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Between New York and Tehran: Directory of Portrayals

Sahra Motalebi and Annie Godfrey Larmon

Sahra Motalebi, Directory of Portrayals (from Rendering What Remains), 2016-17. Production still collage. Courtesy of the artist.
Sahra Motalebi Discusses Her Opera-book 

Directory of Portrayals (from Rendering What Remains) is the name of a book from an open-form opera I’ve been working on since 2015. The opera is based on an ongoing, online exchange between myself and my half-sister, who lives in Iran and whom I’ve never met in person. In addition to the book, the opera has also included a series of staged events, a musical score and scenographic artworks. Within Directory of Portrayals is the script and a production diary which register the project’s themes of performance, subjectivity, digitality and the limitless borderlands between. Below are some excerpts from a series of conversations I had in late August 2017 with the editor for the book, Annie Godfrey Larmon.

Sahra Motalebi: One idea that has moved throughout the development of the opera and has been a part of our recent editorial conversations is that of the disjunctive, as in the disjunctive edit— film or music. I came to this idea first from the point of view of the narrative opportunities I wanted to pursue in the project in an effort to connect with as many people as possible. The poetic function of the disjunctive, of showing multiple, often dissonant views, is a way of speaking to the complicated relationship with my sister, but also to the subjects within the book, and that of performance, more generally.

Annie, you introduced the idea of the term’s actual grammatical definition. It connotes a choice—or—specically in the sense of mutually exclusive views. This idea of the or enriched my idea that the book should include the performance script but also the production diary, within which I would situate the project, as a kind of guide for what I have noted are untranslatable, unbridgeable, unmakeable aspects of the work.

Annie Godfrey Larmon: Right—the disjunctive, in grammar, is an or or an either; it qualifies a conjunction. I think what is interesting about the term in relation to this project, if we are thinking of it not simply as a formal tool but as a metaphor, is that the condition of the disjunctive conjunction is one in which two possibilities are held together, presented at once despite the terms of their mutual exclusivity, cleaved. In this way, they act upon each other. We also described this as an or/and. This has seemed helpful for thinking through the irksomeness of relativism in this project. You’ve wrestled with the tendency to assuage incommensurabilities through association, or to map one structure onto another—the impossibilities of this pursuit.

In editing syntax, as you describe, the disjunctive makes visible the process of production through distanciation, revealing a work’s structure as well as the viewer’s participation in the work. You’ve spoken of this reveal, this undressing of the production that occurs in the opera and text alike, as a way for you yourself to process or understand the exceptionally complex and nuanced relationship you have with your sister.

Could you speak more to the specificities that complicate your exchange, in terms of cultural and linguistic translation, and relatedly, representation—but also in terms of transcultural conceptions of intimacy and family, and by extension, subjectivity itself? I ask for specifics because we’ve spoken about relaying the specificity of experience as a rejoinder to unproductive mythologies; those that might be exploited in cultural narratives and by markets alike. But also, these specificities are what made this project impossible, as you say, to produce, even in your lived proximity to any material that might be fraught.

SM: It was important to me to make visible the conceptual, scenographic, and dramaturgical challenges in the making of the opera, especially those regarding the representation of the characters of myself and my sister—the undomesticated, unmappable phenomena from our actual conversations, for instance. The seams of the production should show. This premise has guided the opera: The disjunctive allows access to a story that is not so much polyphonic but polytonal. Throughout, I’ve responded to the relational knots that emerged for my sister and I around our cultural differences, the frames of sexuality, gender, geopolitical positioning, and identity, which we have taken up with an almost anthropological exuberance. I felt all of this—the projection and subjective experience we were both bringing to our dialog— was worthy of artistic conversation. This is largely because the subtleties of many of these issues—which are handily metabolized in art critical and institutional contexts in the US and Europe—are often rendered as anodyne and painless as possible, and are largely inadequate. In general, I would say that discomfort should not be avoided, because questions that emerge around these issues aren’t just theoretical.

One such problem, which has been part of our recent conversation Annie, was the use of English and its relationship to technology—in the
opera and in my relationship with my sister, but also more broadly. In spite of the fact that my sister has graduate degrees in both education and English, the reality that my Farsi remained nonexistent mired the project in the monolingual mud, ever tipped toward the homohegemon of the American English language. This was only supported by our use of AI and translation software. My sister’s ambition for the English language (unlike that of my father, who went to college in Canada and the US but does not really speak English as a matter of principle) is not so much a result of its ubiquity, but of AGL: her curiosity about global intricacies and the mutability of a language’s cultural core. This shifted my understanding of the dynamics of power around language considerably, nevermind the tech-agentive aspects of her religious faith. My sister and I naturally developed our own accreted language, a collage of uses and media, diacritical elaborations, rather than locking ourselves inside our respective first languages (or, strictly in mine). Through this process we began to change each other, our generation of meaning was
mutually enhanced.

AGL: This question of translation brings me back to our discussions of the disjunctive, regarding its relationship to temporality. We talked about the way one experiences distanciation when communicating via the fragmented flow of voice messages, texts, and translations. As opposed to a conversation that occurs in real time, one is able to jump around, to revisit and resurrect past missives. Exchanges inhabit, in these formats, an elastic duration, which is interrupted by other events that reframe each subsequent response. You showed me the app you use and it does seem to lend itself to diegetic confusion. There were short video clips that played automatically, photos, gifs, creating a space of continuous “now.”

SM: Yes, the sheer volume, multivalency, and nonlinearity of the communication we are all participating in, all the time, is astounding. Especially when, for instance, the conversation is freighted with the expectation of intimate relations. In this dialog, there are image-based memes with transliterations, family photos, and many, many voice texts, all of which seem to appear at the same time. Recently my sister sent a haunting recording of herself recit- ing her translation of lyrics from a martyr song close to her heart. It was, fittingly, about distance and the experience of the beloved’s nonexistence. What we all experience as the digital present, regardless of our beleaguered attention spans, seems to be a space where the most basic building blocks of narrativity are being rendered obsolete and re-invented simultaneously. This has of course changed, and will continue to change, the nature of performance. On the one hand, we are all living inside our screens, in a sequence of virtual deferrals; on the other, this digital world has made pos- sible innovations in an artistic sense, new ways of reading and listening and learning. The opera and the book have, in essence, become about exposing the conditional construction of their own spatial and temporal logics and exposing what this means for artmaking. This is all in an effort to tell a story born from the sprawling exchange between my sister and myself, a relationship made possible by miracle of our gadgets. The architectural elements of the opera’s sets, the use of simultaneity in the staging, and the various time signatures inside the video and the score; all of this developed together.

AGL: There’s a lot of talk about the reign of “real-time”–the illusion of a monolithic simultaneity made possible by technology–and the ways that digitality collapses time and space; the ways it is ideal for surveillance and the economy; and how immediate feedback loops bene t advertising, markets, social networks. How have you experienced duration, surveillance, and censorship while communicating with your sister?

SM: The psychology around surveillance is fascinating, particularly relating to digital communication and the ways in which it functions in terms of policy, access, and scale within different countries. The question of state control through surveillance and censorship has been integral to my familial constellation for my entire life, though in a very different way than it has for my sister. It has played out in the geopolitical situation of the Islamic Revolution, the successive and interrelated wars on terror, information, and the economy between the US and Iran, each of my father and mother’s careers in technology, the overlaps with their respective governments, security clearances etc. And now it is certainly the backdrop of my relationship with my sister. Thirty-eight years on, and the inevitablity of surveillance has guided my portrayal of her, just as it has likely guided her portrayal of herself. The private space of our text thread is accelerated and intimate in remarkable ways—we circle each others’ lives through digital software and applications without being able to meet in person, for various maddening reasons. We have migrated our conversations between encrypted soft- wares at my family’s request in the past few years. Prior to the last election, this would have sounded paranoid to most Americans, but given the deep, religious conservatism in my family, I would more likely be the target of US aggression and enforcement than they of Iran’s.

AGL: You spoke once of performed intimacy. What does digital communication make possible in terms of what is allowed in your correspondence? How do you imagine it shapes your expression? Given that so much of this project is about projection – your own and your sister’s – how do you conceive of your performance of, or participation in, intimacy?

SM: I’ve talked a lot about the presentational feel of my dialog with my sister. Despite the overlaying presumption that, as family, this dialog should be deeper, the connection somehow more authentic, more “natural,” it is in fact more demonstrative, in a theatrical sense, because of its formatting. This is what everyone experiences online, of course. But it is perhaps exaggerated within the habits my sister and I have settled into. We dispatch our commu- nication in an elastic volley, one text, one voice at a time, sometimes seconds, sometimes days between—as opposed to in real time on the phone or on skype, each time picking up again. With all of this in mind, you can imagine the intensity of questions around the performance of intimacy, the loop of self-reflexivity about the project, that were summoned for me as a performer—particularly the questions of projection and the interior experience, the edited versions of the autobiographical missives. The fulcrum of this experience is hard to pinpoint, revealing extremely basic questions about relationality. That my sister has known about the project and has therefore acted on it with some narratological agency is critical. Not only has she supported of the work, but she also openly expresses what works for her with regard to propriety: no images of her without formal chador (which I also took to mean portrayals of her), no recordings of her singing, etc. I found at a certain point that my conversation with my sister, and the relationship growing out of this, had actually grafted itself into the opera, and, more surprisingly, more hauntingly, vice versa. She and I seemed to be actually living and relating inside the opera, each of us playing parts. It seemed to me, though I might be projecting, that each of our self-consciousnesses and our performances for each other expanded. This back-and-forth format has been adapted very readily to that of the libretto, as one might imagine, and the opera itself circles almost obsessively around the alchemy of touch and being out of reach,. Now, the combination of the book, its included anecdotal production diary, and the script itself allows for what I hope is a deeper contemplation of all of this.

AGL: In some ways, this methodology mirrors what you’ve called the accretive nature of your online exchange: It allows you to both overlap temporalities and reflect the impact that form and representation have on your relationship with your sister. We’ve spoken about this in terms of both performing the disjunctive and symptomatic reading, and we’ve used the idea of the gloss, annotation, and marginalia to think through intertextuality, to provide various layers of interpretation. Could you speak a bit more about these concepts?

SM: Definitely, yes. Since our earliest conversations about the Directory of Portrayals, the materiality of the book as an object has been at play against the open format of the performance script, and so the questions of intertextuality have been inevitable, and necessary, in its first development from a musical score. When all is said and done, I suspect my research on the historical conventions of the addendum, the gloss, marginalia, and even ancient religious commentary, will have influenced the opera as much as notions of digitality and technology. I suppose it is because this book was always going to be in one way or another about the end of the codex. The hope is that it might fully reflect not only the networked themes within the opera but, in the spirit of broader legibility and generosity, it might also encourage others’ stories to emerge, unbounded by format.

Directory of Portrayals (from Rendering What Remains) will be performed at The Kitchen in NYC December 14th and 15th, 2017. The book will be the subject of a panel discussion at NYU’s 80WSE Gallery Feb 2018 including Motalebi, Godfrey Larmon, The Kitchen’s Lumi Tan and MoMA PS1’s Ruba Katrib.

Sahra Motalebi is an interdisciplinary artist, composer, and vocalist based in New York. Her projects have been exhibited and she has performed internationally at the Kitchen, SculptureCenter, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum Ludwig, Hydra School Projects, Watermill Center, the Villa Empain, MoMA PS1, SculptureCenter.

Annie Godfrey Larmon is a writer, editor, and curator based in New York who is a regularly contributes to Artforum, Her writing has also appeared in Bookforum, Frieze, MAY, Spike, Vdrome, and WdW review, and she is the recipient of a 2016 Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for short-form writing, and she is the editor of publications for the inaugural Okayama Art Summit.