You may know Nicolas Jaar for his moody and minimalist music, but the recording artist and producer has also been experimenting with sound art for years, including his 2012 five-hour improvisational piece From Scratch at the Museum of Modern Art PS1 and more recently his sound and light installation at the Het Hem art institute in the Netherlands, where he is currently completing an artist residency.
On Monday, November 11, Jaar will be presenting an art performance at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, which launched its opening programme on Saturday.
About an hour long, the live performance will take place east of Sharjah city, in the historic site of the Mleiha Fort, where archaeologists have discovered monumental tombs, old settlements and artefacts. While teams have been excavating the area for decades, Jaar is doing the opposite. He has buried 16 speakers around the fort on which his commissioned composition will play.
It is fitting for the triennial’s theme, Rights of Future Generations, which looks at architecture’s role in tackling the climate crisis. Each day in the opening programme is dedicated to a particular topic. In Jaar’s case, it is Forms of Afterlife, which explores the inheritance of culture and ancestral land rights beyond legal frameworks and blood relations.
This won’t be the first time that Jaar has explored ideas of land and ecology in his artistic practice. His exhibition at Het Hem titled ‘These livelihoods make worlds too – and they show us how to look around rather than ahead’, in which he collaborates with collective Shock Forest Group, investigates the military use of a forest in the Netherlands and considers the impact of trauma on nature. In June, he performed at Sarab, an experimental music festival held in Jordan’s Wadi Rum, where he sampled live sounds of a dancer raking stones across the sand.
Ahead of his performance in Sharjah, Jaar shares the concept behind his work for the triennial, his approach to music and sound art and his interest in land and terrain.
What can people expect from your upcoming performance at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial?
The performance involves the burying of multiple speakers underground near Mleiha Fort. I wanted to make a piece for soil, for sand. For music to not be heard, for it to be heard only through the earth that is above it. The speakers will be unable to do their job of communicating things clearly. I’m guessing things will sound muted, muddy. A listening ‘through’ might replace a listening ‘to’.
How does your performance relate to the triennial’s themes Forms of Afterlife and Rights of Future Generations?
The afterlife is in the sand. In my conversations with curator Adrian Lahoud, we spoke about my interest in listening through the sand. Future generations are alive in the land. We can hear them already through the sand. We can decide to be the ‘through’ which may bring them here, now, already. I’m humbled to take part in this triennial; it speaks to multiple shared urgencies.
You have performed in museums and clubs. How do these contexts affect your experience as a performer?
I take all the work I do as music. Whether it’s in an art or architecture context or a club or concert setting, I like seeing how musical terms like polyphony, harmony, echo, distortion, and resonance become quite schizophrenic in their meanings depending on their context. Playing in a museum or a club might affect the way sounds are perceived, which is interesting and sometimes fruitful, but what’s the real difference between two corporate-owned neoliberal depositories at the end of the day? As far as mindset goes, it’s the same fight, it’s always the same fight.
How did you become interested in ideas of land and nature, and how does this tie into your recent research project at Het Hem and collaboration with Shock Forest Group?
My first record (Space Is Only Noise, 2011) starts with a sample from architect and artist Vito Acconci's Bristol Project. In it, he says "look, it's a body, floating into the land. It's the land itself here that's a body, a body of land." Thinking of land as 'body' has always inspired me. I think I may have a twisted kind of synaesthesia where instead of colours, I see elements when I listen to music. I definitely group my music and make mixes based on the elements I hear within sounds.
Lately, I've been in a phase where earth, dirt, soil, stones have taken precedence over water, whereas my early releases are filled with water sounds. I often have tried to organise records or songs based on when the 'ear' will fly up, or land, or be submerged, or come back out again, etc.
With the Shock Forest Group, we are researching an ex-military forest in the Netherlands. It was called the 'Shokbos' (Shock Forest) because it was planted specifically in order to withstand violent (and loud) military tests. The forest has 'monument status' in the Netherlands, which means that all the trees and vegetation that were planted there specifically in order to be blasted are 'monumental' but the weeds and other vegetation that weren't part of the initial military concept are 'non-monuments'. Furthermore, the trees that have been contaminated are simply replaced and the new trees receive monument status.
We are questioning this idea of 'monumentality'. A monument to what? Hundreds of years of colonial military violence? We have saved the last trees to have been cut (due to grenade and asbestos contamination), and we are looking into their current and (potential) future legal status. We are also looking into finding ways in which the forest may have archived itself throughout the years. How did it archive the violence? These are all very musical questions to me.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I recently improvised for an hour with guitarist and composer Patrick Higgins under the name AEAEA at Le Guess Who? [music festival] in Utrecht. I sampled him in real time. It was fun, but some people definitely left after 10 minutes of hearing the chaos! This Friday, the new FKA Twigs record came out, I worked on seven of the songs in it.
In late November, we will be showing two months of research with the Shock Forest Group in Zaandam at Het Hem. It will be up until December 19.
Will you be exploring more experimental and artistic initiatives over musical ones?
I see no distinction!
Nicolas Jaar's performance will take place on Monday, November 11, 4:45pm at Mleiha Fort, Sharjah; free entry; more information is available at rfgen.net