A Social Body: Tarek Atoui’s Organ Within

by E. Maude Haak-Frendscho

Guggenheim Museum, June 27, 2019

The right sound can resonate deeply. I have sought out the music and sounds that have this effect. In certain moments I can perceive, or at least imagine, my amniotic fluid bathing my soon-to-be in rhythmic motion. In response, this newly-perceiving near-being (becoming?) rolls and surfs. The violence of usual kicks and jabs subsides into swells of motion.

This limited haptic language of response to sensory stimulus between us is new. I project emotion and states of being into movements that I can feel through layers of organ tissue, fascia, muscle, fat, skin, pinnacle of belly button. A sharp, quick series of angry jabs on the trolley as we’re jostled and tossed about. A single swift kick of hunger as a reminder to eat. Rolling in a calm ennui of afternoon stillness. I deduce meaning from these movements that aligns with the meanings I also assign to experiences. At this point, our experiences are tied, and we share many organs for producing and perceiving. Though a relatively closed system of communication and limited to two speakers, it is markedly social.

Tarek Atoui’s Organ Within, installed in the orb-shaped rotunda of the Guggenheim, is an instrument made with intention for and input from deaf listeners and players. At the panel before the performance, Atoui described deafness as an expertise rather than a deficit in knowing sound. Attuned to other senses, the acoustic is experienced through various means and with perceptual modes beyond hearing.

Tarek Atoui: Organ Within, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 27, 2019. Performer: Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe.
All photos courtesy of Enid Alvarez © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Atoui described the process of making the organ as one of collaboration, and it is designed in such a way that it can be played by a solo practitioner or a group. Leading up to the conversation and performance showcase at the Guggenheim, artist and composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe was guest curator of a residency with the organ at Kurimanzutto Gallery in New York, and invited a group of experimental musicians, each specifically selected for their experience with improvisation, to take time with the instrument, learn its tones and abilities, and take part in the evening performance at the Guggenheim.

Previous to that evening, the organ had been played by groups that included both hearing and deaf performers and children, and who collectively employed a broad range of sensory knowledge and experiences of sound. Atoui noted that this was the first time that the organ would be played exclusively by hearing performers, specifically, aural experts. An American Sign Language interpreter completed her take on Atoui’s notes beside him while making eye contact with and facial gestures to a small cohort of ASL speakers. Throughout the evening I was reminded of my limited access to understanding the experiences of deaf and hard of hearing audience members, despite our shared presence in the social and sensory place of the event. As I caught moments of exchanges in ASL, it became clear that this distance between us, each of us, is always fact, simply highlighted by the framing of the performance.

The other performers, including Chuck Bettis, C. Lavender, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Victoria Shen, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and C. Spencer Yeh, also took part in the conversational panel about the organ and their time in residency with it. C. Lavender discussed how each module of the organ—a network of tubes connecting computer with air blower with variously-shaped organ components rhizomatically strewn across the center of the rotunda floor—has its own characteristics, and in the process of getting to know the instrument and the sounds that it made, also started to understand the ways that each of those modules interacts with the others, alters their tonal range. There is surprise and unexpected sounds that result from the collaboration of modules.

This play with the unexpected is very much a reflection of improvisation, embracing the negotiation—in the present tense—of sounds in concert. That aspect of live negotiation is amplified in the form it took as a collective player ensemble, each producing an affect, but one that isn’t entirely controlled by the single player and is instead defined by the interaction of the play of the group.

Tarek Atoui: Organ Within, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 27, 2019. Performers (from left to right): Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Chuck Bettis, C. Spencer Yeh, C. Lavender, Tarek Atoui, Victoria Shen, and Keith Fullerton Whitman.
Photo: Enid Alvarez © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

After some initial tuning by Lowe, the entire group took to the center of the rotunda, each manipulating their respective modules of the organ, including the computer. Their play together was marked by a movement of emphasis between them, alternating supporting and leading roles in the production of their collective composition. Familiar with each others’ work previous to the residency, and with rehearsals together to learn each others’ performance languages and methods, they have a shared understanding of the syntax they might expect from one another, even if the specific words of tones and phrases are only revealed in the moment they are produced. Their sound was full and orchestral, and as their respective parts ebbed and flowed, the sound emanating from the obelisk-shaped speakers arranged concentrically behind audience members sitting on stools and pillows, themselves wrapped around the organ and players, moved around the space of the rotunda in turn.

Audience members circulated through the space to feel the shifting tones, reflecting off of the surfaces and spiraling staircase, the upward drift and dissipation into echoes, and absorbed visually and aurally by our respective bodies. My belly was also awash in sensory input, vibrating liquid a temporary addition to the set of perceiving organs. The becoming within me swayed, and as I reclined, my partner and I both cupped my belly to feel the response.

During the panel, the organ was given the metaphor of family—each module a family member that has an identity and a role to play, and with some defining relationship to the whole. The organ was also, appropriately, situated within the metaphor of a body, as an organism, and discussed as having a brain, lungs, and discrete parts that work together to produce sound, an expression of the forward motion of time. This social being is marked by an unfolding temporality of the present, a becoming with.

At one point during the performance, each artist took a solo, yet the necessity of others and collaboration still persisted. C. Spencer Yeh received a true test of improv when, as he serenaded the organ with his violin and simultaneously altered the air flow on the pipes of the module, a tube from the air input came loose. The primary device for making sound, air pushing through passages dotted with minor escapes and shifting pressures, released. Yeh continued playing as Atoui, Lowe, and others jumped up to reset the organ. The ASL interpreter, sitting under one of the obelisk speakers, continued dialogue with the audience member sitting beside her throughout. The spectacle, visual and social, was accompanied by Yeh’s continuous play and the diminishing inputs and sound from the deflating organ itself. Resolved, the organ took a breath as the audience collectively released theirs.

Tarek Atoui: Organ Within, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 27, 2019. Performer: Victoria Shen. 
Photo: Enid Alvarez © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation 

Victoria Shen, who manipulated acetate sheets over the mouths of pipes during her solo, pulled in Chuck Bettis midway through to hold a sheet tightly over one gaping hole, sustaining a low tone accompanied by the high whine of quickly-vibrating plastic held taut over the push of air as she worked a pipe elsewhere. I noted her boy-helper, and her casual authority in bringing him forth to support her. That Shen carried the self-possession of a lead that I’ve grown accustomed to experiencing from male artists, that Bettis accepted the supporting role so readily, that Lowe curated a group of musicians with the explicit goal of bringing together an inclusive cohort with various musical backgrounds and subject positions—these decisions were just as consequential to the performance experience as the formal qualities of the organ and the arrangements of the space in which it unfurled. Mirroring the roles within a family structure that the organ itself was described as, each player with their variously raced and gendered bodies individually took up roles that were fluid, temporary, and which disassembled held conventions. This process made visible social dynamics of relation that are ever-present by manifesting them differently, by centering relationality itself.

Both as an experiment in collectively-produced and sensorially-experienced sound, Organ Within exposes and relies on social relation in the production of the present. Sound is co-produced, multi-sensory, and navigated collectively, if unevenly. It is absorbed, and it is reflected back. There is feedback. It is mutually constituted. I continue to wonder at the experience my baby is having of the world through me—as my own experience is completely destabilized by their presence. Of how our necessarily tied experiences are, as yet, discrete. I wonder of the autonomy and agency as individual producers of meaning within the social context of perception, reception, and understanding. There are spaces of unknowability, gaps between us, even as we co-produce meaning together in the present. The relational qualities of distinct positions, perceptual modes, and experiences between us are elastic, as in, the meanings produced through our exchanges can be open to change. And the languages we use—haptic, sonic, signed—when we speak with one another inform just as much as the words spoken.

Tarek Atoui: Organ Within, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 27, 2019. Performers (clockwise from left): Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Chuck Bettis, Tarek Atoui, Keith Fullerton Whitman, C. Lavender, Victoria Shen, and C. Spencer Yeh.
Photo: Enid Alvarez © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Anne Lesley Selcer[1] writes in the essay “Rounds” on recent sound art collaborations: “As power increasingly asserts itself through biopolitical means, adding layers of risk and precarity to the most basic human contingencies—water, air, shelter, food—unlimiting the possibilities of the senses is one way self, subject, and collectivity can continue to be reworked.” Organ Within embodies these possibilities of performing and living, an object lesson and experience, however temporary, of a collective becoming through social relation, and in the register of the sensorial. It is a social body, an interdependent organ we necessarily play together.

[1] Anne Lesley Selcer, “Rounds,” in Blank Sign Book (Oakland, CA: Wolfman Books, 2019), 65-66.

Bio: E. Maude Haak-Frendscho is a Philadelphia-based arts organizer and writer. More at maudehaakfrendscho.com