Crossing borders through sound | In Conversation with Younes Baba-Ali

This interview was conducted in February 2015 and revisited in November 2015. It was originally intended to be published on Another Africa but never saw the light of the day due to various complications (not from Another Africa or myself). A shorter version of this was published in Politics of Sound issue by Afrikadaa magazine though, in December 2015.

It began with a shocking blare of car horns. “God I hate artists!” I thought to myself.

I was standing inside a temporary cube just outside the Musée Théodore Monod (formerly IFAN Museum of African Arts) in Dakar, Senegal. The row of horns suspended in the air should have tipped me off. But the space, with its carefully tended to sand floor and tranquil atmosphere insulated from Dakar’s traffic, had felt so inviting that I had decided to take a few contemplative steps inside. That was when I was introduced to the work of Younes Baba-Ali: after few easy steps the horns blasted to life, filling the space with ear-splitting, gut-wrenching noise. I ran out, back to the ‘tranquillity’ of Dakar’s street noise, cursing artists and their clever concepts.

The following night, whilst waiting for a friend at an elegant hotel bar, I was approached by a polite and somewhat effulgent guy. We were at an after-hour gathering during the opening week of the 2012 edition of the Dak’Art Biennale. He asked if I wanted to join their table by the window instead of sitting alone by the bar. I declined but was touched by his gesture. The next evening, during a dinner with several artists from the biennale, the same young man enquired if I was happy with the wine I’d finally received after the rather joyful chaos of our orders being taken. It was then that I realised he was Younes Baba-Ali, the winner of that editions main prize: the Léopold Sédar Senghor award.

Based between Belgium and Morocco, the Moroccan-born artist employs his creative practice as a way to examine and understand the current world. By initiating constructive responses, glitches and interventions on dysfunctions and borders – be they environmental, political or social – he offers alternative perspectives, and invites the public into what might otherwise be considered an ‘elitist’ practice: contemporary art world.

There is an anarchic and even humorous attitude towards existing conventions in his work; it is charged by caring for a changing society. Since my initial resentment, I’ve come to understand and admire his work. Viewing it in a different light, I have also been pleased to contribute a couple of compositions for his curatorial shows in Marrakech and London, thanks to Younes’ gracious invitation.

Ilpo Jauhiainen | Reminiscing about Dakar and where I first met you, I personally found the art scene there a lot more exciting and activated than the art scenes I’ve experienced in Europe the past decade. People seemed genuinely thrilled, and open to discuss ideas and their work – as opposed to a kind of reserved professionalism, or attempts at hipness that one often encounters in Europe.

Younes Baba-Ali | Things are happening now [in Africa], that is not so much the case in Europe because of its history and it being a place where the arts are very established. But when you go to Morocco, to Senegal, and other countries, you see that art is really something happening in the now, which is interesting. I feel different when I work in Morocco. I feel useful in a way because I’m seeing that I’m taking part in something, in the history of contemporary art because there’s no history. It’s something very new, and is very stimulating and engaging.

I’m always curious about the position of sound in artistic thinking and practice. Where its a creative element, and not some indirect consequence. For me as composer and, well, ‘sonic artist’ if you will, sound is the most important element. How is it for you?

I work with sound, but really I work as a visual artist where sound is material and space. I don’t make compositions; it’s not something I’m interested in. It’s more about the relationship between sound, space, the object and physicality. When I start a project, I don’t think that I have to start with sound – be it a sound or video installation. Mostly, I think about pictures, these ideas that I try to make concrete. Then, I try to find the best form and media. I might think about making a sound piece, and it turns into a video piece. Or I might be thinking about a video piece, and it becomes photographs and so on. Sound is very interesting because it’s a medium that you cannot escape, in the sense that you cannot hide yourself from it. You can hide yourself from pictures or videos, from lights, from smells maybe. But with sound, you can put your fingers on your ears, and you still feel vibrations or the sound. Even if it’s from very far away. So that is what inspires.

I was actually curious because you said that you started as painter originally.

Yes, I started as painter, photographer, and with print-making and graphic design. [In 2008] I went to Poland on Erasmus [a European Union student exchange program] to study painting, but in a very classical way, as well as to study graphic design. But then I got bored after two weeks.

That was rather quick. What happened?

I think those practices felt too personal, like I was working for and around myself. I needed to work in a more open way with space and thinking about my work in space through objects, light, sound and video, and also involving the public. It was a period of personal crisis, but at the same time an opportunity to look into and research this field [art]. After my exchange, I was invited for a residency program at this new media art centre, WRO. They also organise a biennale – one of the most important new media art biennales in Europe actually – where I had the opportunity to work with their resources focused on video and interactivity, and discover these fields. I started to work on my first video and sound installations there, and began developing this relation to objects and how I could make art with my then economic situation, which meant working a lot with daily objects. It wasn’t only a question of economy, but it became part of the aesthetic of what I do.

Several of your works use ready-made objects, which can also be thought of as a limitation or expanding the borders of those objects. In a way I find your work building on Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready-made’ approach.

It is a kind of an extension of the ‘ready-made’, but using new technology and tools. It’s also a philosophy for me in a way: doing things with what you have. Sometimes it goes beyond that, when you really have to think about more complex things. I’m not a minimalist; I also work with projects that require more challenging conditions and technical support. I always try to get to the point, and to the core of things. So it’s a negotiation between all of that: me, my relation to the context, my ideas, the overall aesthetic, the space, the public and so on.


Horn Orchestra (2009). Interactive sound installation.

When I start working on an installation, I think about its storage. I often do installations that can disappear – that I do in situ for an event and then I can just trash it, or give the material away and walk out with my hands in my pocket. Now that I’m more fixed in Belgium and in Morocco, I allow myself to also create more permanent pieces with galleries, because they can store them. But generally, I always try to think of projects that can come from the ground. In the beginning, I never think of it as an art object to be sold physically, but more like a concept and an experience.

Is that something to do with a feeling that perhaps you don’t want to add anything to the world?

That’s true and that’s why I’ve worked a lot with common objects. There’s also this philosophy of giving back another status to an object, but in the context of art. It’s really a question of status: you can take an object and simply think of it in an art context – and it’s art. Which is quite funny as an action but that is the possibility of an artist, that he or she can take anything, whatever they want and say it’s art. So for me this possibility is funny, and I try to work with that.

You have said that irony is essential to what you do.

It’s something very important for me; it’s a language that’s more accessible. It’s also my escape from the French art scene, the French way of making art which is very intellectual and mental. So I’m using humour and irony as a language and familiar element between my work and the public. I think it unconsciously comes from my heritage. In Morocco we are quite ironic; it’s a community which likes to have fun and joke, and it’s also a way to hide a lot of things – a way to hide some economic and social problems. It’s my way also. I’m quite a critical person, but in my work I try to make positive critique, or maybe more open critique, but then use irony to break the heaviest aspect of the topic.

But aren’t you worried that when you’re using irony and humour it might take something away from the work, diminishing its effect. People might think you are simply joking, and that you are not actually being serious?

It’s not joking. I mean the irony is a means for access, it’s really a language like using music or another kind of language. I understand what you mean, but it is a tool for me, a kind of possibility to interact and be understood, and for the public to feel involved. Because my work is quite conceptual in a way, and it doesn’t have to be only conceptual: it needs to have a form and an aesthetic, but also a link between the context and the public, and this link most of the time is the irony. It’s a way to open up the discussion, and the way to open questions.

Speaking about openness, there seems to be a kind of ambiguous quality to your pieces. A feeling that they could be interpreted, and experienced at different levels.

Ambiguity is important in the way that it opens things. When I make art, it’s putting forward questions but in different forms. So ambiguity is the possibility to think about things together: in different ways by different people from different positions. It also gives me the possibility to speak about things that might otherwise be too strong, difficult or delicate. Like the piece I was showing in Dakar. ‘Call for Prayer – Morse’ consisted of a megaphone broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer in Morse code. I wanted to speak about the relation of Muslim education, and the relation we have with this religion where we are no longer educated in a spiritual way. Increasingly we have a very superficial relationship to it. The electronic call sounds five times a day at precise times. It’s actually an attempt to evoke the close relationship between religious practice and the absence of spiritual experience. The Morse translation makes it an alert signal against the dangers of proselytizing, and warns against religious and moral rigor that might prevent oneself to live a free religious and spiritual life. At the same time I’m defending it as a piece that universalizes this call for prayer because of the universality of the Morse code.

I find this piece compelling. The way it condenses all those complex questions into a minimal sonic pulse, with an almost mundane everyday presentation. It’s elegant and clever in an empowering way. I have noticed that your work often carries undertones of some current political or social issues. What role does politics actually play in your work?

I cannot say that I’m a political artist or anything like that. I’m an engaged artist focusing on topics that I care about. I speak about things which are situated in the political field, or social, economic, or cultural field. But it’s not something that I put as my priority. It’s more like something I want to share: questions that I put forward, that I set for myself and the public. And that also relate to finding aesthetically and conceptually good forms. It’s a question of equilibrium between the sense, form and accessibility…I work a lot on the idea of accessibility to an art piece, and about interaction between the public and my work. So there are a lot of works that are based on that, and I try to find ways to interact with the public.

Indeed that’s what is refreshing about your work – that it doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the art world but operates more in the realm of the everyday, and you bring it to the ‘common man’ if that’s a correct way to put it.

Yes, it’s also my relation to art. As an artist I feel useful in this way, in the way that I’m trying to speak to the public and not just staying in the art world – producing for it, and not thinking about the larger public. As artists we have to keep resisting, and confusing any pigeonholing and status quo imposed on us by the markets and media. It also relates to my education in France: I have had a very conflicted relationship with French institutions – the museums and everything – as an artist, but also as a member of the public. A lot of the time, I felt very far away from what art was, and also to the art market – from the perspective of an artist, but also from that of the museums, and how they show art to the public. This relation between the art piece and the public…I was really influenced by all of that. I started to question this status of the art object and its sacralization. I wanted to find ways to break this distance between the audience and the exhibits.


With your widely exhibited piece ‘Carroussa Sonore’, you transformed a commonly-found object from the streets of Morocco into a mobile exhibition platform.

Carroussa Sonore are used to sell Koranic CDs on the streets in Morocco (as well as in the Maghreb and the Middle East). It’s also an object that imposes itself within the public space: it’s used to diffuse Koranic music. Since we cannot critique that, a lot of people use that to put the sound very loud. Moving around the city, they sometimes settle in front of terraces. Difficult to control, you have to accept the loudness because they are religious songs. The whole thing becomes sacralised – the object, and the sound – which creates a kind of interior conflict. So I was very interested in this object, and this business which led to the invasion of these objects, and also to the invasion of sound, and sonic pollution in the public space.

Could you tell me more about your piece? How it evolved…

My desire was to use the Carroussa Sonore as a mobile exhibition space for audible art; so, I used the same lo-fi technology. It’s DIY, and made from a cart, a battery, a sound system from a car – recycled objects. I really like this angle of constraint, but then using it as a creative platform for public space. I worked with local Moroccan artists, and also invited 15-20 international artists to contribute a selection of works that would be diffused through this carroussa. The final selection was made in relation to the object, Moroccan public space, the sound, and the idea of interaction and mobility. I had very diverse proposals from Korea, Germany, Morocco, France…Carroussa Sonore has been presented in Brussels, Marseilles, Helsinki, and London, and each time with a different selection of work.  How it’s experienced depends on the context. In Morocco, it works because it’s the origin of the object, so people have a relation to this object.

Yes, I was quite amazed to see this piece in Rabat. People seemed very interested in it, coming to pick and read through the leaflets etc.

Moroccan people are very curious. It’s quite difficult to do things in the public space in Morocco; this kind of intervention usually needs authorization. Since we were near the parliament (in Rabat), there were a lot of cops in civilian clothing, and they almost followed us. For me it was a deal – trying through the content to propose something else through this common object that people recognise, and also seeing how it would react with the city. It was also interesting to see how the authorities related to this object. They asked “What is it? What are you doing? What are you selling? Who are you?” Our response was “We are not selling, we are just diffusing sound pieces to the public…” I think the relation with what we know changes a lot of things, if it’s something completely different it could be more difficult to integrate. If I came, say, with some very large structure with sounds and a lot of speakers, maybe I’d be stopped after 5 minutes. But with this object which is already known and which already has its space in the city, it’s more accepted. So we used this possibility to propose sound art from all over the world, with the relation to the object and the religion, to the public space of Morocco.


Zinneke (2015). Photo: Luc Schrobiltgen

Migration and climate change are some of the current forces shaping our world and the future. Your piece Zinneke addresses these themes rather eloquently, through both the visual presentation and the sound of birds.

Zinneke is an installation I did here in Brussels for an exhibition at the MAAC. It’s an installation with birds’ nests in an art space, with audio recordings of their calls in the city, and those nests came from my landscape here in Brussels. They are the nests of parakeets, exotic birds living here in Belgium and in Brussels specifically, which is quite strange because the climate is completely unlike their original. But they’ve been able to adapt to the context, build their nests to live and to spend the winters, and now they have been very reproductive due to the warming climate so there are quite a lot of them here, becoming almost a disturbance to the ecosystem and people’s habitat…so I took this relation with these birds and their nests as a metaphor for the relation with the immigration and foreigners in Brussels; how people from all over the world can come to Brussels and find their way to live here, to adapt themselves. In Brussels you have a lot of people from the Global South: Congo, North Africa, South America…and they live in a very grey city – windy, cold, you know – but people find themselves in it, they try to adapt, find work and home, to build a house. So this installation and the nests for me are a kind of social habitation that the birds built by themselves: they are very big nests – they could be in the trees but also on some structures in the streets, bus stops and stuff like this, so they really install themselves wherever they can adapt to the space. And so the piece presented in the gallery consists of the nests that are arranged around the space, so I’m just recreating this phenomenon from the city but in a closed space, with the sound of those birds being very loud, quite disturbing.

Your recent piece ‘Story Dealers’ took place in an old cistern in the city of El Jadida, Morocco, and it consisted of voices of local inhabitants projected into the space. The last time we spoke, you were still in the process of finding the idea to address this space. I must say, I find the final realisation beautiful: just voices of inhabitants occupying this architecturally and visually stunning space.

Yes, I was invited to go to El Jadida as part of a project about contemporary art and patrimony. Each artist was invited to invest in a historical building in a Moroccan city. El Jadida is an old Portuguese city with a lot of history. There’s an old and beautiful fortress city with a lot of beautiful buildings: a theatre, church, synagogue and the cistern, but all are completely abandoned, and even feared by the locals; it’s mostly a tourist area now. So, I wanted to develop a project which would invite the local inhabitants back to this area, and perhaps reconnect them with the place.

The piece conflates history-making with a particularly ironic artifice, how did you orchestrate the local inhabitants and their individual stories?

Through a local guide as well as a person working in a local bakery, I was able to connect with the inhabitants and record their stories. For some of them, I gave a proposal to come up with fictional tales about El Jadidia; they did that perfectly. Others recounted their memories of growing up there, while others retold stories about myths surrounding the place. The idea was to mix them all, and come to a new story, a new narrative about the place. I had been inspired by fake tourist guides. You often see them in the cities in Morocco trying to sell the most interesting story to tourists. I wanted to create all of this, but for the locals in order for them to reconnect with this place again, and imagine its possible future. The end result is a choir of voices, and stories echoing around the space.