The Endurance of the Impalpable and Other Concerns: A Sound Artist’s Story

Spring 2013 | ArteZine

The Endurance of the Impalpable and Other Concerns: A Sound Artist’s Story


It is not common to find articles written by artists from somewhere such as Bahrain about the woes of their profession. Such articles are a particular novelty when the artist’s chosen field is not prevalent in his or her country or region to begin with. Although this article alludes to my personal experiences as a sound artist from Bahrain concerned about the development of his own creative practice and career, it is my hope that readers could extract some universal truths about sound art and other “impalpable” art forms. I also am particularly interested in highlighting the challenges emerging artists in such fields encounter on a more pragmatic level while trying to make a profession of their activity.

Listen to A New River

One of the most interesting issues a sound artist tackles is bound within the very nature of her/his craft: a vague art form defined as a creative process, typically a performance or installation-based work with sound as its core medium. Fleeting, temporary sound is hardly something that seems to fit the mould of what the more “traditional” art collectors are after. This is understandable: us sound artists present something that is predominantly (physically) impalpable, (physically) impermanent, and (physically) invisible. It is quite taxing to imagine how such an art form would be “collected” (I am also assuming that art collectors logically acquire art works because they see them as an investment which would yield higher returns in the future).

This being said, sound art is an important art form that not only contributes to the contemporary art canon, but may be argued as a form that champions the purest essence of what contemporary art has to offer: the concept. Although this “concept” gives sound art practice its legs, I imagine that the emergence of sound art and the attempt to somehow collect it, reflects an interesting dynamic of change. Art spaces and art museums have shifted from displaying conventional works (e.g. painting, sculptures) to being spaces that foster intellectual discourse and debate.

This is clearly economic because performances, panel discussions or popup experiences bring a gust of traffic to the site; it’s no longer about the exhibition night opening. Naturally, this vision is reflected in that of the patrons of these important sites and contemporary art collectors. This might even be seen as a parallel to the dimensionalization of the curator as someone that facilitates methods for intellectual discourse and debate.

The bulk of my musical training is in the oud (one of the Middle East’s more iconic musical instruments) under Iraqi oud virtuoso Saad Mahmoud Jawad. Some of the art residencies I participated in include the Red Bull Music Academy in London (2010), the Instrument Lab Residency at Steim (STudio for Electro Instrumental Music) in Amsterdam (2012), and “Art Major Faculty Explore K-Arts” at the Korean National University of Arts in Seoul, South Korea (2012). As of February 2013, I am based in Seoul, South Korea as a doctorate student in Seoul National University’s College of Music, majoring in Music Composition in the Department of Korean Traditional Music.

Listen to Korea Experience (Set)

Limen for Three Kayageums, One Voice, and One Pak. Composed by Hasan Hujairi, Performed by Aura Ensemble. Seoul, South Korea. December 28, 2012.

While living in Tokyo between 2005 and 2009, I became active as a musician and collaborated with several artists there. Most of these collaborations were extremely meaningful to my own development, while one (negative) collaborative experience in particular brought to my attention how my personal interests at the time in Post-Modern and Post-Colonial theory would transform my approach to performing music on oud to audiences that saw it as an “exotic” or “Oriental” instrument. It was also in Tokyo that I started developing a serious interest in electronic music techniques as a way to add extensions to my performances in an exciting and accessible way. It was during my tenure at the University of Exeter that I encountered sound art from the standpoint of developing installations and DIY interactive media art techniques. There in Exeter I was also accepted into the Music Scholars program in which I received one-on-one mentoring in new music composition from a local composer in Exeter, which was also an important experience to me.

However, the final push I received to pursue sound art was at Al-Riwaq Art Space in Bahrain, which I found to be an environment that encouraged my interest in sound art, both in its performance-driven and installation-based forms. It was through my experience at Al-Riwaq Art Space in Bahrain that I became more aware of the contemporary art scene in the Middle East, and even had the opportunity to collaborate with different visiting artists such as Wael Shawky on Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo. At Al-Riwaq, I was also involved to a small extent in curating some of the events and exhibitions taking place there, which also enriched my own personal development. Essentially, I can say that my experience at Al-Riwaq Art Space informed my sound art practice both conceptually and practically. The “conceptual” side of my development was surprisingly the result of interacting with all the visiting resident artists. Despite the lack of formal academic resources in Bahrain to learn about contemporary art, I found that my personal communications with different international artists, curators, and other important players in the culture and contemporary art world to be of extreme influence on my development. Upon reflection, this could be one of the benefits of being part of an institute that hosts artists in residence – that of learning from others more established in their practice. As for the “practical” side of my development, and this is also important (albeit less exciting to audiences to learn of), I believe that through the various discussions and observations I made while at Al-Riwaq Art Space, I found direction when it comes to creating a career out of sound art. This was quite a discovery for me as I gradually transformed from a musician whose only outlet was the tried-and-true formula for “musicians” (i.e., recording albums and promoting them through live performance) to a sound artist whose arena for outlet was much more shifting and playful. All in all, it has been an extremely transformative experience and I am glad to have had the pleasure of being part of the Al-Riwaq Art Space family while I was still based in Bahrain.

As for my research activities – which cover different issues such as Ethnomusicology, Electroacoustic music practice, Historiography, Post-Colonialism, and Post-Modernism – I must say that the focus was spread between academic audiences and audiences interested in contemporary art in the Middle East. The different academic papers I presented over the past few years reflect my own process of development in sound art. Since 2011, I have been particularly focused on developing a work-in-process idea I call Post-Esoteric (Oriental) Art Music, which I present as a manifesto made up of three points.

This manifesto reflects my findings on the need for Middle Eastern art music practice to develop intellectually (just as contemporary art practice in the Middle East has). Although this argument may be flawed for echoing some social evolutionist connotations, I strongly believe that a cerebral approach to art music that completely revises its relationship with “tradition” would be a good point from which to commence.

I have now arrived back at where this article started: the centrality of “concepts” to the work of us sounds artists.

A Brief History of Pearl Diving. Elham Arts Festival, May 2010.

In reference to how sound art, in my experience, has been accepted in a place such as Bahrain, I have the following to say: On several occasions, I was told that my performances are too “abstract” for audiences in Bahrain, that I needed to go back to playing something they understood, something not too “intellectually challenging”, and that I should think about playing music that everyone knew, maybe even occasionally playing popular songs such as songs by Arab popular culture icon Fairouz or the likes. I used to react with something akin to Milan Kundera’s litost to those requests, but have learned to over time take it with a grain of salt. My favourite stories are of me being (not so politely) asked to leave the stage in the middle of a performance. I know that it is strange for an artist to publicly talk about failures, but I think that there is a moral to the story (as much as I dislike talking about morals to begin with).

As it goes, I was once invited to perform on a stage placed in the garden of an upscale restaurant in Bahrain. This restaurant was keen on being part of an art festival that took place in 2012. The restaurant promoted itself as being interested in supporting “young” and “local” art talents in Bahrain. The restaurant even went as far as hosting weekly open-air performances, while its patrons had dinner in the outdoor seating area. My performance was to be the final performance of that art festival, and I was told that I was free to perform an experimental music set. This was a slightly ambitious set as I prepared to perform (on my own) on an electric oud, an Indian harmonium, a laptop with unusually processed field recordings, a Nintendo Wiimote (which I used as a wireless MIDI instrument connected to my laptop), and a triangle. Despite the freedom I was promised on stage, I was careful not to make the music too dark and disturbing. Needless to say, precisely 12 minutes into my performance, one of the waiters walks onto my stage, asking me (while I was performing) when I would be done. Offended, I immediately packed up my equipment and left. I never even received an apology from said restaurant that is vehemently interested in promoting “young” and “local” talents.

The insight from this story is that it was always the organizers, and not the audience, that denied my work. To be fair and objective, I recently found that some organizers in Bahrain are coming to accept sound art performances and are more open to different ways of presenting music. There is still a long way to go in this field, but I am happy to think that I made a small contribution to changing attitudes in Bahrain towards sound art performances by Bahrainis.

I would also like to make a small note regarding my installation-based sound art projects in Bahrain: one of the challenges I face with art spaces who ask me to present my work often ask for a visual representation of my installations, which is quite problematic because they ask for the final photos before the work is installed, notwithstanding the fact that my work’s focus is sound that cannot truly be captured through visual representation. Perhaps this is also related to the difficulty of understanding artwork that is impalpable in nature, and why it is so difficult to “sell” (as an idea) to others in a place with little knowledge of sound art. This is something I need to personally reflect on further as I continue developing my creative process.

Listen to Useless Old Palm Grove for Sale

In retrospect, I think that sound artists offer something that is not yet fully realized. In my case, I present works that dance on a fine line between conventional music/non-conventional music, between media art installation/performance art. Despite sound art in the Middle East receiving some attention over the past 10 years, there still needs to be work done, particularly in regards to educating audiences and art organizations/patrons. What is most curious is that while many of my works reflect my understanding of Bahrain’s sonic culture, my work is highly informed by my years of living abroad as a university student, traveller, and practicing artist. This pseudo-nomadic bearing also hides in its silences stories that cannot easily be narrated. I also enjoy the fact that sound art addresses, in a sense, the non-visual cultures of audiences without the need for them to truly have an encyclopaedic knowledge of art music, particularly since sound art – in many cases – demonstrates how sound is not solely held captive to the domain of music, which is a sentiment many, such as John Cage, have expressed.

With all the changes the region is undergoing, and with all the activity taking place in the field of contemporary art, I am very optimistic about new developments in sound art specific to the region’s artists. It is my hope that sound art and other forms of art that cannot be “collected” so easily (in the conventional sense) receive more attention from patrons and organizations concerned with contemporary art and culture. It is germane to understand that these vanishing sounds that exist only for a limited time in a limited space, offer something of grave value: essential ideas that endure. ___________________________________________________________________________________________ Hasan Hujairi is a sound artist and researcher from Bahrain, born in 1982. For additional work by Hassan Hujairi, listen to Oneiroi and Hébuterne.

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