Sadaf H Nava was born in Iran, and immigrated to Toronto, Canada with her family at age 7. She got her bachelors at Concordia University in Montreal, double majoring in Studio Arts/Art History and Photography. Currently living in Brooklyn, New York, Sadaf is a multidisciplinary artist and performer. Her practices include experimental music, performance, video, photography, writing.
Exploding conventions with experimental performance art
Sadaf H Nava
I meet Sadaf at her South Williamsburg home one Saturday a few weeks ago. Following the directions on my phone, I end up outside an unassuming metal door that looks like it might open up into a warehouse or garage. There’s no doorbell. Outside the door, a woman stands smoking. “I’m looking for Sadaf, do you know her?” “Yes, just walk right in, her room is at the end of the back corridor.” Stepping inside, I enter a large concrete-floor room that could as well be an underground show space. This is the living room, I guess. I walk past a kitchen and a couple of nooks that have been converted into bed rooms, tapestries and wood paneling for walls. She greets me with a hug and we sit down to talk.
Like many other contemporary artists, Sadaf readily admits the illusory nature of the ‘material art object’; instead of putting objects on display, Sadaf invites you into her strange world through what could be described as sensory shock therapy. Her experimental music, immersive performances, and uncanny videos can be unsettling, but are always hilariously funny. For how confident and bold her work is, Sadaf is surprisingly soft-spoken and careful with her words.
What were some defining moments in you becoming an performance artist, musician and visual artist?
I was really into painting and sculpture growing up. All the more plastic studio arts. But after I graduated [from art school] I didn’t have the funds for a studio, storage, or materials to continue with that. I turned to performance partly for practical reasons, but also because it interested me politically. I liked that performance can do away with the material object; it is mobile so it can be taken anywhere. It’s also more immediate.
I got into music for similar reasons. I played violin for nine years but I gave it up when I was fifteen. I was able to let go of the anxiety surrounding the craft of being a good musician because I approached music as a performative act, as improvisation. I wrote a play with a close friend and there was a musical act in it. From then on I started performing music sets. It was a natural progression.
No Wave and other movements made it easier to assert oneself as a multidisciplinary artist, without the fear of being good enough. I was able to get into music without that much training, because I was confident in experimenting with different mediums.
You’re very prolific. You make music, videos, performances, and other visual art. Does any particular medium feel like your main focus?
No, because I really like to be able to go freely between these things, even things I haven’t tried yet. What’s important that there’s a unifying aesthetic that connects them – that there is something recognizable, either thematically or aesthetically, in the different mediums that I use. Everything comes back to you, the person.
When I’m performing live, I have this anxiety that I’m losing my visual practice, which gives me the urge to make visual work and when I’m making visual work I feel like I’m losing my performance. So I always feel like I should be doing the other thing. Maybe that’s why I jump back and forth so much. I’m never really satisfied with what I’m doing. Or, whatever I’m doing inspires me to do something else to balance things out.
I guess that’s the frustration with making art. You hate your own work and you despair, never being satisfied. But you do it because you also can’t not do it.
Yeah, of course. Sometimes nothing is satisfactory. I also have this anxiety about being pigeonholed. It’s a constant anxiety. Maybe that’s why, after doing something where I’m only recognized as this one thing, I become scared that other parts of me are being repressed.
Are you afraid of being ‘pigeonholed’ as something?
Perhaps as an experimental musician. But it’s not a pigeonhole because it really is correct. But there is this tension between music and visual arts – they’re actually really separate worlds and don’t cross-pollinate very much. There’s the gallery world and the more academic art world on the one hand, and the party/music/DJ sphere on the other. They’re both very extreme and to be stuck in either is a bit frustrating. But the two combined is great!
In studio art, the artist is often expected to have a certain distance from their own work. The finished object surpasses them and has a life of its own. As a performance artist, you’re offering up yourself, your own body for contemplation and review. Your presence becomes part of your work. It’s almost like you the person becomes the art. Is this something you intentionally sought out?
To me, performance is about working through something. It’s very psychological in that way. Especially when you improvise and don’t know what’s going to come out it. It comes out in the performance and then you deal with it. The act refines as I perform something again and again, and over time it becomes clearer to me. It’s very personal. When I get on stage, I obviously have a relationship with the audience ... but I’m also going through this personal process of working through something.
What has it been like to be an artist in New York versus Montreal?
Montreal is ... more affordable, but I find that it becomes stagnant very quickly. New York is challenging, which I like. Both communities become small at some point. You eventually find a circle and after a while you end up exchanging ideas with the same people.
What I like about New York is that I’m always being tested by the city, so whatever close friendships or alliances I make become really valuable. You appreciate them more because it’s so hard. It’s so much more difficult than anywhere else that I’ve lived. But I love that extreme, and I think that I’m probably happier here than I’d be anywhere else where you can do what you want more easily.
Yes, New York really overwhelms me sometimes. The constant stream of inputs, all the undercurrents of conflict and struggle, it stresses me out in the same way the Internet does sometimes.
That’s true, out on the street you see so much. Your brain is always working, observing all these different stories. But being around all these people, no matter who you are, New York can also make you feel invisible, you can get lost in the crowd. There’s always places you can go to where nobody knows you. That possibility is exciting.
In a previous interview, you described your own work as exploring ‘taking yourself so seriously that it becomes humorous’. For example, a lot of your work deals with girlhood, and the most ridiculous or shameful aspects of girlhood – superficiality, extreme emotions, seduction. How did you become interested in interpreting this?
I’ve always liked tragedy and I’ve always liked tragicomedy – anything where those lines are blurred. You push it to one extreme and it comes out on the other side as comedy. Something can be both very ridiculous and very serious because it’s so banal.
There are so many horrible things going on right now. You look at the history of the world and you ask yourself, “Why does this keep happening?” It's not funny at all. But look at politicians for example – the way they take themselves so seriously while being completely ridiculous is hilarious because the stakes are so high. That's all I can say.
In a narrative sense, what I like about tragedy is the breakdown of really strong characters, the depiction of their vulnerability. Everybody is vulnerable, and I like the contrast.
I think of Fassbinder a lot. He says that melodramatic feelings should be taken absolutely seriously.
I feel like the typical young-girl has this complete inability to look at herself from a distance. Or, she’s distant from her body in the sense of already being aware of its objectification, but humor is almost absent. And the ironic distance is something we achieve in our twenties. How did you get there?
When I was fifteen or sixteen, I felt really alienated. Already then I was doing my own research. I felt heavier then, and more concerned with how I would turn out. I had less distance, but even then, I was influenced by the same things as now. For one, I was drawn to film. It all came from film, even though I always wanted to be a visual artist. I don’t know how that happened, but it did. The other part was my obsession with aesthetics and the “superficial” – plastic surgery, embellishment, makeup, constructing the self, decorations. I was into that from an early age. The construction and transformation of the self. Now I’m more interested in it from a gender perspective. But I would never dismiss it as only that.
Do you draw inspiration from the Iranian female filmmakers and artists that have gained international recognition in these past few years?
I’m following it, but I think it comes from a totally different place than I am coming from. I’m divided in the sense that I have a personal relationship with my heritage, but I did not grow up there. How I associate with being Iranian is mostly through fantasy and fiction. It’s all mediated through memory and distance. Someone like Shirin Neshat has a very different perspective than me. The Iranian parts of me come through almost unconsciously in my work. I’m not addressing it directly. It’s always there.
What role does your friends and family play in your work and what role do you play in their? It seems a lot of your friends are also creatives and artists.
Surprisingly, nightlife has been the most open and welcoming. I DJ a lot too, and that has brought me into a lot of communities and put me in touch with a lot of performers. The same is true for playing music shows. Things I do after 11:00 PM form my biggest communities. I’ve been lucky to randomly meet people, and it’s always been very leisurely. I have a very strong community of people doing different things with a lot of crossover – from fashion to nighlife to performance to visual arts, even to academics.
There was never really a searching period. I moved to New York and I didn’t know anybody; I had one friend from Montreal, but I was sort of thrown into where I needed to be. I performed once and then people started asking me to perform again and again, until now. It was really a chain effect. At least that was the case with music and DJing, anything in the entertainment or social realm. Visual art is extremely difficult in New York, it’s very nepotistic. You really have to prove yourself, so it’s still difficult for me to break into that world.
I wonder if it’s because nightlife involves more open flows of money. While the money of the art world is very hidden, inaccessible, even repressed.
For some people, that’s not true, but for most people, yes: it’s a faster exchange. When you give someone an opportunity to perform the stakes are not necessarily very high. I think there’s a bigger struggle in the art world because it’s so commodity-based; it’s more capitalist in a way. Both goods and people are being traded and evaluated. This person is worth this much, once they sell at this price, they’re worth this much. And then all the art fairs... It’s different and much more complex. The music industry can be complex too, and it has its own problems. But it’s easier to make friends in the realm of quasi-entertainment.
Since a lot of your friends also exist in the ‘realm of entertainment and art’, do you end up talking about work a lot and how to support each other?
A lot of people have pulled strings for me. I advertise for people and they advertise for me. That’s what community is, I guess. At the same time, I have friends who don’t necessarily know what I do, and that’s totally fine too. I don’t have a strategic goal or some specific thing I’m trying to achieve so I sort of take what I get. There’s improv on that level as well.
How do you spend your days in New York? Do you have a day job? What do you do to pay your bills?
I’ve had so many odd jobs – I’ve worked as a hostess, waitress, assistant to old people, artist’s assistant... In Montreal I was a shampoo assistant. I’ve been saved recently because I’m getting my Masters in Performance Studies at NYU.
The academic world is crazy. It’s got its own rules, its own language, its own hierarchies. It’s not so different from all these other worlds we’ve been talking about. It’s got its own trends too: this is what’s in right now in theory, this is what’s in right now in philosophy. It’s interesting – sociologically – to realize that these structures repeat in different forms everywhere.
What are you excited about reading right now?
Right now, I’m reading Hannah Arendt. I’ve always been interested in personal politics and how the personal translates into the universal. But now I’m starting to be interested in politics on a global scale. Not that it wasn’t an interest before, but it’s starting to interest me in specific ways and to move me more than it used to. I was always concerned with the personal. I’m currently interested in ideas of evil and totalitarianism. It’s so heavy, there’s so much there think about.
This year I discovered the work of Avital Ronnell through a friend. It’s incredible, she’s a very unique thinker. Her book on stupidity is really fascinating. And Cookie Mueller. She was a John Waters actress and I’m reading one of her books right now. Her writing is really funny. I love John Waters’ writing too.
Somewhere on your site you say “Trash Yourself, Sell Your Trash”. And then there’s a few lines with self-help advice for moving: to sell, then pack, then trash your stuff, which is very good advice. I thought it was funny. It seems to me the last “big question” in art was whether trash can be considered art; there were all these stories of artists literally putting trash in shows and some custodian cleaning it up. People would go, “How could that be art?! Scandalous!” or whatever. We’re past that now, luckily. Instead, it seems the big question is whether putting our own trivialities and everyday lives on display can be considered art. People still seem to find that inappropriate somehow. You experiment with the self as trash a lot – trash in the sense of the plastic, disposable, unrefined. Why does this excite you?
I think we’re just continuing a conversation that was started by Hannah Wilke in the Sixties. She was always criticized for photographing herself as herself in her photos. Meanwhile, someone like Cindy Sherman was never questioned, because she was acting as these different characters, channeling herself through them. To me, it’s interesting not to disguise but to acknowledge these different parts of your personality, the different potentials.
I think it's really unfortunate that the quotidian aspect of women’s lives is seen as something unworthy to show. That it’s indulgent or something. That’s so conservative.
Both Maluca and Venus X have publicly talked about how hard it is to make money doing what you do, and how disappointing it is that producers like Diplo can walk away with millions after working with all these niche artists. There’s clearly a demand for these new, niche female artists who make edgy music, but they are also often treated as ... well, trash. They come and go and they are not necessarily getting money for it.
I wouldn’t say they come and go as trash. But they do have to fight a lot harder than their male counterparts to keep their place. For me, whenever someone that doesn’t know me personally writes about me in the press, I sometimes feel attacked, or not taken seriously. It doesn’t happened often, but it does happen. For example, once I was accidentally not given production credit for something I made. And I was like, I would like to think that this is an accident but, conscious or not, this is totally sexist. I was really shocked and angry that whoever did that didn’t check their facts. Especially because I make experimental music and not pop music. What do you think I’m doing? If I’m not making the music then what could I possibly be doing?
That’s one example. You assume a man has produced my music, that I’m just the image. I think this is often the problem. Women have to stand up for themselves more, they have to work harder to keep their position. It has obviously been like that for a long time, but it’s definitely still the case in the art world and it’s unfortunate. On my part, I’ve decided that I’m not going to collaborate with someone if there’s a risk of that happening, especially if that person is male. It’s kind of extreme but politically it’s important for me not to have my music produced by somebody else. When you’re making your own music it’s clear who’s produced it. The whole music industry is so male-dominated and that obviously infuences one’s opportunities as a woman. Just look at music journalists, the majority of them are dudes. And I mean dudes as a cultural phenomenon – they’re bros.
Who inspires you right now?
Anna Thomson, also known as Anna Levine Thompson, who’s an actress that played in a lot of Amos Kollek’s films. There’s something unexplainable about her, I think she’s the greatest actress. I like her even more than Gena Rowlands.
Describe your workflow; what’s the path from idea to finished object?
It’s actually always the same: I’m a vomit producer. My process is very immediate and without much consideration. There are long periods when I do nothing, that’s when the formation of thought happens. But when I sit down to make something I do so almost without stopping – I have to finish it. After I finish it I just put it out without reservation.
Making music is a lot slower than I would like. I’ve finished many things that I’m waiting to put out, but there’s a whole bureaucratic process around it that takes forever. I get bored if I don’t finish my work quickly.
In school, I remember people who would work for two years on a project. It’s understandable, but I’ve never had the patience for something that slow. I can work on something for a long period of time, but once it starts and I know what I’m doing it’ll go fast. It’s immediate, it’s instinctive, and it moves.
Do you ever put things aside?
No, that’s what I mean. The next thing that comes out will be something I just started and then it’ll come out. If it comes out at all. If I abandon it, it’s gone.
Of course, I have ideas of things I’d like to do in the future. Ideas that are sitting in my head. I just mean pen to paper, once I start something, I want to finish it quickly.
Do you have longterm goals? Things you’d like to do five years from now?
I want to write more. Both creatively and academically. That’s one reason I’m pursuing academics right now. It would also be nice to do things on a larger scale. I would like to continue to perform, maybe do more narrative performances, things tied to the theatre. Just to try it. The very longterm project I’d like to do is to write and direct a film. But thinking about that just gives me a headache, the amount of work it involves. So I probably won’t do that for a long time, but I do think about it.