How to listen (and maybe not to hear)

Alserkal Arts Foundation has announced its programme for 2021-2022, an project that explores the power of sound and spoken language and includes the UAE’s first ambisonic* landscape.

The latter comes in the form of a new exhibition, A Slightly Curving Place, curated by Nida Ghouse, which opens in Concrete next March. Leading up to it is an ongoing study group and a film programme.

Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, founder of both Alserkal Avenue and the foundation, laid out the foundation’s raison d’être in introducing the programme: “It is imperative that we support artists and practitioners who are engaged in unconventional modes of research and cultural production.

“In an increasingly interconnected world, encouraging cross-disciplinary approaches is key to creating new forms of knowledge in order to engage and resonate with audiences, now and in the future.” (You probably wouldn’t disagree too much with that, though engaging with audiences might also require some thought about content and accessibility as well as technique.)

Centred around an audio play, a video installation, and material in vitrines, A Slightly Curving Place responds to the work of Umashankar Manthravadi. He’s a fascinating figure, a self-taught acoustic engineer who has been credited with several inventions in sound technology – among them an ambisonic tetrahedral microphone series called Brahma, a unique designed with four heads which can capture all the properties of audio. He also figures large in the world of archaeoacoustics, a discipline that enables an understanding of performance spaces (old and new) through their sound properties.

A Slightly Curving Place asks what it means to listen to the past. The exhibition brings together writers, choreographers, composers, actors, dancers, musicians, field recordists, and designers in sound, light, and graphics; the project aims to explore the performative and political potential of the past in the same way that Manthravadi opened up our understanding of ancient spaces like monasteries and theatres.

Nida Ghouse says the archaeology of sound is primarily concerned with what it means to try and listen to the past, even if that is likely to remain outside the range of our hearing forever. “It draws awareness both to sound as a social event – music, theatre, and dance as forms of corporeal relations – and to an absence which remains”.

She regards that absence as a crucial counterweight to conventional thinking, the kind of technological positivism that claims the past can always be recreated, accessed, understood – “finding facts in the acoustic reflections of architectural surfaces so as to reconstruct a once-audible event in a space as accurately as possible” Rather she sees this kind of listening as “a confrontation with a sense that the past cannot be captured. And can never be known.

“An archaeology of sound is then about that which is lost but nevertheless always with us – the simultaneity of the past in the present, a collectivity across time beyond possession and accumulation.”

Leading up to the exhibition, Alserkal Arts Foundation is running a study group under the title An Archaeology of Sound study group; that’s already under way – more information here.

The accompanying film programme, organised by Nida Ghouse and Surabhi Sharma, is being presented in collaboration with Cinema Akil and with support from Goethe-Institut. Under the title A Supplementary Country Called Cinema it comprises fiction, documentary, and experimental cinema from the mid-twentieth century to the present, tracing the arrival of sound reproduction technology to the Indian subcontinent and its continued reverberations. There’s still a couple of days to catch films in the series – details here.

A Slightly Curving Place was originally commissioned and presented by Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2020; the version for Concrete is co-produced with support from the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.

* ambisonic: a surround sound format that covers sound sources above and below the listener as well as those at his/her level – in other words, three-dimensional 360-degree audio.

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