Echoes & Reverberations
Soundscapes: Taking Apart the Arab City by Dr. Alexandra MacGilp
Soundscapes: Taking Apart the Arab City
Dr. Alexandra MacGilp, Curator, Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah
I don't decide to represent anything except myself. But this self is full of collective memory.
– Mahmoud Darwish
I like the notion that we are all repositories of collective memory. Empty us out and you would find pictures of the places we have lived and, before that, the places our parents and grandparents called home. You might press an imaginary play button and hear audio recordings of all the songs we ever listened to and the sounds of all the streets we had walked and the apartment blocks we had inhabited. We might hear the songs our mothers used to sing us to sleep with; the tunes our best friends at school introduced us to excitedly; the tracks played on repeat in the nextdoor café; the news headlines repeated endlessly in the background at meals. We could compare our 'most played' tracks with those of others or create complex ambient soundscapes, as some of the artists in Echoes and Reverberations have done.
Reverberation, (noun): a sound that lasts for a long time, and makes things seem to shake.
Reverberations, (noun plural): effects that spread and affect a lot of people.
This exhibition considers listening as a performative act and the role of sound in the documentation of history through oral traditions, music and ambient noise.
In his installation Sound Cells (Fridays) (2010), Magdi Mostafa creates a sound installation evoking powerful, consuming memories of Friday mornings in a Cairo neighbourhood. He captures this particular moment in time and space by considering the washing machines that always vibrate and hum whilst the Friday sermon is broadcast through scratchy speakers to the thousands of people who live within a one-kilometre radius of the mosque in this densely packed city. Mostafa carefully selected the archaic-looking models for his installation: an orchestra whose rumblings are captured by microphones as a wall of speakers play the archive of field recordings of sermons Mostafa has collected, turned to the wall to mimic the poor sound quality of the originals. The work carries a tapestry of resonances. It tells of the economy of the area: the cheap technology of the speakers and machines. It probes strictly enforced gender roles in Egypt, and beyond. While the men go to the mosque for Friday prayers on their day off from work, women continue to labour, unremunerated, at home. In one sermon, women are described as vessels for procreation, like the spinning machines; just a background hum in society, expected to fill a limited biological function. Here, women's bodies become a battleground for forces of conservatism and 'progress'. Globalization means consumer goods are available worldwide and capitalism is predicated on planned obsolescence: the need to replace and update appliances regularly. Another irony is this: as women are freed from backbreaking domestic chores by technology, they are still expected to labour both inside and outside the home.
Yet, Sound Cells also speaks of the safety of a shared space of solidarity: a unifying experience shared by a whole neighbourhood. Mostafa is fascinated by the phenomenological experience of the individual in the city and how sounds trigger personal and cultural memories. His work forces background noise into the foreground, insisting on his viewer's attention by capitalizing on the way rumbling machines and microphone sounds vibrate through our body with intense low frequencies.
Like Mostafa, Joe Namy listens to the streets and examines the acoustic fingerprint of a site, likewise investigating the relationship between technology and gender in the process. A 'sonic landmark', he has noted in Beirut, are car sound systems, which he considers in Automobile (2012–2014). In this work car owners bring their customized vehicles to a location and play processed field recordings of synth tunes from their super-modified stereos and the audience dances. The works were inspired by evening walks along the corniche where cars with souped-up stereos pass by frequently. They belong to a particular kind of young man. They are 'hacked' or appropriated and become tools of expression and escape; a way to assert the power that lacks in other areas of life, especially if you are single in Beirut, live with your parents, have a dead end job and no hope for the future under the current government. But if you invest time and resources in your stereo you can feel in control. But this is not a localized phenomenon: it is a tendency worldwide for young men in urban settings, and Namy has taken his performance to Abu Dhabi and Manheim. In doing so, he explores how global consumerism has spread the same technologies, such as cars and giant speaker systems, around the world but they always become uniquely integrated into a culture. This is further explored in another evolving performance and installation, Half Step (2013–2014), presented at Art Dubai and Maraya Art Park. In this work, Namy brings together two seemingly opposed dance forms: traditional Emirati folk dance and breakdance. The breakdancers perform on a specially-designed dance floor to the accompaniment of the folk musicians playing traditional rhythms from the Gulf. He juxtaposes the static nature of folkdance, which preserves the memory of what has happened over hundreds of years with breakdance, which is concerned with innovation and improvization. Unexpectedly, however, both share a basic step pattern known as a two-step shuffle.
Anas Al-Shaikh also works with folk culture from the Gulf and reinterprets it in response to the contemporary condition. He takes the traditional 'Al-Efjiri' sea songs of the pearl divers of the Gulf to stand for the common history and cultural heritage of his native Bahrain. In his video work My land, 2 (2009), the artist films his own naked torso from behind as he slaps his face to the rhythm of a diving song; his country's flag flying on his right hand side. This work harnesses a collective folk memory in a plea for unity and resistance to sectarian division and political violence. Pearl-diving songs express shared sorrow, pain and suffering but also love and endurance, to encourage divers to work as one and overcome hardships together.
Consider here Concrete Sampling (Arrangement for derbekah and jackhammer) (2014), a performance work by Ilaria Lupo and Joe Namy produced with a crew of Syrian builders in their work place. This was a construction site in Downtown Beirut, where the team also lived. The work was conceived as an interference in the urban soundscape, as a set up of a new rhythm within the existing one. The proliferation of construction sites in Beirut has become another ubiquitous 'sound-landmark'. The artists spent two months working with the crew, rehearsing new ways of creating sounds using their daily working tools. The sounds and rhythms of the site, collected over several months, served as a base material for the actual performance, which explores the acoustic potential of space. The final performance was a sound composition with processed samples culled from the research database, infused with live improvization using tools and musical instruments by the workers.
The title of the work positions relationship between two seemingly distant instruments, the 'derbekah' and the 'jackhammer', but there is a great deal of similarity between these sounds machines. Sounds from labour have always influenced contemporary music. We can trace it back to early forms of folk music in Lebanon and the Levant that are still popular today, debkah or shaabi music came out of farming rituals using natural instruments, but today has become completely synthesized. In work songs, the repetition of a rhythm, with a hammer or a foot stomp, is as much a way of both marking time and disguising it. It frees the workers from the clock by making their own internal beat, which operates on a different time scale. For these Syrian workers music is a passion, a channel to reconnect with their war-torn homeland and a communal activity. Their musical knowledge is rooted in their cultural belonging, where informal participatory musical training occurs on a daily basis, such as understanding popular rhythms, clapping patterns and call and response.
Indeed, in the contemporary 'Middle East' where several conflicts are ongoing and there are many dislocated people who have left their homelands, such as Syria, Palesine and Iraq, there is a sadness and nostalgia for the past, which can manifest musically and politically. For older generations, nostalgia can take the form of a yearning for the golden era of the dream of pan-Arab unity and culture – the 1960s. Samah Hijawi's work explores this longing through the iconic Egyptians Umm Kulthum and Nasser. Nasser, president of Egypt from 1956–70, remains a celebrated but controversial figure and a symbol of Arab dignity to the present day. Internationally, he was president of the non-aligned movement, fought against imperialism and promoted pan-Arab unity. At home, he introduced socialist and modernizing reforms and presided over a cultural boom.
Nasser is still a hero for the generation of Hijawi's parents', even if her contemporaries are more sceptical. She wants to reconsider this moment of optimism in the 1960s, which resonated so intensely for her elders despite its brevity. Hijawi wanted to know how Nasser's ideas stand up in today's world. In Where Are the Arabs? (2009) she performed edited extracts from his speeches in three public spaces in Amman, a vegetable market, a sweet shop and the street, and also in Ramallah. She also invited eight individuals with a variety of backgrounds to read the text for the video work Arab Unity Chorale (2009). The speeches she used were widely known in the Arab world and included calls for will power, independence, unity, equality and solidarity; resistance to sectarianism, colonialization oppression, tyranny and occupation; defence of freedom and justice. These aims are still laudable today. The work also highlights the battle political leaders face to appear credible today when addressing the public, which is fought entirely in the 24-hour cycle of the media spotlight.
Seemingly obeying assigned gender roles, while Nasser was an agent of political change, Kulthum safeguarded culture and tradition. Kulthum, an apparently conservative figure, in fact started her career disguised as a male and was a pioneer as a high-profile female vocalist. The durations of her songs were not fixed in performance but varied based on the level of emotive response between the singer and her audience and her own mood for creativity. This improvisary technique, typical of classical Arabic singing, repeats a line over and over again, subtly altering the emotive emphasis and intensity. This spontaneity and her intense personal relationship with the audience, whom she would bring into a euphoric state of tarab, ensured Kulthum's immense popularity. It was also bound up in media technology developments: in 1934 she sung for the first broadcast of Radio Cairo. Her concerts were broadcast live on the first Thursday of each month during the season and were famed for clearing the streets as people rushed home to listen. Such collective experiences are rare now except in times of crisis. The memory of Kulthum is so strong that you could walk from shop to coffee house to street to car and hear the same song from every radio, tuned into the same station, which promoted a feeling of togetherness and unity like listening to Friday prayers. The radio took on the role of transmitting and preserving culture.
Hijawi's new project The Wandering Singer of Tales is an exploration of the aesthetics of loss and the images that are built of a place and a time that is remembered primarily via fragile narratives, utopic images and nostalgic songs. A folk singer is a repository for memories of the homeland. Located in political and artistic histories around Palestine, this work questions the temporality of images reproduced of lost places and how these function in the present following a century of a ruptured historical trajectory of dislocation, trauma and exile. Hijawi's work centres on the fictional singer Layla for whose biography Hijawi draws on the singing stars Kulthum and the Syrian Asmahan, a skilled and prolific orator whose speeches were broadcast throughout the Arab world on the radio, often after Kulthum's concerts. Radio was very important with a population with low literacy rates and also an intimate way of communicating one's ideas.
Echo, (noun): a sound that is heard after it has been reflected off a surface such as a wall or a cliff.
Echo, (noun): a detail that is similar to and makes you remember something else.
In the 'West', the act of looking has dominated the discourse of how we experience the world. An inherent distrust of visual images is found in the works of Hijawi, Basma Alsharif and Jumana Emil Abboud who wrestle with the Palestinian condition. They deconstruct the means by which it is represented and use archival source material to create their own idiosyncratic visual languages, in a post-documentary imaginary.
Hiajwi's collage series Paradise Series (2013) is a meditation on the aesthetics of image-making and oral descriptions of the homeland following trauma and displacement. She subverts oral descriptions of Palestine as 'paradise' with friezes of black and white family photographs juxtaposed with lurid flowers cut from magazines. She seeks to replace the overused images of olive trees and keys used to keep memory alive by those displaced.
Basma Alsharif's poetic video We Began By Measuring Distance (2009) opens with the heart-rending sound of a little girl's screams. It is the audio footage of Huda Ghalia just after her family were killed in front of her by an explosion on a beach in Gaza in 2006. Sharif does not show the accompanying image, much circulated at the time, which makes the video the more chilling. The work starts with this absence as the visual fails to truly represent the tragic. An elliptical narrative unfolds. Unnamed characters decide on a game of measuring distance to alleviate their boredom but the distances between cities, appearing on a white sheet held in a green landscape, which doubles for the screen, morph into the dates of critical events in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We are shown a virgin forest and told newly dead trees can retain the impression of life for a period of time. A platitude appears: Rome was not built in a day. Images become more abstract and we are inside an aquarium. The fish become stuck in time, as does the record playing; significantly it is 'Fortune Teller' by Abdel Halim Hafez. The work ends with ambiguous footage of women running in slow motion towards the camera and the thought 'after some time we began to have the distinct feeling we had been lied to'.
Palestinian folktales play a powerful role in the politics of identity. Abboud uses them to trace and re-envision cultural oral histories and collective memories. She draws on Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana's important book Speak Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales (1989) for which the authors transcribed and translated stories told to them by Palestinian women over many years. Inspired by the iconography impregnated in these tales, Abboud's current project reintroduces the mystical world where magical beings and bodies exist among us. Her work for Art Dubai A Happy Ending: Eyes Trapped in Jars, Dwellers in the Well: Glossary for a Happy Ending: bodies and beings from magical Palestine, (2015) consisted of an installation, performance and an artist's book of poems and drawings of a glossary of magical objects and beings. For the performance, Abboud worked with theatre students to tell the stories she has collected, combined with contemporary stories from their own lives to the fair visitors. Investigations of family and marital relationships are at the core of the tales.
Before radio these stories served as entertainment but also offered warnings, advice, therapy and opportunities for bonding, fantasy and rebellion. Tales could incorporate improvization, melding the individual with the collective. Crucially these cultural texts were not written down but learned by heart, passed on via an intimate process of repetition learning with an elder. Abboud, alongside the other artists in Echoes and Reverberations, provides a rich examination of the ways personal and collective history is told and retold through cultural ritual or practice and how it imposes on contemporary life.
Poetry is central to Arab cultural life and was primarily an oral tradition during the nomadic days of the Bedouins, a form of preservation of history, traditions and social values. People would gather around a story teller who would tell tales of love, bravery and war. There is an intimacy and immediacy to oral culture, it is harder to keep our guard up when speaking than when writing. Our evolving methods of recording speech, music and movement speak of the eternal desire to communicate cultural heritage to future generations. The artists in the exhibition are interested in the passage of time and the formation of identity and memory; the crossroads where the present meets history and mythology. They also want to disrupt and flip the mundane and create new ways of listening. With the spread of every new technology comes fears of how it will change us for the worse, dating back to Socrates who thought that the use of writing would damage our memory ability. But the 'virtual' world is as tangible as the 'real' world. Migration, globalization and digitization are to be dealt with, not judged.
Music and rituals remake and strengthen social bonds and reinforce a connection with 'home'. Throughout history musical influences have permeated national borders, allowing cultures to seep into each other and this has accelerated with the advent of YouTube. Sound can become a space of nostalgia and belonging, where private meets public and city-dwellers can weave their character into the urban fabric. Present and past meet aurally; a snatch of a tune or a once familiar sound can trigger a memory. Singers have long occupied a high status in society in many cultures but they are also often the first to be attacked by totalitarian regimes, due to the dangerous influence they wield. Singers can be impossibly idealized or highjacked for political purposes ranging from the therapeutic to the retrogressive. Although the oral can seem more 'honest' than the visual and textual, it can also manipulate the emotions. Oral culture can offer reassurance; the shared experience of religion, music and ritual make us feel we are not alone and helps us endure through times of hardship and celebrate in times of joy. But it can be restrictive when used by nationalists, for example, and folk traditions of so-called 'honour' have hugely negative impacts on women's lives.
In the exhibition and performance programme, the artists take apart the sounds of the Arab city – be they washing machines, Friday sermons, music on the radio, fairy stories, political speech or car stereos – they think about what the sounds evoke and communicate. They make us conscious of what we might overlook, or rather 'over-listen', and bring the background hum of the past and the present into the foreground. Today, the collective aural experience is more fragmented, overridden by digital TV and iPods that cocoon us from the city. The artists in this exhibition play with sound's powerful ability to reconstruct past experiences and personal or shared memory. They use it as a tool to navigate the rapid transformations of their urban surroundings and map the affects of globalization on local traditions and the experience of the individual in the city.
Dr. Alexandra MacGilp is the Curator of the Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah, UAE. She studied curating at the Royal College of Art and undertook her Ph.D. at the University of Reading in collaboration with Tate Britain, writing on the development of Tate’s Collection. She is interested in film, video, performance and installation practices and archive materials.