Breathing Resistance: An Interview with Sahar Te

Sahar Te, "Listening Attends," 2021. Photography by Kenji Chen. Courtesy the artist.

The sound of breathing permeated the space. It was unsettling not only because this encounter happened in the middle of a pandemic in which a functioning lung meant survival, but also because breathing is so essential to living that when you hear the sound of it, disembodied, you think of death. The sound became louder, although still subtle, closer to the source: a large mass covered with black fabric, breathing.

Sahar Te’s Listening Attends (2021) was one of the participating works in the inaugural triennial Greater Toronto Art 2021 (GTA21) at MOCA Toronto, which ran from September 29, 2021 to January 30, 2022. The installation consisted of a Toyota Tacoma truck mounted with a PA sound system, its striking form smoothly tucked under an elastic covering. Responding to the triennial’s curatorial prompt to address what she felt was “most urgent today” (each artist in the show was commissioned to make a new work), and drawing on personal experience, Te’s Listening Attends evokes how these vehicles have been deployed by governments to control and rally crowds, not to mention smuggling bodies and goods across borders, supporting terrorist activities, and other criminal uses. With the recent occupation of the Canadian capital, Ottawa (an already contested land, the unceded and unsurrendered Territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation), by the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” the illicit use of these trucks also strikes a painful chord.

In this sheathed, animate form, Te tackles the confluence of state power and surveillance, the uses and abuses of technology, and the potential for exercising one’s agency and resistance. Replacing state propaganda with the sound of her own breathing, Te turned the nondescript vehicle into a vessel for reclaiming some of the most basic acts of living—freedom, self-affirmation, and independence.

 

Amin Alsaden: If I understand correctly, your work at MOCA was informed by a trip back to South West Asia, or the Middle East, where you were confronted by a member of the security forces, simply because you directed your camera towards him while he was ushering crowds during a public ceremony. Why did that experience compel you to produce an artwork?

Sahar Te: I have been thinking about the aesthetics of power in several projects, such as KHAAREJ (2016) or Seeing Attends Sensory Unit (2020). The trigger to revisit this incident happened in Canada, after I was invited to participate in the MOCA exhibition. I was observing moments of occupation on the streets, because in 2020 we were witnessing these events on this side of the world. That was when the earlier personal encounter struck me as not specific to the region. There are these domineering politics, everywhere, employed against our voices. I do not want to narrativize that situation as though it was about a particular country and region, or one organization using the truck, or one moment in my life.

For a bit of context, that encounter alerted you specifically to the vehicle where the man was standing. You discovered that this truck is popular, used by governments and terrorists alike, from maintaining order to smuggling.

Yes. I started asking myself why a PA system used in the back of a Toyota truck was so traumatizing for me. Is it because we often see it being used by law enforcement? Or by the Taliban in Afghanistan, or ISIS in Syria and Iraq, or by the Somali military? And as I was doing research, I came across the terminology of the Toyota War. This is a really long story, so I will share a short version.

When Chad became independent in the 1960s, no longer a French colony, they went through civil war. Chad’s border with Libya is the Aouzou Strip, which is an area rich in uranium, so the Libyans wanted to claim this strip of land. Libya was equipped with Soviet aircrafts, artillery, armor, and a lot of soldiers. But the Chadians had 400 Toyota trucks, equipped with anti-tanker missiles and heavy machine guns. At the end, the Libyan side had to give in because at the Battle of Fada in 1987, they lost many soldiers. I do not know why France decided to supply the Toyota trucks, but that worked well for Chad. I think it was due to the fact that they are very versatile, quick, and easy to operate, so they became alternative weapons. My work is not necessarily about this story. I discovered this afterwards. But the histories and the colonial involvements behind the scenes are inherently part of it.

Sahar Te, “Listening Attends” performance, 2021. Photography by Kenji Chen. Courtesy the artist.

Why this work, though, and how does a truck with a PA system become the subject for an art installation?

I do not think about my work in a linear way. I do not make art based on one story or one situation. Before it became an installation, it was a public performance outdoors, which I documented in a video. I was thinking about noise-making as a form of demonstration, but also as a way of occupying space and gaining power, for both sides, the dissidents and the dominant. I started to realize how my presence was a threatening moment to the person inside the truck, who exercised the oppressive power of the state through this machine. All this led me to thinking about how silence can counter noise.

So the mobilization of sound, both literally and figuratively. Did you end up finding one of these vehicles in Toronto?

I was looking for Toyota Land Cruisers all over Canada but found out they are not allowed on the road here. I also discovered Toyota cults and underground connections between people who own these vehicles. But there is an equivalent to the Land Cruiser or the Hilux, called the Tacoma, which I bought for this work.

During the process, I talked to a bunch of companies in Canada, and in Toronto specifically, which bring in different military trucks from all over the place, armor and then ship them internationally, to the kind of the countries that come up in the history of the Toyota War. I learned a lot about the hidden and tangled relationships and the black market for dealing in these cars.

So at MOCA, viewers saw a Tacoma with a sound system, covered in black fabric, emitting a breathing sound. Why did you deny the viewer the visual and direct experience of the truck, if it is so important in this story?

The truck belongs to the streets, not the museum, so it had to be treated before it enters the museum. If a military object is simply placed within a museum, the museum becomes a military storage or arsenal. I wanted to be attentive to that. Artist Hito Steyerl talks about how a tank entering the museum should be treated similarly to cannons, which when introduced into a park, are usually blocked with cement. I wanted to prioritize attending to sound, rather than only the visual.

Sahar Te, “Listening Appears Direct Flow,” 2019. Photography by Rouzbeh Akhbari. Courtesy the artist and University of Toronto Art Museum.

The operations behind the work seem to be straightforward: displacing a found object or a readymade into a museum setting, which is a modernist move, then transforming its perception and meaning, which is a conceptual move. But this object is a truck, and it has an overwhelming scale and presence in the space.

MOCA’s building used to be the Tower Automotive. I wanted to be site-specific by hinting at the building’s history. I also knew that I did not want a representational piece. It had to be a direct encounter or experience because I could have shown a video, or even the actual footage of the original encounter, but the presence of the object itself was very important.

In terms of scale, the surprise came when we tried to position the truck in the museum. We had to change the original plan, because it was larger than we had anticipated. We positioned it in a way that when you come out of the elevator, you are immediately faced with this monstrous black object. The shock value became part of the work, and it felt more of an interventionist move, and that kind of broke the rhythm of the exhibition.

Maybe because of that, there is something menacing in the final form, not because we are familiar with the backstory behind this specific vehicle, but because of the formal choices you made. You investigated different possibilities for the wrapping, but you ended up with black fabric, which is quite suggestive. It brings to mind those stealthy military aircrafts, and the Chador or Abayah that women wear in the region. Black is also the color of mourning in different parts of the world. Why black fabric?

Hearing that word, menacing, is reassuring because it means the black fabric did its thing. The original idea was to cover the truck while showing its contours. I studied a lot of possibilities. One reason for using fabric was that the sound came through well from underneath. And I did not want to give the sense that the object is protected, as in storage, or wrapped as if precious, because other materials could imply that. It was important to leave room for contemplation, anticipation, and even imagination, and the stretchy black fabric does that for me.

Sahar Te, “Listening Attends,” 2021. Photography by Kenji Chen. Courtesy the artist.

The wrapping reminds me of the early work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude who were initially fascinated by commodities and the packaging of things in the West. But gradually their work became about the wrapping itself. If you open the package, you ruin the artwork. This is not what you are doing, is it?

No. I meant this as a form of silencing, and to indicate hesitation. When there is so much to say, sometimes you would rather not say anything; a simple sigh does the job.

And why did you leave the tires exposed? That seems to imply the vehicle could still be driven, but blindfolded?

I did not want it to become a sculpture, but I also thought that when you put the fabric all around and you hide everything, it becomes fully erased, which then turns it into a mystery, and makes it somehow less serious. I did not even take the car to a carwash because I wanted it to remain in its own original state, utilitarian and dirty, because it came from the streets.

With the wrapping, you also seem to be urging viewers to wonder what else this could be, this thing they cannot see. So, veiling could also be a projective and generative act.

Yes, and it is important to highlight that this is a Tacoma, which does not exist in the Middle East, so it has different potentials. Who says that we will not see a Tacoma shooting at us one day? I hope not. But the work remains open to possibilities. It also invites new readings, like when people said this reminds them of Kim Kardashian’s look at the Met Gala, which means that it provokes some kind of fetish of the form.

Sound has been equally as important as the form of the vehicle, and yet is a lot more subtle. You have replaced the loud propaganda that comes from these vehicles’ speakers with your own breathing, or we could say with the sound of your silence. I read that as an act of subversion, humanizing the vehicle, turning its uses upside down.

Breathing is the life of our voice, and what elevates speech. I wanted the sound of breathing to suggest a way of attending to our own existence in a bodily manner. One of the practices of deep listening is to find the rhythm of your breathing and try to match it to the outside world. Also, the sound of breathing is an internal, private sound, and we are not really trained to enjoy it. So one person’s breathing can become noise to others.

I find the sound of breathing to be bizarrely unsettling, and it is especially odd when amplified.

I enjoy these paradoxes in the work. When I did the initial performance, no one stood there to listen. The gesture of breathing into the microphone, and amplifying that, seemed to be a repellent. But the opposite happened in the gallery because I noticed that people were really drawn to touch the piece. I saw people even petting it. And the gallery attendants told me they found the sound calming.

I am intrigued by the title “Listening Attends,” too. I can understand listening in different ways, here, for example how we pay attention to the insidious workings of power, or nefarious uses of technology. But we are specifically listening to your breathing in the space.

I was thinking about the multiple ways in which listening is attending, and breathing is listening. For me, breathing in the space was a way of attending to the works of the participating artists around me. I did not want my work to be too loud or to take over the space. It is an invitation to attending to your surroundings, but it has all these other meanings, like listening to the things this object has to say. And you can listen to it, but it is also listening to you.

I noticed that repetition is often part of protests, because as a protestor, you need to know when to be silent and when to make noise. If you are always making noise, then you become noise. So, creating a space for silence was really important.

Speaking of protests, I think the question of resistance is key to this work. I am listening to you and wondering if we should also consider it a feminist critique. Although breathing is certainly not gendered, your voice is used here to counter the dominant male voice usually in control of these vehicles.

I think me doing this piece makes it a feminist work. And it does become gendered, I think the object itself is gendered. It carries a very specific type of masculinity and militarized aesthetics. But when it was covered by the black fabric, it became a gendered object. When we were installing the work, we noticed that when someone goes underneath the fabric to adjust the volume, it felt uncomfortable. The same happened when some people crawled down to see the underside of the truck during the opening.

Sahar Te (and Mind on Fire), KHAAREJ No.3, 2019. Photography by Emmanuel Osemene. Courtesy the artist and The Walters Art Museum.

But I think this element of discomfort is productive. The historian in me tends to connect artworks to familiar forms, mediums, and precedents. But here, we have a found object as a sculptural form. Then the wrapping, then sound, and more specifically your voice as a sort of performance: the whole thing presented as an installation. I know you explored this kind of amalgamation, and sound too, in your MFA thesis, Listening Appears Direct Flow. Where does the desire to cross mediums and conventions come from?

I think it partially comes from how I approach my work. I think in multidisciplinary ways, and I am interested in creating a set of conditions rather than an artwork. So different forms and mediums come together to shape the experience.

But I am also interested in the estrangement of mediums or the misuse of the medium, which could create a disruption in expectations: how do you see loudness or how do you amplify silence, or how do you occupy space in the museum without putting objects on display. I like the unfamiliarity.

Speaking of familiarity, I wonder what it means to present this work in this context. Those living in Canada might think this is not relevant for them, that what happens in South West Asia does not really concern people on this side of the world.

If I am a Canadian, then by default this is a Canadian concern because it is my concern, and our concern, Amin. And in this particular exhibition, we were not tasked with making art about Toronto. We were encouraged to reflect on what is most important to us at this time. What matters to us matters to Toronto.

I think it would be naive to think that Canada is not involved in the region. It is a Commonwealth country with an ongoing colonial history, and a close ally of the United States and others directly involved in the region. So when it comes to conflicts or interventions in the region, North America and Europe are very much involved.

Canada’s silence has historically been harmful in relation to the affairs of the Global South. Through realizing the work, I became more convinced than ever that Canada and the world are entangled in these, seemingly distant, regional matters. I shaped this piece in response to my environment in North America, specifically the events of 2020. I revisited a memory that would have never become an artwork if it was not because of what I was observing around me here.

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