What it means to be human

10557218_10152631694479656_500612965268380230_nDon’t expect to get the answer from Heather Zinger. And according to her, you won’t find it anywhere – no matter where you may look.

“The question is intended inspire a conversation,” Zinger explains. “I don’t have that answer. And even if we did have an answer for that question, I think it would be one that is constantly evolving.”

Zinger, hailing from Illinois, had no idea her project – which began years ago in the Pacific Northwest – would lead her to North Dakota at such a tumultuous time to be asking such a question.

“I think that is a shifting question that no one can answer,” says Zinger. “And no one has the right to answer for us. That’s strongly how I feel. It’s not for the Legislature to define that for us because they don’t own all the rights to our experience of being human. That is us. And that is part of us that deserves to be free.”

During the Sixty-Third Legislative Assembly, lawmakers in Bismarck passed a string of “pro-life” bills threatening the lives and health of women all across the region. While those laws have been contested and turned down by the State Supreme Court, a measure has been put upon the November ballot in which all North Dakotans will be asked to define what it means to be human.

“I know that there are other organizations and schools of belief that are heavily invested in defining that for us – but that’s Fascism,” said Zinger emphatically. “Whether it’s other religion, other organizations, the thing about the Personhood (measure) is that it’s so wide-sweeping that people with cancer, they have to go to chemo(therapy) – this will destroy them, make them infertile. If they can’t freeze their eggs or freeze their sperm, they will never be able to have children. And we don’t have the right to deny people that.

“I don’t know if I’ll go that much into it (during the presentation),” Zinger continues, “But I feel like anything that defines our humanity is still under our own personal jurisdiction and it’s a huge part of what makes us free in this country. And I don’t think that should be taken for granted.”

The question is a pressing one – especially at the place and time in which Zinger’s presentation has found itself. When Zinger began her project, she was far removed – both from North Dakota and the question of personhood.

“When I was still working on my undergrad, I became interested in bees and Colony Collapse Disorder – ‘CCD’ is what they call it,” Zinger states. “It’s this phenomenon where bees are abandoning their hives. And because honeybees are highly social and they depend on each other to survive, each one has a specific role in the hive. Because they don’t have multi-talents, if they abandon the nest they die – all of them die. With this phenomenon going on all around the world, it raises questions about pollination, about economies, about our food, and other ecosystems.”

Zinger got in touch with a beekeeper, taking pictures and talking with him about his bees.

“In our time together, he told me that he had done this bee beard project at the science museum with a ‘bee wrangler’ – I didn’t even know that bee wranglers existed,” Zinger recalls with a smile. “There was a bee wrangler up in Vancouver (Canada) –there’s only two bee wranglers on the west coast, so I decided to go to Vancouver because it was closer to where I was living.”

Upon getting in touch with the Vancouver bee wrangler, Zinger was invited to attend the festival.

“I really don’t think he believed I was gonna go,” Zinger said. “Because when I showed up, he was just like ‘Hi’ – and I was like ‘Yeah, you invited me.’”

Zinger wound up participating in the bee wrangler’s display at the fair.

“I climbed into this glass box with him in front of an audience of about 200 people,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that – I mean, that was kind of crazy. It took a lot to calm down before I got in because if you move or accidentally crush one, you can’t explain to them (the bees) that it was an accident. It doesn’t matter – they just smell the pheromones and they attack.”

But Zinger survived without incident and went on to develop her project further.

“Usually what I do is I figure out what art I want to make, for whatever purpose, and then I use whatever medium suits that,” explains Zinger. “My strength is in photo, video, performance and writing, but I’ll use sculpture and painting. My drawing’s not really that fabulous, but I don’t care – I’ll use that if I feel called to. It’s about whatever medium suits the purpose. I have so many experiences of working with communities and art that wouldn’t necessarily result in a (tangible) product.”

Most of Zinger’s art entails a great deal of research as well as community involvement that typically results in a performance or presentation like the one being offered through the FM Visual Artists Association at the Plains Art Museum on August 28th from 7:30-8:30 p.m.

“I thought I was going to pursue this project on bees,” Zinger said. “But what ended up happening is that it got me thinking about what is it that defines our humanity – because humanity is not a fixed identity. Just like gender – gender is not a fixed identity. And humanity isn’t either.”

To take part in Zinger’s Visual Talk ‘What Makes Us Human,’ be at the Plains Art Museum in downtown Fargo on August 28th at 7:30 p.m.

Jackie Kodadek is a communications professional who makes her home in Fargo.

She can be contacted via email at

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