By Jody Graf
None of the five tracks that make up Fatima Al Qadiri’s Genre-Specific Xperience, her debut EP recently released on UNO NYC, are stylistically alike. Each interprets a specific genre of electronic music, ranging from the familiar to niche-genres resurrected from the depths of 90s obscurity—Gregorian trance anyone? Al Qadiri uses each—hip hop, dubstep, electro-tropicalia, juke, and Gregorian trance—as a point of departure for her own, often hauntingly beautiful, tracks. Her compositions aren’t necessarily faithful to the defining characteristics of their genre—juke is slowed down and drawn out from its usual 160 bpm, and hip hop is reinterpreted as new-age spa music for thugs. In a cultural climate where artists and consumers maneuver through “sub” “post” “neo” and “future” genres seemingly endlessly, a project like this could come across as no more than gimmicky. However, Al Qadiri’s work manages to flirtatiously engage and reenergize the limits of genre, coming up with sounds and images that we might be at a loss to label, but that feel oddly familiar. Simultaneously, Genre-Specific Xperience hints at a more critical inquiry into how and why we look at music through the lens of genre in the first place.
In a discussion with artist Kamua Patton after the project’s debut at the New Museum, Al Qadiri posited genre as both positive and negative—as a set of characteristics used to define and delimit, but also unbridle creative potential around a certain community of sounds, people, and images. She seemed to suggest that her artistic practice has always strayed in between and outside of any one specific sound, and she invoked the word “impression” to describe the way her work formed in response to the imprints left by years of maneuvering through genres. “Impression” connotes something unconscious, almost poetic, and you get the sense that Al Qadiri’s project arose as a way to channel, rather than deliberately recreate, these genre-impressions. As Patton charmingly chimed in, it’s almost like the way “your bed finds itself slightly molded and rumpled in the shape of your body after you get up in the morning.”
The EP stands on its own as a playful investigation of the way genre can come in and out of focus, be pushed or distorted in the hands of the artist. But the “xperience” wouldn’t be complete without the five corresponding videos, each a collaboration between Al Qadiri and a different visual artist not known for directing music videos. The aesthetic of the shorts ranges from blissed-out-tacky (Hip Hop Spa, by Kamua Patton), to apocalypto-futuristic (Vatican Vibes, by Tabor Robak), to a lush screensaver acid trip complete with gyrating girls in bikinis that emerge and disappear from behind the edge of a desktop that doubles as the virtual frame of the video (D-Medley, by Thunder Horse).
What they all share, and what differentiates them conceptually from the music videos we grew up watching on MTV, is that they circumvent the traditional role of visual afterthought, a narrative superimposed retroactively to render a song more seductively ingestible. These works are visually pleasurable, but they maintain a narrative distance from the track that allows them to investigate, with varying degrees of criticality, the images, memes, and symbols that exist alongside their assigned musical genres in the cultural lexicon. If the EP presents sonic “impressions,” these are visual “impressions” of each genre.
Almost all the videos, save the ones responding to genres too obscure or recent to have developed an established visual repertoire, are composed largely from found footage culled from the internet. A “love letter” to dubstep and its role in the turbulent cultural meshing between the Middle East and London, Sophia Al-Maria’s How Can I Resist U melds together shots of stark South London projects with youtube videos of pseudo-strip teases performed for private groups of Middle Eastern men, geometric patterns flickering over their bodies. Ryan Trecartin and Rhett LaRue’s Corpcore spastically layers shots of corporate America and exercise machines at a heart-attack inducing, but insanely compelling pace over Al Qadiri’s juke track.
In Hip Hop Spa, a rumination on the parallels between the confinement offered by the luxury spa and that of the jail cell, stock footage of turquoise water washes over shots of rappers doing pull-ups, popping bottles, and staring out of barred windows. Gifs of rotating diamonds, the lingua franca of hipster internet, are interspersed with found footage of Hummers. The whole video is seductively washed over with a color palette more appropriate to My Pretty Little Pony, perhaps a discrete reference to the emerging Tumblr aesthetic now dubbed “seapunk.”
The most obvious buzzword to associate with the project is, of course, “appropriation.” And so here’s the question that seems on the tip of everyone’s tongue (and came up briefly during the talk), a question that Hip Hop Spa perhaps most intensely provokes: Is this kind of appropriation of a genre’s vocabulary, be it aural or visual, a problematic one? Does the ability to maneuver through these genres presuppose a certain position of privilege?
Genre-Specific Xperience might express something like post-irony though. It seems to push past de-contextualization and rather reactivate and re-contextualize the signs it accrues from the vast wealth of information available to us. I think that this is exemplary of a larger cultural trend of the moment in which appropriation becomes about familiarizing an audience with signs that they have already always considered critically. Ours is a society where sounds, images, signs are multiplied, disseminated, and appropriated to a point of saturation, a point that we will only ever approach asymptotically. And so, it begins to make more sense to take a less disdainful, and more inquisitive approach.
To (cautiously) take this to a macro-level: The image economy in which the majority of western culture operates is only becoming increasingly integrated into every part of our consciousness. Appropriation has become the norm and authenticity holds little weight. Now we are just becoming aware of it. At this point, perhaps the only way to critically intervene is to engage with our cultural language in a manner that might not allow for totally sincerity, but is no longer interested in irony. This kind of appropriation reminds us that, as much as we can pull signs, be they aural or visual, from the infinite expanse of the internet, they aren’t without history. Maybe the world isn’t as simulacral as we might imagine it to be—or, to put it another way, we are always grounding, marking and changing these signs with our own history, our own “impression” of them.
Obviously, the internet has made this sort of cultural “impression” insanely common and cultural cyber-tourism a real concern, and the topic of the internet’s ability to disseminate and stretch particular sounds and images surfaced and resurfaced at the talk at the New Museum. Genre-Specific Xperience can be read as a rumination on the aftershock of this accessibility; but, having been born in Senegal and raised in Kuwait, and now living in New York, Al Qadiri emphasizes the intimacy of her relationships with these genres. Her introduction to Gregorian trance, as she explained, came in the passenger seat of her cousin’s car as they drove through a desert of burning oil fields towards the Kuwaiti border, a violent conflation of apocalypse and heaven reflected in the dark-Catholic-videogame aesthetic of the accompanying Vatican Vibes video. As much as she is appropriating and referencing from within expanses of the cyberworld, its clear that Al Qadiri is culling from quite personal impressions as a nomad, as someone experiencing the liminal side of what some people might glibly refer to as “global citizenship.”