TAREK ATOUI setting up four microphones in the desert of Ash Shigaya, north of Kuwait, to record the sound piece Unplified, 2012. Courtesy MinRASY Projects, London

Desert Beat

Tarek Atoui

Lebanon Kuwait France
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic
On the May morning after the debut of sound artist Tarek Atoui’s newly commissioned piece Unplified (2012) at the Museum of Modern Art in Kuwait City, Atoui, who had only a few hours of sleep the night before, was surprisingly energetic. Wearing one of his signature quirky, androgynous sweaters despite the already intense heat, Atoui was quick to smile and crack sarcastic jokes. Born and raised in Lebanon and now based in Paris, he sat down with me to discuss his new installation and the collaboration process with MinRasy Projects—an organization run by Rana Sadik and Samer Younis that produces and displays contemporary art projects in Kuwait—before recounting how he began his career as a sound artist, as well as his upcoming work.

Atoui’s Unplified was a sound installation presented inside a blindingly illuminated portacabin, which was located in the museum’s searingly hot courtyard. The temporary building was split into two connected rooms without air-conditioning. The first room was empty except for an audio recording of desert sounds, filtered through Atoui’s custom-designed feedback system. Installed in the second room were four microphones that amplified the listener’s movements in the space so that the emptiness of the desert was replaced by the sound of human presence, together forming what Atoui describes as a “full sonic experience.” He began our breakfast by explaining that the process of creating Unplified was “like an experiment . . . I didn’t know what was going to happen in the desert. I know my studio in Paris, but this was quite extreme.”

How did the collaboration between you and MinRasy Projects come about?

It started with a form of commission. Over the past few years, MinRasy had been inviting artists to work on the theme of the Palestinian presence in Kuwait. Before me, there were Tarek al-Ghoussein, Khalil Rabah and others, so I am a continuation of this project. In my case, what Rana Sadik proposed was doing a sound installation based on a book by Ghassan Kanafani, titled Men in the Sun (1963), about three Palestinian refugees who die en route to Kuwait, where they plan to seek work. What Rana told me is that when she read this book, she could imagine or hear the sounds that Kanafani was describing. So this is how things started.

What do you hope is communicated through Unplified?

I have no hope at all! I really don’t know what I hope people get or feel from it. It is a very abstract piece of work; you can relate to it on different levels. Based on the response I received yesterday, there are a diversity of experiences you can get out of it. I developed this as a conceptual sound piece with a complex relation to the book, but I didn’t have a specific intention . . . I know it is not an easy piece; it is not an environment that you can stand at ease in. It’s hot and it’s saturated, in terms of light. The sound, as well, is saturated and these three elements function together. What I really like is that these elements reproduce the intensity that I wanted.

On the subject of the elements, this is quite different than most of your other pieces, which are primarily sound-based. Unplified mimics a desert environment through its use of oppressive heat and blinding light. Was this your idea, to create a desert environment in which to experience the work?

Actually it was Rana’s idea first to present it this way, and I thought it was great. With Rana you can dare to push boundaries, and she offered me this possibility. And then I thought that, yes, this is how it should be. I’m used to working in a more typical exhibition space and presenting my work in a more modest way. Now the piece is a full ensemble that also contains sound, and
these elements are not easily separated.

Just like the main characters in the book, who traveled across the desert from Basra, in Iraq, to Kuwait inside a water tanker, you also made this journey. What was that experience like?

Well, this was not my idea, actually; it was Rana’s again. It happened in December 2011 and my trip took only a few hours. But it was good that I did the journey anyway, as it helped my process. I knocked on the water tanker I was traveling in, but it wasn’t interesting, so I didn’t use this sound.

Instead of using the natural, raw sounds of the desert that you recorded, you manipulated them. How did you do this and why?

I didn’t want to create an illustration of the sound environment of the book. The idea was to transform this into something else, to use the story as a generator to produce something different. But there is still a relationship to the novel: having four speakers relates to the number of characters in the book. The idea was to tune the analysis system on each speaker to act differently, creating a symphony, where each speaker generates a different sound and the four create the piece together, but when you move through the space, you can still hear each one on its own. I didn’t want to use or show the sound in a raw way. The sound loop in the installation is two hours long, cut down from seven hours of recorded sound footage.

Sound art in the Middle East is still something of a rarity. How did you begin your career?

When I was a teenager, I was a techno DJ, but after DJ-ing for a while I got bored and thought that I better study something more seriously. I really started sound art when I finished high school and went to university in France, where they teach these things. At some point, I started coming back to the Middle East and began doing projects here.

You have worked all over the world, from New York, to Kassel for Documenta, Seoul and other cities. Though you are from the Arab world, how much is the region a point of reference in your artwork?

Not much, actually. What really interests me is not the regional context of the Middle East, but perpetuating and prolonging things related to the history of sound art and contemporary music. A lot of the questions that interest me come from this discourse, with less and less regional connotations, even if the material or themes are taken from this environment.

What is coming up next for you?

After participating in Documenta this summer, I will start a project with a British performing-arts troupe called Forced Entertainment, who are reinventing contemporary theater. Then I’m going
to Beijing and Hong Kong at some point, to continue the project shown in Documenta; and I will perform Revisiting Tarab at the Serpentine Gallery [in London] during Frieze week in October.