Tarek Atoui / Interview

Tarek Atoui
Close Photo Maxime Tétard, Studio Les Graphiquants
Article
July 1, 2021

Tarek Atoui / Interview

“It was a very good period and a great lifestyle choice to live a nomadic life for eight years, with just a suitcase, moving around in accordance with my desires, projects and encounters. It also gave me a great deal of freedom in terms of my relationship to art and sound.” Tarek Atoui

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By Tarek Atoui,
Artist

How did you start out in music?

In my case, it all started with music. I’m originally a musician and a musician by training. But gradually I began to feel a certain frustration about the daily reality of a musician’s life: I was on tour a lot or stuck in the studio, recording. I was more drawn to being outside in public spaces, interacting with people for long periods of time, travelling and discovering things. My shift from music to the art world started about fifteen years ago. And here I am today between two worlds, combining the two.

 

You sculpt sound. How would you define the matter of your works?

The notion of instrument helped me a lot in my approach to sculpting sound. In other words, this idea of an object that produces sound, or can “morph” sound. From the beginning, I focused on violin making, whether it was digital, analogue, new or traditional, and I worked with instruments intended for performance. Little by little, from the instrument, I would say that I shifted towards a notion of a sound object in the really classical sense of electroacoustic music, but also in a very banal, simple sense, of the object of the everyday, one that was not intended to be musical or used as such. Currently, my work combines these types of instruments and sound objects whose origins are very diverse. Like I said, it can be electronic, digital, and abstract; and it can be made from very old, ancestral materials like ceramic, wood, metal, etc.

 

You’ve had a very nomadic existence, travelling between China and Lebanon. What sounds do you retain from those travels?

I got much more than just sounds. I enjoyed a singular and unique human experience. It was a very good period and a great lifestyle choice to live a nomadic life for eight years, with just a suitcase, moving around in accordance with my desires, projects and encounters. It also gave me a great deal of freedom in terms of my relationship to art and sound. There was no longer this attachment to the concert hall, to having the optimal conditions in which to present work. On the contrary, it was liberating to go and play on roundabouts, in the street or in parking lots, exposing myself to cultures where all that was new. In short, it brought everything down to the basics: “what am I doing or what’s the value of all this? When historical and cultural notions disappear, what’s left?”

 

“It was a very good period and a great lifestyle choice to live a nomadic life for eight years, with just a suitcase, moving around in accordance with my desires, projects and encounters. It also gave me a great deal of freedom in terms of my relationship to art and sound.”

 

The Ground is your best known installation. We could call it your masterpiece to date. It was presented in China and Venice. How did you adapt this work to the Bourse de Commerce?

It is a piece that has lived with me and in me for several years, those during which I travelled throughout the region of Canton, in China, where I was inspired by concepts of traditional architecture, agriculture, violin making and music, as well as the philosophy of music, especially string music.

Later, all of these ideas manifested themselves in various projects. Not just in The Ground, but in projects like Within, which is about sound and deafness. The latter was a major project and one that is equally important to me. Before The Ground found its final form, it was first shown as a kind of laboratory, a space of experimentation. Instruments were created following my years of travel, then shared with musicians, from various horizons and origins who have appropriated them. It then moved onto a performative dimension: exploring how we can play with these instruments and how we can compose collective situations in an original way.

Finally, it has taken on this installation form. I would even say composition. Everything is written and composed and in dialogue with this instrument. You can approach it as a listening space or sculpt your own listening experience. The components of this piece lend themselves to concert situations or sessions, which I refer to as Ground Sessions. The palette is large: we can go from a listening situation to installation mode to that of games, collaboration and improvisation.

 

“Before The Ground found its final form, it was first shown as a kind of laboratory, a space of experimentation.”

 

How do you activate these installations? And what remains when there’s silence?

The installation is self-activated in the sense that these instruments play with each other; there has been a lot of reflection around transforming sound. How does sound, which is above all a vibratory matter perceived by the ears, pass through solids, into matter? And how can sound be transformed from vibrations into electricity, thereby putting things in mechanical movement? The sound that becomes kinetic.

Secondly, there’s the notion of performance, as I said. For example, at the Bourse de Commerce, the piece is shown in the Foyer, resonating with the Auditorium. It’s as if the roles are reversed. We enter the Auditorium and we see the work in panorama but we listen to it in stereo. We then go into the Foyer and we see the piece microscopically and we listen to it in a stationary manner.

It is as if the whole mix, the whole sound image was formed in the Auditorium and outside, we have a more individual listening experience, where everyone can sculpt the sound in their own way by approaching the objects, moving away from them and coming closer again. As for the performances, these also play on the relationship between interior and exterior; we play with the Auditorium-Foyer relationship, but also with other spaces, like the Rotunda, exterior spaces, small corridors and interstitial spaces, etc. Maybe, all of these will be occupied by The Ground making this an all-over experience.

 

“[W]e have a more individual listening experience, where everyone can sculpt the sound in their own way by approaching the objects, moving away from them and coming closer again.”

 

There’s also the plastic aspect of the ceramics, their form and situation in space. Why these choices?

This is the result of a long working process with ceramists in China, working on sound recordings of old instruments I had made in anthropology museums. I had them listen to the sounds of these old instruments and asked them to imagine what these would be if they were ceramic instruments. The large white towers and discs were born from these moments of sharing and listening, where there is a relationship to touch, different kinds of marbles, of things that are out of the ordinary, etc.

In other words, the sculptural dimension here is closely connected or related to the sound dimension. One would not have existed without the other.