"Freedom of assembly is a hoax"

Fatima Al Qadiri in conversation with Daniel Keller

Fatima Al Qadiri
photo: Camille Blake

"Brute", the new album from Kuwaiti artist and musician Fatima Al Qadiri, creates a soundscape for the relationship between police, citizens and global protest movements worldwide, with particular attention to her adopted home in the United States. 

The eleven choral and instrumental presets of dark and digital miniatures feature bass cuts that convey a sense of impending disaster. The violence suggested by the album title remains uncomfortably present throughout the tracks, at times repellent, at times melancholic, always precipitating in unexpected ways; this is the richly textured protest soundtrack for the 21st century, full of contradictions and distant feelings.  

Al Qadiri sat down with the artist Daniel Keller in Berlin to discuss sonic weaponry, new forms of slavery and the possibility for political activism today. 

 

Daniel Keller: Hi Fatima. Tell me about working on the new album.

Fatima Al Qadiri: I’ve been working on this album since March last year. I worked on it for about 2 months and then worked on it some more in September. It took 4 months to finish, which is fast for me. But I was in the perfect scenario, because I was in Kuwait, which can get kinda boring. I need a little idleness to make music.

Was this the first album you produced entirely in Kuwait?

Oh no, I’ve produced so many there. Actually, I’ve only ever produced albums in Kuwait or in New York. My room (at my family’s house) in Kuwait is windowless… which makes it kinda like a real studio. I like not having a window when I’m writing music.

It’s how a lot of casinos work, entrap you in a room without windows or clocks so you keep ‘working’. In Berlin I use a SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lamp for the same effect. I don’t know if they work for depression, but it definitely tricks your body into thinking it’s still day. You lose all sense of time and just stay awake.

For me depression is a necessary ingredient. It’s like Vitamin C for recording.

Ha. When I’m depressed I’m not productive.

Oh no— I’ve made so many albums and tracks when I’m depressed. I was in a very bad state of mind when I made it. When I started recording, I just had a knee injury and I couldn’t walk for a month. I was bedridden in a windowless room for a month in Kuwait.

So is this a darker album? What’s changed?

It had a lot to do with dealing with that confinement and staring at Twitter all the time. I was in a rage and despair cycle. I think if you have distractions, it’s like you feel that rage, but then life happens. Every time you see the same kind of incident repeated. There is an anger-reserve that gets activated.

How do you see yourself in relation to authority?

In general, Kuwait is all about obeying orders. Elders giving orders and everyone must obey or be ostracized, cut off, etc. There is always a series of punishments for not obeying. You are not your own person, you’re tied to the tribe’s reputation. We have a serious authoritarian culture in fact.

How much of this album is about your experience in the United States?

It’s focused on the States but it’s more about a global phenomenon.

Which phenomenon?

There are two. One is police brutality, which is just widespread across all countries, and the other is that the freedom to assemble in democracies is an illusion. It’s something that exists on paper, but the minute you assemble in large numbers against the government — Game Over. They shut it down immediately.

But are these new phenomena? Or what’s changed exactly?

No they’re definitely old, but with new technology. That’s why I started the album with an LRAD sample, are you familiar with that?

Ah no, what’s that?

It stands for Long Range Acoustic Device.

Oh! Actually yes, I wanted to buy one when I was 19 and in art school. So I called up the manufacturer and they were like, “sure you can buy one, it’ll be $38,000” . I was shocked they were even available to consumers.

I think the LRAD is very interesting, because

it’s a sonic weapon but its manufacturers are adamant that it isn’t a weapon. It’s omnidirectional and works up to a mile. The alert system you hear in the first track can deafen people. It’s basically a crowd dispersal machine. 

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I was wondering about the title. “Brute” means savage or uncivilized, but it also refers to Brutus, who was sort of the OG anti-authoritarian anti-imperialist. Are you into that paradox?

I wanted a counterpoint to the word “thug”, because since at least the 80’s or 90’s it’s become a ubiquitous and thinly veiled racial slur. Thug is the new, media-friendly N-word. And I wanted something that could counter it. But I thought brute was perfect because it’s this word that is almost dandyish despite it being so savage. It has these scary animalistic connotations, but when you actually say the word — like, “Oh you brute“ — it carries no power.

That makes sense, because the album actually struck me as delicate. I was wondering if you were trying to sort of invert an idea of brutality, like if we’re talking about sonic weapons, this album is definitely not an assault on the ears. It’s maybe your most beautiful and sensitive album yet.

I don’t think I could make an album that is an assault on the ears. But I think all the prettiness is symptomatic of the despair. Like it’s fragile, falling apart.

So what about the cover, did Josh Kline's work inspire the album or vice versa?

I saw Josh’s exhibition on the very last day it was up in New York, and as soon as I saw the Teletubby sculpture (“Po-Po”) I knew I had to use it. I was immediately struck by how iconic it was. I don’t think I’ve ever had an iconic album cover before with this kind of pop element. So we started with this straight installation shot, then we got Babak [Radboy] to do the typography and transformation. He came back with the hair and the chapped lips and the broken veins — I always say he ‘Darren Wilson’ed it.

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What do you mean with this? 

I think there is something in it about the relationship between the police and citizens. That there is this hidden infantilization in the way police interact with people. They demand this kind of respect which is normally reserved for ‘the elders’ of a society. I always think of Cartman and “respect mah authoritah”’— it’s a joke but it’s also deadly serious. This crazed, insecure childlike [character], craving of respect that is just totally real and out there. I think police departments probably recruit a sizable number of people who are motivated to join by this desire itself.

I always remember something Simon Denny once told me, that it’s “hard for an artist to convey more than a general attitude”; that specific content tends to get lost on an audience. Do you think your work can do more than establish a sort of mood? What is Brute’s mood?

I’m interested in inciting dialogue or conversation. That is the ultimate goal of any of these records. Brute is about my interest in the notion that the freedom of assembly is a hoax, and that is what is lost in the conversation about protest and brutality. I think it’s even more important than freedom of speech. You can write articles until doomsday, but if you can’t assemble, it doesn’t mean anything.

I think it was the Critical Art Ensemble who wrote “the streets are dead capital”, meaning that physical resistance is no longer effective. For instance with Occupy, Wall Street isn’t on wall street. It’s in a data center in New Jersey, but nobody occupied the data center.

I don’t fully agree. When you protest you’re stopping commerce and capital and threatening the perceived “safety” of real estate and there is this level of anxiety that the state has when people go out in large numbers in a major city.

It’s an intolerable inconvenience in the eyes of the state and corporations like a rhino being annoyed by a pack of ants crawling on its horn.

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But what about how much money they spent after the Boston Marathon bombing when they shut down the entire city for a three day manhunt. Clearly the government isn’t too concerned with disruptions to commerce.

A government-sanctioned shutdown is still not quite the same as civilians shutting it down. Who makes and participates in the decision is still important. Anyway, if you look at the gains that have been made since the civil rights protests… - progress has happened at a snail’s pace. Once you stop protesting, that’s when the idiocracy is in full effect.

Ha, yes speaking of which, let’s just segue right into the US election. You can’t vote but do you have a candidate you are supporting? Are you feeling the Bern?

My father always told me that elections are a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. I think Hillary is business-as-usual. Did you hear what Cornell West said today? “Sister Hillary is the Milli Vanilli of American politics.” But isn’t everybody the Milli Vanilli of politics, doesn’t everyone pay lip service? Or lip sync?

Yeah I think that people are looking for a kind of moral purity in a candidate which doesn’t seem possible.

I don’t think it’s about moral purity. There are just some issues like college debt—like student loans are a time-bomb waiting to explode in America. Universities in California used to be free, so it isn’t as if Bernie making college free is outlandish, but nobody else is even talking about it let alone doing anything about it.

Sure I agree, I just fear that even if he is elected there will be the same dejection people felt with Obama once they are faced with the reality of American government. Hope is a double-edged sword.

Have you seen the Gore Vidal documentary “The United States of Amnesia” where he says, “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he's been bought ten times over”? I definitely feel like we have to talk about the lesser of two evils. And for me, the lesser of two evils is Bernie.

But that’s like the lesser of eight evils!

Ok Obviously if it’s Hillary against Trump, come on…

Do you think that left and right are still useful terms? Trump doesn’t really count as a traditional conservative. We were talking about your father earlier and his combination of a leftist politics with an authoritarian streak comes to mind.  

There are still extremists… But I think trying to delineate where the center is, is more interesting. Like, that keeps shifting; the center is not in the same position today as it was in 1955.

Yeah, in 1955, the Democrats were the Republicans! I wonder if we’re seeing part of a greater pole shift in politics globally, a sort of fracturing of existing coalitions. I sort of see the visibility of ‘Social Justice Warrior’ rhetoric as part of this.

I think the term ‘Social Justice Warrior’ is very interesting…. It sounds like a put-down. But, to me, a SJW is a neo-con term for an activist.

It applies to a certain kind of internet commentator more than a traditional activist. Like, social justice is an unequivocal good but having the attitude of a ‘warrior’ isn’t always useful.

I mean it should hopefully be both on and offline, but online activism is useful. For instance the hashtag #oscarssowhite is very important, it made all these racist Hollywood people come out of the closet. It’s the same with the Brit Awards and #britssowhite: all of the British winners and nominees were white! To say that there is no local non-white talent in the UK is outrageous, especially considering the year that Grime has had. Yes award shows in and of themselves don’t matter, but the effect it has financially on one’s career can’t be underestimated. We need to have online discussion about hegemony until it becomes so odious that people can no longer operate the same way.

Do you think there is something ironic about discussing hegemony on hegemonic platforms like Twitter and FB?

I try not to overthink it. I just see it as a tool. There is very little that we consume today that wasn’t created by some kind of semi-slave conditions or in some cases, full-on slavery. That’s just basic capitalism.

Sure, but tools aren’t neutral. Have you seen that new Boston Dynamics robot? It’s also just a tool, but it walks around on it’s own and carries boxes and gets up when you knock it down. The most successful Californian tech companies are the ones with the most fundamental and totalitarian aims: Google to organize all knowledge, Facebook to mediate all social interaction, Amazon all commerce etc.

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Twitter is less hegemonic than FB, but the one I’m most concerned with long-term is Google. They are hatching the most ‘interesting’ plots.

Do you think we’re nearing World War 3? Has it already started?

I feel like WW3 is a gremlin in a freezer, that we keep just opening the door and peeking in. Maybe, eventually, we’ll open the door? But I have a different view on war. During the invasion of Kuwait, I lived under martial law for months. Once you’ve seen the apocalypse, it’s not like you aren’t phased by it, but at least you know what it looks like. We literally lived indoors the vast majority of the time. Going outside was very dangerous. Every few blocks there was a checkpoint manned by an 18 or 19 year old Iraqi soldier with a machine gun. And it was up to him whether or not you lived. It was this arbitrariness of the power which was so terrifying. Me and my sister Monira weren’t quite old enough to understand what an invasion was. The word in Arabic is the same as rape. Once we understood what was happening, we just became disgusted with adults and withdrew entirely into video games and toys. We became super addicted to video games from age 9 to around 14. I really credit our creativity to this period.

So it was actually a similar experience to producing this album, a self-imposed martial law?

Yes, and it’s funny because I hadn’t played video games since I was 15, I guess because I associate them with depression. But when I was cooped up in Kuwait I downloaded this fab emulator and played...everything. I think there is this thing with video games that simulate physical agency and bodily control. If you don’t have control over your movements, you crave it.  

 

Fatima Al Qadiri, Brute will be released on Hyperdub Records on March 4th.

FATIMA AL QADIRI is a Kuwaiti music producer and artist. She has released music as a solo artist on Tri-Angle, UNO, Fade to Mind, Hyperdub and as a member of Future Brown on Warp. Al Qadiri is a member of the Gulf-based collective GCC, whose work has been exhibited at MoMA PS1, Fridericianum, the New Museum, Sharjah Foundation and the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

DANIEL KELLER is an American artist based in Berlin. His wide-ranging artistic output speculates on the intersection of economics, technology, culture and collaboration. His work has been exhibited at the New Museum, Fridericianum, Kunst-Werke Berlin, MoMA Warsaw, Kunsthalle Wien, Musée d’Art Moderne Paris and PAC Milano. Keller (like the GCC collective, of which Fatima Al Qadiri is a member) is represented by Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler​.