Project Native Informant

Interview: Sophia Al-Maria on Beast Type Song

December 2019

For the Tate’s exhibition series “Art Now,” London-based artist Sophia Al-Maria has mounted “Beast Type Song,” an installation that foregrounds her new eponymous video. Inside its thirty-eight minutes, Al-Maria braids a narrative from strands of stories and texts, scripts and speech, post-apocalyptic science fiction and apocalyptic reality. Through footage that flips between a film and its own making, the artist lets us watch her assemble a world out of words, built from the rubble of colonial history and the brutality of its tongue. “Beast Type Song” is on view at Tate Britain in London until February 23, 2020; on January 18, the museum will host a conversation between Al-Maria and collaborator boychild about the making of the video.

BEAST TYPE SONG BEGAN TO TAKE SHAPE around February or March of this year. At the time, I had been wrestling with many feelings arising from my work as a screenwriter in the UK: deep frustration, rage, the occasional despair. All this agitation was coming from writing for commercial television. I was developing a deep mistrust of that particular format. My words would get twisted and turned, repurposed to support other narratives, and other biases. Things would be rewritten or recast based on an arbitrary set of ideas about what a hypothetical audience would or would not watch. Entire monologues and major plotlines were being revised in order to appeal to some imagined public’s white, hetero, boomer palate. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Or you could—but it would have to be satire.

I began to feel a profound loss of faith in writing itself. So my first notions of Beast Type Songwere almost pre-lingual. It felt like something was caught in my windpipe and needed to be coughed up. There were all these subjects, phrases, quotations, images, locations, and snippets of videos that had accrued in some tract and needed to be cleaned out. Beast Type Song was like a nasty hacking cough that turned into a beastly roar. It comes from some deep place that can’t be articulated in other ways.

Etel Adnan’s epic 1989 poem The Arab Apocalypse is so foundational to the project. Adnan had always been in my periphery, but I hadn’t fully engaged with her writing until recently. I was so adrift, and discovering this poem was like washing up on an island after being lost at sea. I had found dry land. What I love about poetry is its generosity. It often invites the reader or listener to enter into the spaces between words, to wander and discover new territories of meaning. Nothing is walled-off; its structures are open-air, and allow completely different ways of being, and thinking, within language.

Beast Type Song is dense, layered, a text full of other texts. It’s packed with references and coded meanings to be deciphered. There are translations and mistranslations, quotations, scripts, and inside jokes. One performer, Elizabeth Peace, reads from her dissertation. Yumna Marwan reads from Mohamed Choukri’s In Tangier. I read from Caliban’s Daughter: The Tempest and the Teapot by Michelle Cliff. The viewer sees both the film and the making of the film; it puts a mirror up to itself, watching as its own script get written. The title’s acronym—BTS—nods to “behind-the-scenes” as a genre, something my previous works, like Not Really in Reality TV and Virgin with a Memory, do as well.

We filmed in an empty school building that used to belong to Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design. It was the perfect palimpsest—an institution mostly erased, plenty of room for us to inscribe something new. I kept finding myself filming the building’s floors. I remember looking at the footage and thinking, Why am I always lying on the floor? The character I play in the film is called Slug, and I think that the worm’s-eye view is the only position I am comfortable taking in writing. Rooftops are also present in many of my films. I think I’m drawn to them because they give an expansive view, even if I’m working from a position of extreme subjectivity. That’s the feeling I’d like my work to produce—a certain spaciousness, a view of one small thing that can give an impression of everything, with countless paths expanding outward. Language—even if I am still dubious about writing as a job—should always allow us to explore.

— As told to Juliana Halpert

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