Left: Montana Blues (detail), 2005, neon light, black adhesive letters, white translucent Plexiglas, light-gray light box, electronic dimmer, and transformer (in two parts). Installation view, Moscow Biennial, 2005. Right: View of “58:22 and Some Words,” Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin, 2007.


The French artist Sa‚dane Afif, who lives and works in Berlin, will have his first museum survey this summer at Witte de With in Rotterdam. The exhibition, titled “Technical Specifications,” opens on June 13. Here he discusses the show.

NICOLAS SCHAFHAUSEN AND ZOň GRAY invited me to survey a decade’s worth of my work. Soon after I saw the symmetrical rooms my show will inhabit at Witte de With, I knew I didn’t want to present a straightforward overview of my practice but instead wanted to structure the exhibition playfully. I wanted to challenge myself. But explaining it requires me to back up a bit.

Last year, I was asked by Valerie Tevere and Angel Nevarez to discuss my work on 95.2 FM WUNP, the radio station affiliated with United Nations Plaza in Berlin. Rather than talk about my art, I decided to make a playlist of several of the songs I’ve asked musicians to make in response to my pieces. (I commission a writer to respond to many of my artworks and often use the texts as wall labels; later, I ask bands to record songs with these texts as lyrics. Repetition and riffing like this is central to what I do.) So, to create an hour-long program, I selected a handful of songs and wrote an introduction and banter in the style of a radio DJ. To mark the occasion, I organized an opening at my gallery in Berlin, Mehdi Chouakri, which featured posters of the radio set list, the text of the program introduction and conclusion on the invitation card, and two radios in the space, each tuned to the proper station. It was an exhibition of the songs: People gathered, and a hush came over the crowd when the broadcast began; an hour later, the celebration started up. After that night, the FM transmitter created a kind of second space for the gallery, a virtual instantiation of my exhibition.

For the exhibition in Rotterdam, I will take the idea one step further. In one of the galleries devoted to my work will be a series of black-and-white transfer labels and two posters designed by DeValence, with the technical specifications of the fourteen or so pieces that Nicolas and ZoŽ have selected. (I asked them to choose from among my artworks for which there are lyrics and songs.) There will also be radios tuned to a looping broadcast of a program we will record live at the opening reception. It will be very minimal, like the presentation in Berlin. I think of it as an explosion of sorts—a survey based on artworks that became lyrics that became songs that became a radio program that was once again incorporated into a gallery.

On the other side of the hallway, in a room the exact same size, viewers will find new works made to the same technical specifications as the ones described in the labels in the first room. They will be placed in the same locations within the room, as well—there will be absolute symmetry. I’ll become like a cook with a recipe: Everything is technically the same, but the results can be quite different. It’s a way for me to achieve the logically impossible—to return to the avenues I closed off in my decision-making process the first time around. For example, the piece Montana Blues, 2005, which was presented at the first Moscow Biennial, is a rectangular light box with black text and a dimmer. It’s like the sign for a restaurant or a bar—a bar where dirty things happen. For the new piece, I’m once again using lights and letters. I created an anagram of the text UNTAMABLE SON, but this time each letter is placed individually: The letters of the first word will hang on the wall, and the letters of the second will be piled on the floor. It’s the same basic material, the same “technical specifications”—light boxes with lettering—but a very different form. But for it to be successful, it must not only be a trick, and I know that each new piece has to be good on its own.

— As told to Brian Sholis