Northern exposure

Mar 2, 2005 at 12:00 am

A little while ago, a friend described his midnight vision of a steam-shovel ballet. He said he saw a trio of yellow metal arms rising from the ground in unison like a blossoming mechanical flower. Bulldozers were performing industrial-strength pirouettes with precision, spinning in sequence to the pleasing downbeat-double-upbeat music of a waltz.

This wasn’t a morphine-induced dream; it was Pretty Big Dig, a short film on late-night Canadian television. For the past three years, the handful of Detroiters who know about it have been perplexed and enthralled by the wonderful world of ZeD, an alt-arts program broadcast five nights a week on CBC television (local Channel 9).

Hosted by Ziya Tong, a young Macedonian-Chinese beauty, it airs video and performance art, animation, visual art, short films and music, as well as edgy arts and culture reporting and live in-studio acts. Think of it as a PBS-Independent Film Channel lovechild, except younger, unstuffed and way more out there. It’s an all-access pass to an art museum’s video databank, without the dust.

What makes ZeD so captivating isn’t only its creative distance from America’s migraine-inducing sitcoms and talk shows; it’s the easy link it provides between totally weird art and the everyday life experiences that inspire it.

In conjunction with the premiere of Pretty Big Dig, ZeD produced a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the four-minute video, including an interview with filmmaker Anne Troake. A dancer herself, Troake recounts how she happened to be driving by a construction site and was struck by the shovel operators’ ability to control the large machines. She thought it was something she could choreograph, so she talked to the construction company about the project and told the workers what to do. Turns out the burly men were quite moved by the experience. That episode also presented a super-8 film documentary about freestyle street bowling and the honky rap of Buck 65.

But here’s the real kicker: The television program is just one-half of a massive media effort. ZeD’s Web site gives artists and other creators the chance to become contributors. Membership registration is free and allows you to check out old episodes, upload your own art, rate others’ works, submit ideas and create and join conversation groups. Currently there are more than 16,000 works of various media to see and hear, and more than 43,000 members.

ZeD online is well-organized and extensive. The category of visual art alone offers 19 subgenres to cruise through, including body art, guerrilla art, industrial design, collage and portraiture. There’s unmanipulated photography of the setting sun that looks like a solar wildfire; samples of psychedelic swamp-hop music from both above and underground; and even a place for poetry that hurts, such as “The Drugs of Hoka Street” by Kerry Armstrong, which begins, “I’m given a free hit of acid at my 15th birthday party and I don’t feel any less or any more fucked up than that morning.”

In a scene from one experimental film, Copy Shop, featured on the program, a young man walks down the street and everybody he comes across is his double. He runs into an alley, climbing up a fire escape and into a room. There are people seated around a dining room table, and he realizes they’re all him. It sounds like a Maya Deren surrealist short, but it’s a good metaphor for Canadian television, created by and for its adventurous audience.

Recently, ZeD editor Sue Biely was surprised to find that some metro Detroiters are tuning in. “I thought it was supposed to be for Canada-only audiences. The waves must be bleeding through … but I’m really glad you like it.”

Detroiters are the ones who should be grateful.


Weeknights at 11:25 p.m. on CBC, local Channel 9. Tune in Fridays for “Feedback Friday,” viewers’ choice best-of episodes. Web site at

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]