The Atassi Foundation recently supported a residency at London’s prestigious Delfina Foundation for Istanbul-based Syrian artist Ghaith Mofeed. Here, he tells us about the resulting work – Transmissions. A sound installation translating a call for help into multiple languages for radio broadcast, it seeks to connect Syria to the world.
Your work often deals with connections and the human journey, as evident in pieces such as The Journey of a Cell (2015), in which you use archival letters and photographs to map the journeys of two of your ancestors. How does your new work, Transmissions continue and develop this idea of connections?
The Journey of a Cell was all about me exploring my Turkish ancestry. When I myself had to emigrate from Syria to Turkey at the start of 2013, it sparked an interest in finding out more about where my family originally came from. It just so happened that my grandfather had kept a diary in the 1980s, when he himself was on a similar quest, and I found it in 2015 and read it impatiently. I decided to retrace his steps, so, diary in hand, I travelled around the Black Sea, visited my great grandfather’s grave, the village he came from, read letters, walked the same roads he had walked, and so on. It gave me a sense of déjà vu, to be retracing his shadow, in a way. It was almost unreal. It is inevitable that when you are working on a project, at least in my experience, that it takes you back to yourself – where you are and where you are living. I had explored all these wonderful connections between Syria and Turkey in my family history, yet in my own life, as Syrian, it has been challenging to build a whole new existence in Turkey. No matter what we do, we are seen as outsiders. I began thinking about how our voice, as a people, isn’t being heard: we are isolated, not connected.
Is that what sparked Transmissions?
Yes. Human beings, as a species, have been sending messages into outer space for half a century; yet have never received an answer. The most impressive telescopes have been built in order to do this, including the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, with its 1000-foot-long radio telescope. With this in mind, I thought of Syrian locations that would be suitable for a ‘yet to be built’ observatory – such as the Roman theatre in the historic town of Busra Al-Sham. To me, there was a similarity between these space messages and the way Syrians, as it were, have been sending out a cry for help for the last seven years, but it feels like nobody is answering. The great silent emptiness of space, that’s like the great silent emptiness of the rest of the world, either not hearing, or not listening to us – as if everything outside of Syria is alien. It was a compelling comparison.
Transmissions started out as a sound piece, but developed into a real radio signal, is that right?
When I started the project two years ago, I wanted to create a sound installation. During my residency at Delfina it quickly developed into the idea of creating a real radio message that could be sent to the outside world, this communication circulating around the atmosphere searching for a recipient. The message itself is a simple call for help. In English, it is as follows: ''CQ, CQ, this is DX 6CA here, Come back?, Anyone there?''. CQ derives from the French word sécurité, for "safety" or "pay attention", and is the international call for help in radio language. DX is the destination code which means “to all continents”, and 6CA is the country code for Syria in radio language. I then translated this message into 14 different languages.
Tell us about your choice of languages.
The signal starts in Morse Code, then moves into Arabic (the Syrian native language), then English (as the international language). After that you can hear it in Turkish (because it is Syria’s ‘neighbour’ in a sense) Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese (as major European and internationally-spoken languages) Ukrainian, Japanese, Swahili, Thai and Hindi. I tried to choose languages that are fairly widely spoken in different spots around the world.
How did the residency at Delfina help you with this aspect of the work?
The residency really helped not just in terms of research, but the exchange of ideas with other resident artists and curators really saw the work change and grow. It also opened up the idea of translating Transmissions into multiple languages, as well as pushing it further, and turning it into an actual transmission, and not just a sound installation. Furthermore, I then met a sound designer from India at Delfina, and he offered to help me with recording the installation in his studio. That was a great step. Then others on the residency helped me with translations. You can only get so far on Google Translate, you need an actual human being to help you get the nuances of the language right. I was put in touch with friends, and friends of friends, and they would send me voice notes over WhatsApp, so that I could practice the pronunciation, since I was the one recording all 14 versions myself.
What was the most challenging translation?
The Japanese one was particularly funny as I really wanted it but couldn’t find anybody to help me with it. So I simply walked to the big Japan Centre in Piccadilly, and literally walked up to one of the girls working there and asked for help. She was really kind and translated the message for me and then demonstrated to me how to say it. It was really heart-warming to have all these strangers working together to help get the project going.
I’m still working with Atassi Foundation on completing the research for Transmissions, as well as its production and presentation. We’re nearly there, and the next step is to get it transmitted over the radio, using shortwave frequencies. The work is flexible and is able to take different forms or shapes for an eventual exhibition. I’m also working on a project called Blind Explorers, a series of maps investigating the relative distance between countries, as opposed to the literal distance. For example, as a Syrian living in Turkey, Ecuador is one of the few countries I can visit easily, without a visa, without any questions. So Ecuador, which is a 16-hour flight away, is actually closer to me than, say, Greece, which is only one and a half hours away but completely barred to me, as a Syrian. Traditionally, an explorer would go out into the world, expand his horizons, but here, we have the opposite – our horizons shrink and become smaller as we are unable to travel. Blind Explorers is about seeing places but being unable to discover them, having to stay put, and never explore. It is about living in the shadow of a world that prevents some individuals from exploring the known before the unknown.