Heritage Studios: about categorised practices, cultural gatekeeping and the continuous negotiation between worlds.

It was a Saturday morning and, quite frankly, a little bit too early for any conversation. But, I was stoked because I got to talk with three artists about an electronic music project that is linked to topics like cultural heritage and identity. This is my shit.

Salim was the first to log in. Having chosen the comfort of his bed over a desk, I immediately felt less shitty about my swollen eyes and sleepy voice. While waiting for Yara (Noise Diva) and Hala (LazerGazer) to join, we catch up on random Morocco facts. I spoke to Salim the day before about Heritage Studios, a project initiated by (A)WAKE in which electronic music artists can work on topics related to their cultural identity and heritage. The pilot features the visual artist and half of the musical duo BAZOGA Salim Bayri and the latest project called Derby Saga by LazerGazer and Noise Diva.

 

But you know where this obsession (of defining, categorizing) comes from, Salim? It doesn’t come from us. This obsession is institutionalised and very Western. So when we are together in a group, we know what we’re doing. We’re from the same place, so we understand. It’s just that you are being exhibited everywhere you go – Yara (Noise Diva)

Could you tell us a bit about your practices?

Hala: It is changing all the time because I’m trying out a lot of different things to see where my intuition drives me. I don’t know what I want, but I feel what I want, and I feel what I don’t want.

Salim: I stopped making all these categories. I don’t care. I simply work and follow my curiosity, and that’s it. Nothing is fixed in categories in the making. It is about interest. I’m curious about this or that – like Hala said: things that give you butterflies.

How is that for you, Yara? Is your work categorised in a specific practice, or is it also more intuition-based?

Yara: I navigate it in external and internal. Because internally, yes, I can be intuitive. But externally, I have to pay my bills. There’s always this tension between those two. So, for example, if I need funds, I need to categorise myself. This categorisation is something I learned in lockdown. I was graduating, and I think I got my best work done in the last five years of my life simply because people weren’t watching me. So, I was like fuck it; I’ll do something that makes me happy. But then, to externalise it, I have to write about it, categorise it, define it.

If your work is so personal or intuitive, how do you translate that internal experience to the external world?

Yara: I work very hard, and I have a sound support system.

Yara was about to start talking about community but swiftly interrupted herself. ‘I’m also a tool of the institution. Look at the way I talk. You know, sometimes I listen to myself and think, What is this bullshit that I’m saying?’  I get what she means, though. We get so used to using specific terminology when talking about our experiences that we don’t even realise that the words weren’t ours to begin with. However, she did have a point.  ‘I guess it’s really about talking to people. Because you doubt yourself so much’  Yara emphasises the importance of being in a healthy environment and having good friends. ‘That helps you translate because the language does not exist yet. The readily available language is very imperialist.’

Do you relate to Yara’s comment as well, Hala and Salim?

Salim: Absolutely. It’s good to know, and it takes practice to know which exact context you are in and to whom you’re speaking. So, when you talk to an institution in the Netherlands, you speak a certain way. When you are in a self-organised collective, you talk differently.

To Salim, it’s all about knowing how to formulate things – something not everyone chooses to do. ‘There are some frontal people; they don’t want to compromise. No matter what, they will go through everything in the same way. There are different styles: I choose to negotiate.’

I had quite some trouble with this compromise growing up – the idea that I had to constantly change my language to feel heard by the people that were supposedly listening. I wondered if these artists also felt like they were tokenising themselves in any way.

Salim: It’s okay. It’s just a negotiation. You adapt in every context. As a compromise, I like to keep a part of it to myself. That’s why I post things on Instagram. So that, if you want to hear my voice, you can trace it, go back to the source. I may say something stupid in a particular show because it’s curated, but I have channels for personal work, like my mailing list. So that’s my corner of expression. Untouched.

A small discussion gets sparked where the artists explore if we might be taking things a little bit too seriously. While Yara is grateful for receiving constructive feedback and sees an opportunity to correct people. She sees it as a problem in the attitudinal approach. When you put too much pressure on something, it shows. ‘I think the more comfortable you are with what you do; the more people will feel comfortable with it.’

I don’t necessarily believe it’s one or the other. Instead, I think that it’s about where you are as a creator and where you find meaning in what you do. Like many things in life, it’s a spectrum. Salim seems to agree and adds: ‘It can be moments too, you know. It can be a serious exhibition about serious topics, but you can also do something silly. It’s fine, you know. It’s this obsession with the statement: this artist is about this. To that, I say: No, today is about this, and tomorrow is something else.’

There is something about the ease with which he expresses himself. There seems to be no pretending with any of these three artists, and that is exceptionally refreshing. In a time where everything is about building brands and continuity, admitting that nothing is set in stone is quite a radical statement. And when we talk about cultural heritage, somehow we seem to always end up in the same cliches.

Yara: But you know where this obsession comes from, Salim? It doesn’t come from us. This obsession is institutionalised and very Western. So when we are together in a group, we know what we’re doing. We’re from the same place, so we understand. It’s just that you are being exhibited everywhere you go.

Yara’s voice intensifies, and we all closely listen as she puts our shared experiences into words. ‘Like, we get it. If I’m sitting with Salim and Hala and you, I don’t need to explain. When I was with Salim yesterday, we watched something; we got the same jokes, we laughed, and that’s it.’ I nod confirming that I understand that it’s nice not to have to explain every little thing and follow up by asking if always being in a context where you have to translate your experiences changes how you work. ‘Definitely. And when your work changes through this translation, it becomes a new work, I think. It’s not so bad, though, because something new can emerge from it. This translation could also be a kind of practice, and it could be fun to think of it like that.’ There it is again, that light-heartedness.

I’m replaying what has been said in my head and start wondering if we are indeed taking things too seriously. Somehow, I cannot shake the feeling that people see you as a representative of an entire culture. It’s a label you don’t choose. Instead, it is put on you. As soon as you start speaking, you’re a person from there that is speaking. Salim says that you can break it. ‘You just have to be aware of to whom you’re speaking. Once you know that, the work makes a lot more sense.’

As the conversation continues, I absorb the insights and remarks. The importance of spaces in which this perpetual translation is absent such as Heritage Studios shows in a slightly different way than expected. And it makes me wonder. How would this experience with Heritage Studios be different from for example a graduation project or an exhibition with a white institution?

Salim: Probably the amount of shared information. So, if I tell Reda (Cheb Runner) about Statti, he will get it. I don’t have to show it which makes communication a lot easier. But I’m not going to lie, if something is good, the quality is good, then it doesn’t really matter if someone understands or feels related to it. It’s just good.

But who would then be the judge of that?

Salim: It’s the work, the honesty, the help that you receive, the feedback that you get, through that it becomes good work. If you have a fruitful conversation, if you share it, it becomes good if you apply the feedback you receive.

For none of the artists, music is their main practice, which makes sense now. Why would anything be the primary practice if your intuition and your curiosity are what drive you? Why commit to one practice when there are so many ways to explore your interests? I ask them if they ever consciously worked on preserving their cultural heritage and remember an interview I read by Dekmantel where Hala talks about her mom’s old cassettes that she experiments with.

Hala: I wouldn’t call it cultural preservation because it’s just my mom’s cassette collection, you know?

Actually, I didn’t know. To me, it sounded like the ultimate preservation. But Hala quickly continued her explanation. ‘When you say culture, it feels similar to when you say ‘art world’. The concepts are too abstract for my small understanding.” Finally, I think I started to get where she was going. She explains how you grow up getting used to some things that later become labelled cultural elements or traditions. ‘A part of it is brainwashed, a part of it doesn’t make any sense, and a part of it is really beautiful.’ For Hala, a lot of it has to do with this switching in thinking between two languages – not in the linguistic sense but in the way her work carries visual cultural significance. ‘Sometimes, I think no one is going to understand my work because all the references are unfamiliar to the people here. Perhaps for me preserving is not forgetting. Because I’m going to live all my life here, and I’m becoming more Dutch every day.’

For Salim preserving cultural heritage is about redefining it. ‘I mean, that’s the big quality of arts. That it’s free enough to move outside these typologies, no?’ He states that it’s almost something biological. ‘I carry it whether I want it or not. It’s in my head, in the electronics of my brain and the algorithms that surround me.’ To preserve your heritage can be both active and passive. ‘However, what I don’t want to do, is create fake things – fantasies or nostalgias of Morocco. I just want to be understood myself.’

I’m intrigued. What Salim was talking about was an experience that hit home. Being a child of the diaspora, the reference of my heritage came directly from my household. However, it seemed somewhat limited to whatever my parents remembered from when they went to the Netherlands in the ’80s – in other words, preserved. It was like references of my heritage weren’t up to date and therefore carried a kind of nostalgia that was no longer an accurate representation of what it means to be of that culture.

 

We’re all very dependent on non-governmental channels. So, WhatsApp can go down, and the entire music industry in Morocco will stop, but the servers of the national archive of Beeld & Geluid will still be on. There is a huge difference. We could say that most of North Africa’s cultural preservation depends on Silicon Valley, whereas Europe has all their stuff neatly sorted and tucked away somewhere in proper conditions. This is where I feel we still have a lot of work to do and progress to gain – Salim

Preserving sounds like you want to hold things in their place. So why do people want to preserve cultural heritage?

Salim clearly has the goal to break this idea. ‘I don’t want anything to sit in its place. The hardcopy of my hard drive is the only preservation I care about.’ Yara seems to be in deep thoughts. When I ask her what she thinks about that, she says, ‘Ah, but this is so interesting!’ and tells a story about her friend who went to Palestine and was supposed to bring back specific t-shirts. But, unfortunately, they did not have them anymore and ‘then I realised, oh shit, we’re the ones that didn’t move on. Everyone else back there moved on, but we’re the ones stuck here. Because people don’t know anything but what we tell them. And they want us to keep telling them the story that does not exist anymore.’

How we define our heritage seems to relate to how we work on the topic and which questions we ask ourselves. “For me, now, when I think of heritage, I want to do stuff with it because people talk about it. So it opens my eyes to the idea of existing. But to be honest, I feel like my grandmother. I put Fayrouz on in the morning, I make coffee, and I sit down. I feel like I’m 60 years old. I know that I’ve been pushed to this point because of my surroundings.” Salim reassures Yara that it’s good to be aware of it. “Otherwise, you start building this fantasy.”

It’s not a lonely battle that Yara fights. “My friends also inspire me. There’s a conflict in Haifa, and they still go back there. It’s a reality check: Our homes are unsafe, but we need to go back there, visit, and come back here. Actively participate in our cultures. It’s funny because you think that when you come here, you’re an immigrant or a migrant. But in reality, the more you live here, the more you become a migrant.’

I go quiet for a bit as I digest Yara’s words. They encapsulate everything we had just discussed. First, there is the factual reality: you are a migrant – you migrated from one place to another. But how far you live up to that role comes after, partly by how you move through a space, partly by how you are made to move through a space. It’s like you enter a maze. Maybe you can decide which way to turn, but you are not controlling where the walls are. 

We cannot talk about cultural preservation without mentioning the importance of documenting and archiving, especially considering the systemic erasure of the histories of our cultures and the knowledge that came with it. In that sense, preservation is necessary as a form of resistance. But how can we preserve in a way that doesn’t hold us in our places – without being captured in a nostalgic past?

For Salim, a lot of it comes down to checking. Again, referring to Yara’s words, he says the important thing is to stay in touch with what is happening. He does so through digital platforms like YouTube and Soundcloud. “It changes constantly, and as soon as you stop checking, you are back in the past.” Hala adds, “How we perceive where we are from is also entirely different from how the world perceives it. It has nothing to do with significant historical events. They are not what make the place.”

Hala argues that what makes a place is how people interact with each other. ‘When I think about heritage, I’m also a bit whitewashed. And I don’t want to think about this because it’s just about history, what happened, who came, who raped who, or took what from what.’ To her, these are things that come and go and will continue to happen. ‘But what stays is how we have simple human interactions with people.’

So I guess that, in a way, you are preserving your cultural heritage daily by existing?

Hala: Yeah, by talking to your friends. If I had lived in Syria now, how would I be preserving it? Simply by living, you know, by going to the bar in the old town, seeing my friends, calling them. And quite frankly, I cannot preserve it here because I can’t have the same friendships in the same way. It’s completely different.

Salim: For me, this heritage and preservation is also a lot about infrastructures. You saw on that Monday, everything went down, and you could not do anything. We’re all very dependent on non-governmental channels. So, WhatsApp can go down, and the entire music industry in Morocco will stop, but the servers of the national archive of Beeld & Geluid will still be on. There is a huge difference. We could say that most of North Africa’s cultural preservation depends on Silicon Valley, whereas Europe has all their stuff neatly sorted and tucked away somewhere in proper conditions. This is where I feel we still have a lot of work to do and progress to gain.”

Something about this conversation felt so familiar; how to place yourself in professional surroundings that do not reflect any personal references. How does one transmit their story in understandable languages? Who decides what we preserve? But also, who decides what we consider our culture? Are we even allowed to move on, to heal? And what about the available infrastructures, do they have space for all we have to offer? 

After the four of us turn inwards, each aboard their very own thought train, Salim breaks the silence: ‘But here we are as artists, not preservers, or historians or archivists.’ I agree. It allows for freedom and experimentation. ‘…and to raise questions and mess things up. We should remember that we’re not here to consolidate anything.’

Interview Manal Aziz
Heritage Studios is an initiative of (A)WAKE

Salim Bayri and Derby Saga (LazerGazer & Noise Diva) will present the pilot of Heritage Studios’ audiovisual project in Beursschouwburg on 20 of November and (A)WAKE will host an intimate showcase event this Saturday in MONO.

Heritage Studios is initiated by (A)WAKE and supported by Creative Industries Fund, SENA, Fonds voor Podiumkunsten and Ableton.