A fortuitous schedule change gave me the opportunity to interview Liz Cohen, a photographer, performer, and pinup, who happens to be my neighbor on the Cranbrook campus. Simply put, Cohen is fearless. Her projects are fully immersive, intertwining ethnography and performance to the effect of uncanny transformation. Often, Cohen spends years inhabiting the spaces, learning the customs, and going so far as to cultivate the body of a certain group or subculture. Her most recent work, Trabantimino, involved a nine-year stint as an auto customizer, during which the artist transformed an East German Trabant, a two-stroke engine-car produced in Zwickau, into a 1970s Chevrolet El Camino low rider.
The car’s nearly decade-long journey from an object emblematic of the communist bloc into a portrait of purely American ingenuity was epic. Physically, the Trabant made its way from Berlin to San Francisco to Phoenix, and finally to Detroit; however, the real story buried beneath the chrome and tawny exterior is one psychological transformation. In Cohen’s project, the Trabantimino becomes a physical manifestation of the immigrant experience—the car’s identity shifting and hybridizing like that of an individual traversing a wall, (fallen or otherwise). Much like Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed (2005), the exterior of the Trabant has changed, influenced by a new social and cultural environment, but its DNA is fundamental. Traces of memory and history cannot be erased entirely, and Cohen’s custom low rider retains reminders of where it initially came from.
Through the course of Trabantimino, Cohen herself has transformed from a recent MFA graduate living in San Francisco to a mother of a three-month-old living in suburban Detroit. To document her own evolution within the world of automotive tinkering and low rider culture, the artist staged periodic photo shoots where she would capture her car and her own subject at various stages of development. Her chosen entry into the world of low riding was through the character of the pinup. From her first shoot, Bikini Car Wash (2002), to her most recent, Zwickau Routine (2010), Cohen has remained complicit with the structure of her chosen subculture to assume the role of the stereotypical hotrod poster girl. Despite receiving a great deal of critique from the (neo?) feminist sect, Cohen quickly accessorized her thong with a welder, a power sander, and other tools of the trade. Her bikini may have been her ticket in, but that doesn’t change the fact that she is contributing to a community and helping to change the very stereotype with which her photography is complicit. In our interview, Cohen mentions that low riding is a culture of resistance. In my opinion, the artist-as-pinup is a similar proclamation of: I’m here, and don’t fuck with me.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I find the arc of your work really interesting, especially considering that you started out pursuing documentary photography. What was your journey from documentary to project-based work and performance?
Liz Cohen: I went to Tufts with the intention of studying quantitative economics, and I started out doing that. But I quickly started taking some philosophy classes, and I got really interested in ethical theory. I ended up majoring in philosophy, and I started getting really interested in groups. For example, how do you ascribe responsibility to a group rather than an individual? How do you distinguish the agency of a group and the agency of an individual? What are the moments when a group functions as a group and not just as an aggregate of individuals?
It’s important for when you get into ideas of personhood for corporations or things like that… They have a dual degree program with the Museum School, and once I was [at Tufts] I started taking classes at the Museum School. I had a really great teacher, Bill Burke, who had been doing most of his work in Cambodia and looking at the residuum of the Vietnam War as someone who had been the right age to go to Vietnam but avoided the draft. In any case, I was interested in investigative photography, investigative reporting, documentary, and all the ways that documentary can become more abstract or metaphorical. Then as I left the Museum School, I started doing this work in Panama City [Canal (2000)] where I was photographing transgender sex workers. That’s where things started to change for me. Before I started doing any performance, I was already thinking that it is very performative to be a photographer—that you have a certain persona as a documentary photographer. I think that those ideas probably came to me through all these photographers I liked—by looking at their work, I got to know about their lives. Robert Frank, for example: I understood a lot more about Robert Frank when I learned that I was looking at a photo of his ex-wife Mary, his daughter Andrea, his son Pablo, or his later wife June. There’s all this mythology around his life that is really important to the photography and how you imagine him driving through the United States, photographing Americans as this Swiss guy looking from the outside in. I was thinking about that process as being very performative. It helped me reconcile what the sex workers were doing in front of the camera for me—they were just really hamming it up and posing when I wanted them to chill out and have these blank faces. At some point, I had to embrace that. I think that some of the ideas I was thinking about Robert Frank allowed me to do that.
SMP: It’s interesting, because I largely think of documentary work as pursuing a position of invisibility—erasing the boundary between subjects to lend a totally objective lens. I guess it’s easy to forget about the subject of the photographer, whose identity is being affected through cultural immersion and various social factors. What was your intent with the Panama project—what story were you after?
LC: When I went to Panama I wanted to do work on the US military bases. I was thinking about the relationship between the United States and Panama, and I wanted to do work about that because I think it’s really representative of the relationship between the United States and Latin America. When I went to the military bases they were really boring, and they looked like what military bases look like everywhere. It wasn’t until I started driving along the edges of the military bases and seeing the sex workers that I found something that was kind of interesting—this kind of fringe. But then that just blew open the whole thing, because the work really is about the relationship between the United States and Panama but it becomes really metaphorical, and now we’re into a special kind of documentary, right?! Or out of regular journalism.
SMP: How was it that you first got in front of the camera yourself?
LC: During that work in Panama, one of the sex workers became my guide. Her name was Lynette, and she was kind of the mother hen of the sex workers. I had really short hair at that time, hairy legs and armpits—I had just left liberal arts college! I would wear baggy jeans that I could fit a lot of rolls of film in, a tee shirt, and a backpack to go shooting at night. I looked pretty seedy, I guess. Lynette would always say: “you look so pretty and you don’t even realize it. You’re always hiding yourself, let me show you how to use your body, let me show you how to look pretty. You have a body like a Barbie and you don’t show it!” So I would always just laugh, but she was persistent: “please let me dress you up!” But I always just brushed it off and would continue doing what I was doing. Then my sister was coming to visit me, and I thought: I should take Lynette up on this and hand my sister the camera for a night. So, we did it, and I think in so many ways, I think that it was that experience that led to so many different changes in the way that I work from performing, to the use of my body, to dressing up and sort of method acting.
SMP: Your recent project, Trabantimino, (ongoing since 2002), is considered a long-term performance. How did you come to this project? Was it a residual interest in groups where you could engage on a macro-scale through theories of national identity, as well as a micro-scale through car-related subculture?
LC: I started having an interest in doing something to a car when I was working on the Canal Series in Panama. I apprenticed one summer at a brake shop: Discount Brake and Clutch in the Mission in San Francisco—I was the Sunday brake mechanic. And I took a class at City College [while getting a master’s at CCA] at night that was for auto repair—for people to repair their own cars, not for professionals. So I was kind of tinkering with the idea of cars, but I was so unprepared for being in those environments. I wasn’t someone who uses her hands, and my parents were definitely not tinkerers.
SMP: It’s sort of ironic that you took to cars in SF—an aggressively green, mass-transit friendly city.
LC: And I wasn’t really driving there, I was riding a bicycle. But I came from Phoenix, which is a car place, and I have this memory of an El Camino. I always wanted to buy an El Camino and make a low rider, because I love low riding—it’s just the coolest thing. I didn’t preconceive the whole project. I don’t think I could have worked on it as long as I have if I had had it neatly wrapped up in a bow. So I started with the idea of an El Camino and wanting to do something with it. Then I got a residency to go to Germany, and I thought it might be kind of cool to turn one car into another kind of car. I was going to Stuttgart, which is sort of a richer Detroit in Germany—the Mercedes factory is there, and I thought I’d turn a Mercedes into an El Camino. I wasn’t thinking about the meaning of it at that time, it was just an impulse. So I was in Germany and I started thinking about it more, and finally, I went to Berlin and I saw the Trabant. The Trabant was really interesting to me, firstly: I had never heard of it, and when I saw it, it was attractive to me; and second: the idea of it being from the former East was appealing. I was interested in the transitions that people from the former East were going through—that kind of process of becoming part of the West, and the idea that the car has to become part of the West was very compelling. So it was less about a specific national identity than about this idea of transitioning from a Socialist economy to a Capitalist economy and what that requires.
SMP: It’s interesting that with such a compelling project that operates on various levels socially, politically, and culturally, that there was no premeditated connection between the cars.
LC: It was only after I had started that I found what was cool about both of them together, which was they both represented these amazing things about the places that they were from. The Trabant is really utilitarian, and the El Camino is really overdone—it’s like one stop shopping.
SMP: So, we’ve heard about the Trabant as a Socialist icon… What is the story with the El Camino and its all-in-one-ness?
LC: I think Ford made a car-truck first, the El Ranchero. The El Camino—it’s like a muscle car. In the 70s, with the oil crisis, a lot of laws changed too for cars. I think with it being a car-truck, it got around a lot of new jurisdiction, so it could be a muscle car and a utility truck. I think it’s interesting that both of the car-trucks’ names are in Spanish. After World War II, muscle car culture was really a Ford thing, and that became a white thing. Then the Chevys were more of an immigrant thing—they were an ethnic car. They were less expensive, and low riding became a Chevy thing. The Impala is the most popular car for a classic low rider. The history of it is a history of resistance. It’s the opposite of tuning: with tuning, you’re stripping away and making small adjustments to make something as fast as possible. Low riding is the opposite: it’s ornamental, it’s adding to the car. It’s a way to stop traffic and say: Hi! We’re here! You can’t ignore us!
SMP: I realize that this is a nine-year epic, but what was the process to create the Trabantimino?
LC: I didn’t know very much about cars, and I didn’t know anything about fabrication. I wasn’t a part of any car culture. I knew I had this car, [an “expensive” Trabant, purchased for $400 in Germany], I knew the residency was going to ship it back to the US for me. So the car was coming to the port of Oakland and I started looking for a shop that would take me in—a low rider shop. So I found this shop, Worldwide Customs, that was this kind of shitty low rider shop. And really, that was a wasted year—everything I did on the car at that shop I had to remove later. I don’t know if it was that they didn’t know that much about fabrication, I think it was more that it was a shady place. In any case, I learned a lot about low riding there, I learned a lot about hydraulics—I saw how they were being installed—really basic stuff. I met the darker side of the low riding world. These guys were part of the Mexican mafia, and there was shady stuff that happened there. The way I left was that they called me up and said: “hurry up, you’ve got to get your stuff. We’re closing tonight!” Luckily I had a friend who did car stuff and who had a garage in San Francisco, who let me put the car in his garage. We called a tow truck, my friends came, we packed up all the stuff, and then it was like, gone, and that guy disappeared.
SMP: And at this point, you transitioned to Phoenix?
LC: Yeah. That’s when I realized a couple things, one being that if I want to find a good shop where people are actually going to help me, that one of the ways I could figure that out is if they were there early in the morning. If they started their workday on time, and if the cars didn’t have dust on them, that means they had turnover. So I got to Arizona and I looked up in the yellow pages every shop that had the word “custom” in it. I started going to a bunch of them, and I think the 38th or 39th was this place called Elwood Body Works. It was in Scottsdale, and they were owned by an Italian family. The owner’s name is Don Barsellottiwho’s this amazing guy, and they do mostly insurance work and collision repair, so they have a lot of turnover, they were a serious shop, and they were also doing some restorations—Ferrari’s, they did an Aston Martin once, they were doing cool things in there but they also had cash flow.
So I knew when he said he would take me in that it was going to be okay—they weren’t going to try to exploit me or be shady in any way, they were really nice, and they thought the idea was hilarious. I was asking for a lot: I was going to be working on the car, and they were going to teach me how to work on the car, while I didn’t have enough money to pay them to help me work on the car. I was asking for the world, and for some reason, this guy decided to give it to me. Then he hooked me up with this guy Bill Cherry, who’s sort of the last of a dying breed of guys who can do a bit of everything. Bill became my mentor, and he really taught me how to engineer all the movements in the car.
SMP: How much of the car is Trabant, how much is El Camino, and how much is custom hybrid?
LC: All hybrid. It started out as the Trabant, and to turn it into the El Camino, I wanted to figure out some things that would give it El Camino-ness. So I picked a few things like the wheelbase, which is the distance between the wheels, the length of the car and the heart of the car—the engine. That required me to build a new chassis for the car. I also wanted to have the car to have a sense of integrity so it wouldn’t forget where it came from. That’s why I felt it was important that it is able to go back and forth. It’s like going home… I grew up in an immigrant household, so it’s like going home and speaking Spanish and then you leave the house, you stretch out, and you put something else on. I wanted the car to have that type of experience, but when it goes back to its Trabant form it’s not really a Trabant anymore because it has been through all these experiences.
SMP: What was the idea behind the Bodywork component– the bikinis and Olympic poses? You definitely went down the road of gender and identity politics with that series, and I know this work has incensed a number of critics. Are you articulating a relationship between the car and the body with this work?
LC: My motivation was more about how to become a part of a certain subculture. I had had this frustration with Canal: once I dressed up with Lynette, I realized that that was kind of a masquerade, and if I wanted to hold my interest in the project, I needed to become an insider. Firstly, I’m not a biological male; and secondly, I wasn’t interested in going on a transgender journey or taking sex work, so that was as close as I could get. It was done. For the next piece, I wanted to take something where I could go from being on the outside—really being an outsider, to really being an insider, even if I was a freak insider. Different ways to become a part of that car culture are to build cars, to own cars, or to model for cars. So my motivation for doing the modeling was more to become a member—I never did it to make fun of that aspect of car culture. I wasn’t judging it, I was using it.
For the early photographs, [Bodywork] I was just using poses from low rider magazines and Sports Illustrator. I did nine of these, and I thought of them as trailers or movie posters. They were documentation for me, even though it was staged documentation where I would have the car at a certain stage of completion, me at a certain stage in my process, and the environment and the people around me building the car at that moment. They were a way to document periodically where the project was at and say: “coming soon to a theater near you!” I knew it was a really long project, so I wanted to let out pieces of it. What happened instead is that those photos provoked a huge conversation around “post-feminism,” whatever that means—I still haven’t figured out what that means! But anyway, the series that you’re thinking about is call Zwickau Routine (2010). For those, I wanted to go to the home of the Trabant—to its birthplace. I had moved to Detroit, so I was here, in the home of GM, and I thought: I have never been to the home of Trabant and I need to go. So I went to Zwickau, Germany and I found the abandoned Trabant factory, where those photographs were taken. I was thinking about my memories of the Cold War as a child, and for me, it was all through things like the olympics–Nadia Comanechi and Mary Lou Retton…symbols of American and Socialist strength. When I was a kid, my parents were really interested in Socialism. We traveled to the USSR and China, so I had an interest, and I had exposure. In any case, I was thinking about the Trabant factory, the Cold War, and the reasons that I never heard about this car, and I started overlapping all these memories of when the car would have been in existence.
LC: I think there will always be parts of it ongoing until someone takes the car completely out of my hands. You’re never really done with a custom car. That’s one thing I’ve learned from working at all of these shops. In Detroit, I was at this really interesting shop Kustom Creations, and you see people with these amazing cars come in to just tinker with one more thing. There’s always one more little thing.
SMP: How has the project changed since your relocation to Detroit? Do you find that there’s more interest in the home of GM?
LC: It changes the people around the project and the nature of the car culture around the work. When I was in Oakland, I was really around low riding culture; in Scottsdale, I was at a collision shop owned by an Italian family, but I was also going to tons of low rider shows and even planned a low rider show, so I wasn’t working in a low rider shop, but I definitely went to more shows than I had before; and when I got to here, I was more in this phase of wanting to finish and refine. Here, I got to work around people who were really the best of the best. The project ended not at that Kustom Creation shop, it was with this guy Al Sharp, who’s really amazing—he works for this place Experi-Metal… In any case, as the project went on, every time I changed shops I moved into a higher end situation because I knew more. Also, I’ve been able to meet all these car designers from GM, which was really exciting for me. To have folks in that industry excited about what I’m doing was really an interesting moment, because that wasn’t a group of people who I really thought about.
It’s interesting, I think an aspect of the project that really hasn’t been explored by people writing about it is the aspect of me really going through the project over time… It went in fits and starts, but it really consumed nine years of my life. I’d say five or six years it totally took over my life… The Bikini Car Wash, which was the first piece that initiated the project, was really a long time ago. I was this young single person in San Francisco with roommates! I’ve definitely matured through phases of the project, and now there’s a video of me, pregnant, bouncing with the car’s hydraulics. I’m at this phase where I want to use the car to do work that is more family-oriented with my husband and my child. Again, this comes back to the Robert Frank stuff… Just this morning, I was looking at these images where his whole family’s faces are pressed to the side of the car.
SMP: It seems as though you’ve become the El Camino poster child—exuding the coolness of low riding, while embracing the family-oriented practicality of a car and truck in one!
LC: I like working on stuff that stays open. I didn’t really formulate everything it was going to mean and do and be. I didn’t even know it was going to go back and forth between two different cars until I got to Phoenix. It was at that point that I knew more about the technology of what I could do and I figured out what hydraulics can do, so I was like: I can do this, or I can do this. Every year I can say I barely made it through that year, and it made my life really hard for a long time.
Liz Cohen is represented by Salon 94, New York, NY; David Klein, Birmingham, MI; and Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris. She is a 2011 Kresge Artist Fellow, and is currently Artist-in-Residence of the Photography Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Trabantimino is currently being shown in Autobody at The Ballroom in Marfa, TX, and she has photographs exhibited in here at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, as well as in an exhibition at David Klein that opens this Saturday, November 5. A new video work, Hydro Force, will be included in No Object Is an Island, an exhibition that opens November 11 at Cranbrook Art Museum.