As part of Metro's ongoing Q&A series featuring intriguing characters in Boston, we sat down with Belarus-born artist Peter Berdovsky, known professionally as Zebbler.
Born and raised in Belarus, Europe, Zebbler moved to Arlington at the age of 16 as an exchange student. During his first year there, the budding artist realized that his home country was slipping into a dictatorship, so he requested political asylum. He became a US citizen in 2012, but has been making an impact on Boston's art scene long before that.
The 34-year-old, who works out of a studio in Charlestown, has moved past the2007 Boston Mooninite incident, which caused a city-wide bomb scare, and is optimistic about the city's awakening art scene.
How would you describe your art?
The easiest way to understand it is to see it. So I guess I would just ask them to visit zebblerstudios.com and see for themselves.What I've become known for, especially in the past few years, is my video mapping work. My team and I create large sculptural stages for various touring acts. We project custom video animations on them during the shows, to make it seem like the stages come to life, in ways that are synchronized with music.
Do you think you’ll always be known as the Mooninite artist?
I don't really think so. I am a fairly ambitious individual, and I am certainly hoping to get entirely more famous for my art and performances.It's getting close, after six years of touring the United States more and more people know me as "Zebbler - that guy that does incredible visual performances and installations".
How has the incident impacted your career since then? Do you feel that your work is automatically filed as ‘controversial’ because of 2007 incident?
I knew what I wanted to do since graduating Mass College of Art in 2006. I knew it would take incredibly hard daily work to get to where I am now. And I am not stopping. The world is so beautiful and so complex, yet our lives are so brief. If there's one thing I can leave behind, it's my art child. Visual, auditory, and conceptual information that will remain long after I am gone. The more I focus on it, the more complex it can become, the bigger the impact can be. I simply yearn to master my craft. In a big way, the incident and my line of work had nothing to do with each other.
Were you caught off guard by the public’s/law enforcement’s reaction at the time, or was it expected?
Totally caught off guard. I was doing a job for the Cartoon Network. I figured a big company like that would know what they were doing. They totally did too, just not in the way I expected. They bailed themselves out with a $2 million donation to the city [in exchange for all charges dropped], and left me and my friend Sean Stevens to be dragged through the court system as scapegoats.It was a great lesson in politics though. I truly believe that.
Do you consider what Kevin "Kayvon" Edson did at the Boston Marathonbombinganniversary to be art?
I considerwhat Kayvon didincredibly disrespectful to the spirit of mourning and sense of profound community loss that the city of Boston was experiencing on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing anniversary. His actions to me are repulsive, similarly to that of Westboro Baptist Church members holding up signs about [expletive] going to hell at soldiers' funerals. You just don't do that, if you are part of a healthy, loving family. Is it art? Who knows. I honestly don't care to investigate it or even watch him do it.
How did it come to be that your piece was selected for First Night? 2014 How do you think it was received?
I was introduced to the First Night staff through a community organizer - Mihai Dinulescu. My company has already worked with the city of Boston earlier that year, helping maintain Pulse of the City public art installations, which were inaugurated by Mayor [Thomas] Menino. So we had a bit of experience collaborating with the city. That, combined with my portfolio of architectural video projections and the fact that my company is proud to be doing business out of Boston, probably led to us being hired to do the First Night projections. I think it was received really well - people had big smiles on their faces, watching the library transformed to tell the visual history of this city. It meant a lot to me to do this. I felt like I could finally give something back to the people who raised me and welcomed me.
Has growing up in the Boston area had any influence on your work?
Boston influenced me a lot. I attended Massachusetts College of Art [with a major in Studio for Interrelated Media]; a lot of my artistic directions and early experimentations came together there. It was an amazing creative incubator for me. I was also highly influenced by the large amount of high-tech artists in Boston, many of my friends here are coders and makers - people who utilize the latest developments in technology to create art. Boston is a good hub for that.
What sort of pieces are you working on now? Can you describe your upcoming projects?
I am currently experimenting with embedding even more technology into our video mapped stages. For our latest project - we teamed up with a UK artist Shpongle to create a stage that incorporates infinity mirrors, projections and custom lighting. After a successful spring tour we are planning our next round of improvements. I am also planning a summer US tour with my own a/v act Zebbler Encanti Experience and getting ready to teach a graduate course on video art in Valencia, Spain wing of Berklee College of Music. We are starting off our US tour in Boston, taking over a boat and doing a harbor cruise.[More on upcoming work here.]
You graduated from the Mass College of Art/Design – do you believe artists are well served by art school?
I loved MassArt. It was a great nurturing place for me, a place where I felt safe to fail a whole lot, got great feedback from other artists and professors, experienced hands-on theater technology and event production training. It was very useful to me. However, art is hard. It's not something that you could easily make money with. And education is expensive. Before you burden yourself with an huge debt, think about whether you can learn the same thing through internet tutorials and public support networks and communities. A lot of times it's possible to circumvent having to pay for education. After all, you can watch MIT lectures online for free, did you guys know that?
Do you think Boston is accepting of visual artistry that pushes boundaries? Can artists truly feel comfortable and welcomed pushing the envelope here?
I think we're one of the better cities for that. Freedom of expression is respected here. And public art is starting to catch on big time.It's still hard for visual artists, because the industry is mostly located in Los Angeles and New York. But we are waking up. I am witnessing the birth and growth of companies similar to Zebbler Studios in Boston. We will pave the way for technology innovation and art to be a big part of this growing city. We are here to stay.