02.08.2021 TABLES OF CONTENTS
A project by Tarek Atoui, in cooperation with Fridericianum Kassel
Tarek Atoui in conversation with Sylvia Freydank and Thomas Schäfer
Your artistic projects seem to be very much driven by the exchange with other people in different constellations. To get an idea of the different aspects of your artistic life, I would like to ask how you start your projects. Is there a first idea before you reach out for your collaborators? Or is it the other way round: You start a dialogue with someone and then create and work together on it?
TA After about thirteen or fourteen years of moving between the visual arts world and the music or the performing arts world, I realized that the situations and the projects that influenced and affected my practice and also my condition as a human being and my understanding of life, are the ones that started with situations. In an intuitive way, I put myself in situations of learning: learning from a specific community, learning from a specific culture or history. Situations in which I open my senses and mobilize my intellectual capacities, my knowledge of history, my education in Lebanon. A few examples to make it more concrete: going and working with deaf people to discover what sound could be outside the ears and this being transmitted through the air to the ears, or, for example, going to look at a collection of very old recordings of classical Arabic music and then working on this and learning from it and coming up with situations of concerts, performances and even records and instruments made out of ceramics. The situations are multiple: traveling to China and going to the Canton area for several years and looking at architecture, irrigation systems, agricultural ones, traditional music of strings, and coming out with ideas of instruments, of computer programs and Max/MSP patches, of processing pedals, samplers, sequencers, again, like also ceramic pieces and elements made out of traditional materials. These are the projects or some examples
of projects that took me further.
All this year-long research, these different influences, different cultures, materials and impulses from other people: how is that put together? I remember that you once described your role as being an orchestrator who is driving the process. How important is it for you to create something together with others?
TA Actually, there is a balance, a balance of working collectively, collaboratively on the one hand and working individually on the other hand. In a creative practice like this one has to leave space for both. If it’s all about collaboration and collective sharing, at some point you will run out of things to share. So the wisdom is to find the time for ideas to regenerate and to develop. The balance between moments of solitude and the collective, collaborative moments is quite complex. Of course, I like the idea of workshopping, like in Within, and learning from deaf people, or like last year, learning from kids in the kindergarten – or at least working with them. Everybody was learning from everybody. It was very inspiring in terms of immediately finding new ideas, manipulating objects, playing together, finding techniques I wouldn’t have thought of myself.
Do you see a difference between collaboration and cooperation?
TA Yes, there is one. Sometimes I feel I am collaborating and sometimes I feel I am cooperating. The idea of collaboration can be a bit misleading when we are not in an equal position of sharing. What I mean by that: it
could be misleading to speak about collaboration when people are not aware of the overall picture or the overall trajectory that a project is following. When this happens I feel that by calling it collaboration, I’m instrumentalising
people. Cooperation sometimes can be an ephemeral encounter like having a one shot workshop session or going on a field trip or a research trip together. That can be intense, that can be very instructive and inspiring and even life changing, but it’s not a collaboration how I would describe it.
But as far as I know there is a large network of cooperators and a team of people that you already have a long working history with.
TA That’s one of the things that I’m aspiring towards. You know, this is transmission and education as well. There is this short term level – the time of the workshop, the time of the symposium or the seminar – and there is a mid/long term duration of transmission, teaching and sharing. That’s what I would like to pay more and more attention to, especially after having been a teacher in 2018 and 2019 at an art school and realizing that there is a limit to the model of education in art schools today. This is when I started asking myself the question: How can my practice create other alternatives? Alternatives for young artists, for students about to finish their studies,
for people who are interested in the field of sound, and who could come from any discipline for field.
In my case, the projects that I like sometimes took up to seven or eight years. Being able to offer people such durations of apprenticeship and learning is something that I like and that I consider an ideal platform for those who work with me. That’s how I’ve been looking at the idea of a team. For example, Alan Affichard, who will be in Darmstadt working with me on The Tables of Contents this summer, has become an important colleague and collaborator for me. He is an artist himself. And our relationship started with him being my student at an art school, but has developed and lead to a lot of things since then. For Darmstadt, Alan plays a fundamental role being one of the makers of The Tables of Contents, but also one of the performers with whom I’ve worked over the last couple of years, and also someone who knows very well how my works are installed and how they function. And this educational experience (Editor’s note: Alan Affichard will be an instructor in the Darmstadt workshop with Tarek Atoui’s The Tables of Contents) is a step further in my relationship with Alan. That is something that I’m very happy to explore.
As you are talking about The Tables of Contents: They can be seen as beautiful objects and they can of course be seen and played as instruments. You are researching, constructing and building instruments together with other people, you are presenting new means and new worlds of creating sound. What is your idea of an instrument? And how would you describe that interplay of research, instrument building, performance and unfolding of the composition in the space?
TA You summarized my whole practice in a few keywords. But the thing is, it is always a combination of these keywords: from body movement to instrument and sound making or from sound to instrument to body movement or from space to sound to instrumentarium – the translations have been multiple. Working with kindergarten kids made me ask myself fundamental questions: what do I have to share and say after all these years? And how can I find simple ways of explaining it to people? The instrument or the idea of resonance or sounding objects are key components. With what is it played, by whom, for whom? What is it heard through and how is it perceived? What are the human and physical conditions under which it is happening? Is it in frozen water, for example? Is it taking place through somebody who is moving, is it mechanized or automatized…? In my case, these questions are constantly rearranged, revisited and restructured.
You have been working on most of your projects over many years. Is a work or a project ever finished?