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French Version

Retooling for real time: New technology enters Beirut art scene

Tarek Atoui hopes 'Smart Digits' will leave some fingerprints

"Artists want to use computer technology to interact creatively with an audience." Tarek Atoui closes his Macintosh laptop. "I can help them do that." Atoui is a busy man these days. For the better part of April and May he's conducting "Smart Digits" - "a computer workshop dealing with real time techniques and motion capture in the digital arts."

This news may not set you on fire but Beirut-area artists of various stripes have responded with great enthusiasm to what Atoui has to offer.

With 30 composers, sound and video artists and technicians involved, "Smart Digits" has as many participants as Atoui can handle and he says he has had to turn some people away.

Atoui describes himself as an electro-acoustic electronic musician and programmer. Born in Lebanon in 1980, he moved to Paris in 1998 on a French government scholarship to study business. He started composing music on computer and relocated to the French National Conservatoire, where this music is still on the cutting edge.

"If you're working on computer-generated music at the Conservatoire you really have to work on your own," he recalls. "Conceptualizing the sound, programming it, making it. For each project I build a new software."

Atoui is adept with software that allows artists to use movement - whether that of artist or audience - to shape the way video, light and music play out. This greatly enhances the possibilities of creative expression and brings artists a step closer to the holy grail of interactivity.

In Paris he co-founded the Asa Djinnia Collective with Uriel Barthelemi and began working with France's Puce Muse and Cesare studios, along with several theatrical companies. Anyone who attended the Arabic book fair at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center (BIEL) in December 2005 would have encountered a sound installation Atoui created in collaboration with artist Ricardo Mbarak.

"I'm moving back and forth between the titles 'artist' and 'technician,'" he says, rubbing a smear off his computer. "I don't really care about what label is used to describe my work because it's the work itself that's nourishing.

"In Europe there is a real live electronic music scene. Everyone there is interested in humanizing the machine. As a composer you have the choice of being either a studio artist or one that improvises live. What I noticed when I came back last summer is that live electronic music is almost completely absent in Beirut. There are plenty of DJs but few musicians who make live electronic music."

"Smart Digits" got started on April 7. Between now and May 19, Atoui is offering 20 hours of individual, project-specific instruction to each participant. On May 25, he is hoping to mount an exhibition at the Gemmayzeh gallery Espace SD, sampling some of the work that emerges from the workshop. Depending on how the individual sessions proceed, Atoui would also like to have the work adjudicated, recorded on DVD and distributed around Europe.

The stuff of "Smart Digits" may sound esoteric, then, but it promises to have a lasting impact on Beirut's artistic and musical output.

"What encourages me," Atoui says, "is that there are artists in Beirut who have a definite idea of how they want to interact with the public but simply had no idea how to carry that out. This workshop is about giving them the tools to do so."

Filmmaker and video artist Lamia Joreige is collaborating with Atoui on an interactive installation work called "Jeux Histoire," a title that plays with the implied meanings in both words - the "I" embedded in the verb "to play" on one hand and "histoire" as both "narrative" and "history."

"It's a multimedia project I was developing when I met Tarek and realized he has valuable expertise," she says. "The project involves 10 videos from different scenarios - cityscape, seascape, etc. These are going to be combined with 10 different texts of mine ... each of varying subject matter - love, war, crime, and so on. The third element is 10 selections of music. So far I've chosen work by Charbel Haber and Discipline [Joe Ghosn] and will probably use work from other composers as well.

"In the installation there'll be a very simple interface where you'll be able to choose which combination of text, music and video you want to sample. The idea is to have a multiplicity based on several small scenarios. Each encounter will open up different [permutations] of meaning."

Though "one of the film segments is a found print - shots from a wedding that superimpose two images," Joreige is working with real-time (unedited) images.

"I don't want a storytelling sort of text. There are simply lines and in the lines are gaps - the texts don't reveal the full story, even the voice of the speaker. The music isn't illustrative. The last thing I want is a series of [music videos]," she says.

"There's a playfulness in choosing different stories in real time and the fact that the stream of sound will effect the unfolding of the text. I also want to include the presence of someone interacting with the work, to have it imprinted on the piece - the text, video and music. The imprint creates something constantly renewed, so that with each rendering the work isn't developed yet.

"Tarek can do all the software work that translates all these ideas into reality."

Another of the artists involved in "Smart Digits" is Zeid Hamdan. A founder of Arabic trip-hop pioneers Soap Kills and the bands Saaboun and the New Government, he's unabashedly enthusiastic about the workshop.

"Tarek is a breath of fresh air," he grins. "A few months ago I met him when he was doing a show on a rooftop in Ain al-Mreisseh. Then we organized an event for him in November in B018. I said to him, 'We have to find some way to keep you here.'

"You know how it is," says Hamdan. A musician sees a new technology, a new music, and he wants it for himself. When I saw what Tarek can do I wanted to learn it, but it's very expensive. So we thought of this workshop. Now hopefully he'll have a reason to stay."

"We're working within very rigid schema when it comes to applying techniques for images and sound. We think in terms of lighting and sound consoles and so forth. Tarek breaks that schema. It's like growing up with Microsoft Windows and not knowing any other operating system. He has a completely different vision.

"A rapper being able to affect the sound with his movements really expands what he can do with the music," he adds. "When this workshop is done there'll be 30 - okay 10 - technicians who can manipulate the software.

"Then we jut have to find the money to buy the equipment."

For more information on "Smart Digits," you can contact Atoui at stageordi@yahoo.fr and asa_djinnia@yahoo.fr.

Beirut,04 10 2006
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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