Last March, Tarek Atoui, the internationally acclaimed Paris-based sound artist, stood before a platter of electronic dials, sliders, and sensors embedded into an unlabeled control deck in the front of Meyer Sound’s private performance space in Berkeley. As if communicating with the self-made instrument through gesture, Atoui’s hands flitted from one electronic appendage to the next, theatrically activating a random selection of field recordings that flooded through the venue’s impeccable sound system. It was difficult to distinguish how much of the piece was spontaneous and how much was calculated. Like most of his work, Atoui’s performance style is experimental in two senses — driven both by artistic intuition and scientific investigation.
That performance came at the beginning of an eight-month residency at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) that Atoui will soon culminate with a series of three more performances. While the museum’s new building has been under construction, Atoui has been working offsite on an unusual installment of its MATRIX series, which often features artists at the conceptual forefront of their fields. For the residency, Atoui worked with Greg Niemeyer, the director of the Berkeley Center for New Media, and a seminar of his Cal students to develop instruments specifically designed for deaf and hearing impaired players and audiences.
During the past two years, Atoui — whose interdisciplinary practice lies at the intersection of musical composition, sound art, educational public practice, curating, and instrument design — has devoted himself to developing an understanding of sound that transcends the auditory experience. In 2012 and 2013, Atoui worked with a school for deaf children in the Emirate of Sharjah to test the students’ experience of sound. He and supporting researchers found that the children much preferred the drum over any other instrument because it can be felt throughout the body. They learned that the students identified “noisy” spaces as banks and post offices — echo-y places where it’s difficult to isolate where sound waves come from. And they found that sight was integral to the students’ understanding of sound. When given recorders and asked to record “noise,” the children were drawn to things that are considered noisy even when they weren’t making any sound — such as a silent police siren. Still, when these recordings were amplified into a weather balloon, many of the students could identify their own recordings based on the vibrations they felt.
With these realizations in mind, Atoui entered into collaboration with UC Berkeley students to develop instruments using a reconfigured understanding of both performing and listening that focused on tactility and gesture. The instrument “Zero Point Nine” is made of up three platforms, each housing three subwoofers, on which the performer stands, activating motion sensors to manipulate complex digital synthesizers that generate sub-bass and infrasounds — extremely low frequencies that vibrate through the body. The “SuperPac” is made up of three percussion tables that primarily generate bass connected to a large subwoofer and a set of vibrating chairs so that audiences can more directly feel the sound. “Sometimes you say, ‘This instrument needs to be experienced with an amplifier,’ or ‘This instrument is to be plugged in on a stereo system,” said Atoui. “So this one is to be plugged into a chair that has a subpac, in other words, a subwoofer you sit on.” The instruments will be played publicly for the first time in a performance called WITHIN 2 on November 5 at the Mills College Student Union, with two more performances on November 7 in the Hearst Mining Building at UC Berkeley.
While those performances will culminate Atoui’s BAMPFA residency, they are just one set of experiments in his ongoing attempt to understand the experience of sound from a deaf person’s perspective. Next, he plans to work with deaf people to get feedback on how the instruments feel. Eventually, he hopes to incorporate these instruments into an orchestra made up of hearing, deaf, and hearing-impaired players. But that offers another set of obstacles in itself. “Deaf people often feel that they are not concerned with music and instruments … [so] you have to overcome several psychological barriers in a way,” Atoui explained. He’s also interested in exploring how the gestural aspect of performing can operate as a visual vocabulary similar to sign language. “I’m barely scratching the surface yet, I think,” said Atoui. “That’s my intention … unlearning the way I do things by learning from deaf people.”