Hassan Khan’s Composition for a Public Park occupies a tranquil stretch of the Giardino delle Vergini, a small garden tucked behind the Venice Biennale’s largest venue, the Arsenale. I came upon the gently intertwined scores of the work, which won one of the biennale’s main prizes, the Silver Lion, this year, after wandering through the rest of the Arsenale’s often competing offerings. I found in Composition for a Public Park a welcome and graceful corrective to the sometimes garbled sprawl of the rest of the exhibition, curated by Christine Macel.
Consisting of three separate scores that are broadcast from speakers placed throughout the garden, the multichannel piece creates a shifting soundscape that seems to bend space and time around its sonic imprint. As I walked through the space of the work, reverberating Gamelan phrases shifted into urgent hand clapping and the driving momentum of an orchestral swell. Voices in English and Italian punctuate certain areas of the garden. Although, their quiet musings about strings of pearls, dresses and anger must be actively pursued, as they are nearly overcome by the constantly shifting sonic atmosphere
I spoke with Khan shortly after the biennale’s opening in May to discuss the project, its political significance and its relationship to the rest of his practice.
Dan Jakubowski: When I first experienced Composition for a Public Park at the biennale, I felt as if sound itself, in the garden, was molded like a three-dimensional foam. It created different environments that would shift as you moved through the space, molded into the three separate movements. Can you describe the movements?
Hassan Khan: Each movement is a fully contained discrete musical composition, with its own musical language and instrumentation. Each includes a libretto recorded in the voice of a man and a woman. Each has a title. The first movement, “Stasis and Majesty,” uses a brass ensemble, mizmars and piano. Movement Two, “The Revolving Jewel,” includes a classical Arabic ensemble and electronic processing, while Movement Three, “No Political Romanticism,” is composed of string quartet, contrabass and clapping. There are connections between the three librettos as well as differences. All three texts were written with the idea of channeling a subjectivity that was on the line between, hmmm — channeling a subjectivity that brought to the foreground an emotional landscape shaped by both very public and very intimate emotions.
In the first movement, the libretto assumes the voice of this old, slightly bitter man. From that perspective, it tries to speak about despair, desire … Maybe desire’s not the right word. Ambition? Hope? These big emotions that both drive us and chart our relationship to the world around us. This is written in a way that is easily identifiable for the listener but also slightly alienating. The texts were all written so that, if you were a random passerby in the park, when you heard these voices, something in them would attract your attention. You would recognize things they’re describing, but, at the same time, you wouldn’t be able to own it, to possess it completely. It’s strange and specific enough to not simply be a general banal statement about humanity. It is both ambiguous and particular, and each movement wants to be this way in different ways.
The gender of the central subjectivity in the second movement is a bit more fluid. It is not clear if the voice speaking is a man or a woman. At times, it could be either. I mean the narrative voice within the text itself — the actual recorded narrators in all movements are both male and female voices. The second movement is about loss, seduction, power and control,and how these could also be, in a private sense, motivations toward certain types of aesthetics. Aesthetics is not the right word. A certain type of beauty, maybe. A certain understanding of beauty. Yes, beauty!
DJ: The word “aesthetics” implies a certain ordering of the perceptible universe, which then implies the presence of ideology, of politics. “Beauty” describes a more specific experience of the sensible. Can you expand on your notion of beauty here?
HK: The word “beauty” is maybe more accurate here, because I am not using it to describe the movement itself as much as as an adjective for the content being described within the work. It is not a quality of the artwork. It is a quality of what’s being produced by the artwork. The emotions that arise when experiencing what we call beauty, how that beauty is produced and what we understand of it are all part of the experience that the second movement tries to engage with. The sense of loss and the potential of seduction that haunts the movement may produce a yearning for beauty that is itself beautiful. And of course because nothing is ever perfect and there is always, thankfully, an excess that we cannot control — this movement is also proudly beautiful!
The third movement, “No Political Romanticism,” takes a different tack. The text still holds that strange double position of presenting an identifiable entity that is also alienating, but, opposed to the first two movements, it refuses to position that subject in terms of a character. The third movement tries to engage with actual forces. The text speaks through the voice of power. It speaks about containing anger. It also speaks through the voice of the contained and charts how conditions mutate under the pressures of containment. The third movement is about anger and its containment, as well as the impossibility of complete, total, absolute containment at the same time.
Maybe the three movements try to produce a multifaceted portrait of life. I don’t know if “life” is the correct word. Maybe it’s a portrait of the subjectivities that surround us in our contemporary world, the world of an urban, shared coexistence. It’s about a contemporary condition, but not as a rarefied image of a lifestyle, but as a real material condition of the world we live in.
DJ: I was struck by the fact the word “movement” could have a double meaning in relation to this work. It describes musical movements, but this work also requires actual embodied movement. You have to move around the garden to experience the breadth of the work. How does Composition for a Public Park motivate or inspire bodily movement?
HK: That is quite open to the audience’s initiative. I’m trying to work with the impulses latent in the work, to put them together in a certain fashion and hope that putting them together in that way allows the audience the possibility to engage with the work in diverse ways. You can follow the sounds and hear things, and then they call you onward to other sections of the work. You move. You walk. You stop. You listen. You move on. The voices may attract you to stay for a while at certain spots and listen, then move on again. You could also just sit somewhere and kind of let go. That’s part of what parks do. My interest in public parks and gardens, in the first place, is that they are spaces that are sort of in brackets. You’re in the city, in a publicly accessible space, but you are removed from daily conditions, even if that’s a kind of illusion. There is some form of displacement that occurs in a garden or a park. Even in the smallest green patch in the middle of a street, you’ll find that something suddenly just changes, and the rules are maybe suspended for a tiny bit. These are spaces that produce forms of difference, and my interest in them was based on that subtle quality. I wanted the work to be informed by that and to inform it in turn; that is part of what a garden is. In a way, I’m creating another garden on top of the existing physical one. I’m creating a garden driven by content. It’s not plants and soil and architecture, it is these sounds, this music and this recorded text. And that garden opens up another space that is bracketed once again. I don’t know if reflection is the right word, but I think it opens up a form of engagement with yourself as well as with public conditions.
I saw some clips that people posted online of people doing weird dances in the piece. People do whatever. That also exists.
DJ: There were always around 15 to 20 people occupying your work, whenever I visited. It felt like a social space. People were there, speaking to each other, seemingly meeting with one another. It was never a solitary experience. I never went there and found myself alone.
HK: That’s how I hope it should function, also for future iterations in other settings. In this case, yes it is still a public park. Actually, it’s one of the few spaces in the biennale accessible to the public without a ticket, but, of course, it’s still in the biennale context. So there’s that huge art event sort of happening in the background. I’d be happy to have it installed in other contexts, like in a big park in a city. At one point, I was discussing installing it in Central Park in New York with [US non-profit for producing public artworks] Creative Time. But that didn’t work out in the end. I see it in those contexts as well. I think within those contexts you really have a chance for people to do whatever, to react to it in whatever way they wish.
DJ: In a gallery, certain institutional constraints motivate a particular kind of engagement with an artwork. Does the openness of the public park interest you?
HK: For this work specifically, yes. And I therefore refuse to show it in this form in other contexts. Other works work better in an institutional bracket. If it’s a sculpture that needs to be seen in a specific condition, it will work better in that institutional context. If it’s a video installation that needs specific conditions, it will work better in a museum or gallery. For me, it’s not a given that one site is better than another. It depends on the work. In this case, yes, a public park is the ideal place.
DJ: Let’s speak about the type of music you composed for the work. It was composed specifically for this piece, right?
HK: The first two movements were specifically composed for this piece, while the third is based on a composition that I perform live, that was composed in 2013, the same year I made Composition for a Public Park: “Live Ammunition! Music for Clapping, String Quartet and Live Electronics.” The version you hear in the park is a little different from the live version, but they are essentially iterations of the same composition. It exists in two forms, but there is a strong relation in terms of content. I guess you can tell from the two titles, “Live Ammunition!” and “No Political Romanticism,” that there is an obvious relationship. I’ve never said this before, and maybe I’ll edit it out in the transcript, but “Live Ammunition!” is a piece that I composed in relation to what was happening in Egypt between 2011 and 2013. I don’t want to say it like that. But that’s what was forming it. It is a response to certain things that were happening politically at the time. There’s clapping, the sound of human hands striking in unison against each other, in relation to these very dark string arrangements: dark and heavy strings, a full warm contrabass in rhythmic counterpoint, and the complex percussive polyphony of hand claps producing these epic deadly marches. The title, “Live Ammunition!” is about being shot. It’s a work that was already strongly propelled by ideas of anger and conflict and structural change and violence. Even though there is something profoundly heavy about it, I don’t consider it pessimistic, it’s just a piece that takes into account the weight and price of the transformations that always seethe under the surface. It felt perfect as the third movement for Composition for a Public Park — it fit into what the work was about. Moments of turmoil are only daily latencies made visible, and structurally I wanted to end the piece with something that touched upon the forces and undercurrents that drive and are driven by the personal elements you encounter in the first two movements. It’s as if “Live Ammunition!” were already the third movement — it foreshadowed that movement’s existence.
I knew when I began working that each movement should be a complete composition. If you listen to each movement on its own, it makes perfect sense musically. So the movements would work as contained compositions placed in relation to one another. The overlaps between the movements should kind of make sense too. The duration of each movement is different, so the overlapping loops are not locked into a closed cycle but are always shifting. That allows the whole work to breathe. If it was a fixed cycle, it would become deadly, unbearable, infernal, in a couple of loops. Like this, however, they phase in and out of each other all the time. The relationships between all the movements are never exactly the same. The composition is like a carefully crafted yet organic being. The listening ear is able to focus on the composition while subliminally registering the shifting relationships.
DJ: The textual description that accompanies the work in Venice says that the movements revolve around intense private emotions that are also public and political. How does Composition engage with this dialectic or tension between private and public?
HK: Well first, it deals with it by refusing to see it as a dialectic. It refuses to see these as opposite poles that are in tension. It chooses to see them as a continuum and as aspects of the same thing. The relationship is not one of tension, as much as … I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not tension. It’s something else.
In the relationship between the music and the text, however, there is a little bit of intentional tension, and maybe that’s where the word dialectic could be used. When I started working on the piece, the first thing I decided was that there had to be something that broke the atmosphere of the music. The piece isn’t just about a beautiful, entertaining experience in a public park. The music does have a certain seductive power, but there is a bit of grain, a bit of traction, something that blocks the gears from moving, in a way. And the text becomes that grain, the content of the text. The experience is not just a soporific spectacle. I mean, if someone is just chilling with the work and having a great time, I’m not going to jump in and say, “You can’t do that!” You can of course do that, and it’s fine and great. But the work should offer more than just that. So the text is in dialectical opposition with the music, in that specific way. Of course, on another level, that opposition is just a mirage, a decoy, but that’s another conversation.
DJ: Areas in which you could hear the text were like sticking points for me. Spots of gravitational pull that would stop you as you were walking through the garden. You would hear the text quietly at first, and then become drawn toward it to seek it out, and, of course, it would grow louder through that movement. And once you found it, you’d stick to it.
HK: That’s exactly what I wanted to happen. It was designed to do that exactly.
DJ: The text also mentions the tension between a “suspended time” and the “promise of horizon.” To me, that seems to evoke the mirrored states of stasis and transformation, both of which find expression in your piece. One can stay in one spot and float on the music (or listen intently to spoken words), or one can move through the garden and experience radically different states of being.
HK: Just to be clear, I did not write that text. It’s by the curatorial team. They did speak to me when they were writing, but it’s not my text. I can still, however, respond to the question.
Suspended time and the horizon, hmmm. Sure, in one sense stasis is a form of suspended time. But there is also the sense …you know, the way gardens and parks are like brackets. There is a sense … of suspension in these kinds of spaces. That suspension could be — suspension in general can be seen as a negative term, if it’s stagnant or as a form of paralysis. But it can also be a generative term, as something that has the power to make conditions irrelevant and allow for something else to happen. In that sense, this horizon becomes a possibility. They are terms that are slightly in opposition. But they are also complimentary. That possibility, or horizon, or hope, only becomes possible because of a certain act of suspension. That’s the dynamic of the work itself. It tries to create a certain sense of suspension through which a new horizon can be explored.
DJ: Composition for a Public Park was originally formulated in 2013 for a different space, in Paris. How did its first iteration differ from the one presented in Venice?
HK: The work was first produced in the context of Nuit Blanche, a festival that takes place over the span of one night only. So originally, it was designed for a nighttime context in a park. That’s missing in the Venetian version — there is no need to modify the public park lights as the work is only shown during the day. In Paris, it was installed in the Parc de Belleville, a large park in a pretty popular neighborhood. The setting was urban. Lots of families, lots of people, young people smoking up, couples, et cetera. It has that kind of grimy city park vibe. The Giardino delle Vergini in Venice is a very beautiful, intimate space. It’s also much smaller. They’re both, however, public spaces — that is, accessible to the public for free. That’s one of the main conditions of the piece in this form. Wherever it’s installed, it has to be accessible to the public. The title is Composition for a Public Park, not Composition for a Park. And the material content is the same: It’s the same musical composition, the same three movements, the same separation of channels. But the way the music is laid out, as well as its scale, is different because of the different geography and scale of the parks. In Paris, the mix I designed was monumental:loud, forceful, present. The way the sections were arranged spatially was customized for that bigger experience. In Venice, the mix had to be much subtler. It’s a more intimate experience, a more introspective experience. In Paris, it had a stronger collective public vibe. I actually have no personal preference — it is just what works best in what space.
DJ: Did people engage with the project differently from site to site? Do you hear about people’s experiences in Paris and in Venice?
HK: I don’t know how many people saw both versions. In Paris, it was visited by 20,000 people. That was the statistic I was given by the festival. That’s a big audience for one night. Very exciting.
The other big difference was the lights. The “composition” in the title refers to it as a musical composition, but it’s also a composition in a visual sense. It was important for me that in both cases you’re looking at something, and you’re experiencing something, and you’re somewhere. Actually seeing things that are part of the work grounds the experience in a specific time and place. To maintain that specificity, I feel it’s necessary to minimize adding things into the space and focus on modifying existing elements. In Paris, because it was open at night, I modified the public lights in that park by giving them different colors. The first movement was yellow, the second was red and the third was orange. The park is on a hill, and you enter from the top, which means that, when you’re standing on top of the hill, you can literally see the composition laid out underneath you. There’s a yellow zone, a red zone and an orange zone. That creates a visual composition that it is readable when perceived, and then when you enter the park you can experience what you have registered, movement by movement. There was a system being communicated visually, and that was an important element of the piece.
In Venice, I tried to do something similar, but by using the arrangement of the speakers themselves as my visual clue. They’re on poles, which makes them quite minimal and light. Of course, the arrangement is also driven by how to define the sound in the space, and how the instruments and movements interact. But it also has to do with delineating different spaces. The physical presence plays a role. So, the composition is again musical and visual.
DJ: The spatial organization of the speakers aligns with the musical movements, as well as your desire to organize the experience of your audience. How did the shape of the Giardini shape that organization?
HK: The physical shape of the garden played a huge role. I take into account the geographical plan of the space in each iteration of the work. There are also some basic rules which are its structure: There are three movements. Each movement should intrinsically, within itself, be coherent. The overlap between each movement and the next should be manageable. So we’re not in the middle of a delirious audio soup.
I respond to the geography, and I try to work with it, to craft something. It was actually quite difficult in Venice. It took me a long time to come up with an arrangement I was happy with. I could not design a final plan until I was there. I’d done a site visit, and I had landscape plans. But I couldn’t design the final set-up in which every speaker is in position without being in the site, when I was there. I walked around with two speakers, a computer and Mimmo the sound engineer. He could send the different channels through the speakers as I walked around, and I could place them in different positions and test things, plotting their positions in the space. It’s not feasible to do it abstractly. You can have a general design, but the details have to be worked out in the space itself., Yyou need to play with it.
DJ: The theme of this year’s biennale is much more artist-driven than Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 edition, which seemed to very consciously and willfully engage with the contemporary state of the world in a self -professedly political manner. Does Composition have a politics, or express a political vision? If so, can you describe its politics?
HK: Yes, of course. It’s a politically driven piece. Other than the explicitness of the third movement, “No Political Romanticism,” I think everything I’ve described to you is in some way about the possibility of delineating a space for politics. It’s politics as a latent form, an. An expectation. There is something to that, just allowing that sort of space to happen.
However, we need to always remember this piece is an artwork. Although it’s made up of two other forms of art, literature and music, it is an artwork. It is not just music or just language. The way it is framed, the way it understands space, and the way it’s designed make it an artwork. I think it is that, maybe paradoxically, that allows it the space to address an audience outside the confines of the inherited language of art. I believe this piece specifically can communicate to a wide audience, that is not necessarily an audience experienced in the codes of reading artworks.
DJ: The work is last, in terms of the space of the biennale.
HK: Yes, it’s number 93 of 93 works.
DJ: Did being last affect your thinking about the work at all?
HK: I’m happy it’s last! It’s a nice place to be. It’s sort of fitting for a work like that to be at the very end of this kind of large-scale exhibition experience. I’m happy that people are able to experience the piece on its own terms. To not be struggling with, which is what happens in exhibitions a lot, the desperate competition between artworks for the viewer’s attention. It’s a horrible feeling! I know it sounds trite when one says it now, but it’s one of the most difficult emotions I have when seeing works. I find this form of despair of the art object one of the main problems in the contemporary art field. Funnily enough, it’s something that I first experienced on juries. First in Cairo, on the 20th0th Youth Salon jury in 2009, and later, when I was on the jury at the Venice Biennale in 2011. In both cases, you see a lot of works., yYou have to see a lot of works carefully, because it’s your job. I felt an overwhelming sense of despair coming from the works themselves. There were a lot of pieces in which you start to sense that they’re determined by the need to attract a certain kind of attention,. Bby the need to catch the viewer’s eyes. That need can overwhelm the work, and compromise it and produce that sense of despair. I try to avoid that as much as possible in my work.