How Zineb Sedira transformed the streets of Venice into her studio to create her installation for the French pavilion

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Zineb Sedira’s experience living between cultures – in Algeria where her parents are from, in France where she grew up and in England where she has lived and worked since 1986 – has always nourished her work.

Sedira makes films that blend autobiography, fiction and documentary to evoke broader questions about individual and collective memories and identity, which have often sharpened the lines of connection and separation between Europe and Africa.

Significantly, she is the first artist of Algerian origin selected to represent France at the Venice Biennale, and her presentation takes its starting point from the numerous post-war cooperation projects between France, Italy and Algeria. These projects aimed to promote cultural exchanges, and many were funded by Algeria with the aim of breaking with French colonial representations and building its own culture and image.

We met the artist in her London studio where she was about to leave for Venice. At the biennale, she transformed the French pavilion into a cinematographic installation to see her film Dreams have no title.

Messy workshop. Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

What is the most essential item(s) in your studio, and why can’t you live without them?

I’d say it’s my computer but other than that, probably scissors and glue I think, because I’m always cutting and pasting stuff.

The most indispensable element in the studio.  Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

The most indispensable element in the studio. Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

What is the studio task on the agenda this week that you are most looking forward to?

Reorganize and prepare for my return from Venice, because the studio is in shambles. Right now I’m just trying to clean up the studio a bit and make it more welcoming for when I come back. This is my main task.

Messy workshop.  Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

Messy workshop. Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

Can you send us a picture of your latest site to visit for Venice? What was the main task of this trip?

We went there in January and I shot my movie there. Not all, but about 90% of it. It was a bit difficult, but we had to do it because of the content of the film – it has to be in Venice, so we had no choice. It was very cold, and due to COVID restrictions, it wasn’t easy. We had to wear masks all the time and it was difficult to shoot, especially on 60mm film, with masks on.

The people playing were obviously not required to wear a mask, but the team did. There are quite a few “making ofs” where we see the team filming this way. In some ways that puts it in the right time frame, during the COVID period, so that’s not a bad thing, but in practical terms it was difficult because you have to spend all of your time with a mask on.

Site visit in Venice.  Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

Site visit in Venice. Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

What has been the biggest challenge so far as you prepare for the Venice Biennial?

The biggest challenge was not being able to travel because my project is very research-based, especially in archives. It was very hard not being able to travel, and we had to cancel a few trips at the last minute as the rules changed all the time.

So the hardest part was not being able to easily access — I finally got there, but not easily — those archives. And also not being able to go to Algeria because Algeria was really in the red zone and we couldn’t go there. I did not go to Algeria for the duration of my research, and it was quite hard because it has an important part in the project.

Many archives [digitize their materials], and so it was pretty manageable for five months, but that’s not the case in Algeria. Things have not been digitized. I found ways around this, where I got people locally to go and do some research for me. Because the archives were open there, but it was the movement that was difficult. So I hired a local person, a consultant, to do the research locally for me.

Can you send a photo of your work in progress?

Work in progress.  Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

Work in progress. Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

We are nearing the end now. We’re almost done, but there are still a few things to finalize: color grading and sound mixing and things like that.

My editor and my sound technician send me a version of the edit every night, and every night, religiously, I sit in front with a very good speaker and listen and watch until the end. Then I give them my feedback, and the next day they send me another edit.

When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get out of it?

Usually I go out and walk, or I go shopping, I get out of the studio. I’m just trying to change my mind and go somewhere else.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you despise the most?

The trait I like the most is when forms and content connect really well. So when aesthetics and politics – because I tend to like work that’s more political – go well together.

I don’t think I despise anything to be honest. I think I respect every type of artistic creation. I may not understand some of them, I may not address some of them, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I despise him.

What do you watch while you work? Share your view behind the canvas or computer, where you spend the most time.

Messy workshop.  Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

Messy workshop. Courtesy of Zineb Sedira.

I spend a lot of time in front of the computer and I look at my work. I have tons of books and I have a few videos because my project is about movies. So I look at these things, I read a lot of books and I read online. And I watched a lot of movies for this project. I watched tons of movies.

What is a film, writing or other work of art that inspired you the most in the preparation of Venice?

There is an Algerian film not very well known at all called Hands free in French. I wove my whole project around this film. It’s a 1964 film that was lost for many years and that I found in Italy in one of the archives. I think it’s a brilliant movie. It is a documentary essay. So it was extremely important – so important that I managed to have it fully restored with the Cineteca di Bologna in Italy, and then incorporated it into my own film.

I came across it through a lot of reading on Algerian cinema, and I could see everywhere what was coming out in 65, that it was playing in Algiers and a few other places, but at the end of 65 it stopped and it was kind of got lost. Nobody knew where there was a copy. And we found it in Italy.

Where is your favorite place to eat, drink or take a break? Venice?

Because we were there in January and everything was closed, I can’t think of any particular place. Of course, all you have to do is take a walk along the water’s edge, and that’s always a great pleasure for me.

The greatest moments were when I was in the pavilion working with my team and my friends. Because the whole project is about friendship. We were there 10 hours a day, every day. These moments of chat, laughter and warmth between us, it took our days, and I really enjoyed it.

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