JULY 7, 2017
Launching on July 29 with a live radio play-style performance, Radio Silence has been in the works for years. Iraqi–American artist Michael Rakowitz brought together members of the Iraqi refugee community and Iraq war veterans, meeting in living rooms, library basements, high school sports fields, and Dunkin Donuts storefronts in Northeast Philly, recording conversations along the way. Rakowitz worked specifically with local organization Warrior Writers, which uses creative techniques to support emotional wellness within the veteran community. Jawad Al Amiri and Lawrence Davidson are two Radio Silence participants, profiled here alongside transcribed recordings that will appear in the 10-week radio show on WPPM PhillyCAM Radio 106.5 FM following the live performance on Independence Mall.
Jawad Al Amiri emigrated from Iraq in 1980, fleeing the country after threats to himself and his family for their resistance to the Baath party. During that time, Al Amiri lost two brothers and a sister to the regime. He moved to Philadelphia after attending the University of Pittsburgh, and now owns Ameri Motors, a car dealership in North Philly. Almost 40 years after leaving Iraq, he lives in North Wales with his wife and four children.
“One of the big things that I miss is the call for prayer. When I visit the Middle East, whether it’s Syria, Jordan, the Arab Emirates, Iraq, the beauty of the call to prayer in the morning…it’s amazing. During the mid-day in some countries, they put some verses of the Koran before the prayer…one time I was walking in one of the cities in the Middle East and I heard that voice…I stood on the side in a little garden and I kept listening to that beautiful reading of the Koran until he finished, and I waited for the prayer to be called. It was the most beautiful—I still remember those verses. I still remember that event when I stood in that place. This was almost 30 years ago. That beauty of connection is silent in this country, but it has still affected my heart, my spirit and my ears.”
— Jawad Al Amiri on the call to prayer
A husband and father of two children, Lawrence Davidson is a US Army veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since leaving the military in 2008, he’s directed his personal, professional, and academic pursuits toward understanding, serving, and building the veteran community. He has worked with Warrior Writers for five years, and conducted a qualitative exploration of participation in Warrior Writers for his Masters of Social Work capstone research. Davidson recently started a writing group at the Chester County Prison for incarcerated veterans, using Warrior Writers materials and methods.
“If I join, I am a killer, a mindless sheep, without options, a mongerer of war / If I voice protest, I am weak, soft, lacking the guts required, embodying the soft underbelly of a privileged society / If I seek to help, aid, educate, I am a prophet of the White Man’s Burden, lacking nuance / If I build walls, I am shortsighted, simple, a bigot / Just get comfy avoiding the burden of the fray, watch the birds game, Netflix, Hulu / Head to the shore.”
— Lawrence Davison's Poetry
JUNE 27, 2017
We’re counting down to the launch of Radio Silence on July 29 with curator Elizabeth Thomas, who’s worked with artist Michael Rakowitz on this project for more than three years. Part performance, part radio show, Radio Silence takes on the unspoken experience of the Iraqi diaspora, creating a soundscape woven from refugee and veteran stories that will unfold over the public airwaves this fall.
Could you talk a little bit about how this project has evolved since its conception?
We invited Michael Rakowitz to Philadelphia knowing of his ongoing work with Iraq War veterans and Iraqi refugees—collaborators that mirror the kinds of community participants at the core of the Mural Arts mission, and match its history of making public art. We knew from the beginning that Michael wouldn’t make work in the form of a mural, but other than that we left the possibilities completely open.
Over the years, Michael has:
…so when he decided that he wanted to bring Bahjat Abdulwahed—the man dubbed by a reporter as the “Walter Cronkite of Iraq”—back to the airwaves in Philadelphia after decades of absence, it was a completely expected surprise.
We knew then that we’d use the general structure of a radio program as some kind of variety–news–documentary hybrid. But over the many years we have worked with the Iraqis and veterans, the form and content of the project has been shaped by their contributions. Even this spring, when I thought we were done finding new elements for the project, we discovered a team playing under the Iraqi flag for Philadelphia’s Unity Cup, a local World Cup-style soccer tournament for dozens of teams of immigrant players.
“This melding of American and Iraqi monuments, this visibility of Iraqis and their culture, steps from the Liberty Bell, this to me feels like the America I want to live in.”
— Elizabeth Thomas
What is it like, as a curator, to work with radio as an artistic medium?
For me, and for any curator with a desire to connect to the public, there is something incredibly seductive about working within media that have their own channels of public distribution—over the past 50 years in particular, artists have experimented with TV, radio, advertising, and the internet to find new pathways to reach the public with their ideas. Within that, I think there’s perhaps a utopian desire: to bring the subtleties and complexities of art directly into the patterns of daily lives, and in so doing, connect more than a museum can, in terms of reach, and more than the commercial world of media, in terms of poetic impact.
The most unusual thing about this project maybe isn’t so much that it uses radio, which may seem like a strange place to put art, but that it’s about who gets to speak, and how what they might share gets framed. Most of the time, real people who are sharing their experiences of war or their journeys from their homelands would only be presented in the context of documentary. But in the context of Radio Silence, each individual’s contribution is woven into the larger fabric created by Michael—a kind of fabulist structure that reconstructs the feeling of Iraq before the war, that suspends or conflates the time and space of now and then, the experienced and the imagined, and what might seem to be fiction or fable, but is totally real.
Who do you see as the ideal audience for Radio Silence?
All of us working on the project imagine different audiences for Radio Silence. The Iraqis we work with want all Iraqis everywhere to be able to hear it—those still in Iraq, or those who have left for Jordan, or Germany, or Indonesia, or California. The veterans too think of their colleagues in the military, or who have left the service. We all think of the Philadelphians we want to hear it, so they might know the people who share this city with them, but that they might never see otherwise. That goes for all of America, really. And we think of those who are interested in performance, and visual art, and in the use of radio and podcasting for telling stories in unique and creative ways; people who listen to Radiolab or This American Life or any number of podcasts.
What has been your favorite moment or experience in the Radio Silence process thus far?
This project has gone on for much longer than any other I have ever worked on. For various reasons, we’ve been in conversation with our collaborators for three years now, and the process has involved a lot of eating and talking and spending time together. The greatest luxury of the project is that we’ve had the time to allow these conversations to develop over years of dinners and gatherings in people’s living rooms, and individual meetings over coffee, where people have trusted us to share intimate, emotional realities of their lives, and corny jokes, and music, and so much tea with cardamom. I’m not kidding about the dinners—one day we had four dinners!
What are you most looking forward to when it comes to the live event on July 29?
The live performance is for me almost the opposite of the radio program—instead of the intimacy of being spoken to directly in your ear, the live performance is about presence and visibility.
In this cultural moment in particular, I am looking forward to seeing this little portal to Iraq open up on Independence Mall on July 29—music, food, people, stories, and all of this shared by Americans and soon-to-be Americans together. Our backdrop is based on a painting of Iraqi monuments, and the stage itself on the famous Ziggurat of Ur. The artist Mayaddah Alhumssi worked with Michael to design these elements in visual conversation with Independence Hall, which will be in the background. This melding of American and Iraqi monuments, this visibility of Iraqis and their culture, steps from the Liberty Bell, this to me feels like the America I want to live in.
JUNE 7, 2017
Less than eight weeks remain between us and the kickoff event for Radio Silence—a large-scale performance exploring the Iraqi diaspora with 90 minutes of music and food on Independence Mall, the birthplace of American democracy. The July 29 event curated by artist Michael Rakowitz will be simulcast on PhillyCAM TV, but if you’re there in person, you’ll hear the call of the Bulbul bird and taste traditional Iraqi food from Amasi Restaurant, listen to veteran stories from Warrior Writers, and get caught up in Iraqi refugees’ memories of an Iraq that, due to war and political unrest, no longer exists.
The show will continue in a special radio event, interweaving a host of sonic memories and experiences (and species!) to create a soundscape of the contemporary refugee experience.
MAY 30, 2017
This summer, Mural Arts will launch a new project from artist Michael Rakowitz and curator Elizabeth Thomas: Radio Silence begins in July with a live performance and gathering on Independence Mall, and continues with a special radio event. The project brings together Iraqi refugees and Iraq War veterans, and explores the legacy of Iraqi broadcasting legend Bahjat Abdulwahed—creating a soundscape of the Iraqi diaspora and attempting to reconstruct the cultural landscape of a country that no longer exists.
So why is a public art program with a 30-year history of muralism getting into radio? Part of the Mural Arts mission is to explore the definitions of contemporary muralism and public art, extending into areas like social practice and urban design, but projects like Neighborhood Time Exchange and psychylustro still had visual components. Most of Radio Silence will take place on the airwaves, in the space between the microphone and the ear.
“What we call ‘sound’ is really an onrushing, cresting, and withdrawing wave of air molecules that begins with the movement of any object, however small or large, and ripples out in all directions. First something has to move—a tractor, a cricket’s wings—that shakes the air molecules all around it, then the molecules next to them begin trembling, too, and so on…Sounds have to be located in space…There is a geographical quality to listening.”
— Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
Radio is all about transmission and reception, the movement of sound through space, communication across vast distance, spectrums of tone and volume—we can start to think about the airwaves as a form of public space, another possible location for public art. At Mural Arts, our community-focused process centers the needs and ideas of Philadelphia neighborhoods. Murals can bring attention to long-ignored issues, giving people a platform to speak, so why not really pass the microphone?
Radio Silence will bring back the voice of Iraq through the voice of radio host and refugee Bahjat Abdulwahed, who recorded one session with Rakowitz before he passed away in 2016. The show will air archival footage with Abdulwahed along with a tapestry of other voices—members of the Iraqi refugee community will speak to their memories and experiences of homes both old and new, and veterans from Warrior Writers will describe the way they’ve been affected by their time in Iraq. Radio tropes, like advertisements and weather reports, will allude to the Iraq that has disappeared and the hopes for its return. Metaphorical refugees, Bulbul birds and Arabian horses, which are native to the region, will be part of the project as well. The once-dead air will crackle to life.
In spite of this creative convergence of experience, the truth is that the Iraq of the past, before war and political unrest, will only ever exist in our imaginations. Imagine: for Philadelphia’s Iraqi refugees, and for the veteran community, we are speaking of a place charged with memory, violence, and speechlessness, which cannot be captured in a still image. What are the stories that have gone untold? And what are the stories that cannot be spoken? Radio Silence asks us to listen, to bring them to life.
These posts first appeared on the Mural Arts Off the Wall blog, leading up to the live Radio Silence performance on July 30, 2017.