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SMRN monthly meeting of April 30, 2022: Touching the Absent*

On April 30, 2022, SMRN had another inspiring meeting with a group of members, including
Mena El Shazly, J.R. Osborn, Masayuki Iwase, Nina Czegledy, Lynn Marie Kirby, Laura Marks, Walid El Khachab, Juan Castrillón, Farshid Kazemi, Jan Hendrickse, Somayeh Khakshoor, and Mansoor Behnam.

In the first part of this meeting, Juan talked about his work-in-progress: a multimodal recital titled “Sounds for Sarah.” Juan told multiple stories about his personal journey with the instrument, Ney flute, which included many complicated occasions most of which had to do with the issue of presence vs. absence which is a fundamental notion around the instrument of the Ney. The way Juan Ibrahim was telling these stories was beautifully a manifestation of his “neo-organological” approach, which acknowledges “the agency of the instrument” and sees the instrument as the/a performer.

According to Juan, his work “Sounds for Sarah '' features an experiment of speculative organology that involves repairing a set of sound objects and redesigning a musical performance. These objects are four Ney flutes acquired by Sarah Frishmuth, a well-known collector of art and musical instruments who lived in Philadelphia in the late nineteenth century. Frishmuth donated them to the University of Pennsylvania Museum with the purpose of contributing to the appreciation of Islamic art, but they were never on display. In 2020, Juan Castrillón curated an organological installation at the University of Pennsylvania, featuring the instruments; but due to the shut-down of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, again, they remained unseen. 

In the words of Juan, this presentation also addressed the elliptical dwelling of Neoplatonic affectivities which characterizes the ontology of the Ney flute and elaborates on redesigning a musical practice in dialogue with Laura Marks’s notion of enfolding/unfolding aesthetics.  

For more information about a part of Juan’s project, please follow the link below:

In the second part of the meeting, Walid El Khachab gave his presentation titled "Of Shadows and Mirrors: Towards a History of Archetypal Ancestors of Audiovisual Media."

During this presentation, in response to how in Western cultural, and particularly academic, context photography and cinema are typically considered the forbears of audiovisual modern media, Walid argued that a decolonized archeology of media may find in Shadows and reflections in mirrors, older archetypes, and this can be the starting point of an alternative history of media. While elaborating on this idea, Walid put emphasis on the necessity of understanding the materiality of shadows/specular image/visual media, and also clarified the fact that media image is always a part of an assemblage, which comprises body/matter, the materiality of media/screen/mirror, and the image/shadow/specular, while in such assemblages, most often, the body/matter part is absent/hidden; he called this hidden part of the assemblage as the transcendence, and, as Laura Marks beautifully mentioned in the discussion after the presentation, he connected the inherent eroticism of cinema and the act of touching, with the eye, through the image, to a yearning for the absent transcendence—which in its own turn had touched the media/screen/mirror—rather than collapsing the distance between the viewer and the transcendence/the absence/the hidden. He also beautifully elaborated on his Foucauldian reading of the imaginal worlds made through visual media, be it the specular image, the shadow, or a digital image, as heterotopias (worlds within worlds) rather than utopias.

Another thing that Walid talked about—not as the main topic of his talk, but as an important issue that needs to be addressed during any process of visual media production—was the inevitable political and economical power relations of colonialism that can be traced down in technology, visual media, and the image or any product of contemporary visual media.

Waild El Khachab: “Even though the mountain is reflected in the lake, I argue that it is the lake that produces the mountain, so to speak. So it’s the cinematic image of a mountain that may produce transcendence or an idea of the divine”.

These two presentations were both followed by engaging discussions with the members in the form of questions, answers, and exchanges of thought-provoking feedback afterwards.

*This report has been prepared with the help of Juan Castrillón.