Thinking about Resonant Materials: Critical heritage meets contemporary art and design in the UAE

What makes something culturally relevant in a local context?

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between form, aesthetics, and belonging. In my own archaeological practice (Rizvi 2015), I have enmeshed the notion of resonance with new materialism, empathy as linked to aesthetics, and belonging. As I have argued, resonance emerges as an intangible affect that the material thing has beyond its formal boundaries within larger planes of perception creating dynamic relationships among humans/nonhumans and illustrating cultural decisions of material as vibrant matter (c.f. Bennett 2010). In so far as the material has vibrancy and frequency, it has then the capacity to evoke an emotional and affective response to a similarity of material, style and/or form. Such response can be coded as a sensory aesthetic empathy that links to constituting subjective belonging. This argument had been posited with the ancient world in mind, but I have recently been applying archaeological theory to the contemporary, particularly within art and design.

As my anthropological concerns have found themselves situated within the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I have found myself working through contemporary things and assemblages in order to understand the past within this political geography. More often than not, working through such questions falls within the ways we understand critical heritage discourse – an intersection of perceived distance or lack there of, between the time of now and that of the past. As such, and not surprisingly, I have found contemporary art and design in the UAE deeply engaged with and within the constructions/discourses of heritage. Right now, my social media feed is full of reporting on Dubai Design Week. As a part of the thematic, there is a strong focus on using local materials that have local resonance, local meaning, local heritage, and local technique. Even the design of the space is being lauded as keeping a local environmental sensibility in mind. There is a sense that what we are experiencing is some negotiation and an authorizing of what constitutes Emirati vernacular design as Rahel Aima might argue (see her piece in Frame – summer issue), or as Laura Egerton reports in Vision, Dubai Design Week becomes a space within which forgotten crafts have the potential to change the future. It is easy to see the relationship  between contemporary design, uses of heritage to be future-oriented (and arguably, on fleek in that hipster way), and the ways in which a local aesthetic has been co-opted for contemporary design so it can speak to a local market and sensibility. The form taken by the local aesthetic significantly lends itself to an empathetic sense of belonging, which is integral to these conversations. Interestingly, however, the contest of heritage in the contemporary is less about what is authorized, but rather, what form can account for commitments of time, place, and access to these conversations.

In order to complicate and think through this theory of resonance within the contemporary commitments I mentioned above, I decided to look to sound artists who utilize resonant materials to create sounds that are not necessarily locally acoustically resonant. The sound becomes the by-product and not the defining feature of the piece. It is the material artifact that holds the key to understanding the possibility of belonging. It is an assemblage then that belongs to a material history of the region and is the conduit of aesthetic empathetic responses. In order to test some of these ideas, I looked to the work of Fari Bradley and Chris Weaver, a British sound art duo, who are not part of critical heritage discourse in the region, and yet, while in residence in Dubai a couple years ago, utilized some of the tropes developed through local discourse. I have been following Bradley and Weaver since their New Media Residency (2014-15) at Tashkeel (Dubai), which culminated in an exhibition, Systems for a Score (Jan-Feb 2015). I reached out to them earlier this year (Spring 2016) in an effort to think through their practice vis-a-vie my own.

Linking form, sound, and politics to aesthetics, is particularly tricky in some parts of the world, and Dubai is no exception to that rule. Bradley and Weaver’s work delicately treads those lines and focuses on the politics of sound, amplification and material. As Bradley recently commented, “For us, the material properties of an object provide a way for a sound work (employing the material qualities of that object) to interact with the physical environment (indeed this method is an excellent way for an environment to “push” back against a work, through physical forces: e.g. heat, wind, moisture, dust, movement, reflecting sound etc)…To try to simply have sound existing in some immaterial vacuum, has resonances with a certain type of political view point.” (March 3, 2016, email interview) This shifts our attention from resonance being singularly constitutive of belonging, to it being linked to forms existing in spaces where existence would/could be possibly impossible.

Models for a Score (2014). Photograph by Jerry Baloch.
Image courtesy of artists.

In a curiously shifting installation, Bradley and Weaver’s Models for a Score (2014), integrates sound art inspired by al-sadou (Bedouin weaving and significant for my interests, on the UNESCO 2011 List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding) with an adapted Atari game console (circuit bent by Weaver to make it touch sensitive). Utilizing two key material forms, technologies, and ways of situating oneself in time, the duo rigged the console to utilize visual information from the weaves, read as an abstracted form of music. Although the video had no sound, the long hand printed scores on black cloth indexed a form of music that would be urban industrial. The sound suggested was at once resonant of an urgent intangible cultural form. Models for a Score (2014) can be displayed in different ways given that it is considered both a space of perception as well as one of production. Significant to it’s display however, are the vertical lines that are digitally reproduced in dual color forms, mimicking the Bedouin weave. These articulations are not only arbitrarily produced, but in creating these spaces of production, the artists aimed to open spaces for collaborative sound making or what one might consider to be articulations of an urban public space within the white cube.

Red Tide (2014). Photograph by Jerry Baloch.
Image courtesy of artists.

What is most interesting (and politically astute) is that not much of their early work, particularly that which was in the Tashkeel show, actually produces sound that is easily perceivable. However, the interaction with volume shifts with Red Tide (2014-15). This piece is linked to Bradley’s own personal history and desires, “Red Tide, 2015 is really an extension of our practice pushed to its most sculptural level. On arriving in UAE I had pored over different kinds of maps (historical, geopolitical, topographical etc) to understand the Gulf at every side and our physical proximity to Iran where I was born and hoped to visit for the first time since leaving as a small child.” (February 26, 2016, email interview) In creating this piece, there is a subtext of understanding oneself and a desire to see a place where one comes from, importantly including fantasy, “In England we have a long tradition of people swimming the English channel to France, and (we) fantasised and we talked about what it would take to swim, or sail in a Dhow from Dubai or Ras al Khaimah whose northernmost part is so close to Iran.”(ibid) Personal stories tend to resonate a bit louder than others (one must still lean into the piece to hear it), and yet the duo are cognizant of the piece not coming off as didactic, but rather they would prefer the focus be the materials themselves that in producing sound are also entrenched in the politics of amplification.

The piece itself reflected the fantasy, utilizing a map, some electronics, copper wires, and a light box: “we decided to chart a straight line in the sea from where (we) were living in Dubai to Iran. Each of the three red copper wires was pulled taut in order to carry three unique sounds: the sounds of space matter in orbit, the sound of tectonic plates in motion and extracts from the first ever insurance document known to man, written in the Gulf by Hammurabi.  By feeding the sounds into the strings we allowed them to become distorted and diminished in volume by the wires. We designed the piece to fit in a corner, the wires casting a shadow from the map to the control box, which held three musical tuning pegs for strings. The print of the map we placed on a light box to highlight the map, and allow for low lighting to cast a shadow of the strings on the corner. We had to plan in very fine detail the angle of the box, strings and maps. This way onlookers would have to lean in; to read the map, to decipher the sounds.” (ibid).

The need to listen closely to understand where one might come from, and all the attendant sounds that reflect other forms of mobility, whether in space, geologic, and/or historic, uniquely capture an emotional aesthetic of belonging elsewhere, but speaking from here. The choice to require a close listen was explained to me with regards to a politics of amplification; as Bradley said, “from our perspective, after years of working with sound in different settings, speakers offer a false sense of trust to those viewing them [the speaker] while listening. The sound and it’s source appears removed from the speaker which is the end result (acousmatic)…That speakers convey sound un-colored is a myth; even while listening our ears, the receivers are colouring the sound, so to constantly strive for a kind of uncoloured, ‘pure’ playback, if followed through to its logical conclusion, can only end in removing the listener because your perceptual processes colour sound.” (ibid) Following her note, Weaver continued more explicitly, “Loudspeakers have traditionally had a role in authoritarian societies. PA systems and the artificial amplification of the voice are used to transmit the “correct” ideas, the “truth”, states version of history.”(February 26, 2016, email interview) And so within the politics of amplification, the idea that there is a purity to any sound form could be considered as a false consciousness of sorts. Each sound has a color, a timbre, and forms of complex information that contextualize it, if you know what you are listening for, and know how to hear it. If you really want to know what’s what, you have to strive to listen because often, only authorized heritage is amplified. It contests the position of a priori knowledge: if you don’t know what you are listening for, how might you know what to listen for?

Earlier this week, my Emirati Arabic teacher told us that in contrast to MSA (Modern Standard Arabic), the ways in which we pronounce words in Emirati are less pronounced – the fluctuations in sound and tone are more subtle, and are seemingly flat, even though they are not. It is in knowing those very precise and yet historically variable fluctuations in sound that separate one as non-native speaker. In contrast, in art and design, the historic nature of representations have varied depths and histories in a new federation (UAE was formed in 1971): an aesthetic language only now being encoded into an authorized heritage.

And so, this is precisely where the durational commitments of time, place and access to these conversations are placed: at the intersection of now and then. By examining work like that produced by Bradley and Weaver, that is made utilizing the resonant forms of here, but is of and from elsewhere, we are able to locate the potential of contemporary art to be critical heritage discourse. For artists who are not of here, but were here while longing for a visit elsewhere, there is something remarkable in Fari Bradley and Chris Weaver’s ability to find that articulation through an acoustic material vocabulary in the UAE. I would argue that these works could not have been made any where else but here. There is something about their borrowing of resonant forms that provide a vocabulary and soft articulation of longing, that is unique to the empathetic aesthetic forms of resonance of the UAE.

Bennett J (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London : Duke University Press.

Rizvi, U.Z. (2015) Crafting Resonance: Empathy and belonging in Ancient Rajasthan. Journal of Social Archaeology. Vol. 15 (2): 254-273.

Acknowledgements: Much of my thinking about UAE contemporary art and design has been influenced and challenged by the participants of Campus Art Dubai (CAD), where I have been one of the lead tutors since 2014, and most significantly, my co-lead tutors and collaborators in CAD, Murtaza Vali and Lee Xie.

Uzma Z. Rizvi

Uzma Z. Rizvi is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies at The Pratt Institute of Art and Design, Brooklyn, NY. She is also a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah.