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Elizabeth Vander Zaag

(Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)

Elizabeth Vander Zaag, Whispering Pines, 1993
Born in 1952, artist Elizabeth Vander Zaag has been working in video and computer arts since the 1970s. She received a B.A. in English and film from the University of Western Ontario and briefly studied creative electronics at Fanshawe College (London, Ontario) and computer arts at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, British Columbia). Based in Vancouver, Vander Zaag has an extensive exhibition history internationally. She founded and coordinated Front Multimedia (1993-1999) and has lectured and given many workshops across Canada and the United States since the 1980s.

Vander Zaag began working with computers and video early in her career. Shortly after completing her studies at the University of Western Ontario, she began working on a series of videotapes called the Digit Series (1977-1980). The tapes became a feature on The Gina Show, producer John Anderson's weekly cable television program in Vancouver for artists. This program featured an "anthropomorphic cartoon-like figure who had a series of digital (as opposed to analog) adventures." (1) Vander Zaag's early fascination with technology, special effects and digital layering, stemming from her experience with cable television, kept her eager to try new equipment and tools as her career progressed. In 1983, Vander Zaag produced the tape Baby Eyes. This was made using Japanese artist Ko Nakajima's "aniputer," a homemade machine that allows the user to draw on the video image electronically.

"Baby Eyes uses a processed sound-track with computer-altered imagery of Vander Zaag and her baby daughter to show the continuity between mother and the newly born infant. (...) Vander Zaag's uniquely personal tape records experience rather than clinical findings as fragmented images and discontinuous sounds drift into cohesion only to dissolve again into discrete particles." (2)

The artist continued her exploration of technology and intimate narratives in her next work, Hot Chicks on TV (1986). While she maintains a certain sense of humour, the self-conscious use of somewhat corny special effects seems to work in her favour on a more serious political level, bringing content to the forefront and highlighting the self-consciousness of storytelling-especially women's experiences of sharing their lives via videotape. Hot Chicks on TV documents the transition of young girls into "womanhood" mediated by sexuality. While feminist video documentary production was strong in the 1980s in Canada, Vander Zaag decided to approach the subject from a slightly more abstract, conceptual manner. In Hot Chicks on TV, after several segments presenting two young girls in their teens discussing their lives in front of a chroma-key background, there is a segment in which they pass through sexuality and emerge on the other side of experience. In this sequence:

"The young girls are chroma-keyed over computer-animated line drawings of vaginal forms that pulsate in (no kidding) hot pink. That Vander Zaag is able to deliver this image from the realm of cliché is a tribute to her control of the medium. She does it by allowing the cliché to establish itself first. Much like a reference to "historic" imagery (in the same manner as psychedelic or op-art images are visually referenced in post-modern artwork), the throbbing pink cunts locate sexuality within a social context; the image refers to a time when female sexuality was (publicly) seen as a mystery, as ineffable, as murky waters impenetrable to the (male) gaze." (3)

This use of the cliché reflects Vander Zaag's humour and unique approach to the serious in feminism. In her recent project Talk Nice (2000), Vander Zaag investigates social interaction among teenage girls and the manners in which they express their status through tone of voice. Talk Nice uses Vander Zaag's voice recognition software SAY (Speak and Yell), developed at Western Front Multimedia in the mid-1990s.

The installation, developed at the Banff Centre for the Arts as part of its Canadian Creative Innovation Initiative (CCII), encourages users to interact (with their voices) with two teenage girls on a monitor.

"The girls coach the user to speak with an up using the test phrase 'I'm a Canadian eh?' Through interaction with this installation we experience first-hand the tentative unassertive role that is assumed when speaking with an upward inflection at the end of a sentence. How young women are framing themselves with this popularized voice code is one of the many questions that this piece raises." (4)

Although dealing with a very socio-political issue with many implications for women's expression and validation, Vander Zaag tackles the project with humor that brings the point to the forefront while making users extremely self-conscious of their behaviour. Users are validated or rejected depending on whether they conform to teenage standards in virtual settings that remind us of the popularity contests of high school. While we laugh at the girls' responses to our (non)conformity, on some level, we are aware of the profound consequences of acceptance and rejection. Vander Zaag is working on putting this project on the Internet to explore the possibilities of enabling on-line users to navigate with their voices and emotions.

Other recent projects include the CD-ROM Whispering Pines (1993) and a co-creation called Cougar Date (2000), a Web art project highlighting the stereotypical behaviour of certain middle-aged women. According to the Web site, a cougar is defined as:

"The largest North American cat, top of the food chain with Grizzly Bears, carnivorous solitary hunter, aka Mountain Lion, Puma. Also describes women in their forties who smoke, drink and go to clubs to pick up young men in their twenties. Cougars are usually divorced, sometimes with cubs, and financially independent. The most successful cougars are those that married well and got huge divorce settlements. Lesser Cougars were feminists who clawed their way to the top and made their own money. They have charge cards and big bank accounts, often living off second mortgages and money lending. They own cars but use them sparingly because of their concern for the environment." (5)

In collaboration with artist Elspeth Sage, Vander Zaag has created a Web space that acts as a dating service, a discussion space and a wry artistic conversation. "The site also offers tips on everything from beauty to financial advice, including the proper ways to pounce, how to deal with 'menopaws' and how to talk nice (so as to not scare off your prey)." (7) A tongue-in-cheek project, Cougar Date reflects Vander Zaag's interest in social perceptions of women's behaviour and adopts the same candid approach evident throughout her career.

Angela Plohman © 2001 FDL

(1) Lisa Steele, "Committed to Memory: Women's Video Art Production in Canada and Quebec," in Rhea Tregebov, Work in Progress: Building Feminist Culture (Toronto: The Women's Press, 1987): 45.

(2) Ibid. p. 45-46.

(3) Ibid. p. 47-48.

(4) "Talk Nice by Elizabeth Vander Zaag," The Banff Centre for Arts Canadian Creative Innovation Initiative.

(5) Elizabeth Vander Zaag and Elspeth Sage,, (accessed June 14, 2001):

(7) Neal Talbot, "Cougars' hunt for prey in bars and on the Internet," The Digital Times, University College of the Cariboo (March 28, 2001), (accessed June 14, 2001):