*1982 Teheran (IR)
2015 diploma audiovisuel media
11-14 media art, Kunsthochschule für Medien, Köln
04-08 studies fine art, Charsoo Institut für Kunst mit Saeed Ravanbakhsh, Teheran
2000 studies applied mathematics, Shahid
Sina Seifee lives and works in Cologne.
Young performers shout to wake up. But I won’t go with a hammer.
I'm meeting Sina Seifee in Café Libresso for an interview. I'm too early and order a coffee. The waitress seems to have overlooked a small piece of paper that's still on the saucer underneath my cup. I don't pay much attention to it and take in the surroundings instead. The café's walls are covered in violins and various kinds of Eastern string instruments that I don't know the names of. What do I know, anyway. When Sina arrives, the first thing he asks me is if I've seen 'it'.
“Uhm... what?” I respond.
“What message? Ooh, alright, you mean this?”
And I unfold the piece of paper that didn't just happen to still be laying there after all. It actually turns out to be some sort of a fortune cookie, with the message: “Ein Tyrann möchte süßen Wein aus sauren Trauben keltern.” Since neither one of us are native German speakers, we slightly struggle with the word keltern and translate it into something plausible, or at least satisfying: A tyrant would like to squeeze sweet wine out of sour grapes. Sina’s coffee is accompanied by a quote from the Arabian-American poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) as well: “Nur einmal machte man mich sprachlos. Es war, als mich jemand fragte: Wer bist du?” Which translates to: I've only been lost for words once. When someone asked me: who are you?
And that is the start of our conversation. A conversation without one liners, without exclamation marks. And, what a relief, with a conversation partner who doesn't even once check his smartphone or other mobile device. Sina Seifee's work, as well as the two interviews we did, offer a welcome defence of depth in this max-140-character era. A time in which the world, wedged between aggressive radicalism on one side, and repressive liberalism on the other, is rendered politically speechless. Talking to Sina is like a continuous flow in which various streams of thought offer space for profound ponderings and possibilities to emerge at the surface or just below.
Sina is an interdisciplinary artist working in the field of computer art, writing, drawing and performance. He is involved in research and work on technology, post-colonialism, globalism, and intercultural mythologies. As diverse as his cultural background, rooted in Tehran, are the themes that preoccupy his art practice: from Shakespeare, (applied) math, animalism, philosophy and ancient literature.
I have attended two of Sina's lecture performances recently, and like the rest of the audience, I was drawn into an intellectual mystique and cadence. Thoughts meandered and wandered off, to then latch onto Sina’s almost impossible mental gymnastics again a little later on. Whether purposefully constructed or not, some 'noise', in the form of disparate, confusing information or a more literal murmur, was a definite part of his performances. What does this storyteller want his audience to experience and take from it? We talked about the function of the lecture format that Sina applies to his performances, and how he constructs these.
In the lecture performances, how do you relate to your audience, and how important is their intellectual acknowledgement?
I depart from the assumption that my audience knows more about the subjects that I discuss, than I do, even though I'm aware that they might not understand or recognize everything. I do a lot of referencing, I embed translations from existing literature, and borrow from math, science, animalism and philosophy. It's an overkill. With this overkill, I want to look for ways in which I can create space for thought, and I hope to stir my audience's curiosity for knowledge.
Do your performances form a series, or are they stand-alone pieces? What is the Sina experience? I always say that I hope that people have seen the other lectures, because I will continue and I will refer to them. I really like the idea that it’s part of something else. I refer a lot to the other ones. Of course some people may have seen it, some people not, but why not. I don’t believe that a work has to be radically stand-alone, no. For the people who don’t know it, there will be an insecurity or “maybe-I-don’t-get it”, but why not. I think that’s a good feeling. I don’t think it’s a barrier.
To be honest I'm always overcome with a sense of relief, when a performer doesn't expect all sort of interactions from me, as audience. Am I at the right place for non participation during your performances?
My lecture performance isn't necessarily a monolog. I process the audience's responses into following performances. See it as a slowed down response. I don’t believe in immediate interaction. I am a slow thinker who's digging for questions. One of them is how I can undermine the authority of the speaker.
But, during the performance you avoid direct interaction. How do you collect the public's reactions?
When the performance is over, or when everyone agrees that it’s over, I have a non-demanding way of announcing that I’m available for reactions. The people that already know me, are more at ease to react afterwards. Strangers are mostly too afraid to say what they think. That’s a fact. I have to make friends with them first.
More often I’ve heard you say: “It’s going to be exhausting and not satisfying too, but, for a certain kind of my own thinking, necessary.” Is your work, thus, mainly a platform for your own thinking?
I am absorbing the reactions and questions that I receive from the audience after the performance. By processing these reactions in the next performances, I seek for a continuation. The talk is a process that I can understand only after it has taken place. It is like telling something for the first time. I do not repeat my performances, otherwise it dies. That is, for me, the heart of theatre. The thrill of the first time.
It seems you are shifting from combining your performances with interactive computer devices and visuals, into making more use of your own voice.
It was a gradual transformation from bringing strong visual elements into the process of starting to talk. Actually, it was my professor Julia Scher at the KHM who tricked me into talking. Before that I was educated in drawing. Now I find myself not using these skills. Why? I’m very skilled in drawing. It is as if I’m destroying the things that I have mastered. I kind of sabotage my safe zones, which used to be visual.
Sina grew up in Tehran, Iran, a megacity with millions of inhabitants, in the decades in which the region was deeply influenced by the Iranian revolution and Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power. Throughout the centuries, Tehran has been strongly influenced by other cultures, think of China, Europe and America. The biggest influence has been the Arab language and culture. Sina remembers that he used to watch Robin Hood films as a kid, while hiding in a bunker during the Iran-Iraq war.
“It was an exciting time, with many exceptions on daily life.” After his degree in Applied Mathematics, he attended the Visual Arts Institute of Art in Charsoo and was active in the theatre world for a few years, before he moved to Germany in 2011 to attend the Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln. Although he lost interest in the code of theatre, he remained close to the direct nature and visual aspect of theatre. The distance to his homeland reinforced his curiosity into the rich tradition of Persian storytelling, and the Imams' techniques in reciting text.
Was going to the mosque part of your daily reality?
No, not really. I grew up in a non-religious family. But as soon as you went to school, you automatically came into contact with the Islam. Every school had its own Imam, who lectured on various topics.
There are exotic elements in your work, which you also use. How do you relate to ‘exotisme’?
I don’t dismiss this and I have a delicate, dynamic relationship to it. To be honest I don’t think about not being exotic a lot. I have to be able to freely talk about my personal, subjective Iranian thing if I want to. It often seems as if people are mostly open to getting confirmation on what they already seem to know about something for example so complex as the war with Iraq.
I try to be aware of what it means for the audience when the word Muslim, much like the term ‘Iranian artist’, triggers thoughts automatically. But, if you sit down with me and we go over it, in the end, I don’t misuse or exploit those elements.
Do you feel a social urgency to get people more connected to your, as you call it, otherness?
The otherness is something complex and problematic and you have to problematise it. There is a need and necessity to simplify it, to make it something that everybody can grasp and understand. That’s what the media, the pop culture and the politics need. I handle it by creating labyrinths and creating complexity and discourse around it.
What role does the invitation play in your lecture performances?
I am assuming that the performance starts from the moment that the invitation has been sent out. You are cooking, you call for the people to share this and while preparing, you’re already thinking of the guests. I’m curious about these energies, their functions and the modalities of communication that happen in the process of inviting, related to hospitality, and how we can create entrances into different (non-architectural) spaces.
How do you deal with the fact that your hosting partners, let’s say the art institutes, organise the invitations for you?
It’s a hierarchical thing that somebody else organises this for you. There is this official, dry language that’s being used in the invitation. I’ve noticed how people freak out when they have to write one. They assume that they have to give information, to give clearness, they have to give addresses. Where is the room for confusion? The invitation could be a labyrinth itself, someone might get lost in the invitation and maybe even never reach your work, or only later, much much later. But who am I to say, that somebody who comes at the end is not experiencing something rich and sharp?
I had this amazing experience myself. I went to a concert which turned out to be finished already. Actually this was so good, because everyone was already in a tempo, in a motion of a sad theatre of leaving, the stage was being cleared, cables were being grabbed. I enjoyed it, almost perversely, so much. And I said, “Okay, this was our concert!” (laughs).
Many people would get angry, if they only catch the finishing of a performance because they think they have missed the main dish. I think there’s room for doing great stuff in these moments. I am for instance playing with the beginning of the performance. In theatre, the lights go off and the curtain opens. I think this now-your-life-ends-moment is perverse. We can hack this and expand it by making an absolute unclear opening moment.
You don’t prefer sharpness, also when it comes to describing your concept. For instance in the way you present information about your work and projects on your website.
It's a political and ethical demand when people say “Your work is about that and what you say is significant in a broader, global sense.” I think there has to be room for modes of confusion. But confusion seems to be a wrong thing, in political art.
There is a demand for clearly addressing issues and being sharp about information. I am not saying this is evil or bad. Maybe I am assuming that we are in peacetime. My voice speaks as if someone is in peace. A stressed voice, or an afraid voice, an angry voice, what does it create? What does it mean in a time of crisis with historical and colonial violence, to talk in absolute peacefulness and still create forms of addressing issues? It’s all about who wants you to address which problem. But where are these voices coming from?
You choose unexpected locations. You lectured on the Islam in a biology laboratory, talked about the three little pigs on the beach in Köln Porz, and discussed the Story of the Birds in the Sufi Centre. Can you expand on the function of place, or location?
Those places do much of the work. They each have their own rules of entrance and make you feel and think in a certain way. For example, when I did a performance at the Sufi Centre, you have no idea how reserved people behaved in comparison with the way they did in the laboratory. The Sufi Centre clearly felt as something alien and in this new territory people kind of became passive. While at the biology lab people were much more active; looking around, touching things and exploring the research by the scientists that work there. These buildings also aren’t just buildings. They carry histories, politics and the power of relationships, and are supposed to create certain kinds of knowledge production inside them. For example, you don’t do analytical work in a space of worship usually. Or you do not have the ear for it. Or you don’t do poetry in a laboratory. So I was really interested to promote different modes of thinking. I consider them also as gestures, proposals for interdisciplinary thinking, out of the box.
You always dress 'as yourself,' not even an added tie or coat. Is it summer time? Then Sina wears his plaid bermuda shorts. Nothing fancy. Why do you choose not to dress up?
Dressing up could be a character you set up, I try to avoid that. What is the muscle and what is the fat of the work? The fat doesn’t do anything. I’m trying to get to the muscle, to the core. I want the public to listen to what the telling is doing. A costume tells a lot as well, it also announces “I’m not the usual social character, I am beyond everyday social life.” We also see this in the gender performances. I try not to go to that level. If I would wear fascinating clothes it might be intimidating and that would be against what I actually want to do. I wouldn’t over-control a reading, absolutely not. But I’m open to customes (laughs...).
You don’t disguise, you skip theatrical elements, and you avoid a clear line in your lectures. Nevertheless you make use of classical animal fables that clearly carry out an instructive morality and offer familiar tools on how we should live.
Yeah, you can smell it. People come in, and they want to know: “Where is my answer?” I can hear it in the question “I couldn’t quit get your work, what was your work about?” People want to know where is my meaning.
And what is your answer?
Maybe it’s a kind of opening that I am asking for. I am trying to create a space where people, including myself, can learn to be radically open by truly listening between the lines. It is about the risks that you’re willing to take when you listen. I call it a risk, because you really have to give up a certain kind of grasp to encounter something. I’m asking the public to come into a mode of encountering with me. This story of the invitation and the way my performances start is about promoting that other kind of encounter. That other kind is the key, generally in art.
Your notebooks are the foundation of your performances. They're beautiful works, filled with texts in Farsi and English, with detailed sketches of animals and symbols. You mainly take notes in English.
Yes, it is quite amazing, because I don’t have the abilities that I had in my mother tongue and when I find words that are strange or different from the concept that I’m used to in Farsi, something new for my way of thinking occurs. I might say: “Ah, this could be it actually!” This translational thinking is also the juice of the product. Many people might disagree. They would say: ‘No, Sina, this doesn’t mean that.” But who are they, or who am I, to say that certain meanings are locked together. They are proposals, all of them are proposals. When I get an idea I draw something simple to put it in my memory. The drawings in the books are like a searching device system. If it was pure text, I would never find anything in it. The ideas get lost. They usually actually do (laughs).
How do you deal with the recording and transmission of your performances?
I ask friends and I work also with the Academy, they all have their own ways of recording. Or not recording. I don’t think I have ever been satisfied. The experience of the performance is that you feel a mode of personality that is absolutely non-recordable. How I am bodily and verbally making little gestures, the way I lean, or the way I stutter. But archiving is something we absolutely have to deal with. Right now, the best solution that I’ve found is writing and one way for me to document is this book. (“amazon proj. #2 Difficult Forests”, 2016)
For the New Talents Biennial you're preparing a new performance, that takes place in the Litaratur Haus. What are you going to do?
Well, we can agree that it will be a performance. It will be about Literature... The topics are about huge overlapping pop-cultural events. One is this Iran-Iraq war, and one is the body of mystic literature. How a certain kind of mysticism is recruited in the Iran-Iraq war. I am interested in the functions of literature and their mobilities in intercultural transaction. I like to invite people to go beyond cultural prejudices. We will look at violence, at the war in a not immediately ethical way and the literature of that time. The Iran-Iraq war is extremely opaque. I won't be giving a historical reportage or information about the Iran-Iraq war, absolutely not. I’m really curious what happens with my work in five or ten years. Lately I’ve been called more and more a ‘writer’. I’ve also been called ‘researcher’ and ‘artist’.
How do you call yourself?
What they call me, absolutely.
But you decide?
No, others. But it is all art in the end.
This text is an excerpt of two interviews Katja Diallo had with Sina Seifee at Café Libresso in the Fleischmengergasse, March 2016, Cologne. translation Dutch-English: Inge Hoonte