Chelsea Sorting Office, London, 2020-2021
Installation Audio: Part 1
Installation Audio: Part 2
Audio Recording Process
IG Live Tour with Cedric Fauq
interview with Abbas Zahedi, 27.11.20
Adam Hines-Green: Could we start with you describing how a viewer moves through the show?
Abbas Zahedi: From the beginning it was clear to me that the entrance would be through the car park. However, because this building used to be a sorting office for the Royal Mail, it doesn’t have a postcode, and so there isn’t a set address that you can give to someone to get to this entrance. That became interesting to me, that there’s this process of finding it, and then once you do, you almost have this feeling of being somewhere ‘underground’, like it’s not part of the normal landscape around here. As you know, it’s a strange set of circumstances that have allowed the proposal of this show to exist in the first place. So that idea of how I came to be in the space, and how the viewer then comes to find the space, informed how I wanted people to navigate the experience of the building itself. On the inside, it feels like a lot of the passageways are dictated by varied forms of lighting, and so that really helped to create a path for the viewer. I wasn’t thinking in terms of discrete spaces but rather paths of light, like how could someone intuitively work their way through the environment. I wanted the light to be the guide. Even when you go downstairs, you’re immersed in this darkness after coming from a space that is very well-lit, so it takes some time for your eyes to adjust, and once you make that initial crossing, there’s this faint light coming from the bar, and so again that becomes a destination. As you move through, your eyes might have to adjust a few times, so you might pick up on other aspects of the space, of the work, or things might retreat into invisibility again.
AHG: The path the viewer takes is also quite clearly one where they go up and then down from some sort of ground level. Could you speak a bit about positioning the viewer’s body as something that can both ascend and descend?
AZ: I feel like the moving of bodies and objects around the space was informed by my relationship to this area long before the show. My late brother was a patient in the hospital across the road, and so I spent many years going there with him. We were told he needed a heart transplant, that’s the only treatment for what he had. So the idea of transplantation really came to mind when I came here. I tried to think about it in different ways. For example, how could I make a minimal intervention that would radically alter the overriding function of a body amidst a particular system of relations? The architecture of this Victorian sorting office is highly securitised, so you have the windows at a certain height, allowing light to come in, but you can’t see out and people can’t see in. And then high up at the far end of the hall there are these viewing ports that look like windows, which have been painted over. I imagine the authority figures would be overlooking their staff and keeping them in check from up there. Then when you go downstairs to the bar and the workers’ social area, and there are no more windows, so the staff down there would’ve been even further from the light and further still from the gaze of their masters. It relates to that panopticon model of an all-seeing eye, and the ideas of privacy, visibility, and how light serves these thresholds that determine who is allowed to see what, and from what position. The question that then arose for me was: how could you transplant someone’s perspective from one level to another? One intention was to make the space more fluid, but also, with the staircase, to try to put the art visitor in a position where they now overlook pedestrians underneath them and also the construction workers from across the street.
AHG: The idea of transplantation is also clear in how you’ve mined the bar area downstairs to construct the staircase for escalating from the ground floor.
AZ: Yes. It took me a while to work out that ‘ascent’ over the window in the hall. At one point I came down with Covid, I was in bed with a fever, and then I just saw this image of extracting the wood from the bar in the basement, and making that into the structure that would overcome this architectural barrier embedded into the building. I think this desire to work with wood initially came from the presence of the vast parquet floor in the hall, and then I learned that this site used to be a timber yard before it was a sorting office. So when you go downstairs, you’ll see that there are eleven shelves missing in the bar area with very specific cut-outs that match the size of the steps going up to the window upstairs. The cross-sections of the cuts reveal the brown vinyl and various layers of wood used to construct the bar itself, and I’ve maintained those layers upstairs. The sculpture/staircase then becomes a kind of wood-collage that documents the different levels and materials of the building. So the steps are from the bar, and then their sides are made from plywood sheets that were covering the windows to the hall when I first got here, as you have on a construction site. After much deliberation, I chose to stain the outer plywood walls with a solution of iron sulphate, which reacts with the tannic acid in the wood and speeds up the ageing process to darken it to this kind of charcoal ash. This reaction is how some of the first writing inks were made, and so the earliest examples of the Bible, Quran, and even drawings by da Vinci were all made using this kind of iron-gall ink, usually combined with gum arabic. So when I talk to you about transplantation it makes me think of a readymade — a kind of transplantation theory in art — taking something from another context and using it in a new space or way, so as to remap its significance and its symbolic function. However, a medical transplant feels different in that there’s a more practical kind of functionality involved — say in bypass graft surgery. With this show, I feel like I’ve refined my approach to doing sculpture or readymades as having this functional aspect alongside a simple visual invitation, which is still in a sense ambiguous and creates the feeling of risk. The object itself asks the viewer whether they want to engage or not.
AHG: In MANNA From Below, a series of lecture-performances you have completed since 2017, you stated that ‘MANNA from heaven is just as nutritious as MANNA from below’, which chimes very well with your approach to this project.
AZ: I called this show ‘Ouranophobia’, meaning ‘fear of heaven or the sky’. I grew up with a certain religious consciousness where I had to constantly transact with cosmic authorities that occupy a space above at all times. It’s a negotiation I had to make in terms of how much I was going to ascribe to, and be dictated by, those kinds of myths and narratives that come down from ‘heaven’. Even when I tried to sidestep specific doctrines, I realised I was recreating the same dynamic whilst putting my energy into seemingly secular spaces, such as community organising, or even within the art world. I came to feel that I was stuck in some sort of metaphysical bind, and so being in this building, with the way the architecture enforces a similar hierarchy based around the control of sight and visibility — that really helped me to externalise the phenomenology of that process. Like how the layout of a space can function like a subtle form of hypnosis, a sort of micro-dosing of metaphysics. And this then raised the question: how do I develop a sense of place in the cosmos, when all I can rely on is the ground beneath my feet? I have to draw my existential sustenance and stability from the earth, or from common materials which I have access to for my work. That’s the way we as artists produce meaning in the world, or interrogate the processes of how meanings are produced. In this case again, the work tends to have a personal dimension alongside a strong aesthetic and discursive agenda. And still, I’m not creating something to be part of a wider theoretical context or for some notion of a canon, I just consider myself in the mix of things — doing different things, and things that need doing. It’s literally me trying to ground myself, because I feel like I’ve never had a healthy relationship with ‘heaven’, with the thing that is always meant to be above, or this idea of a Platonic ideal. And since I lost my family, I can’t always rely on vertical structures that have looked down on me from a position of self-assured grandeur. I’ve often struggled with that. I’ve struggled when I’ve been deferential towards it, and also when I’ve had to rebel. Being in longterm therapy allowed me to become more curious about all this, and develop a kind of interiority and resourcefulness to seek out what I need, in order to feel held and secure whilst staying down here, where all the feelings are. ‘Manna from below’ is my way of trying to say all that. It’s like I’m trying to create these ‘paracosms’ or alternative realities for my own inner community of alter egos, and relate that to the world around me somehow. That’s my art. It reminds me of what Hannah Arendt talks about in terms of having a two-in-one dialogue with ourselves, and learning to think with our emotions and sensual experiences of the world. I think the practices of religion and art are both aware of that at a fundamental level, but they respond to it in opposing ways. As in, they both create boundaried notions of an idealised space that either prevents or encourages us to trust our own sensual experiences of a ‘world in common’. I find it interesting that Arendt traces that bind back to Descartes; it’s like at some point we sacrificed the commonalities of a sensual earth, in terms of materials, affect, and physical space, all for the heavenly security of an echo-chamber and binary codes. I spent many years creating safe-spaces when I was doing community organising and then I had to exit them all one by one, because I would always outgrow them. So the idea of exiting becomes relevant here too, where you have this hierarchy inherent in the design of the space. It functions on a mental level as well as a physical one, which is why I made the steps go up to the window, to offer a different perspective rather than an explicit escape. It reminds me of that self-awareness technique called the Johari Window. I feel like I’m addressing that idea of the exhibition space as its own paracosm and then embracing that — because I need that space — whilst at the same time looking for an exit, or a way to break what Hal Foster calls ‘the impulse to archive’, which I feel is just artspeak for finding an afterlife. So when it comes to visitors of the show, I am extending a genuine invitation to this whole process, or just a part of it, hence why everything is ambiguous and left up to the agency of each individual to participate, so as to give space for that sensual navigation, that combination of minimalism and emotion. Lockdown has heightened the opportunity to work in this way and I’m trying to make an experience that allows us to reflect on that as well. It has created a kind of Kleinian dynamic in terms of object-relations and how we perceive one another, yet I like to think of it more simply as just being a good host and trying to be generous with whatever I have to give to the situation; like a good conversation that gives you space to think and be yourself.
AHG: Could you go further into the appearance of the staircase, its design, and its aesthetic points of reference?
AZ: Having spent time in the space, I started to fixate on the visual hierarchy of having these authority figures that sit above you and look down on you. As I’ve said it feels like a religious reference — a traditional Judeo-Christian or Islamic view of the heavens, from where God judges and observes all that is below. I then considered what the language of the staircase should be on a visual level, and I arrived at the minbar, which is the equivalent of a pulpit in Islamic tradition. The main thing that I took from that design is the reverence for numerology, such as having eleven steps and incorporating the golden ratio into the main triangle. Also, the staircase for a traditional minbar tends to be very steep and has low sides, so there are no banisters to hold on to — they purposely omit this safety feature, so as to make an emphasis on God keeping the faithful upright. There’s also this idea of the imam entering the minbar and rising above the congregation and speaking to them from a height. Despite all of this being interesting and familiar, I felt it was important not to try and recreate an actual minbar. One major departure I made from the traditional design is that you are actually put in a position at the top to look out of the window, and then you turn around and face your ‘congregation’ as you come back down. So the final design is a layering of all these aspects to try and create a more ambiguous language. For example, there are two structural elements: one is the steep outer walls, and then there is the actual staircase tread that sits internally at a shallower angle. At the base it comes out like a tongue and exposes the different materials at play, signalling an invitation to take the first step. It was important to me that those initial few steps have no sides to hold on to, so there’s still this emphasis on trusting your capacity as an individual, and then as you progress, in the process of rising, these banisters emerge beside you and you can hold on to them to make the final ascent.
AHG: You often seem to place the viewer in these particular directed, and directional positions — as you have said, to adjust certain perspectives. The wooden floor tiles that you’ve uprooted and overturned also possess this directional element for the viewer.
AZ: Those eleven floor tiles have been placed in the shape of an arrow that still follows the geometric grid of the floor, but I’ve tilted it off its original axis and so now it points the viewer to the red hallway, and the journey down another set of stairs into the belly of the work. In a lot of Muslim-majority countries, if you go into a hotel room or any kind of public space, you will often see these arrows on the ceiling or on the wall, or you might open a drawer and suddenly see an arrow pointing one way. That arrow is always showing you where Mecca is. So there’s this idea that in a Muslim’s day-to-day they need to be aware of this direction because they have to pray five times a day, and the prayer follows the path of the sun. In this case, if I had followed the geometry of the parquet floor, that arrowhead of the tiles would actually point towards Mecca, but I’ve turned it towards the red hallway instead. When I brought my son to the space he was scared to go into the red area by himself, he would call to me and say, ‘Help me go in the red.’ There’s this primal thing that becomes activated by descending into that much red.
AHG: Could you describe how you’ve deployed sound in the show as well? You’re using these transducers, where the architecture and objects in place are forced to sound themselves out and make themselves felt.
AZ: I’ve embedded the transducers in the obscured viewing windows high up on the ground floor, and a separate set in the bar downstairs. The soundscape comes from a prolonged process of mapping the sonics of the architecture, which had its challenges due to the age of the building and the density of its materials. The way I’m using sound on the ground floor is immersive, and in the basement it’s more intimate. Downstairs you have this prayer, where the sounds are based around the speech patterns of stroke victims. This is layered with a lamentation, which is something I’ve worked with before. The particular prayer is something I’ve sampled from the Iranian, New-York based duo Saint Abdullah, who I worked with at South London Gallery. I’ve remixed and reworked it here to create something bespoke for the bar, signifying the dead and dying nature of this site and its bygone culture, as it sits waiting to be knocked down and rebuilt as luxury housing — another sort of afterlife. Upstairs, the sound is not voice, but there is a sense of rawness, like a pre-vocal form of language at play. There are these clicks and vibrations which I made using sounds recorded in the hall. For example, I set up a binaural recording rig and generated sounds by banging and tapping those eleven upturned floor tiles together and scraping them across the ground. This created the basis for the sound piece in the hall, which is eleven minutes long and literally loops out from the master’s windows. Again it’s a way of transplanting the ground into the above, but in a non-visual way this time. The staircase in that situation becomes the visual focal point, cutting through the sound, like an ascent into the rational, or that typical idea of a solitary jump into enlightenment — the Hermes Hymn to the Pythian Ode.
AHG: You’ve spent many months in the space, often without anyone else here. I wonder how that has influenced your thinking about the project.
AZ: You know, there’s an emphasis that this is a solo show and I must say that I really felt that over these months tinkering away in the space on my own. The thing about working site-specifically is that you need time to acclimatise and then to play around and reflect. I would often set up these sort of visual devices or ‘trinkets’ like emotional post-it notes, and I’ve left a few up for the show. To be honest, the thing that’s made me nervous and neurotic at times is the proposal to do a show here in the first place. Not in terms of scale or producing objects to fill an expanse, but in trying to keep with my own kind of interactive post-minimalism. It was very helpful when at one point you responded to that and clarified the brief to be just my own version of an empty building — that helped to get me into the right headspace. Because I’m very aware that when artists work independent of institutions, there’s always a compromise in terms of resources, funding, and materials. There’s always something that situates the work as self-initiated and DIY, that sits in opposition to the institutional end of the scale, affording qualities to ‘proper’ shows that can be deemed more impressive, with more scope to realise their full potential. The idea with this show was actually that there is this historic site, and General Release has a vision of putting on solo exhibitions without the usual resources. I took that challenge very seriously and then tried to blur all the lines that exist between the aesthetics of an institution, an off-site project, and a DIY intervention. With this being an independent project, I feel like a lot of time was spent coproducing, as in sharing resources and bringing them together effectively. I was fortunate to receive a mentorship grant from Artangel in the summer, enabling me to have some research and development time with the set designer Michalis Kokkoliadis. We discussed ideas around steps and staircases, whilst also exploring the different logics of an art installation in relation to set design and working in the theatre. Having that space to think without committing to an outcome was crucial in the end. It allowed me to establish an initial rapport with Michalis and then spend a few months alone considering how our conversations could relate to the space. Afterwards, when I came back to him with a brief, there was this element of trust and understanding. That’s when he offered to bring his workshop to the space, so that we could hand-build the steps together onsite. I gained a lot from that process, from being close to him and the materials, whilst working out these geometries and numerological interventions. It also allowed me to make the recordings which I mixed into the sound works — that’s when my intuitions started to make sense.
AHG: Could you speak briefly about this area and how your place in this area has also influenced the project? I know you’ve lived in this borough your whole life.
AZ: I feel there’s this mythology and pomp, this self-assuredness of Chelsea. You know, this is the Royal Borough, it kind of makes the people who live here feel superior, divine, almost on heavenly ground. I once heard someone say that ‘nothing ever happens in Chelsea’, and it’s so true. All the things that this place is known for are in the past. However, for myself and many others, there is still this difficult relationship with the authorities due to Grenfell, and how that affected us all, and it still grips me on a personal level daily. Living in that same housing group, I’ve always felt like I’m seen as a kind of undesirable presence to the more ‘salubrious’ residents of the borough — I started to feel it more after 9/11. Chelsea brings out a lot of the paradoxes of this country, like the extreme wealth gaps and the nature of our current leadership, even in terms of how we’re a parliamentary democracy, but with a functioning royal family. That reminds me that the ‘minbar’ I’ve built is facing Buckingham Palace, as in it’s parallel with Kings Road, whereas traditionally, a minbar would have to face Mecca. In this case it’s facing the Queen.
AHG: Is there anything else you would like to add?
AZ: Just thanks. Thanks to the residents and the owners of the Chelsea Sorting Office, Artangel, Michalis and Matthew Greenburgh for their generous support of this project.