Collective Listening and the Nation State

Noah Simblist in Conversation with Haig Aivazian

Liquid Architecture, 2021

The Beirut-based artist Haig Aivazian works in a range of media, including performance, video, sculpture, and installation; to unpack the machinations of power and the hidden ideological flows within histories such as music, sports, street lighting, and predictive policing. Based on extensive research, the artist’s practice is at once exactingly precise and, at the same time, is an avalanche of sensory information. He often links popular culture with obscure histories, illuminating their complex social and political networks. While Aivazian studied in North America and his work has been shown internationally, he is a central figure in the Beirut art scene. In addition to his art practice, he is the Artistic Co-Director of the Beirut Art Center. While Aivazian is not a musician or a sound artist per se, sound, music, performance, and collective listening have played an important role in a number of his projects. In this interview writer Noah Simblist begins a discussion about the artist’s work with a series that revolves around music and its relationship to nationalism and colonialism.

(Noah Simblist) Let’s start with a project of yours that's connected to sound: I am Sick but I am Alive (2015-2017).

(Haig Aivazian) That project starts with a musician, Udi Hrant Kenkulian, whom I came across many years ago. I recognized his name as being Armenian yet he was an oud player, and his title, oud master, was in Turkish. I was intrigued because I had never really connected the oud to Armenian music; my experience was that it was folkloric. But this music sounded like it came from a conservatory. Many years later I was invited to Istanbul for a residency and thought I would look into him. And what I had detected, what wasn't sitting quite right, was this transformation that happened in the early 20th century, where Middle Eastern music adopted Western notation systems. What happened in this process was that the music was distorted, modes were rounded off, instruments were standardized, and each nation, now identifying as separate from the Ottoman empire, started to identify their national identity through these modes. So the Arabs took some, the Greeks took some, the Turks took some. They all introduced Western notation and they all identified their national instruments. There's a campaign about the importance of radio to nation building – this idea of building a nation around collective listening. What I was hearing, and identified as folkloric music, was in fact this distorted version, based on Western values of what makes a melody melodious. In the case of the Armenians, some of the instruments were distorted to do away with the quarter notes. This was the starting point of this project. It became a sonic way to identity, to feel what historical facts sound like. Could this kind of violence be felt in music today?

(NS) It's interesting that the process of nation building that you're talking about in the wake of the Ottoman Empire — for Greece or the Arab states or modern Turkey — was a process that wasn't afforded to Armenians, in terms of explicit nation building. That's part of the fraught relationship with Turkey. The Armenian position seems slightly different.

(HA) It's different in that they weren't afforded a nation state with borders, but there was a strong nationalist movement, just like with the Kurds or other minorities. There was a transition from being an Ottoman subject to a self awareness of a national specificity; and that specificity had to do with language; it very much had to do with music; and it had to do with food. I mean, there's a similar disentanglement that happens with food, that you can have very similar dishes being claimed by different nations. Music is a similar situation. For instance, field songs might have been shared by various populations, but then when they get reclaimed by each respective nation, that requires distortions in terms of notation and language. There might've been words in these songs that were not one language or another, so references to geographies get transformed.

(NS) In the description of this project on your website, you note that Udi Hrant Kenkulian was blind. Your project is primarily visual and spatial but about sound. How were you thinking about the space that exists between these senses with this project?

(HA) This detail is important because he played in the cabaret scene in Istanbul and gathered a following. Some of them offered to cure his blindness. So they sent him off to places to get treatment and that's the primary reason for which he travels and ends up spreading his music. In terms of dealing with the materiality of the project, it’s mostly through objects. I was concerned with this notion of distortion: the notes being distorted, and imagined the effects of the vibrations from the bodies of the instruments and the bodies of the musicians that played them, and the architecture that contains those bodies. I worked with instrument makers, because that's another kind of transmission, from master to student, the ways in which instruments are made. I was interested in how materials contain the traces of these sounds.

(NS) I noticed from the installation images that there is a marble motif. Is that tied to the narrative of the Armenian cemetery that was destroyed to create the radio station in Istanbul that this project references?

(HA) Yes. The radio station is related to the national project in Turkey. The area on which that was built had a large Armenian cemetery. It hadn't been in use and had closed several decades before the radio stations were constructed, but yes, they displaced that cemetery and built the radio station there. There was a church in Istanbul where I found out that they were still teaching the pre-modern way of chanting and I met some people there to learn about this history. I was waiting in their courtyard, and noticed this marble tiling that was very irregular. At some point in the conversation I commented, ‘oh, this is really beautiful.’ Then they told me that these were the tombstones that were repurposed from the cemetery. I thought that there was something quite powerful about this idea that these materials can be like multiple layers of history or various sonic vibrations. The radio station itself is made out of the same kind of marble.

(NS) I am Sick but I am Alive was shown in 2015, two years after the protests in Gezi Park, which were also about urban development in relation to Turkish nationalism. Was that also something that you were thinking about?

(HA) Yes, the Gezi protests started when bulldozers came into the park and started digging. Images of the tombstones with Armenian inscriptions were circulated at the time because some of those tombstones were still around. That image ended up being an additional mobilizing force. This is beautiful to me because I'm interested in how nation states come to claim their legitimacy. But the driving motivation of the work was the opposite of that. I'm not interested in dead historical facts, I'm interested in how those historical facts might still have strange zombies laying around.

(NS) This detail about the Armenian cemetery was something I wasn't aware of. I had visited there a couple of months after those protests and had followed closely leading up to that point but I was only aware of the reaction against the redevelopment. To realize that it actually was part of a deeper history, of another kind of redevelopment, and that the bulldozers acted like archeologists, scraping away at these layers of violence, it's even more powerful. So you mentioned that there were related choral works like, Wavy is the Sea, Momma (2015). That was around the same time as you were developing I am Sick but I am Alive. In that piece, an Armenian church choir reinterprets a song by Udi Hrant Kenkulian in an abandoned school in Turkey. What was the thinking behind that project, and what was the significance of the school as a site?

(HA) After my initial discovery of that first album, I dug deeper into Udi Hrant’s discography and realized that he mainly sang in Turkish, but had a couple of other songs in Armenian. This particular song he had sung in both languages. It was a folkloric song from a rural area, traditionally sung by women. The original lyrics of the song described a longing for the men that left the village to go to the city to find work. The women would sing as they were working in the fields, longing for their partners who were far away. Udi Hrant changes the speaking voice to somebody in Bolis, which is what a lot of Greeks and Armenians called Istanbul. So he moves it from a rural setting to an urban setting and from a female perspective to a male perspective. It's a moving song, but to me it resonated with a kind of erasure that modernity enacts, and that is the role of women in music-making. In terms of the school, it was one of the venues of the Istanbul Biennial, a Greek school that had been repurposed as an exhibition space. The chorus of the song, in the way that I arranged it, took one of the lines in which he says, ‘wavy is the sea of Istanbul’. It's a melodramatic song where he's longing for a long-lost lover and just wishes to throw himself in the sea. And so ‘wavy is the sea’ was the motif that I chose. The way the performance was structured was around the staircase of the school. There were solos for each of the floors, and then as they walked up the stairs they would say, ‘wavy is the sea’. There was a kind of repetition and people would follow them. It was very claustrophobic, this cipher that moved up the spine of the building.

(NS) There's another piece in which you use a choir, To Be Human, O Mountain! (2018), from a few years later, but this time it's a more rural location in Turkey, is that right?

(HA) Yes, this was part of a festival called Cappadox. It’s held in an incredibly cinematic space, filled with mushroom-like volcanic rock formations. When I did site visits there, I came across a Byzantine church, which had been transformed into a prison in the fifties. It was one of the first prisons to have a political prisoner wing. I met somebody who had spent a few years there, Mükremin Tokmak, who is larger than life — a super interesting, friendly, lovely person. After it was used as a church, it was briefly a potato storage space, and then it was a prison. At the time, I'd gotten into the figure of the ethnomusicologist, who embodied the contradictions of modernity. They have been instrumental in erasing histories but also celebrating themselves as the preserver of that very thing. You kill a practice that is alive, you endanger it, and then you give importance to the necessity to preserve it.

I was also reading about the ethnomusicologists in the United States in the post-slavery era. There was a similar anxiety about authentic culture being eradicated, because there was a realization that African–American music was American music. The main sites of the production of that music were the fields, and because the black population was no longer constrained by the field, there was an anxiety that as a collector of music, where would we go? This is where the figure of the policeman and the ethnomusicologist collide because they both look for the same stereotype, which is to say the runaway. But there was also a parallel in terms of the church and the history of ethnomusicology in the United States, being that you go from the field, a plantation, to churches. They ended up going to churches to collect music, but then also they ended up going to prisons because that's the systemic transformation, from the plantation to the prison.

So I found that this church contained all three of these sites as a potato storage, as a church, and as a prison. I asked Mükremin if they sang songs when he was in prison. He said of course, and sang one of his favorite ones to me. Then that took me to research music, prison songs, and modern day Turkey. I compiled a bunch, with help, of course, and then I took from those songs things that refer to natural motifs, like rocks, birds, water, or trees. The performance was in three parts. It happened very early in the morning. People would follow the performers from the potato storage to the pigeon coves, and then to the mountain. For me, it was a way to address this history, but I was also interested in how the architecture might act like a witness. The rocks, the trees, the birds, were not just about poetics per se, but came from a real belief in historical actors that are not necessarily human — to de-center the hegemonic figure of the human as a historical actor.

(NS) The comparison you make about African-American histories in relationship to the Turkish and Armenian context could be a transition into your most recent project at The Renaissance Society in Chicago. There were three parts in this show, right?

(HA) Yes, one film that I made in 2019, is called Prometheus, another film that I premiered in this exhibition called All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes (2021), and then there was the installation component called 1440 Sunsets in 24 Hours (2017/2021). It consisted of painting the space dark gray and grading it in white chalk, and distributing stadium lights mounted on photo tripods in the space. All of these works are related in some way to a history of fire.

All of Your Stars Are but Dust on My Shoes is a history of public lighting, the first tool of mass surveillance, something that was developed by the police to get rid of darkness. In the past, you would have been required to identify yourself with a lantern, which extends to the whole city, at the cost of privacy. This relates to a larger project around technology and surveillance, which also has a sports component. This whole body of research starts from a technology that three retired Israeli Defense Force (IDF) guys developed from an algorithm that was developed for the Iron Dome technology, which predicts the trajectory of rockets in order to know where and how to intercept them. Then they applied this to sports. Using cameras, this algorithm can track the movement of all the players on the field at a given time. Whether you're watching cricket or tennis or basketball or football, any of the graphics that you see that follow players around with dots telling you how many kilometers they’ve run, comes from this technology.

(NS) That reminds me of the way you were talking about modernity in relation to the standardization of music. Technology also imposes a kind of standardization. The grid is a signifier of that form of control, supposedly at the service of the public. This pattern was part of the Turkish national project, but can also be found in the American empire. You've shown versions of 1440 Sunsets per 24 Hours in different locations. The grid can suggest a kind of universality; if you placed a grid over any national or legal context, you can get the same results. But at the same time, there's going to be some local specificity that would push up against that. I wonder how this work works in different national contexts.

(HA) Yeah, the grid, it's a map too, right? It's for a kind of production of what geography is, which is universal. But it's also like a technological wireframe. Regarding these other projects, modernity is uneven throughout the world, and as you said, it has specificities and various contexts, but it is an overarching project. So all of the places where I have shown this work have a power grid, for instance. The first time I presented this work was in Paris, which is where public lighting starts. The second time I showed it was in Shanghai and predictive policing in Shanghai is on some other level. I started in Yokohama, saying there's a big focus on predictive policing and developing predictive policing, and Chicago, which is one of the pioneering cities in the US for predictive policing, PredPol, that was developed in Los Angeles. The history of policing in LA is, again, some other level, but Chicago as well, and New York, those are the three big predictive policing places.

(NS) Some of the work that you've talked about is dealing with histories and sorting through sites, or objects, or documents. When I combine this with the strategy of the lecture performance, I think of Rabih Mroué, Walid Raad, Tony Chakar or other artists from the post-war generation in Lebanon. I know that you're a different generation and have a whole set of other circumstances, but I wonder how you see yourself in relation to that group of artists?

(HA) The format for sure, I picked up from those guys. When I first came across it, it blew my mind. It's so simple and straightforward in a sense, but it also has endless possibilities. I guess the main distinction between myself and those guys is that they were very suspect of images, to the point of doubting if they exist. I'm very seduced by images and I try to use as many of them as are in circulation and proliferate them. It can be an ad, it can be something shot on a phone, it can be a scientific illustration. I'm not looking for anything trustworthy, I'm not claiming to be trustworthy, I'm very clearly making a series of arguments with images, and I'm trying to make those arguments as punchy as I can. I'm not concerned about truths, I'm not trying to counter anybody's truth, I'm not trying to create any truth, I’m stating what I think is important. It goes back to this thing of propaganda that I was talking about before, I don't shy away from that word because I want my work to be argumentative and not just in what it says, but in how it says it, how it's put together. So in terms of history, I think all of my work has to do with history. I think of it as this constant path, it's like this thing that's underneath everything. It's not this dead thing that's in the past, it's right now, it relates to the past and it shapes the future. It's not this linear kind of history. It's this other beast that we're constantly wrestling with.