Echoes & Reverberations
Echoes & Reverberations: Curator's Introduction
Aaron Cezar, Director, Delfina Foundation, and Cliff Lauson, Curator, Hayward Gallery
Echoes & Reverberations is an exhibition that launches Staging Histories: Delfina Foundation's long-term project to document the history of performance art from and in relation to the Arab region through archival research and new commissions. Specifically, Echoes & Reverberations explores sound as a medium for performing history and listening as a performative act. Through the work of six artists, Jumana Emil Abboud, Basma Alsharif, Samah Hijawi, Anas Al-Shaikh, Magdi Mostafa and Joe Namy, this group exhibition considers the role of sound in the recording and rewriting of history through oral storytelling, music and field recordings. Yet, none of the artworks in the exhibition fit within the medium-specific definition of sound art. Instead, sound plays a complementary role in these works, making reference to places, cultures or traditions in combination with, or acting as a foil to, the visual. Sound generates the meaning of the works, somewhere between foreground (as specific as words, accents or intonations) and background (as environmental or unresolvable noise).
In this frame, aural culture enacts shared histories and individual narratives, something this exhibition conjures and challenges through the invocation of cultural memory through oral traditions. After all, the oral tradition is by nature also aural, as sounds transmit stories from the performer to the listener. An echo is an aural representation of the past that repeats back to us, bringing with it a host of potential inaccuracies. A reverberation, on the other hand, is an immediate experience of the present. Oral histories sit between the two, in a push and pull of time. In the western world, however, the act of looking has dominated the discourse of how we experience and describe the world, through both imagery and the written word. Engaging with the role played by other senses opens up a host of new narratives and perspectives. As such, this exhibition elevates the status of the aural to that of the visual as a significant narrative form of exchange: one that is embodied for both performer and listener.
In My land, 2 (2009), for instance, Anas Al-Shaikh uses a Bahraini song, traditionally sung by pearl divers before they embark on precarious trips out to sea, to highlight how sound constructs collective memories and social cohesion. In his two-channel video, the artist isolates the rhythm of the song with sharp slaps to his face, making the beat a tactile bodily experience, while generating a nostalgia for the more unified communities of the past in the light of contemporary sectarianism. Jumana Emil Abboud also engages in tracing and re-enacting aural histories and identity politics through Palestinian folk and fairy tales. In A Happy Ending part II: Two Skins (2015), commissioned especially for Echoes & Reverberations, Abboud creates drawings and handcrafted objects inspired by the iconography present within these imaginary tales. The objects stem from Glossary for a happy ending: bodies and beings from magical Palestine (2015), a publication produced previously by the artist. The idea of performance, in particular traditional ceremony, is integral to the installation. On 18 July, Abboud will animate the objects through a vocal performance at the Southbank Centre. After the event, she will distribute smaller versions of the talismans that have been ceremoniously wrapped, the objects becoming vessels for personal narratives. As these items are passed from hand to hand the stories travel with them.
Oral traditions are also explored in Samah Hijawi's Paradise Series (2013), which critique stereotypical descriptions of Palestine as paradise. Appropriating imagery from paintings by Palestinian artists, she composes landscapes of family photos and magazine cut-outs that juxtapose a utopian ideal with the reality of trauma and dislocation. In the newly commissioned audio accompaniment to the collages, the artist narrates the images and ruminates on the subject of time and memory. Similarly, Hijawi's lecture-performance extends her examination of the narrative form through a story told by a fictive character, a singer called Layla, with fragments of photography and painting.
Basma Alsharif's film work provides insight into how sound operates in relationship to text and image. We Began by Measuring Distance (2009) is a tightly composed montage combining these three elements. The hollow sound of wind reverberates throughout the work, as the narrator describes different forms of measurement that can be undertaken. These begin as mundane and become increasingly politicized as the film progresses, questioning the open borders between the personal and the political. The final section of the film uses images of people running and screaming juxtaposed with the sound of popular music, emphasizing their voicelessness. Slowly, as the cacophony of collective panic become audible, sound plays a key role in articulating tragedy.
Yet, though the body is the locus of the experience of sound, the relationship between sound and the body is not solitary. There is an inherent collectivity embedded into the act of listening. Sound cannot be isolated easily. It is messy, it leaks; it has scant regard for personal space. As a result, it can be utilized as a force to bring people together. Joe Namy's newly commissioned performance space, breath, time (2015) does this in both its form and context. His interest in droning, environmental sounds is focused here on the harmonium – a bellows-operated reed instrument that is fundamental to many genres of South Asian music. Introduced to India by European powers, the instrument has an extremely charged history in relation to colonialism and migration. For the performance that forms a part of Namy's work, a group of harmonium players collectively play an interpretation of a text-based score written by the artist. Namy's soundscape will spread across the large atrium of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in a bid to draw audience members towards the harmonium players so that they might encounter the individual sonic resonances that exist within the unified whole.
At this point, it is crucial that we acknowledge the potential of sound as an embodied experience, which is closely related to the performativity of politics. As this exhibition proposes, we do not need to produce sound to be a part of this collective experience. This is echoed in the installation by Magdi Mostafa, whose work Wisdom Tower (2009–2012, from his series Sound Cells) presents a blend of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, with a Friday sermon. Recorded in the Ardellewa neighbourhood in Cairo, such sounds permeate both public and private space, drawing people together. The sculptural aspect of Mostafa's pair of freestanding screens recalls the partitions inside a mosque, creating the feeling of intimate space that is countered by an array of 84 speakers that reference the broadcast nature of communal worship. On the second screen, Mostafa displays a translation of the sermon, which – unusually for an Islamic sermon in the context of this conservative neighbourhood – focuses on gender, biology and reproduction. In Mostafa's work, sound is at once intimately personal and politically voluminous.
In coming back to the broader project of Staging Histories, Echoes & Reverberations represents a starting point from which to consider a framework for exploring performance beyond the confines of medium-specificity. It is an approach to listening as a performative act in its own right, in which the aural is used to configure physical and psychic space in different but equally compelling ways. Each of the works in Echoes & Reverberations speaks in some way to notions of the body politic. An individual who creates and hears sound and communicates in both verbal and aural capacities is not only a single body, but also part of a collective unit. This perspective allows for the required expansion of definitions around performance from, and related to, the complex geo-political spectra of societies, beliefs and cultures that constitute the so-called 'Arab region'.
 The genre of sound art is generally understood to have emerged from the experimental music scenes in America in the 1960s and Europe through the 1970s.
 M. Bull and L. Back, eds., The Auditory Culture Reader (Berg: Oxford and New York, 2003), p. 6.