Through a collaborative search into the Internet’s underbelly, the Qatari-American artist stepped out of the Gulf into the global experience of the consumer world, hunting for polarized extremes, paradoxes and ironies.
ASAD RAZA Sophia, earlier this year I invited you to take part in the residency program I was doing at the Boghossian Foundation, held in the Villa Empain in Brussels. There, in collaboration with Léo Parmentier, you edited over 100 videos which together form a work called The Litany, which premiered in “Black Friday,” your ongoing solo show at the Whitney Museum. I am now in Brussels with Léo, so he can join us in this conversation. Since we last saw you in Brussels, editing the films for the Whitney show, maybe we can start by discussing what led up to that.
SOPHIA AL-MARIA Yeah. Over a year ago, I had the wonderful idea to make over a hundred videos, all of which would be played on the floor at the Whitney Museum. These videos would have to be hyper-dense in terms of information, and they would all have to relate to the underbelly or the darkness behind the really pristine consumer world that we live in. I’ve always edited everything myself, and as you know, Asad, when I came to the Villa, I was freaking the fuck out!
LEO PARMENTIER I remember…
SAM I was sort of having a major crisis, and my producer, Anna Lena Vaney, sent me a bunch of CVs before sending over Léo. It was complicated, because I’d never used an artist assistant before and felt conflicted about doing that, but over a hundred videos is a lot. I’m really amazed at the incredible collaboration with Léo that has resulted in the crazy work we’re about to mount here in its final form. That’s my side of the story.
LP When Anna Lena called me, I thought it was just to help an artist with the technical details—video settings and stuff like that—but no, it was actually a real collaboration. I’m used to doing feature films, not art films, so that was amazing, because I had to discover this other world. It was also really intense, because we edited more than 60 videos in two weeks. It was kind of a race. But in working together, we found that we have similar socio-political ideas of the world and got along well in the work.
SAM It’s funny, because a sort of slang language started to develop—like the works are called „TLs“ between us, which stands for “The Litany.” We would see stuff in the world, just walking around in reality, and say “That’s a TL,” because there’s so much information in each of them. There’ll be like 80 photographs that you grab off Google that will be yellow boots or a phobia or a certain type of shampoo, and so there’s all of this stuff flowing in less than a second, pattering across the screen. It took a lot of hand-cutting to get the litany to be as dense as it needed to be.
AR You and Léo seemed to work together very smoothly. I saw that in Brussels, and it struck me that Léo comes from cinema, and Sophia, you also have a double-life in art and cinema. Did that help you to communicate?
SAM We have similar references, so that’s definitely the case. I’m also not as skilled—I mean, I learned Premiere from Léo while we were in the Villa. A lot of it was like hunting; we were hunting and gathering on the Internet, and towards the end, Léo was coming up with lots of ideas, too. So many of the TLs were things that I could imagine but was unable to do myself—for example, there’s one I’d had a dream about, where it’s just a hand on a screen, with spinning brands on the fingers. So this strange thing starts to happen when you’re working with somebody, where you don’t really know where one person’s work ends and the other one begins. We’re just going back and forth, helping each other get to the place that needs to be reached. The work took a huge step when Léo just started going for it, going through the rushes I shot in Doha and marinating in them.
AR You went to Doha, and though you are not a regional artist, your work deals with that region in a way that people have found significant. I wonder if that has significance for you, and how that worked with Léo coming in?
SAM The main film was shot in Doha, but the films on the ground were made almost entirely from the Internet. I think there’s a direct correlation to the Internet and the space of the mall being a sort of non-specific, global place. There’s specificity in each particular location the mall has decided to land, of course, but basically, if you’re in Hong Kong or Capetown or wherever, you get the same shops and the same experience of being nowhere. So increasingly, I think, even though a lot of my work is shot in the Gulf, this project was a means of talking about something—a more global experience of now—that feels like a trap. A lot of the works are based on extremities and paradoxes and ironies.
LP Like seeing what people have to live through on the other side of the planet while other people unbox their new iPhones …
SAM Or doing their makeup.
AR It makes me think that perhaps identity is less something that you have, that you’re unequivocally expressing in your work, than something that you’re actually exploring—an undefined category that is being played with, searched for, or otherwise investigated.
SAM I will say that, having written a memoir, I’m tired of myself. Since then, I’ve really tried to project into other worlds and think more broadly about things. The subject matter that we were dealing with in this work makes one feel really misanthropic. That’s why having someone to work with on it was great.
AR Yeah, and it was interesting that when you guys were here, it was a bit opaque as to what was really going on. I would come in and see scraps of paper, the notes and all the stuff you were producing, and I would see Léo working feverishly, and it felt like something different was going on here than the usual dynamic between an artist and a technician.
SAM And there was a lot of listening to Drake. Actually, I think the way that we work together is maybe not dissimilar to the way that a producer and musical artist work together. That’s more what this experience was like than just directing someone. We’d talk about an idea or concept, and Léo would go out gathering samples, basically, making sort of visual beats that I’d then draw a narrative over.
AR Seems like there was something productive about not having fixed roles, letting the collaboration take place in the absence of fixed positions.
SAM Yes. Agreed.
AR The example of Drake, or other people who play different roles on different projects—on one track, they put down a rap for someone else; on another, they produce the record; on another, they are the main person. That seems of our time. So Léo, what changed for you over the working process?
LP I learned a lot. This was a new kind of collaboration for me. Usually, I have the director sitting next to me saying, “You should try this or try that,” or “I will be back in three days, just try some stuff.” This was different, because we were seeking something together. I think we agree that we were pretty lucky to be working together. It was luck.
SAM Yeah. It’s going to be interesting. We have conversations about Léo being a “ghost artist,” because so many of the videos are his. I had a friend who worked for a very famous artist for a long time, and in making that work, he ended up with repetitive stress injuries that made it impossible for him to do his own. I didn’t want to just erase the people working on this, which is why I’m glad that you were open to this being a three-way interview. It was really important for me to acknowledge this, and to be honest that a lot of this work is not by my own hand.
AR Art has always been about this individual who is identified with the work—and in a way, it’s something criticism needs as well, a figure to impute all of the meaning production, as though it’s an exercise of psychoanalysis for one person to look into a work. That’s always been a distortion of working processes in art and cinema.
SAM Perhaps our ways of consuming art need to change. But I don’t know what I’m talking about, as usual.
Portrait by Mathilde Agius
Sophia Al-Maria (American, b. 1983) is an artist who lives and works in London. She is represented by The Third Line, Dubai. Al-Maria's solo exhibition “Black Friday” is on view at the Whitney Museum, New York, through 31 October. Upcoming projects include her first solo show in the UAE at The Third Line in March 2017, and her participation in the 2016 Biennial of Moving Images (BIM), Geneva.
Asad Raza is a producer, artist and the artistic director of the Boghossian Foundation-Villa Empain in Brussels.
Opposite page: Sophia Al-Maria, The Litany, 2016 (details), Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line, Dubai