2019/20 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Sarah Abdel-Jelil | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

2019/20 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Sarah Abdel-Jelil

By Melanie Pankau on May 04, 2020
Room (dance time-lapse experiment), 2019, video ; Sarah Abdel-Jelil
Sarah Abdel-Jelil

In this interview, Sarah Abdel-Jelil shares how her practice blends together time-lapse photography and dance to explore themes of nature, the passing of time, and quotidian spaces.

Your practice incorporates dance and time-lapse photography to explore the human connection between nature and our experience of time. Could you tell us more about your process and how you came to work at the intersections of these mediums. 

In my dance time-lapse films, I combine slow movement with time-lapse video techniques as a way of inviting people to move in tandem with the cycles of the natural world.

For example, take a gesture like lifting an arm. The dancer will break down this movement into tiny increments over the course of an hour. I set up the intervalometer to my camera so that a photo is taken at a set interval (i.e. every 20 seconds). The dancer will hold their arm in a certain position, then once the photo is taken, they will move it slightly into the next position. Finally, after an hour of shifting their arm in tiny increments every 20 seconds, their arm will be up in the final position. Once played back as a video, this gradual arm movement that lasted one hour in “real” time will look continuous, lasting only a few seconds in screen time. The time-lapse serves to highlight the movement and changes in our environment that we may sense but cannot see. Only after all of the photos are assembled into a time-lapse video are we able to see this synchronicity between dancer and the natural world (i.e. arm moves with shadows, clouds, sun’s position in the sky).

I am inspired by the ephemerality of dance and performance art as well as the seeming permanence of film and photography. I began working at the intersection of these mediums in 2015 when I was trying to find an idea for my senior thesis in college. I’m a dancer and filmmaker and wanted to combine these mediums in a way that felt meaningful to me. I remember watching a time-lapse video with a person moving sporadically around in the frame and thinking what would happen if the person was moving intentionally and continuously at the pace of the world around them?

Place seems very intentional and significant in your work. How do you choose the setting for your performances or do they choose you?

My nomadic upbringing has informed my relation to place and space. I moved a lot growing up, living in eight different countries on four continents. While I don’t necessarily feel connected to one “home” or one place, I often think about the ways we can find home in people and spaces and instances.

When choosing a space, I try to listen to the space and trust my gut. How do I feel in this space? There are logistical and practical things I consider such as where the sun will move with relation to the camera and what shadows will move, but ultimately it comes down to my gut.

Batikh, 2018, video, director: Sarah Abdel-Jelil, cinematographer: Gisell Calderón
Batikh, 2018, video, director: Sarah Abdel-Jelil, cinematographer: Gisell Calderón

I’m curious to know more about the dance aspect of your practice. Are the movements choreographed or improvised? Could you walk us through how you orchestrate the body(ies) within a piece.

The movements are improvise-choreographed. As a dancer, I love improvising—entering a state in which the body moves itself. I also like to incorporate improvisation into my filmmaking process. Rather than constructing a dance and pasting it into a space, I choreograph as the day progresses, drawing inspiration from the shifts in lighting and sounds of the environment as well as the dancers in the space. My work is site-specific and time-specific.

The long duration of the shoot gives me time to be present in the space, check-in with dancers, and give direction.

In a community dance time-lapse shoot, where I don’t know who, how many, or when people are showing up, I find inspiration from entrances and exits and the fluctuation of people within a space. How will this person leave the frame? Will they move out gradually? Will they suddenly disappear? Will they be absorbed by the environment?

Detroit Lakes, OR (dance time-lapse experiment), 2019, video, (created in collaboration with Gisell Calderón)

Detroit Lakes, OR (dance time-lapse experiment), 2019, video, (created in collaboration with Gisell Calderón)

You mentioned your current project deals with growth and the movements of plants. Could you talk about how this idea is unfolding in your work.

I have always been drawn to the connection between humans and the natural world or rather humans as part of the natural world. One of the lenses through which I explore this connection is time. I remember watching time-lapse videos of plants, moss, and fungi in a forest when I was younger and reflecting on how organisms experience time differently. One hour in the life of a 3,000 year old tree will most likely be different from my experience of an hour (an experience which can be influenced by emotion, cultural understandings of time, and other factors).

Time-lapse photography has a history rooted in scientific research and observation, speeding up growing plants to observe their movement. In my current project, I’ve been examining these questions: what does it mean to move on a different temporal plane, and how do I visualize an embodied understanding of the time passing?

There is something very comforting to me about watching time-lapses of plants growing and fruits and vegetables decaying. I am curious to know what it feels like to be in a space with them and move with these natural cycles. I’m not interested in trying to control the natural world, but how can I listen and move with it. With the pandemic, I have been reflecting more on how to approach this project. Now, I am interested in growth and decay in quotidian spaces—for instance house plants and the odd potato that, left unattended, began growing sprouts.

What influences or inspires your studio practice?

I resonate with the work of a lot of musicians and sound artists. Music influences my studio practice and how I move through the world. I feel especially moved by the music of local artists Dua Saleh, Maren Lundgren, and Hello Psychaleppo.

How has winning the Jerome fellowship affected and/or changed your work?

The Jerome fellowship has provided me with the opportunity and platform to exhibit my work in a gallery. A major goal has been to make the transition from presenting my work in 2D (cinemas / screens) to 3D (galleries) spaces. Through this fellowship, I am exploring ways to shape how the audience experiences the work by highlighting the context and giving insight into the process behind the pieces. This is a big step for me as an artist, and I am so grateful to everyone who has made this fellowship possible.

If you could describe your work in one word, what would it be?

(definition: to see something you’ve been a part of creating develop on its own)