Interview with Naama Tsabar

All contents © copyright Naama Tsabar. All rights reserved.

All contents © copyright Naama Tsabar. All rights reserved.




Naama Tsabar creates sensually driven installations, performances, and sculptures that examine the charged spaces and multi sensory zones of nightlife and their associations with notions such as freedom, excess, and escape. Her work treats the venues themselves as structures of power, enabling a display of fantasy, sexuality, and bravado, as well as providing a shelter from the realities of the outside world. She zooms in on the objects and materials which hold a distinct functional purpose within these bigger all encompassing experiences, inserting them into a new order. Addressing the implicit gender roles and coded behavior of music and nightlife, Tsabar appropriates and subverts the aggressive gestures of rock and roll and their associations with virility and power. Informed by her experiences as a musician in a punk band and as a bartender, Tsabar probes the culture of rock music from multiple angles, channeling the decadence of urban night culture and its association with danger, seduction, and subversion.

Music On Walls had the chance to discuss with Naama Tsabar right before she presented her work during the Seattle Art Fair.

Good morning Naama, so apparently you are now in Seattle? 

Good morning. Yes I am here in Seattle for the art fair as I’ll be presenting one of my works. I am here with my friend and musician Fielded that is going to perform on my work. I will be here for the next four days. 

Is it your first time in Seattle?

It’s my second time there but it’s the first time I am exhibiting.

What is the project that you are going to exhibit?

It’s a work from 2014, it’s called "Closer". It’s a corner piece meaning literally it’s a corner that is connected to nothing. It’s an architectural sculpture. When you see the corner from the outside, you can see that two microphones are penetrating it and then when you turn around the corner you see that there are holes in the wall. And when you get even closer to it then you can see the inside cavity of these walls, you can see the inside of the holes. And the inside is finished like an instrument would be finished, like a guitar. It’s cherry red and varnished and it has one wall on the corner that has internal strings where you can put your hand (you don’t see them but they are there). You can put your hand and play the inside cavity of the wall. And the other wall that is shaped more like a retro microphone is a chamber where you can sing into.

(This project have been curated by Laura Fried and will be presented by Shulamit Nazarian Gallery during the Seattle Art Fair)


Closer, 2014, Wood, metal, microphones, microphone stands, tuners, guitar strings, 54.5'' x 54.5'' x9'.

Photos: Krisopher McKay, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

"Closer" is a sculpture but it can also be performed on and be activated. And when it is activated you become the performer, penetrating the wall, facing the corner and singing into the other wall. By doing that, the inside space of the walls almost become an acoustic guitar, and an acoustic chamber reverberating the sound. While the microphone on the other side pick it up and send it out. You can see a very intimate performance of a musician or an activator-performer that is facing a wall, hugging and penetrating this wall. At the same time it’s completely performative and the sound or the music is carried out.


So who can perform "Closer"?

It could be anyone that decides to activate the work, if someone chooses to cross that border and to bring oneself into the art object.

When I do more scheduled performances (which will happen once a day during the Seattle Art Fair). I invite my friend Fielded. Fielded is a musician based in New York. She is a musician and artist I have been working with for almost three and a half years now. She and I wrote in 2014 a musical piece for the wall (Closer), for the corner and she has extended it with another musical piece and she performes on it once a day, it’s a twenty minutes performance.

Performed by Fielded (Vocals) Escape Attempts Curated by Dr. Kathy Battista Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles, CA | February 16, 2017

So you would say there’s a way to master this instrument?

Yes, once you make the work, the sculpture, then you need to figure out what to do,  how to master it. And because Fielded has had a lot of alone time with it she is in many ways the only person in the world who actually can master this corner.

Better than you? 

Yes, for sure (laugh)

Is there a specific way to tune it? 

Yes, Fielded tunes it to what’s right for her. First thing she does before she starts performing is to check the tuning on it.

You mentioned earlier that you wrote a musical piece together with Fielded. So you do have the knowledge of how to write music?

Yes I have a musical background. I grew up playing classical and jazz piano and later in my twenties I played electric guitar and performed. So I do have some knowledge. However, when I say we did it together, the collaboration in this specific piece is very much about editing (in my case). I would sit there silently listening to an exploration on a new musical instrument and then within that, my place is to edit. I also choreograph the movement a bit because there are some specificities about how to move your body inside this architecture. It’s also something that my presence dictates. So when I say collaboration, this would be the extent of it.

The images we are showing here were taken during your installation from 2014 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Was it the fist time you performed it?

Yes it was the first time.

What did come out of this first “experimentation” of Closer? Something that maybe you were not expecting. Maybe something that was very intense for you.

The installation at the Guggenheim was very interesting because first, the space of the Guggenheim Museum in New York is really all concrete and marble so there are a lot of reverberating sounds, very rich and bouncing which elevated the work really sonically. And the experimentation is also about how it sounds in the space. 

I remember a father/daughter duo who decided to try to play together which is really hard. I don’t even know how they did it, it sounded so great.

There are definitely those moments where you see that people are very intuitively approaching the work and succeeding in creating something even though it is not defined but still is very beautiful and very rich.

The other thing that happened in the Guggenheim that was very surprising is that when Fielded was performing on the corner, there were a lot of people behind the wall (where you couldn’t see her perform, but it’s where you can actually hear her, that’s where the speakers were). So there was a break between the performative action and the audio outcome. And more so, the people were touching the wall from the other side, meaning they were trying to get closer to what was happening inside (feeling the vibrations). Even though it’s impossible. That was for me a very interesting thing to acknowledge about the work and it also re-affirmed this idea of this cavity inside the wall, a place that has this duality of being there but not being accessible. And that is all around us all the time.

It was really interesting to watch how people (once the work was activated sonically) wanted to get closer to it by touching it. That was a beautiful moment.

Do you record what people do with your instrument ? 


So there are no recordings of the audience? 

Recordings from the audience, no. I do videos of the performances, the more choreographed ones. But it’s true I don’t record the audience but I do, with any show, have that one time when I can observe. If I was to record, it would be a learning process to develop it and since I am in the space the best way to experience things and to understand things is truly to be there. That is my belief. So when I am present I can see the interaction and just be a silent observer, which I think is the best.

Have you heard of Xavier Veilhan's project “Studio Venezia” at the French Pavillion in La Biennale 2017 in Venice?

It’s interesting that you ask this question because I have been hearing his name once a week lately in relation to my work. I am not going to proclaim to talk about the work of Xavier cause I haven’t experienced it in person. Although it seems to me that me and Xavier have a bit of different objectives in our practice or more so specifically in relation to his Venice Biennale project.

I am less interested in capturing the sound. From what I saw from the visuals and understood about Xavier's project is that you can identify the instruments. And so my work actually works in the complete opposite spectrum where it (mostly) does not reveal itself as an instrument or something you can activate. It’s a sculpture, a formal sculpture rooted very deep in our art history. It really takes a certain viewer to be an active viewer and to defy the laws put down within any exhibitions space of not touching the work. Then that viewer is rewarded at that moment where the work shifts into an instrument, a place where it is no longer only a sculpture but something you can activate sonically. That is the relationship I am interested in. More so are the endless possibilities of musical composition that happen on the work when the viewer approches it.

So you are more interested in the “freedom” of the viewers rather than something that would be prepared?

Exactly! Actually one of the thing that I am not interested in at all is this idea of mastery. Cause there is something really liberating in not knowing how to play and that is a "place of play". A “Place of play” is really interesting for me and I think it also opens up the work to many more explorations. You don’t have to be a musician. And mastering is almost like a barrier between the ones who know and the ones who do not. In my mind if people would feel embarrassed to play it would not be a good creative place.

We can see that in some of your works, you are the performer?

There are a few works where I am indeed the performer and I think you might be refering to Untitled (Babies). And there is also Untitled (Double Face).

In these performances you play with a band. Is this band created for specific works and performances or it is also your everyday band?

No I don’t have a band. Well… it’s not correct. Let’s say I don’t play music to record and just to play music. At an earlier stage of my life, the two disciplines (musical and visual) were more separated. And within that I needed the framework of a band and I did have a band. Organically through the years both disciplines have fused for me and I feel less and less the need to create music in a more conventional frame. And within that, when I say I don’t have a band and then I say "No, that’s not true", it’s because I am lucky to have many bands its fluid and they are not in one place. With the way my projects work when they are performed in different places, New York, Mexico, Israel, Warsaw, Miami (New Orleans soon)… It’s really every time I get to a place I create a new band. Those are people I work with and are completely a band. For example I have this body of work that's called “Work On Felt” that has been shown in many places. And what I am referring to with “Felt” is “Felt Bands”, these amazing musicians that have explored the ways of playing this work on felt with me all around the world. So I have many collaborators, many bands that have come together, broken appart. I have some that are more regulars than others.

Work On Felt (Variation 9 and 10) Bordeaux and Black composed and performed on by Fielded (vocals), Sarah Strauss and Naama Tsabar | Escape Attempts at Shulamit Nazarian, curated by Dr. Kathy Battista | Los Angeles, CA, February 16, 2017

Left : Work On Felt (Variation 4) Gray, 2016, Industrial felt, carbon fiber, epoxy, guitar tuner, piano string, amplifier, 65 1/2 × 50 1/2 × 13 1/2 in. Photo: Diana Larrea.

Right : Performance on Work On Felt (Variation 9 and 10) Black and Midnight Blue (Diptych), 2016 | Spinello Projects, December 2016. Photo: Diana Larrea.

(Work On Felt is an ongoing series of work where raw industrial felt is transformed into modifiable stringed instruments. Through the addition of carbon fiber, piano strings and guitar tuning pegs, the felt pieces gain new features that contradict their natural character. One is immediately confronted with their minimal design and then given a chance to directly engage the work itself by plucking the strings, creating sounds from them. Tightening or loosening the strings changes the degree of the bowing of the sculptures and the sound they make. The transformative nature of the work is such that the appearance of the sculptures, their erectness or flatness, directly corresponds to the pitch they produce.)

There is one work that I can only play with one person which is “Untitled” (Double Face) which is a double guitar that has no back to it. It’s two guitars fused together. One is left handed, one right handed.



I play the right handed guitar and my collaborator Kristin Mueller which I have been working now for eight years with plays the left handed guitar. She is also a close friend of mine.

What happens to the guitar when it’s fused with the same of its kind, like a mirror, it turns into this instrument for two people and when you hold this instrument, this sculpture, between you, you (the two musicians) are facing each other holding it between your two bodies. It imposes this super intimate relationship between two musicians. And this relationship is not only sonic, it’s not only what we play together but it’s also how we move together. And within that, it’s both a dance and musical composition. Therefore they cannot be separated. And for that work I decide to perform with Kristin because of this hyper intimacy that you could not have right away with a stranger. And also she is left handed (laughs) and a female.

It is important for me to say that 95% of my collaborators are female musicians.

Performance by Naama Tsabar and Kristin Mueller on Untitled (Double Face) at the 2014 New York Times International Luxury Conference, Miami Beach

For a performance such as Double Guitar, is this just improvisation?

It’s a performance that has a structure and within that structure there are moments where the movement is more important than the sound. So every time it sounds a bit different. But there is definitely a musical structure.  

This musical structure, you have been preparing it together with Kristin?

Yes, we have been performing this work since 2010 (most recently in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris). And every time it goes through the same motion, around 15 or 16 minutes. Like classicalIndian or Jazz music, it has a structure and a place it goes back to but within that very formulated structure there are places to get lost every time in, improvise. I would call it “structured” improvisation.

Is there a specific type of music that inspired this work?

The main history of that specific object, the electric guitar, is fused within Rock and Roll history and so it’s very natural to insert it back in a different way in the hands of two women. That specific work is very much leaning on that sonic aesthetic (Rock and Roll). Although it also has a lot of experimental sounds and sonic plays, overtones, as well as a lot of sonic texture which are not necessarily from that genre. Even though I do think Rock is just so embedded in this object already.

This influence of Rock & Roll that you have, does it come from a specific memory, band or a specific song that made you think and create the project (Double Face)?

I don’t think it’s a specific moment. I feel that we are all made out of music. Specifically me, music was such an important part of my youth. Like our body is made of water, I think my body is at least 20% music.

I definitely was very much inspired by music and it was a place for me to go to and so within that you know there are whole areas of music genres that I listened to and it was already embedded in my musical memory.

Double Guitar is part of a series of work that you called the Guitar Series. How many works are in the series?

So far it’s been 3 works :

-       Untitled (Babies) : it’s the first work of the series.It came about in 2008 in the form of a video and then turned into a live performance. It’s a work where I perform with a band and I sing a cover version of the song “Babies” by Pulp. I sing and play the guitar and during the height of the song, I take my guitar off and try to break it. I go on and on trying to break it but not succeeding. Eventually it turns from a catharsis moment, one gesture act, to a durational exhaustion act, where I try to break the guitar over and over again until the stage underneath me starts to break and not the guitar. I usually tell the band to improvise until I drop. And every time it turns into an extreme performance of exhaustion. But usually at the end of it, the stage is completely destroyed. There’s a hole underneath me, and the guitar is intact.

I have been doing this since 2010 and still with the same guitar.

Untitled (Babies) by Naama Tsabar Live at Art Basel Miami 2010
Performed at the exhibition Paul Thek Says Make A Monkey Out Of Clay, Curated by Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Band: Alanna Nuala, Christy Edwards, FonLin Nyeu, Naama Tsabar

The second work is called "Doublesilverburst". For this work, I fused a left handed and a right handed guitar together at the head (headstock) to create a single instrument. So they are arched.

For that specific work we did play a song (at least tried to play a song), “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (the riff) by the Beatles (The Breeders also made a nice cover of this song). But what happens is that both guitars share the same tuners, when you tune one guitar, the other guitar goes out of tune. It’s always a negotiation about being able or not being able to tune them both correctly. So we tried to play this riff on the guitars and of course failed miserably. We played it correctly but it sounded bad because always one guitar is out of tunes.

Video : Performance by Naama Tsabar and Kristin Mueller on Doublesilverburst at PS1/MoMA, NY Camera: Rodrigo Ribeiro    


The last work of the Guitar Series is the one I described earlier "Untitled (Double Face)" which has no back to it, it’s two people facing each other.

I mentioned two songs that are references for my work; “Babies” by Pulp, which I was interested in at the time because of the lyrical, very adolescent, reversible', the place of the boy, with the woman. So it has a gender reversible, that almost makes it like drag.

And then for the other one “Happiness is a Warm Gun” it’s the idea about this balance.

But it’s not like these works were made from these songs. The songs are just embedded in them and are part of the work. And for me I think, the specific nature of going back to the electric guitar is that it is such an iconic instrument within a specific genre of music. I have been playing it for many years and I have this intimate relationship with the object. I can rethink its place.

Is this the reason why you use a lot of strings in your sculptural work? Are they guitar strings?

No, not for me. Everybody calls it “Big Guitar” but first of all it’s piano strings. There’s a vast history of art and experimental music and more minimalist music of playing the inside of a piano for example. It’s actually referencing to a different source than guitar.

If you take a string and pull it from A to B, then you have an instrument right?! It’s so primitive in one way and also everybody can create an instrument, it’s so easy.

Have you ever created works using drums?

Boîte en-Valise,” 1961, box by Marcel Duchamp containing miniature reproductions of his work.

Yes, one of my earliest work from 2006 is a "Twilight (Drum Case)". It’s the first work I did with drums. And it actually didn’t come from the drums specifically. It came from this idea of the case (like a guitar case) where you put your instrument and then you go to the gig. Also if you think of Duchamp's "La Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase)" where he put his mini works that he traveled with, like a traveling museum (see on the right).

I was interested in this idea of the travelling with this object. And I did this paradoxal movement where I said to myself “Oh what if I build a case for a drum, which is not the way that drum cases are built right now, it would be one case, that holds the whole drum kit.". And so I did it, and of course it’s impossible. Incasing a whole drum set into an instrument case extended the case to such a size that it rendered it unusable, transforming it into a giant stage, substituting a backstage functionality with a performative, front-stage one.

Twilight (Drum Case), 2006
Mixed media with drum kit and glass, 2.3' x 9.8' x 19' (Exhibited at Herzliya Museum of Art and Art Focus 5, curated by Ami Barak and Bernard Blistene)

The super functional movement of trying to make it easy to carry around actually defeats its own purpose and it become so big that when you open it, it can be a stage. And that’s how I presented the drums, on the open side the drums are ready to be played on. 

I think that it is interesting that there are some instruments that are objects and some instruments that are places. A guitar is an object, violin is an object, something that you hold and moves with your body. And there are instruments that are places, a drum kit is a place, a grand piano is a place. You sit in front of it and you insert your body into it. You move with it, it doesn't move with you.

Another project I did using drums was in 2014 for Frieze Project NY, a piece called “Without”. Frieze Project NY takes place on Randall Island, it’s an art fair but also commissions project every year.



For my project they gave me a booth inside the art fair. What I did was, take the floor that they gave me and cut it out taking it outside of the fair. Leaving a hole in the fair where you can see the grass of the park (the grass underneath the fair). I am just exposing it.

Outside of the fair, and out of the fair context, the floor looks exactly like a stage (scaffoldings and boards). I put it outside of the fair, next to the entrance and I co-curated a music festival on it to coincide with the fair. And for a music festival you need some content right?! I was thinking, what is the right content to bring on? And then I decided to collaborate with my very good friend (an amazing creative person) Mindy Abovitz. Mindy is the founder of Tom Tom Magazine, the only magazine in the world that's dedicated to female drummers. A magazine that only covers female drummers and beat makers.



The whole festival was circulating around the idea that each band had to have a female beat maker. With that in mind it was a way for me to insert a feminist statement through the drums. When you decide that a festival will only be circulating around female drummers and beat makers it shifts the percentage of musicians genderly. It was about 80% female musicians. Rather than the regular percentage which would be 15% maybe. So that’s a completely different use of the drums to inform a more political gender statement.

Images by Timothy Schenck. 

Images by Timothy Schenck. 

Have you ever created a project that would also use percussion or drums as a sculpture where people can activate the object? (like "Closer")

Not yet, who knows (laughs). For a lot of the works I use a piezo mic so if you talk to the mic it would not pick you up but if you put it on a table and touch the table it would pick up the vibration through the material.

On the "Felts" for example, when we perform on them, or the viewers if they touch the surface, you can hear it. So within that there are then percussive elements. There is usually in our "Felts" band at least one person that is the percussive felt (usually a drummer, because I work a lot with drummers) and they hold the beat.

Do you play the drums?

Me? I am a really bad drummer… I don’t… Well I am getting better but one of my weaknesses is to keep a beat. I would not recommend to make me playing drums.

We’ve talked about it through the interview, but let’s come back to your musical inspirations. What would you be your favorite song/album of the moment.

I’ve been listening a lot to an Israeli band from the 90’s called Carmela Gross and Wagner but I am also listening to the last Perfume Genius album “No Shape”.

Things I have been listening to recently :

Tank and the Bangas
Carmela Gross and Wagner
Perfume Genius
Holly Herndon
Nina Simone
John Cale
Kate Bush

I have been doing a lot of researches around New Orleans' music. There are some really good bands there like Tank and the Bangas.

Why New Orleans' music? 

I am taking part in Prospect New Orleans (a citywide triennial of contemporary art that happens in New Orleans). It is the 4th edition. It started after Katrina as a way to bring in art tourism to help restore the city that was so devastated after the hurricane.


PNO are commissioning a new “Composition” piece from me. My “Composition” works are strictly performative works. It’s my only work that’s not object based. The first one I did was in 2006 at the Herzliya Museum of Art. It was “Composition 24” (Composition and a number, that is always the work and the number of musicians that take part to the performance). The core idea behind these works is visual, the image of the musicians standing on their amplifier while playing their instruments. So the amplifier doubles both of the pedestal and the sound source. 

Video : Naama Tsabar "Composition 20," for her performance on the High Line in June 2016.

Composition 20, 2016
Performance with 20 musicians, 20 amplifiers, and 3 songs. Curated by Cecilia Alemani and presented by High Line Art.
Photo Credit: Liz Ligon

I did "Composition 20" at the High Line in New York and "Composition 18" in Miami Basel, last December.

For the new"Composition" piece for PNO. I will commission around three new songs from local musicians. I give them the musical structure so it’s the same four cords, musical scale, and BPM (beats per minute). However, they can write whatever song they want in whatever langage they want. I usually receive three very different songs back.

This "Composition" is a field of musicians standing on their amplifier while playing it. The musicians are broken up into 3 or 4 different bands. Each band plays one commissioned song. At a certain point everybody plays their songs simultaneously. Due to the songs structural resemblance, a dense - yet not entirely - cacophonous musical field will be composed. It’s like a live mix as you walk through this field. As a viewer you are taking apart songs and putting them back together through your movement in this field.



The source of sound and the action creating it are in the same place. So basically it undermines this idea of a show where the sound goes through a mixer then to a PA and then it comes out perfectly mixed through a certain set of speakers. In "Composition" it’s rather a field, (again) this idea of creating this place where you walk through it. You literally walk through the songs.

How many musicians will you commission for PNO?

We don’t know yet for sure, but it’ will be around 22 and 28. And it’s only going to be female musicians. 

When is it? 

November 16th or 17th (opening weekend) – in an outside space.

Cool MoW might be there as well! 

Yes I think it's a great time to be in New Orleans. 

A – Because it’ll be full of art
B – New Orleans is always full of music – It’s an inspiring place. Like nothing else in the USA, it's so rich with music, it’s crazy.

Will you be taking part in the performance? 

I will be there, I will be the "conductor”.

After Seattle, what are your plans? 

After Seattle I go back to New York. I have a couple of interesting things coming up. I currently have a show at Paul Kasmin Gallery “Transboundary” that runs till August 18th. And after that, in September, I have a solo show opening at The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). There I’ll present a remaking of my project installation called “Propagation Opus 3”. A work I did for the first time in El Salvador in 2015. It’s a space specific installation on the wall that takes all the functional elements from a sound system, a PA system but also from musical instruments and brings them onto the wall as visual composition while still keeping the whole wall functional.


The bottom part of the wall is a string instrument with 60 strings. Around it you see all these cables that draw lines on the wall. Those are cables that are transmitting all the sonic datas into speakers and mixers and then running them up to the upper part of the wall to a set of inverted speakers. Speakers that are facing the inside of the wall and throwing all the sound inside the wall.

Photos by Rodrigo Dada

Photos by Rodrigo Dada

Photos by Rodrigo Dada

Photos by Rodrigo Dada

So from one place at the bottom of the wall the sound comes up. Then it's been thrown into the architecture, what you hear as a a viewer is the sound after it’s been diluted by the architecture. It’s the sound that propagates beyond or through the architecture.

This installation is going to be in the The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), opening on September 13th. I am very excited about that project. I am also taking part of something I am also very excited about, Basilica Soundscape which is a music festival, in Hudson NY (September 15 – 17, 2017). It’s a great festival that brings together great contemporary musicians and then some visual art. I think there will be three visual artists involved and I am one of them. And a few writers and poets. The heart of the festival is music but there will be a lot around it.

For Basilica Soundscape I am going to be performing "Untitled" (Double Face), this double guitar piece. And this time, I will be performing it on the floor! So this is going to be very interesting. We’ll see how that goes! (Laughs).

Have you made some trials already?

I have never performed it in a music festival. So we’ll see, it’s a new experience and I am very excited about that.