In Migration: The Art of Sahra Motalebi



The video for Sahra Motalebi new song, “Migrators,” features the New York-based artist and musician, clad in holey leggings and a long white t-shirt, as she wanders, tumbles, and crawls through a spare indoor sculpture garden. Set in an anonymous-looking space, the video follows Sahra as she makes “a slow documentation or investigation” of what she called “a gnarly basement.” The video was conceived as a compliment to the eerily mournful down-tempo track about “the impermanence of relationships.” The project reintroduces Motalebi (this is the first single for her third album, Tender Mortal Means, which will be released on Static Recital this month) and Colin Whitaker, the video’s director. Now living in in Beirut, Whitaker, a filmmaker and artist, has made videos for Antony and the Johnsons, Palms, and Mike Bones. Indeed it was Hegarty who introduced them when Motalebi was performing with him. Here the two discuss the video, and Motalebi’s performance art-which, it turns out, are of a piece. Timely, indeed, as Motalebi will install and perform “Such is the Game of Authenticity” at PS1 on November 14.

SAHRA MOTALEBI: How would you describe your taste in music videos, Colin?

COLIN WHITAKER: My favorite music videos are more like performance films than narratives. Like Kate Bush’s early videos where it’s just her, dancing and emoting in a studio with some primitive special effects. As I did with your video, I like to make the performer central, and come up with different techniques to interfere with the documentation.

MOTALEBI: Yes, speaking of mediating performance, you created a fanning effect with that black cardboard filter which actually mimicked the shapes in my leggings, mediating what would have been a straight-forward the shot with the effect of looking through venetian blinds in the frame. It’s a simple analogue technique, but really effective. Related to this I guess, Jay Israelson and I felt we could write a really dynamic song by combining relatively few musical elements, just voice and piano and cello, which seems to be similiar to the constraints of our video making process, in a way.

WHITAKER: It’s true that there are many similarities between the two practices. From your side, how do you feel about making videos in relation to performing?

MOTALEBI: Just as an expressive mechanism, I think video within performance or featuring performance, particularly music, is pretty incredible. In the end a film/video is a thing, you know, an artifact but its also also temporal–like music–so one’s experience of a video isn’t static.  As far as working on the video for “Migrators” with you, the space in Chelsea where we shot was so luxurious and really just inviting a larger scale production and performance. In addition to its huge size, there was so much rubble–trash from construction and bizarre refuse from the studios in the building all around the place–that the artifice of the my sculptural set was bracketed really nicely. I’d been drawing the white and black gate-like forms for a long time and was delighted to finally build them with the idea of rolling around within them. I imagined that as an aspect of the performance they could be folded and manipulated in shape and size, casually moved around like chess pieces in that disastrous and charming environment. Your sense of realism really worked well there–the whole thing was really Brechtian. Your naturalistic lighting choice and the quality of the digital video itself pulled what could seem like pretense of my set down to earth, and of course the manner in which it is shot also grounds the drama of the song itself.

WHITAKER: To me, the set felt like an extension of your performance, since it is made up mostly of sculptures you created. It seems you are doing more of this kind of multimedia performance work these days. Do you feel a connection between making music and making sculpture?

MOTALEBI: I’m discovering in my work that mise en scene, whatever that may be, completes a music project. The performance/installation “Such is the Game of Authenticity” that I’m doing this fall at PS1 is in the largest gallery in the museum, and curator Kate McNamara really encouraged me to make manifest the installed elements and multiple mediums that I’ve had in mind for the show, which in essence will be a 45 minute musical stage performance.  I considered installing a group of sculptures there as a stage set, but I’ve chosen to have large projections of a few video pieces featuring installations I’ve completed for other performances.  Right now, I’m completing a video piece to be projected, which explores at close vantage point a sculpture piece that I’ve installed in an abandoned bank here in a small town in the middle of nowhere New Mexico. This sculpture piece is comprised of many medium-sized white paper architectural forms that I call “crystals” which are hung in a cluster on fishing wire in this glass-front building in the desert. And another one of the videos I’m having projected will be the set from the “Migrators” shoot, without my figure or personage. What would you call this edit of “Migrators” you’re doing for the show at Ps1? It’s not exactly outtakes of a music video any more without me in it, is it? It is definitely a virtual set.

WHITAKER: It becomes a different kind of set. It turns the sculptures into the performers, a sort of static recital. It’s nice because it builds on what the video is trying to do, and brings it back into real space. It’s similar to a piece I made with the band Palms, which was a video of them performing with outtakes of their music video projected onto them, set within a “frame” made up of the outtakes footage.  It’s also nice because it brings us full circle, in a way, since we actually met at a performance at the PS1 Clocktower gallery a year ago, where I was projecting films and you were singing with Antony.

MOTALEBI: Yes, here we are again; it seems that the universe has been conspiring for us to work together in this way for quite a while.

“Such is the Game of Authenticity” opens at PS1 on Nov. 14. PS1 is located at 22-25 Jackson Ave in Long Island City.