Fatima Al Qadiri in conversation with Kenneth Goldsmith
Fatima Al Qadiri is a Kuwaiti artist and musician at the forefront of underground electronic music, a position solidified by her new, debut album Asiatisch for Hyperdub Records. The adopted New Yorker is additionally celebrated for her role in the young Gulf Arab art collective GCC, whose retrospective exhibition is on now at New York’s MoMA PS1 until September of this year. Another artist favored by the MoMA is native New Yorker Kenneth Goldsmith, the institution’s first Poet Laureate. Renowned as the founder of the Internet’s library of the avant-garde, UbuWeb, he is equally revered and reviled for his conceptual writings and actions, such as his call to “print out the Internet” in protest of the death of activist Aaron Swartz. A generation apart, their acquaintance began not in New York, but in Dubai, and while there may be little direct overlap in their work, when they sat down to talk in Goldsmith’s Manhattan apartment—which he shares with his wife and their two children—thoughts on the end of copyright, the battles won by modernism and loops in video game music had the two vowing to continue this discussion (which appeared in the new Summer issue of EB Magazine) long after the tape turned off. Photos by Miguel Villalobos.
Kenneth Goldsmith: I remember that we met at the art fair in Dubai about five years ago. I’d been working on UbuWeb with Bidoun, and they brought me to the fair to do these series of talks. In a parking garage, they had set up this salon where the coolest things in the world were happening. We did the talks there, and then we just ended up staying up all night. After that you and I sporadically saw each other. I had a book launch at MoMA and you came to that. And I’ve been always trying to go to your things, openings. That’s the thing with having kids, I just don’t get out. It’s impossible. During the hours of an opening, what is it, six to eight? It’s hell time around here. Kids need to eat, they need baths, their homework is breaking down, they’re fighting. I can’t get out of my house six to eight. But what’s happening with you in the art world now?
Fatima Al Qadiri: Well, I’m part of this collective called GCC. We’re nine artists, four girls, five guys. Seven from Kuwait, one from Qatar, one from Bahrain. We formed at Art Dubai, in the VIP lounge in March of last year. Then we had a bunch of shows. The first one was at Kassel at the Fridericianum. Now we have a solo show at MoMA PS1, which is amazing. It’s called Achievements in Retrospective, and the four shows we had previously were on the theme of achievement, so Christopher Lew, one of the curators, decided to house it under one roof.
KG: God, I hate working collaboratively. I always find that I hate what comes out of it. I think it’s the worst of me and the worst of them. Sometimes what I do, if somebody wants to collaborate, I just give them a book and I say, “You do it.” And it always comes out terrible. And I’m like, “No, I’m sorry. I would have done it differently.” I hate all my collaborations and I’ve just stopped doing them now. I’m too much of a control freak. I can’t cede an inch to anyone.
FAQ: I’m a huge control freak, but I feel like sometimes someone else knows better than I do. For instance, I’m extremely dimensionally challenged. One of the members is an architect, then another one is a furniture designer, and they work with dimensions all day. I can fight with them, but they know better. I have a lot of ideas, but I can’t physically realize them, and that’s the beauty of working with a collective. It can be done. So we can build a house, we can make a movie, we can write a book—we have two writers and four filmmakers. If sound is needed, I’ll do it. But it’s definitely decided together. The thing about naming yourself after a government body is that it’s about cooperation. It’s about nations ceding to a higher power, or the greater good.
KG: I feel completely disconnected from nationhood. I live on a small island off the coast of America. That big thing, I want nothing to do with it.
FAQ: There is a tribe mentality in our work in the way that in Gulf or Arab society the tribe is the most important thing, you know? You’ll protect them even if they commit murder. They are above the law. So, we operate like that, too. It is the most important thing, really. Any kind of hint of dissent has to be snuffed out almost immediately. [laughing]
KG: As a New Yorker, I’m completely paranoid and suspicious. I’m cocooned. . . .
FAQ: I’m extremely paranoid and suspicious . . .
KG: . . . particularly with my family! Particularly with those people that of course would be my tribe, I can’t stand them. I told you already that I can’t stand having kids. So, it’s really different. But I admire the collective. So, it’s based where?
FAQ: All over the place. Two live in Kuwait, one lives in Beruit, one lives in Dubai, two live in London, three live in New York. Thank God for technology.
KG: But you must spend a lot of time on airplanes.
FAQ: I do because of touring. I feel like, if you make music, there’s only two things you can do: You can sign a publishing deal and start songwriting for pop stars, or you have to start DJing. Or you’re rich. There’s really no other way of getting around that, unfortunately.
KG: Touring sounds like a drag. As a writer I’m so glad I don’t have to tour. I just want to stay here and work. And that’s why I love the web so much: I can be social without ever having to be in the same room as anybody. I can just send things out, and it can be cold. I love the distance. A lot of people don’t even know that I live in New York. When I’m here, I’m usually under cover. UbuWeb works for me perfectly great. I just love the idea of throwing up a giant distribution network without ever having to hold anybody’s hand or raise any money or do anything like that. The whole thing has been working for eighteen years in that way. My entire production is predicated on distance. And so I do have to do readings, but I try never to do them in New York. I hate doing them here.
FAQ: Getting away from the home audience?
KG: There isn’t much of an audience! There are ten people in New York that care about what I do. If you do a reading twice a year, you’ve already burnt those poor people out.
FAQ: You have to stage it carefully. I definitely appreciate that. I hate getting on planes. But I have to DJ, so I really don’t have a choice. I mean, I don’t want to be anybody’s entertainment in the middle of the night. It’s really not my idea of fun. I’d rather be entertained!
KG: Are you DJing like art or is it entertainment when you do those gigs? Are people dancing?
FAQ: Oh yes, they’re dancing. The kind of music that I play is a lot of rap. I would summarize it as rap over unrelated beats. So you basically recognize the lyrics but the beat underneath is something completely different. Because I love rap, I love the hypeness of it and that’s what I want to listen to when I’m in a club. But I don’t want to listen to it dry. I want to listen to it mixed with something alien.
KG: I find that on UbuWeb, most people don’t care about the artists that are there. They don’t care about the historical qualities. They don’t care that Kurt Schwitters was representative of Dada and he did Ursonate in 1925. Hugo Ball? They don’t care. Cage? The same. DJs mostly go into the site and plunder it for really weird sounds and then mix it in to Bruce Nauman on the dance floor of São Paulo going, “Get out of my life.” [pounds on the table]. Because, you know, the art world is producing all of these kinds of insane sounds that you can’t find elsewhere. And I love the misuse of that. I’m actually really, really into it. I think that’s probably the legacy of twentieth century sound art: to become fodder for dance mixes.
FAQ: Definitely for intros and outros. But if I see the crowd’s reaction, it’s always positive for me. So I know what I’m doing is right. But I’m very hard on myself. I’m not the kind of DJ that just goes up and presses play and is just happy to take the money and play any old shit. I’d rather die than do that! I have to make sure that what I’m playing is going to hit them really, really hard—as hard as I can.
KG: My radio show for fifteen years was three hours of trying to get people to turn the radio off.
FAQ: Oh my God! That’s obnoxious!
KG: It was so obnoxious! But you have a dial and you can click it off. It’s not a forced thing. I did it under various names, including “Unpopular Music.” So one day, I think it was for White Columns, they asked me to DJ for a benefit. And really, I don’t know anything about dance music, and it was a complete disaster. People were coming up and literally screaming at me. And I was trying to kind of fake it, and they were like, “This is horrible, you are awful.” So I went onto the street, like in front of the IFC Theater in the Village, and those guys used to have tables set up with dance music cassettes. I bought a bunch of those, um, you know, house music or something like that. I put them on and people began dancing and loving it, and then I left in the middle of it.
FAQ: It’s really difficult to make people happy in the middle of the night, being their entertainment at that hour.
KG: It’s the hardest audience in the world.
FAQ: People diss DJs a lot. I feel like, yeah, you can play Top Forty stuff, that’s not difficult. And people do all the time. Or they’ll play some obnoxious shit. You know, they’ll play what I would classify as bedroom music in the club, and I’ll want to smash a bottle on top of their head.
KG: I remember around 1996 I was in France and somebody took me to the first rave I ever went to. I couldn’t get it. There was this one guy on stage, and I couldn’t really see what he was doing; he wasn’t playing an instrument, it looked like he was simply standing there. And then there were thousands of people facing this guy. People were sort of dancing a little bit, but not really. It was like people were just sitting there watching a guy who might as well been checking his email. And this got worse with laptops. If you’re not really dancing, to sit there and watch electronic music has got to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.
FAQ: I DJ from my laptop, exclusively. But I don’t even make eye contact with people. Because I don’t want them to look at me. Get on with your dancing business.
KG: I mean, I thought you were most famous as an artist and then the DJing seemed to come later or was it the same time?
FAQ: Well, the DJing came later. I mean I made music, and I was doing visual art. I made both at the same time.
KG: Did you go to art school?
FAQ: No, I have a degree in linguistics. It’s really random. I wanted to go to art school, but the Kuwaiti Ministry of Education did not have any scholarships for that, unfortunately.
KG: Do they have good art schools in Kuwait?
FAQ: There is no art program in Kuwait.
KG: So you have to go abroad if you want to study? Why are there no art schools in Kuwait?
FAQ: I feel like the Kuwaiti government doesn’t want to encourage art as a profession. They see it as a hobby. And that’s why I couldn’t study it as a major. I mean, I went on a scholarship. They’re like, “Music and art, these are hobbies. These are not infrastructure-building majors.” I don’t know how linguistics is an infrastructure-building major. But it was the only thing offered in New York, so I did it. I was like, “I don’t give a fuck if I have to do like biomedical engineering. I don’t care, I have to be in New York.” So, randomly, thank God it was linguistics. I actually feel like it’s changed me as a person. You can see vestiges of it in my work, but not directly. It’s made me more aware of language’s relationship to identity, language as identity. One of the most basic examples is not mocking the way someone speaks. Or how someone speaks can be a false persona if they change the way they speak when they speak to certain people. For instance, someone that I know, the way she speaks to her bank on the phone is completely different from the way she speaks to me or to the way she speaks to strangers. If you’ve studied linguistics, you immediately spot that. You can smell it a mile away. It has to do with identity, how she wants to present herself to people. It tells you a lot about a person.
KG: So you ever go back and ever think about linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure or anything like that?
KG: You’re not reading it for fun anymore? No interest in Chomsky?
FAQ: No. I feel like for me, I don’t know. The reading . . . I really enjoy reading biographies and sci-fi.
KG: I’ve got a couple of new biographies on my iPad. I’ve got the new Walter Benjamin biography. The problem is I know it all too well. And the other one is the new Burroughs biography. You like Burroughs?
FAQ: I mean, with Burroughs I feel like I liked him more as a teenager, but now I just feel like he’s this character that has been given so much exposure. When someone is so overexposed, I feel like I don’t need to read it to know what happened.
KG: I kind of think so, too. But I get those books all from file- sharing for free. That’s the way I read these days: whatever I can find on file-sharing. It pretty much determines what I read. You see, I have no views on copyright. I don’t believe in it. I don’t use it. I distribute my work freely; everything on UbuWeb is pirated and distributed freely. But copyright is also a weird and nuanced thing. I don’t blame people for wanting to hold copyrights for things that are worth money. If I did something that was worth money, I’d probably want to hold onto the copyright and try to make some money out of it, too. But the materials that I deal with on UbuWeb and also in my own work are not involved in that at all. I make my money from academia, university work. This also pays for all of my intellectual production, and I figure I don’t need to get anything back from that. I throw it out into the open. So, yeah, in certain ways, I’ve managed to prove that actually copyright doesn’t exist.
FAQ: I feel like it’s a very—I don’t want to say touchy subject—but it is a reality as far as music. For visual art, it doesn’t really enter my mind. I feel like so much of contemporary art is pastiche, referencing the past, recreating the past. But with music, as you said, if it’s interfering with your income and livelihood, that’s where you go into a gray area. Sales from records for many musicians are negligible. If you enter the title of my last record, the first thing that comes up is “.zip”. I really can’t be a hypocrite and say that it pisses me off because I’m definitely downloading a whole shitload of music. But for me, if it’s an artist I care about, I look at legal sites first and see if their music is available for sale. Sometimes we’re friends and we’re doing an exchange of music. But I would like to financially support artists that I care about, as far as music is concerned.
KG: Whatever is original is irrecuperable and doesn’t exist anymore. We can’t identify it, we can’t locate it. Honestly, it’s just this mass of free-floating signifiers that is temporarily put together into constellations. And I want to go back to Walter Benjamin’s constellation, the dialectic constellation which forms temporarily for a minute and then gets blown apart again. That’s really a cognate of the network and the way that networks are coming together, the way cultural artifacts are ephemeral, exploding back out. There’s no history. There really cannot be anymore. I find that to be the motif of our age. And if that work doesn’t reflect that in some way, it’s not work I think is particularly relevant—which is clearly not the case with yours. I feel that the copyright battles of the twenty-first century are the equivalent of moral battles of the twentieth, the kind of censorship battles. We talk about Burroughs or we talk about Joyce. Those are the battles, and they were won. With copyright, I keep trying to get arrested, and I can’t. I just did a big project in Germany where I pirated about 350,000 dollars worth of JSTOR documents—a giant online academic archive of knowledge that should be free—as a tribute to Aaron Swartz. Swartz downloaded a lot of it. Of course, he felt it should be free, and it ended up very tragically for him. So this was a tribute to him. We used JSTOR’s logo, and I set up a JSTOR pirate headquarters in Dusseldorf. I had five computers and five students that were helping me print out 18,000 documents that were pirated from JSTOR. We put it out all over online and got big press, Yahoo and all sorts of places, and JSTOR hasn’t reacted. And it’s kind of like, maybe we’ve just reached this point now where you can provoke copyright all you like. It’s very different than it would have been ten years ago. Everyone is just kind of with it now. And life does continue. Art continues to be made, somehow people make profits. I think from different things, maybe not the artifact itself, but all the things around artifacts. I’ll never really make a good paycheck from my books, so there’s a free cultural thing that I think is really in the air. I also wanted to ask you: Did you choose to be an artist or did it choose you?
FAQ: I mean, my mother was an artist. She was a painter and a printmaker. So very twentieth century, very modernist paintings of women. She was very feminist, and even the music that she listened to was sung by women. She listened almost exclusively to female Arab and Iranian singers singing about heartache, which I think really influenced me. [laughing]
KG: I’ve got these funny records, I wonder if some of these are your mother’s. Let me bring out some of these LPs I have. Maybe you’ll know some of these.
FAQ: [inspects record covers] Maybe some of them would be in my dad’s record collection.
KG: Really? Kind of square . . .
FAQ: Not square, no. It’s like Arabic pop from the sixties, seventies. Your records are in mint condition. Some of them are classic, and I’ve never heard of some of the others. [Picks up an LP] This is Tunisian, very, very rare. Put on this Sabah, she is the Cher of the Arab world. She kept going until her nineties, and always looked really young. This is basically the most impressive collection of Arabic vinyl that I’ve seen a non- Arab own. I mean, I only know some of the records, but where did you get these? Because this looks like one sale, somebody’s really mint record collection.
KG: There was a place on Atlantic Avenue called Rashid Sale’s. I’d always gone there and bought those records for a lot of money. When everything was changing from vinyl to CD, they dumped their entire stock at Tower Outlet. And I got each one of those for a quarter, brand new. There were records I had been always dreaming of having, but they were really expensive, like fifteen dollars each. I walked out with probably most of them.
FAQ: What got you into this era of Arabic music in the first place?
KG: Well, look at those covers! But what really got me into Arabic music was Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” I was in eighth grade, I heard that and I was like, “Wow, something else is going on here.”
FAQ: I’ve never heard that song.
KG: You know, it’s sort of a weird rock, Arabic, Middle Eastern, mystical kind of thing that Led Zeppelin were doing. You know, how did American kids get into anything interesting? Through rock bands. How is it that you’ve never heard “Kashmir”? Did they not have Led Zeppelin in Kuwait when you were growing up?
FAQ: No, actually they didn’t.
KG: Come on! You grew up in a place without Led Zeppelin?
FAQ: I grew up in Kuwait in the eighties!
KG: Oh well, nobody was playing Led Zeppelin in the eighties. But if you had been in Kuwait in the seventies, you would have heard Led Zeppelin.
FAQ: I’m sure. My father gave me his record collection almost ten years ago when he switched to MP3s. Before he wouldn’t even let me borrow one record. I begged him, but he was like, “Get it out of your mind, it’s out of the question.” And then suddenly, I came back to Kuwait for six months, and he was like, “Here you go.” And I had suddenly quadrupled my record collection. While I was flipping through it, I found Pink Floyd, which I just thought that was really unusual, because I don’t think he ever played it. He played Cerrone a lot, but he never played anything remotely rock. I personally listened to a lot of American pop growing up, like all kids did: Michael Jackson, Eurythmics and whatever was playing on MTV at the time. And then I graduated to gangsta rap by myself.
KG: How available is gangsta rap in Kuwait?
FAQ: It was available. There was this place called The Video Club that sold bootlegged copies of rap records, and I bought it on CD. I was so happy that my parents didn’t speak English enough to know the lyrics I was listening to. So that was a relief. I just felt very edgy.
KG: So what do you do with that in Kuwait? Feeling edgy and filled with American rap stuff? Like what does a kid in Kuwait do with those feelings? Do you find other people that were into it or did you feel really alone?
FAQ: Not really, no. I didn’t want to share my love of it. Listening to music has always been a solitary thing for me, because I didn’t grow up going to concerts. There was no such thing. Concerts were largely illegal.
KG: What about Arab pop?
FAQ: I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to this as a kid, no way! They had concerts, but I didn’t even know about it. I wasn’t in the same world as this kind of stuff. The only Arabic music I heard was whatever my mom had blasting in her studio while she painted, which I largely disliked. But the stuff that I did like was the Iranian singers that she listened to— Googoosh, who maybe you’ve heard of. Googoosh is the biggest female singer of twentieth century Iranian pop music. And Hayedeh is another one. My mom was very fixated and would only listen to like three or four singers at a given time, the same song over and over again. If I was sitting there drawing with her, I didn’t have a choice in the music selection. It was always a form of: You broke my heart.
KG: And are you listening to a lot of music these days? Or is it like cooking in a restaurant, where you don’t want to eat the food that you’ve been cooking all night? You like to have silence around you?
FAQ: Since DJing became part of my career, I listen to music that I want to DJ. It’s become very work-oriented, which really annoys me because I never had that relationship before. When I listen to something, I’m like, “Oh, how can I blend this in with that other song?” It’s annoying.
KG: I told you before I did a radio show for fifteen years, so I know. And all my listening was focused on what I was going to be playing that week. It was a freeform radio show, and I had three hours to kill. Finally, when I was listening to MP3s, I would just have all of these playlists lined up, and I would be listening to something thinking, “Oh, that will go in that playlist.” Ultimately listening became a lot of work.
FAQ: Yeah, it’s become very functional and perfunctory in a way. It just took the joy out of it. Mostly, I like silence. And I’ve enjoyed it for a long time. One thing that growing up hasn’t changed is listening to music for pure fantasy reasons. To listen to something and fantasize while you’re listening to it. That’s why for me, listening to music is always a very solitary thing.
KG: When you say “silence” do you mean that in a Cagean sense? Is there any kind of influence from that stuff on what you’re doing? Do you think about all of that kind of history and ideas?
FAQ: Well, I think for me, when I was younger, I thought about it more. But now I feel like ever since I made my first melody, my goal has always tried not to cre- ate things that could be mistaken for other people, which is a really high bar to set. But something that I do avoid, very strongly, is any kind of atonal work. It’s never been my interest, atonality.
KG: Is it because it all sort of sounds the same and it would be hard to be an original and unique atonal artist?
FAQ: It’s just been done to the max.
KG: But do you ever spend time listening to Schoenberg or . . .
FAQ: No, I never did. I hate to use the word “classical”, but the twentieth century composers that I listened to were always Russian or Eastern European. My favorite has to be Prokofiev. He’s definitely the highest on the list. And there’s one called Ippolitov-Ivanov, who’s lesser- known. Actually, I prefer the nineteenth century composers, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov. And my father lived in Russia. My parents went to grad school in Moscow in the seventies, so he amassed quite a large collection of Russian classical music, which was blasting in the house as well.
KG: Is that stuff that you got in the collection when he gave it to you?
FAQ: Oh yeah, definitely. So the influence from my mother were these heartbreak female singers. From my father it was Russian classical music and Cerrone. My youth was hardcore rap, and video game music was very high up there too, because I was playing video games. So these little eight-bit compositions were on loop. And I think the loop aspect of it really influenced making electronic music, because it does have that built in.
KG: But there’s whole waves of eight-bit composers now, chip composers.
FAQ: That to me is weird. I don’t know, I’m interested in the original people that made music for a living for Konami—you know what I mean? To try to recreate it is to try to write a Miles Davis song.
KG: But there is Kind of Bloop, which is an eight-bit version of Miles’ Kind of Blue. And you know what? It’s actually really good! It’s a beautiful thing because it’s kind of like the Miles tunes on that record are so incredible that you can’t destroy them even with any technology. It’s kind of like I’ve never heard a bad version of “Mack the Knife”. Because the song itself is so fucking good no matter if it’s Vegas, or, you know, the worst thing in the world.
FAQ: I feel like with covers, sometimes they work, some- times they don’t. I have sort of a cover on my record.
KG: What’s the sort of cover on your record?
FAQ: “Nothing Compares 2 U”.
KG: And who’s the original artist of that?
KG: Oh, the Prince song. See, my pop music is not so good.
FAQ: It’s okay. Prince wrote it and then Sinead O’Connor sang it. You were definitely around when that song was huge. I mean, you couldn’t escape it. It was everywhere.
KG: I somehow managed to miss things. I was told recently that in 2000—I think it was some- thing like that—that the Mets played the Yankees in the World Series. I had no idea that such a thing happened. I happen to miss these major things that happen just because I’m so in my own weird world. I have a few Prince records, I was around then. But Sinead O’Connor I kind of missed. I can’t tell you her biggest hit.
FAQ: That was her biggest hit, for sure.
KG: What’s it called again? ~
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 38 (2, 2014). You can purchase the new issue, and back issues, in the EB Shop.
Published July 09, 2014. Words by Lisa Blanning.