Zach Sokol gives us his mind on working as a journalist from the iconic Vice Magazine. Sokol is true to his words and then true to his character.
Give us your background story.
I’m a writer and editor, currently based in Brooklyn—though I’ve spent a little bit of time in Berlin and would like to eventually split my life between the two cities. I’m 23, but I’ve been working at VICE for several years now. First as an intern (at VICE Prague while studying abroad and then at Motherboard in New York), then a freelancer, then as an editor at The Creators Project. For the past year I’ve been an assistant editor at VICE.com and VICE Magazine, but I was recently promoted to Weekend Editor.
I’m originally from Massachusetts, but I consider myself a New Yorker (my dad grew up in Brooklyn). I have this conversation with friends pretty often, but how long before you’re a real New Yorker? Is it five years, seven years, ten years? Time actually doesn’t mean much here in my opinion. Rather, you’re a real New Yorker when you see something go down in the city that’s so unforgettably fucked up that it couldn’t have been made up, and it’s subsequently branded into your brain. I’ve lived in New York for six years and I’ve had my own version of this moment so fuck you I’m a New Yorker.
The strangest article you’ve written?
One of my favorite parts of VICE is that things are rarely too niche or strange to publish as long as they’re smart and done well. In the past six months, I’ve had a handful of very bizarre articles, mostly on sex.. I profiled a woman named Palasia who’s behind the longest-running series of sex parties in the city and the piece ended up being titled “The Last Old School Orgy in New York.”
The most bizarre situation you’ve been in to get a story to print?
When I was working on that profile of Palasia, I went to four separate parties. I wasn’t just profiling her, but also speaking with the people who’d created new sex parties and were competing against Palasia’s party. I was trying to investigate this unique subculture and how it’s changed in recent years with “start-ups,” for a lack of a better term, entering the market and changing the sex party zeitgeist. So yeah I had to do some “research,” which meant going to the parties and talking with all sorts of characters, including an adult clown named Scary Ben and old swingers with children my age. I had to wear a costume for one, and an Eyes Wide Shut-type getup (mask and all) for another.
I had a really good editor for this feature. On a Monday after I went to the fourth and final party, he pulled me into a conference room and said, totally deadpan, “So Zach, tell me about your parties.” I then went on a huge rant telling him all the nitty-gritty, personal details and he listened earnestly. At the end of my stories, he was like, “Ok, so save 90% of that for your memoirs. Those anecdotes are funny and interesting, but they’re not what’s important to this story.” That was a big kill to my ego, but was really important advice that seriously benefitted how I approached the article. I still haven’t written about most of those gnarly personal anecdotes and I don’t know if I will anytime soon.
The most memorable story you’ve written about?
I did a feature on the artist Trevor Paglen that I think about all the time just because of how incredible of an artist and human he is. We discussed his latest project—work that appeared in an untitled exhibition that just opened at Metro Pictures gallery in New York—in a metal bar called Rasputin in Turkey. He was documenting these underwater fiber optic cables that send mass amounts of information around the world, and which serve as the juiciest, most efficient places for the NSA to tap personal data. It felt cinematic (and almost melodramatic) that we were crouched in the back of this metal bar, chain smoking as he told me about these highly secret government operations he was researching and exploring through visual art. He’s my favorite contemporary artist because his practice is so dynamic. He’s an academic, a researcher, an explorer, and his work has practical applications on top of being conceptually brilliant. And he’s an ideal subject in that he can talk to anyone about the most niche, complicated things and educate you about them without dumbing anything down. I will forever feel fortunate that I got to discuss his work in such detail in an exotic locale.
Most prominent up and coming Brooklyn artist that you’ve interviewed?
Oh man, there have been many to be honest! My taste is hot fire (joking). I like interviewing artists because they’re usually way more articulate than, say, musicians. With fine artists, the interview ends up being less like an interview and more like a conversation or dialogue. There have been some well-known people for sure, but I want to give a shout-out to my friends Claire Christerson and Michael Bailey Gates who make art as a duo under the name Mike and Claire. They’ve definitely blown up a bit since I first interviewed them a couple years ago, but they’re immensely talented and deserve all the attention they’re receiving. They excel in particular at making these insane, psychedelic, hyper-vibrant short films that are definitely informed by Cindy Sherman, Ryan Trecartin, Tim & Eric, and John Waters. But they have their own visual vernacular and DIY aesthetic that comes across as super organic and authentic. Their work gives you a vantage into their hilarious, horrifying brains and they’re more than the sum of their influences.
Also for up-and-coming international artists, check out my homie Coco Capitan’s photo work. She’s the fucking best and I’ve got plans to do some nuanced, stylized interviews with her in the near future.
An interview where you thought this guy is whack?
I probably didn’t publish it. I don’t like doing slam pieces or being critical for the sake of being critical. There’s too much media as is, and I only want to publish an article on someone if I’m stoked about them. Not even being altruistic or self-righteous. There’s just too much writing on the internet – why add to the mass of 1’s and 0’s with a piece on someone who I think is a piece of shit?
Career changing feature you’ve written?
I wrote this essay for the Paris Review recently about growing up with obsessive-compulsive disorder. It was pretty personal and part of me still feels weird about that information being online. I even considered using a pseudonym, but it’s the fucking Paris Review! Huge personal goal to be published by them. I usually don’t like publishing things about myself (that stuff stays in my journal) but this time it felt cathartic.
Final words on American culture as it is today?
Free Gucci. Also, two years ago I felt like Brooklyn was going through a brief lull in terms of creativity and excitement. Maybe it was just me. But now I feel that it’s as lit as ever and there are too many things to check out on any given night. I’m lucky to live in a place I once romanticized, and find that it’s actually better (and different) from what I imagined.