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Khaled Kaddal: Sculpting Sound and Power

“If politics shapes our social and living environments then sound is definitely political”

Sound artist Khaled Kaddal
Sound artist Khaled Kaddal

*You might be familiar with the sounds of your city.. But people are usually too distracted to listen, and sometimes even afraid of doing so.

*Try to listen to people talking your mother tongue language, and try not to decode the meaning. Focus instead on the sound and the musicality of it.

*I have a problem with categorizing my work. I love and follow different art disciplines, and they all affect my practice.

by Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi

Khaled Kaddal is an Egyptian interdisciplinary artist and experimental musician. Focused on the sociopolitical dimension of sound, his work sheds light on the otherwise obscure relationship between sound and power. Delivering frequently unnerving sonic experiences, he is keen on widening people’s conceptions of the oriental aesthetic by operating in a post-music sonic landscape. Be it through belphonic sounds or even conversations from a ‘shaabi’ café in Alexandria, Kaddal’s performances force us to reflect upon the impact of sound on our bodies and memory.

In this interview, Khaled talks about his interest in sound and its sociopolitical aspects and elaborates on some of his most phenomenal performances, including “The sky is high but not for everyone”, which he recently performed in response to The Mosaic Room’s current exhibition Still.

When did you first start capturing sounds? What triggered your interest?

I just remembered now that when I was a kid, I used to lean towards the car’s window and listen to the wobbling sound of the wind while my father is driving on highways.

But other than that, I am originally a guitarist who played different types of music with local bands. I am trained in western music and also played with oriental music sets. Throughout my musical journey, I got exposed to different aesthetics, but what caught me the most is trancing. Currently, I find this in the abstraction of sounds.

The socio-political dimension to your work is very evident. Tell us about the artists, movements or philosophies that influence your own practice.

This is a very hard question. I got influenced by many artists, movements and philosophies, and maybe it is an endless list. Would it be ridiculous if I say everything that makes me question and wonder?

In one of your sound installations titled “Alexandria (((s)))ound- Rope Pulling”, you play self-recorded waves of the urban of Alexandria. Sounds from the urban includes sea waves, construction sites, oriental cafes, the tram, Muslim prayer call, Coptic Christian wedding prayer, birds, begging homeless and unofficial sellers in the street. The installation is meant to offer a different perspective on the concept of resistance via an exploration of the motion of the city. Is this installation site-specific, or have you played it elsewhere?

It took place in Alexandria, Dakar and Madrid. It was a collaborative work curated by La compania from Madrid.

What do you think is the impact of a contextual shift and changed preconditions on the meaning of the artwork? Alexandrians are familiar with these sounds whereas other audiences might not be. Do you find this problematic?

I believe that you might be familiar with the sounds of your city, but you rarely get the chance to listen attentively. People are usually too distracted to listen, and sometimes even afraid of doing so. Familiarity with sounds surely impacts meaning, but the effort to disrupt this familiarity broadens perspectives. Try to listen to people talking your mother tongue language, and try not to decode the meaning. Focus instead on the sound and the musicality of it. It is something I enjoy doing.

I should also note that I don’t have any messages to deliver. I have perceptions that I would like to share. So there is nothing problematic about contextual shifts. While I might have a conceptual motive behind my artwork at times, the audience have the total right to build their own interpretations. It is always variable and it is better to be variable and flexible so we could have discussions and enjoy our differences. I prefer to see it as sharing and communicating rather than preaching.

The installation was divided into 3 parts, each containing self-recorded sounds that are categorized as “positive”, “negative” and “neutral”. The idea was that having a positive and a negative force facing each other would create resistance in an otherwise neutral space. Can you elaborate on what constitutes a “positive” or a “negative” sound in your opinion?

There is the psychological aspect and the physical aspect. At the time, there were sounds in Alexandria that discomforted me; especially the political interpretations of them. Some sounds are associated with previous experiences and form a sonic memory. While other sounds might harm you, like ones that reach 120db.

Two weeks ago, you performed two sets at the Mosaic Rooms. The first was titled “The Sky is High but not for Everyone”, and was a response to The Mosaic Room’s exhibition “Still”. The exhibition reflects on Palestine’s colonial past and the current context of occupation. Elaborate on that response.

Sound in the “Still” exhibition is a main component and we cannot exclude it, which is why the Mosaic Rooms invited me to make a sound performance.

As you mentioned, the “Still” exhibition reflects on Palestine’s colonial past and the current context of occupation. So the exhibition focuses on the past and present. Consequently, it impelled me to explore the future. So I thought I’d reflect on the progression into a post-traumatic growth.

From where I stand, I saw two dimensions to the “Still” exhibition; the human dimension (encompassing the daily life of the Palestinians), and the historical and political dimension associated with the Israeli occupation. “The Sky is high, but not for everyone” is a response to the human dimension of the Palestinian situation. I wanted to share an emotional response that everyone would be able to relate to, regardless of their cultural or political backgrounds.

The second performance was titled “Code 03” and it explored the link between the sound of politics and the politics of sound. In what ways do you think sound is political?

It is a sonorous medium which we sculpture. How we sculpture it depends on our living environments. If politics in turn shapes our social and living environments then sound is definitely political.

Is it fair to say that sound can be used to undermine existent power structures, or do you consider this a vain/naive overstatement?

I don’t think that it is naive at all. Sound is an essential medium in our daily life that mirrors culture and vice versa. Many scholars and artists work on this specific theme. Examples include Brandon LaBelle, Salomé Voeglein, Steve Goodman and Martin Daughtry.

Visuals are at the heart of this performance. An interesting component in the visuals displayed is the Arabic numbers that flash at certain intervals. The audience shared with me very diverse interpretations of the purpose behind their display. What is your personal intention? Is their “Arabness” important to the meaning of the installation?

I have been asked several questions about these numbers. It could be seen as Arabness if you are familiar with Arabic culture. Yet, many people saw this performance elsewhere and didn’t recognize the language. From their perspective, the numbers are abstractly generated shapes, and I love this.

In your opinion, does your identity have an impact on the artwork you produce?

No doubt! But maybe my identity in the broader sense of the term, which encompasses my family, friends, experiences, what I read, how I think and so on.

You sometimes wear a mask during your sets, endowing them with a performative element. Would you classify your work as “performance art”?

My tutor used to often tell me that I have to contextualize my practices and specify their form. I have a problem with categorizing my work. I love and follow different art disciplines, and they all affect my practice. Therefore, I prefer to introduce myself as an interdisciplinary artist.

Over the last couple of years you founded the Sawtyat project, which is an initiative of sound installations in urban spaces. Tell us more about this project.

This was my first project, back when I started to experiment with building instruments myself. It was funded by the British Council, and was to take place in Alexandria and Damietta in Egypt. Basically, I built 21 tuned wind chimes and displayed them in public spaces. This was at a time when many art initiatives wanted to physically engage with public spaces in Egypt.

You are also a musician and a composer. In your view what distinguishes sound art from music? Are they mutually exclusive art forms? How strictly do you separate music and sound art?

Differentiating between sound art and music is arguable. I believe that music is organized sounds, quite simply. Personally, I can separate them from one another only in the context of art institutions and cultural programming.

What are the most significant challenges you encounter as a sound artist?

There are many challenges, but what I can mention for now is finding new collaborations that are not only saturated in Western countries.

What are your views on the current Middle Eastern cultural scene?

Each country in the Middle East has a distinct cultural, economic and political context which translates to diversity in terms of the art coming out of each country. Intersections in aesthetics and collaborations between them are increasingly taking place, bridged by donor institutions, biennales, and festivals. But still, I can’t place them all under one category, because the sky is high.

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