Emeka Ogboh on Sound, Mnemonics and Collective Experiences
Born in Enugu in 1977, Emeka Ogboh is a sound and installation artist who explores how private, public, and collective memories and histories are translated, transformed, and encoded into sound and food. His works contemplate how sound and food capture existential relationships, frame our understanding of the world, and provide a context for critical questions on immigration, globalisation, and post-colonialism. Ogboh works in a variety of media, with sound as his principal medium, and is one of the most innovative conceptual artists practising today. In the last ten years, he has expansively explored Lagos, a city in the throes of infrastructural changes and socioeconomic development. Through sounds that permeate public spaces and serve as an interface for collective and subjective everyday experiences, Ogboh displaces the primacy of sight in experiencing and understanding the megacity. His work requires a phenomenological immersion, which results in the viewer experiencing Lagos aurally (through sound) and with the power of the imagination without being physically present in the city. Ogboh has participated in numerous international exhibitions including documenta 14 (2017), Athens and Kassel, Skulptur Projekte Münster (2017), La Biennale di Venezia (2015), and Dakar Biennale (2014). In this interview with Omenka, he discusses his work, most recent exhibition, and his collaborative work with Beats by Dre.
Following its successful debut at documenta 14 in Athens, your immersive, multi-channel sound installation, The Way Earthly Things Are Going (2017) was displayed at Tate Modern last year, and now forms part of the institution’s collection. Featuring live-streamed stock exchange data in 25 metres of red, green, and blue LED displays, it implies a departure from your well-known city soundscape (with Lagos being the most notable) in which you have incorporated such digital media as video and photography. Is this only a temporary shift in your experiments to create more immersive experiences in response to today’s increasing focus on big data, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality?
Yes, indeed, my work has departed from city soundscapes. I have been experimenting with different forms and media in recent times, big data included. This is not a temporary shift, but part of an ongoing process of expanding my work in relation to the state of things around me, and the world in general. There are many possibilities with how to go about creating art works, and I decided not to limit myself but to be as open and experimental as possible. It is not just about working with these media for the sake of the hype. For me, it is about utilizing the right media in relation to what the work is addressing, be it big data, virtual reality, or computer coding; I am open to experimenting with these forms. For example, in The Way Earthly Things Are Going that you mentioned, the work was inspired by the Greek financial crisis, which also had an impact that resonated across the world. Hence the idea of working with real-time stock feed for the installation came up. There was no better way of connecting this data with the music/installation than to have a live display. These numbers defined how the world’s economy is performing by pulling feeds from different stock exchanges around the world in real time.
The documenta 14 radio programme Every Time a Ear di Soun could also be understood in the same light. Please share your thoughts on the radio programme and how it can be employed in exploring the “possibility of understanding oral traditions and acoustic phenomena as forms of knowledge exchange, while reflecting on how sounds can create synchronicity between bodies, spaces and histories.”
Every Time a Ear di Soun presented the radio as both art and as a medium for art, with radio broadcasts of sonic art works from documenta 14, and specially commissioned sonic works for the radio programme. I liked the idea of an on-air art exhibition, with artists “exhibiting” on radio. It was about deep listening and hearing, creating an experience that focuses just on the aural, rather than the visual, which we are more acquainted with when relating to art.
The radio is not a new thing; it was around way before the television and has been transmitting information and knowledge. People have always gathered around radios for news, announcements, radio dramas, football, and many other radio programmes out there. In my opinion, the radio represents the oral narrator, the storyteller, the griot, the Jali kunda, the onye mbem who sits to share knowledge and is surrounded by attentive listeners, travelling through space and time through these narratives. Radio has the potential to let us visualise oral narratives, and immerse our bodies in different imagined realities. Take the football commentaries for example. We follow the actions of the commentator, who leads us through the whole match process with real-time game analysis, sharing moments of dribbles and goal scoring, the heightened tensions, and the disappointments of a missed game set or goals that hit the bar. We end up “watching” these commentaries in our heads, reliving and visualising every moment as if we could see what was happening.
You’ve achieved recognition as one of the most innovative conceptual artists practicing today. You are also completing a fellowship at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination, which purposes to question the established ways in which knowledge is defined, produced, and taught. Please tell us more about your experience here—your contributions to this research and its overall impact on your work and career.
I am currently one of the inaugural fellows at the University of Columbia’s Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris. My experience has been rich and rewarding, spending time and interacting with my colleagues at the Reid Hall in Paris. Every fellow is expected to give a public presentation on their project, followed up with a workshop with the other fellows. The workshop provides room for constructive discussion and feedback on the presented project. The interaction with other fellows is not limited to these presentations. Being at Reid Hall provides an environment for the fellows to interact, foster new ideas, and get hands-on advice and critique on our different ongoing projects.
My research in the last couple of years has focused on migration and the position of Africans in contemporary Europe. Paris (and France in general) provides an interesting platform to engage with this research, given the ongoing relationship between France and Africa. Some of my colleagues have been working on similar or related issues on race and citizenship and have more experience in this field than I do. It has been an enriching encounter to sit down with them and share research ideas, tapping into their experiences and knowledge on these topics. I have also been able to reciprocate and contribute to their projects and research with my expertise and with research materials I have discovered.
Together with Oyindamola Fakeye and Jude Anogwih, you co-founded the Video Art Network, Lagos. Despite these pioneering efforts with video, and of course sound, these media may be yet to receive widespread acceptance in Nigeria. What can this situation be attributed to, and why do we perhaps need to pay more attention to these media?
The rise of new media art has been slow, not just in Nigeria, but on the African continent as a whole. There are many factors that this could be attributed to. For one, new media needs certain infrastructure in place to thrive, unlike other considered traditional forms of art practices. This infrastructure includes technology and equipment, which are not readily available, and when they are, may not be affordable.
Collectors are still focused on some certain types of art—artworks they can easily display, mostly by hanging on the wall. New media works need technical expertise and purchase of equipment to put up, compared to non-time based works that can be easily hung on the wall. Many new media works, like video and sound, require customised spaces to be displayed, and most times such spaces are not available or convenient in residential houses. The works tend not to be cheap to produce, and there are no guarantees for sale. So galleries will also shy away from promoting and displaying such works. The artists who completely rely on their artworks for sustenance will move away from taking up such genres.
We need to pay more attention to new media because the world is becoming more and more digital, and the future of the arts will certainly toe that line. It does not mean that non-digital art will be irrelevant, but a lot of attention and possibilities will be focused on new media. For example, virtual reality, which I believe has a main stay in the future of the arts, may replace art spaces. And if it does, digital works will stand more chances in this realm.
There are many new media festivals springing up around the world, and our participation as a continent is relatively small. Africa as a continent must align with the times; if not, we will be behind and miss out on the many possibilities of new media art, just as we are experiencing now with technology and the tech industry.
The art historian and curator Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi described your work Lagos Soundscape as capturing “the maddening hyper-visuality of Lagos.” How do you communicate sound visually?
I work with the concept of mnemonics for this, where certain associations could trigger certain memories or imaginations. Certain pictures or imagery will pop up in your head when you hear or listen to certain sounds. So also certain sounds pop up in your head when you see certain visuals. It is easy to pull this off with photography, using photos of a place or object to activate people to recall or imagine what sounds could come from such places or things. But I work more with colours. For example, yellow is a strong colour that is attributed to the city of Lagos. This, I believe, came from the ubiquitous Danfo buses painted in this colour. The sound of Lagos now connects to yellow, and applying it in an installation helps trigger memories of the city. I would paint walls yellow and have two parallel black lines run across the wall in the middle. For those that know the city, they can make connections to the Danfo bus, the bus stations, and bus conductor when they see this.
No Condition Is Permanent (2018), your first solo exhibition in Paris, assembled old and new works inspired by the mega-city Lagos. Importantly, it also featured your first music album influenced by the electronic music scene of Berlin, where you currently reside. In your view, how well did the Paris audience experience Lagos and Berlin aurally? Were your objectives met, considering that your work has been perceived as “noisy and obtrusive” in some quiet European cities, including Cologne, where a loudspeaker of your installation was damaged?
No Condition Is Permanent was a gallery exhibition that combined both the visual and the auditory experience into one show. The scenario with Cologne, which was more of an auditory intervention in a public space, was entirely different. The sounds installed for No Condition Is Permanent were not all in the raw state that the Lagos soundscapes is known for. Here they were mainly electro-acoustic compositions influenced by Berlin’s electronic music scene and infused with sounds of Lagos. My objective here was not the same as what I did previously (in Cologne for example). I was not seeking to “obstruct” or “disrupt.” Here, I was working on the idea of exploring Lagos from the outside, having been spending time in Berlin more. It was an experimental shift that included music compositions and images that touched on the influence of two cities. It was a gallery exhibition, geared towards the audience that would make out time to visit such spaces. So it was not designed as a chanced or surprising encounter that people would stumble upon in public spaces.
The Paris audience was generally appreciative of the exhibition, with good reviews and positive feedback on the immersive Lagos experience. But the most outstanding experience for me was a Nigerian that turned up by chance—he came upon the exhibition while walking by the gallery. The familiar visuals caught his attention, and when he walked into the exhibition space, the familiar sounds transported him home to Lagos, where he had not been for a while. It was a very emotional experience for him, and he burst out crying. I never imagined this scenario happening, considering that Paris is not one of those cities where you find many Nigerians.
Also last year, you were shortlisted for the Hugo Boss Prize, which recognises innovation across the world in the visual arts. Hugo Boss’s involvement adds to the growing list of institutional support from luxury brands. Do you think that it is understandable that it casts a shadow of elitism on art? Conversely, should such support be more directed at Africa, judging from the fact that a high percentage of buyers are from the continent, and in addition, there is a dearth of monetary support for the research and publication to promote the visual arts?
The Hugo Boss Prize has been going on in collaboration with Guggenheim since 1996 and is probably one of the oldest art prizes. The truth is that most of the aspects of the arts need money to happen, and yes, it does lean towards elitism. This is the reality of things in the art world. It does cast a shadow of elitism, directly or indirectly, and will continue to do so as long as money is involved.
I do not know what the percentage of Hugo Boss’ African buyers are, and I doubt if the numbers are as high as you are suggesting. Though if it is true that a high percentage of Hugo Boss brand buyers are from the continent, then it’s a sad situation. There are notable African designers based on the continent and abroad. Maybe it is time we looked inwards and focused on supporting our own, and this could translate to the funds being closer to us, and then increasing the possibility for the support for research and promotion of visual arts on the continent. Most foreign brands do not have any stake on the continent, and do not owe us in terms of supporting our art scene. They have their own people to support or would rather focus on the international art community in general. Hence, we cannot call them out for not funding our art scene. But if the money is closer to home, it increases the possibility that there could be some funding for the arts. Fashion and visual arts are closely related, making it easier for those in the visual arts to convince well-established local designers to invest in the arts.
You recently collaborated with leading audio brand Beats by Dre to create limited edition series of luggage and travel essentials inspired by Lagos and her signature yellow Danfo buses for Horizn Studios. Please tell us about the experience.
It was a great experience working with Horizn Studios and Beats by Dre to create the luggage and travel essentials inspired by Lagos. Having worked with Lagos in different forms of art installations over the years, I, of course, jumped on it when the idea came to try out something more design-focused. It was an interesting shift to imagine Lagos not for an art exhibition, but for luggage and headphone companies. Music and travels are very essential in my life and work, as a frequent traveller and a sound/music aficionado. Apart from my sound art practice, I also moonlight as a DJ, so I was quick to connect with the idea when Horizn Studios proposed the collaboration. Then it came down to translating Lagos as a design concept. I majored in graphic design in university, and I had worked freelance as a graphic designer prior to my art career, so this was an interesting comeback for me.
My point of departure was the Danfo bus, as usual. The Danfo bus is probably the most iconic avatar associated with the mega-city Lagos, and it has featured in my work a lot, both visually and aurally. So from the start, I leaned on the Danfo bus for inspiration. It is easy to think of Lagos as a chaotic, multisensory concept, which would have turned out like a collage of different design elements, but I decided to go with a minimal and simplistic approach, inspired by the two black stripes typically found on the Danfo bus. The two black parallel stripes on a yellow background are synonymous with the Danfo bus, but here I flipped the colour structure: two parallel yellow stripes on a black background, black being the typical colour of most luggage. This also aligns with the perceived representational colour of Lagos, which is yellow, running across the middle of the Horizn H5 Cabin Luggage. This we then replicated on the headphones.
What new projects shall we expect from you?
I am working on several projects at the moment, notable amongst them being a commission for the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), where I propose to convert the CMA Atrium into an Igbo village square using sounds and objects. This installation will include multichannel sound installation of an Igbo chorale group, with objects wrapped in Akwaete fabrics as a sculptural intervention in the space. These objects include a 25-metre tree and bean bags to sit on. The idea is to create functional objects with the Akwaete fabrics that can be easily moved around the space for the audience to recline in while immersed in the sound installation. And then I am also working on the Paris edition of the Sufferhead Original Beer as part of my Columbia Fellowship research. I will also be working on a new music album in tandem with all these projects.
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