When We Met

This conversation was initially published in 2016 in the publication of the exhibition WITHIN/Infinite Ear, Bergen Assembly. Going through the various steps of the inquiry, it describes the artistic, intellectual and curatorial dimensions of the collaboration between Council and Tarek Atoui.

SANDRA: When we met, we had a different understanding of hearing, now informed by five years of intertwined research and experimentation.

Back in 2012, we shared a common question: What place does sound occupy in deaf culture? As often with Council’s projects, we started by organizing a discussion, this time bringing together designers Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag (BLESS) and a Paris-based organization for Deaf education called Signes de Sens. With Bless, we wanted to imagine a design that could renew the representation of Deaf culture and be a useful tool. Exploring how Deaf and hard of hearing persons perceive and feel sound was the starting point of our research. Different observations ultimately led you to formulate the same question.

TAREK: In 2010, I wanted to create a performance that articulated my work on body, sound and composition in a different way. I called it Below 160, a performance that mainly used bass and sub-bass frequencies under 160 Hz, and focused on the physical quality of sound. Using sound as medium, I saw this as an attempt to equate my body as a performer and the collective body of an audience. The first time I presented Below 160 in 2011, the performance took place in front of a hearing audience. What I learned from this performance is how much our ears condition our perception of sound and that we tend to neglect its physical and tactile manifestations.

I therefore decided to share the same performance with Deaf and hard of hearing audiences, curious about their understanding of a such piece. I was still in residency at the Sharjah Art Foundation and I asked the Foundation to put me in touch with the Al Amal School for the Deaf.

When I played Below 160 for the students of Al Amal, I set up my stage and electronics in the middle of a public square in Sharjah’s heritage area, and asked the students to experience the sound by moving around. 20 minutes into the performance, several students came on stage wanting to join and play with me. It was a meaningful moment in which the conventional distinctions between audience, stage, space, and musician collapsed.

A few days later, a workshop presentation we did took 2 hours instead of the typical 45-minute format. The students played sound in a concentrated and serene way that focused on actions and intentions, disregarding their length and duration.

After this experience, Below 160 was transformed, and I left Sharjah with the will to return and keep on learning from the Al Amal school.

SANDRA: We realized the extent of our ignorance on Deaf culture when we began studying the history of Deaf and hard of hearing education. I remember attending a play at the International Visual theatre in Paris. Everyone was signing around us. We felt excluded and yet curious about the role this language would play in the project.

The physical quality of sound was our first approach of the subject. Other modes of perception came into play later on: the tactile (what is felt through the hands, the bones, teeth) and the visual (sonic information that comes from visual stimuli and sound represented through gesture and sign language).

Bringing this last element into the project remained a challenge, and we learnt a great deal from the deaf community. You mention how duration and time were altered in Below 160 and this reminds me of a text entitled Space, Time and Gesture by Deaf architect Jeffrey Mansfield. He states that sign language, like music, operates as a space of resistance to an immediate quest for meaning1. Sign language has a strong emotional resonance; it involves mood and sensation. These words resonate with your work now.

When you started WITHIN at the Sharjah Biennial in 2013 and invited us to the Al Amal school, we were able to give our research a context. Together we went to Sharjah several times and worked with a large group of students from 8 to 22 years of age.

The most vivid memory I have of our intertwined collaboration took place during the opening days. WITHIN had started with a series of performances by 10 drummers playing around the city. We had also organized an afternoon session during which the drummers performed for the students. This performance was both your work and fieldwork. We saw it as a situation to deepen our understanding of the students’ relationship to sound. After the performances, students and drummers met for a feedback session. What we thought was a unique experience for the students turned out to be a unique experience for the drummers as well.

TAREK: Indeed. What personally caught my attention as a composer was that polyphonic drummers who simultaneously play several elements of their drum kit in sophisticated ways had a sound and body language that was hard to read for the students. On the other hand, drummers with a monophonic style who play loudly were more expressive and articulate. This unusual meeting helped me find new ideas for working with the drummers and for engaging with the public spaces of Sharjah.

SANDRA: When we showed the recording of this exchange to Jeffrey Mansfield and conversational analyst Nicolas Rollet, Jeffrey pointed out that the gestures the students used to describe their sensations pertain to the sound description vocabulary used by hearing persons. He described this as one of the reasons why Deaf persons have difficulty expressing their perception of sound. A few months later, Jeffrey set up a workshop in Sharjah exploring how we might create gestures and establish vocabulary to describe sound from a deaf perspective. This is how sign language was introduced into the project.

Convening a pluridisciplinary group of researchers was the basis of Council’s methodology. We came back to Sharjah for a 3-day project (then called Tacet) involving academic exchange in the mornings and practice-based workshops with the Al Amal students in the afternoons. The group included educator Bassem Abdel Ghaffar, designer Desiree Heiss (BLESS), artist Wendy Jacob, sound researcher Inigo Wilkins, joined by sound artist Hasan Hujairi, Jeffrey Mansfield, sign language interpreter Helsa Borinstein and architect Hansel Bauman (via Skype). We wanted to set up a context bearing on our respective areas of specialization but which would also challenge each of our practices. Individual or collective research could then lead to the production of an art project. In your case, your interest in the physicality of noise and sound was informed by the architectural notion of “Deaf space.”

TAREK: I was sensitive to Jeffrey’s work on signs and sounds, to Bassem’s work on mirror neurons and to Wendy’s gesture of giving sound recorders to the students of Al Amal to record the city. Listening to Hansel Bauman was a true inspiration. While I expected a Deaf-friendly architecture to disregard sound and focus on the visual, his work on DeafSpace used sound and vibration as no other architecture did. Then reading the DeafSpace manifesto, the volumes and spaces of this architecture and its use of wood to propagate vibration, evoked huge resonance cases of non-existing instruments. Its modular, configurable walls and its systems of light propagation also reminded me of the software modules and algorithms I use in my computer programming and instrument making. This is when I had the idea of translating the principles of DeafSpace into principles of instrument making. This was the beginning of a new chapter in WITHIN.

SANDRA: In April 2014 we met Hansel Bauman in Washington at Gallaudet University where he teaches and applies his principles of DeafSpace to the university’s buildings. His attention to the body (or the bodythat-is-deaf) within a given space has also fuelled the exhibition you invited us to curate in Bergen. In a Deafspace, there aren’t any elements such as columns or opaque surfaces that might obscure people who are signing from one another. The body-that-isdeaf should always see and be seen. For Sentralbadet, we then asked Jeffrey Mansfield to translate the Deafspace principles into a scenographic proposal.

TAREK: In my case, DeafSpace was a starting point. But I’m not an architect, and rather than carrying out a theoretical translation of architectural principles into instrumental principles, I returned to “learning by doing.”

I started to reflect on an instrument that could be perceived and played by both a Deaf and a hearing person, and then shared this question with different individuals and institutions. For example, I asked Berkeley University and the Renselear Polytechnic Institute, companies working on speakers and sound systems such as Meyer Sound, music studios developing electronic instruments and computer software such as the Electronic Music Studio of Stockholm (EMS). I also invited sound artists, educators and composers working with and teaching Deaf audiences, including Thierry Madiot.

Several sketches, maquettes and prototypes were proposed and underwent experimentation and redesign in collaboration with Deaf and hearing impaired audiences. Thierry Madiot’s percussion tables were redesigned by students from the Nordhal Grieg high school in Bergen, the instruments made by Espen Sommer Eide and EMS were also tested and developed in discussion with individuals of different hearing abilities.

SANDRA: Can you expand on how your experience at ZKM influenced the project in Bergen?

TAREK: Since 2015, WITHIN’s instruments have been developed and shown at the Berkeley Art Museum, EMPAC and ZKM. In each place, the instruments were performed by both Deaf and hearing amateurs and professionals, At ZKM, my participation in the New Sensorium exhibition curated by Yuko Hasegawa contributed to finding new ways and techniques of playing some of the instruments. For example, Agatha Gonsior who is profoundly deaf, played a drum with hundreds of glass marbles, and instead of hearing the sound, she could “see” it through the marbles’ movement. Another example is the feedback the participants gave me on keeping the instruments at a distance from one another in order to keep their sounds distinct. This also brought up new ideas on how to set up the instruments at Sentralbadet, in terms of space, audience and amplification.

SANDRA: When you look at it retrospectively, WITHIN and Infinite Ear have involved more than a hundred participants. Academics and scientists working in various disciplines, musicians, artists, instrument makers, writers and students, from primary school to university. We implemented the idea that each of us holds a form of expertise that can be fruitful to the project. It was never intended to be a “community art” project, targeting a specific community. While it started as an inquiry into Deaf culture, it gradually became an exploration of what hearing is, aside from the aural: hearing in our dreams, hearing voices or the dead, listening to birds or recording unexpected and imperceptible sound. Beyond the hearing and non-hearing binary, it brought together expertise that does not generally meet, therefore challenging a set of preconceived ideas.

The exhibition is far from complete, there are ideas yet to be explored and more works to show — but it is certainly a resulting form. One can trace how the curating of Sentralbadet is informed by different modes of hearing (the tactile, the visual, the signed) that cohabit and feed one another. As for authorship, the distinction between your work and Council’s becomes immaterial. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the exhibition WITHIN and Infinite Ear is hopefully a coherent form yet composed of autonomous projects.

TAREK: I don’t see Bergen as WITHIN’s final chapter. At Sentralbadet, we will learn to play the instruments individually and as an ensemble. By composing pieces and creating multiple performance situations the project will develop further. My aim is to see these instruments and their repertoire enter a music school or an educational institution that intends to set up a music program for Deaf and hearing people. The work we do in Bergen will be laying important foundations for establishing something along those lines.


  • Tarek Atoui
  • Sandra Terdjman

This text was initially published in 2016 in the publication of the exhibition WITHIN/Infinite Ear, Bergen Assembly.

Image: workshop by Tarek Atoui with deaf persons during WITHIN/Infinite Ear, Bergen Assembly 2016, Photo: Thor Brødreskift © Bergen Assembly

1. Jeffrey Mansfield, Space, Time and Gesture: Gestural Expression, Sensual Aesthetics and Crisis in Contemporary Spatial Paradigms, 2014. An excerpt of this text has been published for the exhibition WITHIN/Infinite Ear in Infinite Ear: A Reader (Ed. Emma McCormick-Goodhart)
Continue reading