in conversation with Lena Saraj

Sophia Al-Maria’s work spans multiple mediums, including text, video and film. Her distinctive visual style is complemented by a corrosive wit that sets in its sights the Gulf’s excess, environmental disaster, and the prospect of a techno-apocalypse. I interview Al-Maria in her studio on a late summer day. While cooking Persian food, we talk about Kubrick, DMT trips, and ‘weirding the footage.’

LENA SARAJ   Who were your visual influences growing up?

SOPHIA AL-MARIA   Probably the same as my influences now. Cartoons, anything gothic, mail-order lingerie catalogues. I would draw these lock-jawed, bug-eyed people with exposed breasts which upset mother and teachers. Someone gave me a stack of old calendars from the ’70s full of fantasy art with slinky elves and witches. I poured over those visuals obsessively looking at the tiny details. Fantasy art is like MSG for me. It just hits my receptors perfectly and I can’t get enough. I think watching scrambled porn on channel 99 had an effect on my visual sensibility—video wise. I always want to scramble and fuck and obscure the image so you only get hints of the documentary fact. I was super fascinated with concept artwork for films I loved. In particular an artist named Mary Blair. I wanted to be animator. And then I saw these Mary Blair drawings, or like sort of pastels for Sleeping Beauty and they were so perfect. So much better than the actual Disney movie. In terms of film, I think my interests were determined one fateful night when my sister was allowed to go to a sleepover and I wasn’t. In order to make it up to me, my mother rented two movies. One was Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire. It tells the story of homo erectus learning love for the first time. Or at least that’s how I remember it. That and the way the main character is forced to ‘mate’ with a very large and apparently happy woman in a cage. So much flesh. That was the first R-rated movie that I ever saw. And then she showed me 2001: A Space Odyssey the same night. So I went from deep Paleolithic into deep spacetime. Still exploring that jump in my work all the time!

LS Did she intend there to be a common theme?

SAM No. And if she did that’s a weird double feature to show a ten year old. So I would say that’s what sort of turned me on to cinema, those two films. And then visually I was very much in love with Kubrick when I was an early teenager, and quite nerdy about it.

LS Which films in particular?

SAM Oh the usual. A Clockwork Orange.

LS You’ve got the rug from The Shining in your office.

SAM That’s true. You know, A Clockwork Orange for sure. I was also obsessed with that book. Anthony Burgess had an outsized influence on me as a tween. I really loved all the stuff he did with language in that book. I had a copy of it which was quite an old one, and there’s a Nadsat glossary in the back of that book. I loved that glossary. I photocopied it and memorized it. I would write notes to friends half in Nadsat. I was a pretentious git basically.

LS I’ve noticed that when you are beginning to write something you tend to start by amassing images. How do images figure into your work when you’re writing something?

SAM I’ll have these sort of trips where I fully see the scenes in my head, and I write what I see. I see what the room looks like. Block the scene around imagined furnishings. All that.

LS What about when you are planning a visual piece?

SAM Well it’s kind of the opposite with my video work. Usually I begin with the words and then I go out hunting for the images.

LS Do you find things you’re going to shoot when you’re in the location?

SAM Yeah. All of the shoots I’ve done are almost like documentary, and very running with the flow. For example, with Black Friday there are all those scenes with images of a figure lying down on the floor of this massive shopping mall space that’s unopened. It’s sort of ‘shop til you drop,’ but it’s deeply creepy and you don’t know if the figure is dead or alive. It’s actually me. I just really like lying down. On the ground. I was kind of exhausted and it looked cool. I like playing dead I think. That’s the thing, I just genuinely enjoy that. I wouldn’t be on screen usually. And I kind of avoid being on camera.

LS Black Friday specifically is very surreal. There are all these weird effects. At times the mall is rippling, or kaleidoscopic.

SAM I edited that myself over a month in Brussels. There were many different versions of it, and I finally settled on the one which exists through experimenting. I do a lot of frame fucking when I’m editing myself. Which is, I guess, the temporal version of pixel fucking. I think a lot of VFX people call it that, or SFX people that have to be zooming deep in to make sure the CGI looks right. Usually I’ll do really sporadic stuff.

LS Was there a transition where you moved towards treating the footage with heavy effects? This kind of visual language isn’t really seen in a traditional feature film unless it’s a short dream sequence or drug trip.

SAM Which, let’s be honest, are the best parts of any movie.

LS They are. Was there a transition when you started using effects?

SAM No. From the beginning the first video I ever made was in Cairo. It was a three-channel thing, which I called Rounds, of these kids that my friend was teaching. I was hanging on the beach with them and we made hula hoops out of PVC pipe. I fucked with the colors, slowed it down, ran it backwards. I was always making weird the footage. ‘Weirding the footage’ is really important to my process when I’m editing something. I’m not satisfied with the reality, for the purposes of my art, even though it all comes from doc shooting. I was very interested, when I started making video art more seriously, in [clears throat] you know, basically, like Baudrillard and stuff.

LS Why did you say it in that way? [Laughs] You cleared your throat.

SAM I don’t know I just— I had a pistachio in my throat. But also, I feel a little bit sheepish.

LS Yeah, I can tell!

SAM You know, the things that influence us change. Recently, I’ve been reading Bataille, specifically what he wrote about cave art, prehistoric art, and I hadn’t read that stuff. Maybe that’s going back to Quest for Fire again. [Laughs]

LS This reminds me of a Sartre class I did. I found this interview with Sartre all about how he was obsessed with crustaceans. He hallucinated these crabs for years. He would wake up and say “good morning” to them and they would follow him around all day. He knew they were a hallucination, but he didn’t do anything about them for years. And at the bottom of the article it mentions that he wrote a play about a dystopian future where a panel of crustaceans rule over humanity.

SAM This is fascinating. And that’s why I call you little professor. I think this is quite profound, hallucinations, daydreams, meditations. You were talking about drug trips and dream sequences in movies. I guess that’s the best way to describe the stuff that I do. I want it to feel like a trip, visually. That’s when I’ve had my most spectacular visual experiences, and most profound revelations. [Laughs] LoL. For example, there’s a part of Black Friday with the woman braiding her hair. The mandala behind her is a dome in one of the shopping malls. That was inspired by this trip when I smoked DMT. And of course when you smoke DMT reality breaks in half. It’s literally like you hear a crack of thunder and you’re blind to IRL. And I saw this spider-goddess in the centre of a mandala. Going back to Kubrick, it’s centered shots. Everything is very symmetrical. Or with The Magical State the color scheme is hyper-toxic, very acidic. Again it’s like a trip, but a very aggressive one. It’s a bad trip. So I identify with Sartre. And trips are very much a part of ancient religious experience. If you look at cave art there are theories that certain locations had a shamanistic purpose, of taking a hallucinogen and experiencing those images as moving. That’s certainly my experience when I’ve seen cave art, like in South Africa. You get this temporal vertigo. Suddenly your footing in ‘now’ is gone, and that’s pretty special.

LS Just as Black Friday deals with the mall as a new kind of temple, would you say a similar thing about social media? In the sense that we all congregate somewhere, even though it’s a digital platform, and we make these offerings.

SAM I’m going to use a TV metaphor. In the old days you had one or two stations. In some countries only the national station. Over time cable happens and everybody can choose their own particular reality to exist inside of by only watching the particular channels that cater to them. What’s happened, I think, with internet and social media, is that you’re still segregated by your interests, but with Instagram it feels more like having a network again. I mean, that’s how you and I met. You randomly wrote saying ‘Hey, need help?’ and I sent you a video of my face saying, ‘Yes!!! Help me!.’ And so it was done.

LS When I told a friend that you sent a video of your face, she said, “Why not a text? Is it because she’s an artist?” I was like, “I don’t know! Maybe that’s what they all do!”

SAM [Laughs] Maybe it’s being attuned to a particular algorithm, but by and large it feels like a gathering place again. A brief online henge. A place to gather on digital solstice.

LS When I post things online it feels sort of hopeful, though I don’t know what I’m hoping for.

SAM Like you’re sending a bottle out into the ocean.

LS Yes. How do you feel when you make images? You’re very into the gifs, and coming up with a little composition.

SAM The stories are so therapeutic. It reminds me of having a sketchbook, but it’s a sketchbook where you can do self portraits, because you’re the easiest thing to film. And it’s a diary. It’s something I think I’ve been missing, because I don’t journal or sketch like I used to. I used to do a lot of collage.

LS What is it about collage that appeals to you?

SAM It’s also present in my videos. It’s probably the first ‘art project’ one learns to do in school. You know, construction paper, rubber cement, scissors. My fave. Glitter. Always the glitter glue.

LS How does that kind of casual image-making then affect your approach to film?

SAM I just wish we could watch everything in portrait. It’s closer to the human shape. To the way we experience interiors. Also, the landscape situation was because of cinemas. You could fit more people into a space. But now, with the very intimate nature of experiencing most things, I like the way portrait is a bit more human in scale. It reminds me of the gangplank from an alien ship opening or something. And the aliens beckoning us. It’s an invitation.

in conversation with Lena Saraj


Instagram Story, 2018, Sophia Al-Maria
Installation view, ilysm Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant London
Installation view, Black Friday, Mercer Union
Courtesy: the artist, Mercer Union, and Project Native Informant London

SOPHIA AL-MARIA (b. 1983, Tacoma, WA, USA) is a Qatari-American writer, artist, and filmmaker. She studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, and aural and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work has been shown at the Whitney Museum in New York. She is currently the Writer in Residence at the Whitechapel Gallery.

LENA SARAJ (b. 1993) studied English and Related Literature at the University of York, and Philosophy at UCL. She is Iraqi-British. Her interests include speculative fiction and sharks.