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Cassette tapes bring Cairo into Beirut

The first thing you saw when you walked into the empty villa was a silver briefcase on a plinth, framed by the arch between two rooms and lit by a spotlight.

It was open, and in it lay two door-less Walkmans side by side. They had clearly been doctored, and the same piece of tape appeared to be moving through the exposed tape cassettes in both of them. Hanging from a hook on the plinth was a pair of headphones. Putting them on, you heard the distinctive British-accented voice of artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan echoing in a large space somewhere.

“Welcome to Tape Echo,” he said authoritatively. “In mapping the sonic terrains of Cairo, why is the tape sermon such a useful tool?”

It was the start of a three-minute documentary-like monologue about tapes and Cairo’s sounds, and what this rigged-up machine you were watching was. It was part of the exhibition “Tape Echo” at Beirut, which consisted of four works each named after tapes the artist found in Cairo and overdubbed with contemporary sounds. This piece was called “Hypocrisy.”

“Unlike digital audio, magnetic tape overdubs its contents.” Abu Hamdan’s voice said. “Tapes do not delete but rather overlay sound and realign their magnetic particles. This process of overdub is exactly what’s happening to my voice as you hear it popping and crackling its way through the tape echo device in front of you […] By recording and playing back in quick succession, the sound of my voice appears to be echoed in a much larger space than it was actually recorded.”

The same technique was apparently used for Elvis Presley’s voice and to create the sound of Jamaican dub, which, “Hypocrisy” said, makes the music itself appear as a kind of effect or illusion.

“This machine is much like the sonic counterpart to the microscopic images you see in the room adjacent to you,” the artwork pointed out, leaving you to make your way over to “A Conversation with an Unemployed,” in which large photographic prints were spread out on a large low light box. Like the silver briefcase, there was something forensic about them: Laid down like evidence, the increasingly zoomed-in photographs of a cassette’s magnetic tape seemed to encourage you to look for something — but there was nothing there except for noisy, fuzzy patterns that looked, at their most microscopic point, a bit like a beige carpet or a cityscape.

There was a beige-ish carpet laid down wall-to-wall in the third downstairs room: a fuzzy, pixelated, monochrome carpet. Opposite a bench to sit on at one end, two corners each contained two speakers stacked on top of each other on the floor. They were familiar: Large and black and quite bling, with lights on top projecting rotating blobs of bright color onto the ceiling. The noise from the speakers rose and fell, like the noise you hear in downtown Cairo next to the Nile where the boats are — music, lots of bass, a hubbub of voices, atmospheric noise of jubilance and competitive entertainment. The music drew close and moved away, one song drowned out another, sometimes you heard voices talking close to you. The piece was called “Gardens of Death.”

The last piece was up on the roof: “Rendez-vous at Night.” Five basic black cassette players were spaced out on the waist-height wall around the small roof’s parameter playing a short loop of sound. The moving noise marked out the space in an unterritorial way, blending with the sounds of the neighborhood, sounding different depending on where you placed yourself. It was a nice way to experience the roof and look at the nearby buildings and gardens.

“Hypocrisy” spoke of Islamic sermons on tape cassette, once widespread and with political impact, now quite obsolete. It talks of how we can hear the noise the home-duplicated cassettes have accumulated over time, the “layers of overdubbing, the pops and crackles of every recording head every applied.”

In the end these sermons seemed a bit of a red herring in that they were not particularly evident to the viewer, only seeming to emerge in the titles of the works, and maybe, if you were looking for it, in some murmurings you heard amid the party river noises in “Gardens of Death.” 

But what the exhibition did do quite triumphantly with the tapes was explore how “in their noisy materiality they bear witness to the past audio life of the city” — and in doing so, it brought the city into Beirut’s villa and the villa into the city. Through its impact on the space itself, Abu Hamdan’s work transcended both the nostalgia around cassette tapes and the fetishization of Cairo’s noisiness.

His show made the rather stark, white, not particularly welcoming space into something less empty and warmer than it had been in previous shows. Even just the addition of a carpet and a bench to sit on transformed the place into something more hospitable; simple gestures like the spotlight on the briefcase, the bright colors from the speakers, and the darkness of the room with the photographs made the viewer feel less exposed and the space less isolated from the reality outside.

But most of all, it was the sound that broke through the walls of the space and really connected the clean art space to Cairo for the first time. On the opening night the deep bass seemed to shake the building slightly, and made it sound from the outside like a club (or a bit like the primary school next door, when they play pop songs on repeat at top volume during recess). And the roof piece leaked out and mingled with the outside noises and put you out there in view of the people around.

Abu Hamdan is a London-based artist who tends to work with voices, sounds and the “politics of listening,” often in relation to physical space and the law, such as in his ongoing “Aural Contract.” He made the four works in “Tape Echo” while on residency with Beirut this year. In these fairly simple, not over-thought-out pieces — in particular the three sound works — Abu Hamdan mixed the noise in his visuals and audio with the controlled chaos of Cairo’s streets and the dust in its air, and he let his sounds take up space in a sociable way. Rather than the politics and history referred to, it was the formal qualities of the exhibition and its viscerality that made it so engaging.

“Tape Echo” was exhibited at Beirut, 11 Road 12, Mahmoud Sedky, Agouza, Cairo, from November 10 to December 17, 2013.