installation “puffs” at us — more than once, a series of puffs. Popping sounds support the moment of surprise. Instead of finding something to see, we encounter something to feel. Instantly, we switch from the visual realm to the one of tactilness. The visual navigation system is suspended, and we try to find our bearings directed by our skin sensations — what a great moment of bodily shift.

Photos: Tom Meixner

When talking to Zhao Zhou during the exhibition, they shared some technical details: The installation was programmed to respond to the spot. Based on a choice of four action patterns, the machine chooses randomly what to perform. The speaker membranes are at the core of the installation. The digital system starts sending a sound impulse. When one of the membranes releases a sound, the cone above it receives the sound wave and concentrates it to a swirl when leaving the cone. Literally, we are touched by sound waves, another daily phenomenon we often overlook — we are truly intrigued by the esthetic situation.

For a moment, we are back looking for visual sense: Is the rigid back structure a metaphor for technical mechanics? The openings of the cones are directly aiming at us and shooting (air) — should we associate weapons here? And the red light — does it stand for blood, war, and death? The artists expresses clearly that this is not his intention, “it is purely about the non-visual aspects of space perception”, he said.

Photos: Tom Meixner

The installation is titled “Back Tempest” and is part of the series titled “Forced Switch”. They describe it as a responsive system that seeks to transform the experience of spaces of passage and transition by upending sensory hierarchies. “The skin is our largest organ and is often neglected in the design of urban spaces. This project aims to reawaken the skin of the inattentive passer-by and direct the visitor towards a different hierarchy of the senses”, they state on their website 1 Zhao Zhou: Forced Switch. No Author, no date given. URL https://zhao-zhou.com/projects/forcedswitch.html >> 15 June 2023.

Photos: Tom Meixner

Along the tension gap between art and design, Zhao Zhou is a young designer with a preference for intangible media such as air. Their sense for space and the experience of space has been nurtured by their studies at the Royal Academy of Art in Den Haag. They graduated in 2022 with a focus on Design and Architecture. By questioning conventional concepts of urban design and delving into neglected sensory dimensions, Zhou experiments on both experiential and behavioral aspects. Their speculative approach explores alternative presents and imagines variations of futures, challenging existing assumptions and paradigms. Their experimental practice aims beyond traditional problem-solving approaches and seeks to provoke critical thinking and conversation about potential societal, cultural, and technological developments. Their transformative approach alters the spatial dynamics and redefines our connection to the environment.