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In Extremis

Genuine Freedom: Sadaf Interviewed
Lottie Brazier , November 4th, 2015 03:41

Before she supports Grimes tonight, the performance artist talks to Lottie Brazier about narrowing the gap between 'experimental' and 'pop' and flipping gender dynamics in the video for industrialised banger C.F.C.

It's not often that a city can both hold onto its heritage while allowing for the new. New York, of course, has this rare, rich bed for germination. Obscurity and success were also never too separate here; Andy Warhol, for one, became so successful it's almost as if he is now owned by everybody - it'd be hard not to find some market selling a kitsch fridge magnet with his Marilyn Diptych design stamped on. Television's founders Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell made a similar impression on youth culture, tearing holes into the mesh of their already threadbare clothes and creating a brilliant racket in the once-unknown club CBGB. While some of the regular bands at this club became popular as the American division of punk, the bands that stayed on continued to make their own racket in more and more confrontational ways, becoming the '80s no wave scene.

As a kind of modern-day offshoot from that scene, the DJ and performance artist Sadaf continues to test the boundaries between obscurity and popularity. Born in Iran, she was raised in Canada and, like many, upped sticks and moved on to New York, currently basing herself in a studio in Chinatown, where she works in painting, video and photography, as well as music.

Unlike those who take many years of trial and error to develop one's craft, it's clear already from tracks like the Liars-esque 'Man Of Me' and stuttering 'C.F.C' that Sadaf has already honed a strong sonic identity. These pieces are as subdued and melancholic as they are confrontational, similar in approach to Australian band Severed Heads' poetic, tape loops-based industrial. And in working with this broad palette, Sadaf denies our preconceptions of industrial as solely evocative of the dark and the grotesque. As such, it's not easy to put a name to the emotions or situations her music conjures, it being as complex, layered and full of tangents as her adopted hometown.

You also recently compiled a mix for The Fader, which included tracks from Slipknot and Missy Elliott. What would you say draws you to certain artists or tracks?

S: What drew me to those tracks that you just mentioned wasn't the artists but the particular remixes and pairings of those songs with others in the mix. So I really think that DJing is about curation, and it's about digging around and bringing in new ideas. It's also about finding pairings that are unusual or experimenting with that. That's why I'm always less moved by DJs that perfect one genre, and I think that, in a way, it becomes competitive in the same way that national sports teams are competitive. And I don't really agree with only going to bat for your team. So for me, I think that anything is on the table in terms of DJing.

Do you find that the music that you work with when you are DJing influences the music that you make, or would you say that these two things are fairly separate?

S: I think they're very similar in sentiment, in terms of going with an intuitiveness and an improvisation. When I'm DJing live I'm not really preparing for what's going to be happening. Although I have a bank of stuff that I'd like to use and I think it works in a lot of different ways, similar to how I make music, where I gravitate towards certain things intuitively and also incorporate my broad influences, from traditional Middle Eastern music to South American music.

I think that with the music and with the DJing my influences could change at any moment but there are so many of them, and so much overlapping between them, that it becomes a stylistic thing that actually seems cohesive.

I'm very interested in your visual direction, especially with the video you made to 'C.F.C.'. It's very confrontational but it's also very ambiguous in sentiment. With the way in which you film yourself in mind, I'm wondering what processes were behind the making of it?

S: That song is very confrontational itself. So at first I really wanted the music video to be contrasting with that. I wanted it to be able to compete with a pop video, instead of being boxed into the experimental genre. And I think at this point culturally, we're at a place where being confined to one genre is conservative in my opinion! Whether that's the umbrella of experimental, or the umbrella of pop. I really wanted to challenge what both those genres imply and mix them up a little bit.

The video was directed by me and edited by me, and shot by Whitney Mallett. We both started a production company for film and video which is called Térmé. Because the song is this chaotic deconstruction of beats, it takes influences from so many things, you could dissect that. I wanted the music video to be the same, but in the opposite direction. I wanted to use pop music tropes, soap operatic tropes, fashion film tropes and I wanted the image to be very glossy to contrast with the song, which is not something I usually do. The music video just like the song falls apart at some point and it takes those tropes to such a level that it is evident that it is not what it seems. Or at least that's when the ambiguity I guess comes in, because the editing is quite untraditional for those images. So although the images seem traditional, they might remind you of a perfume ad or a fashion ad, but it's clear by the end that it's not!

The way you edited the film was so at odds with the sexual narrative in it - it seems to really exaggerate the tension between you and the male actor. Was that intentional at all?

S: Maybe a little bit of both. Back to the editing, I was looking at those images and there are so many question marks for me - part of me was thinking, what do I do with this?! And so the solution was to destroy it a little bit. Because on their own these images made me uncomfortable and I didn't know what to do.

In terms of women's representation on screen, we're used to seeing women filmed by men in this manner, and when that happens a woman's body becomes a commodity, and for that reason it is communicated that body has less agency on screen. Because I had full control on the image and the end product and how it was shot, it takes a completely different tone in the end. I think it becomes about self-awareness and not about exploitation. So I think that also there's a playfulness to the role playing that is going on, and I'm mimicking something that we're used to seeing. It's definitely something that I have a love-hate relationship to. So it's kind of about not staying clear of it, but presenting it in a way that flips the power dynamics that are inherent in those images.

Do you have any other non-musical influences that you use for inspiration or as kind of a starting point?

S: I always take from film, more than music or visual art. And I'm very sad to hear about the passing away of Chantal Akerman, because I think it's people like that that go beyond media - it's definitely a big loss for the arts community. Film is definitely the most sophisticated art form with the most potential, but is also the most inaccessible, most elitist and most reliant on funding. It's the most difficult to make. With UK artists I have to express an appreciation for both Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. Alan Clarke who made both Elephant and Scum, Elephant being made before Gus Van Sant's version; although Gus Van Sant was influenced by Clarke's Elephant, they're very different films! Both have influenced and inspired me to make work.

So what makes you think that film is so successful as an art form, say in comparison to music, for you?

S: I think it's because I really like storytelling. It's always more layered in film. You can always tell stories through music, you can always tell stories through images, but the format of a film really allows you to communicate through stories something that goes beyond stories - it's a certain kind of ideology that I subscribe to, I think it's the most successful in communicating a worldview or something very humanitarian. I think it's the most humanitarian form as it really is a window into someone else's mind.

Is it the perspective-taking involved in the process of film-making that you especially like?

S: Yes, and perspectives are very politicised in how you choose to show the world. And you're working with images, time and sound, you have all these different elements at the same time, which I also like.

You also have a DJ slot at Gay Vinyl. I saw that it was once co-hosted with Genesis P-Orridge - this makes me interested in the kind of music that gets played there: is the scene quite focused and different from that?

S: Gay Vinyl is a DJ night that Susanne Oberbeck, who is No Bra, has been doing for years. So I have a tremendous respect for her work, I'm always really happy when she asks me to DJ Gay Vinyl, and that night is very focused on creating this open, positive, queer-friendly space. So it's super fun to play that night; anything goes.

The curation of that night is eclectic, there has been a really wide range of DJs, so it's never one specific thing. And it's definitely one of the most freeing DJing experiences that I've had in New York. There are a lot of things happening in New York right now that are super great and I think this one is a gem, because there's a very genuine freedom to it. The community of people that go to it are usually close friends, people that I really enjoy being around, so for that reason it's really special. I also want to make mention of The Spectrum, who also put on some great shows.

Have you any plans to release an album?

S: Yes I've been working to release an album on HOSS Records for a really long time. I've definitely been taking my time and the challenge has been in the translation into a recording of a live performance that is very reliant on improvisation. I really want to get it right, and I want there to be a balance of composition and experimentation within it that would reflect what I do live.

I’m also curious to know more about your upcoming performance with Juliana Huxtable and how you came to be supporting Grimes.

S: I'm so excited to support Grimes at the Guggenheim, for the 2015 Guggenheim International Gala Pre-Party. I will be doing a special two-hour DJ set, partly before and partly after her performance. Claire is an old friend that I've known for a long time, from when we both lived in Montreal, so it's great to be part of the same event!

I am also thrilled to be part of Juliana Huxtable's performance There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed. I'm collaborating with Joseph Heffernan, with whom I've collaborated before and with Juliana on creating a live score for the performance. I will be playing amplified violin and will be doing voice as well. We are all working together to come up with something unique specifically for the event.

'Man Of Me' and 'C.F.C.' are out now on HOSS Records. Sadaf opens for Grimes at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, NY, tonight - for full details and tickets, head here - and is taking part in Juliana Huxtable's performance of There Are Certain Facts That Cannot Be Disputed at MoMA in New York, NY, on November 13 and 14; for full details and tickets, head here