SIP - SoundLAB Interview Project

Sabsabi, Khaled

Khaled Sabsabi
is a multidisciplinary Lebanese artist living in Australia.

  • artist biography
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    Interview: 10 questions:

    When did you start making music, what is/was your motivation to do it?
    I started to make music in the mid 1980s, around 1986; my inspiration at the time was the Hip-hop movement.

    Tell me something about your living environment and the musical education.
    Ok, I migrated with my family from Lebanon to Australia in the late 1970s, as a young boy about 12 years old; reason being was the civil war in Lebanon.

    I was educated in Australia, Sydney in the Western suburbs areas with are mainly made up of migrant people. As far as my music education well non-formal, there was a lot of influence of Arabic

    Music in my child hood and in my opinion this is an important form of education, later in 1998 I enrolled in the university of New South Wales and completed my Masters degree in art, Mart.

    Is making music your profession? What is the context in which you practice music nowadays?
    Making music as a profession? Well Yes and No, yes in the sense or term that it is my passion and I am totally committed to creating, No in the term that it is not my sole income source. I generally see music / sound or art making practice, as a tool for expression only and its success shouldn’t be measured by its dollar value. Reason being is that in the late 1980s I started to work with small community arts organizations, working with at risk communities and in such places youth prisons, centers etc. Although I do my own artwork work, I find that working with people is an important factor in determining and shaping my work.

    How do you compose or create music or sound? Have you certain principles, use certain styles etc?
    I have kept it very simple for over the 20 years. When I’m creating, I often try to look at how the work can be different in the sense of structure and format, if I can describe this it would be like
    “Cultural Displacement”.

    Tell me something about the instruments, technical equipment or tools you use?
    Instruments I use? Primarily everything can be regarded as an instrument, from the kitchen sink to the traffic noise out side your window, and I do use these elements, as these are living elements and

    Creation is about life. What is important in using these ingredients is to make a narrative and to create a space for the listener to conclude their self to and in the work.

    What are the chances of New Media for the music production in general and you personally?
    You see I regard my self extremely lucky, I have seen in this short period of time the digital revolution, In the past I have made work using very basic analogue equipment and also high end digital

    Environments, it is an exciting time for audio and the future is unlimited as far as how and what.

    How about producing and financing your musical productions?
    Producing? I am always producing, regardless of the final result. Financing? Self, most of the time.

    Do you work individually as a musician/sound artist or in a group or collaborative?
    The final work mostly is individual, but the process to that studio involves much collaborative work, on all levels.

    If you have experience in both, what is the difference, what do you prefer?
    I think each is as important as the other and for me one can’t exist without the other. As an artist, I am influenced by my environment.

    Is there any group, composer, style or movement, which has a lasting influence on making music?
    Story telling using sound, (people thinking about the work).

    What are your future plans or dreams as a sound artist or musician?
    Not much really, just to be able to have the space and platform to do more work.

    Additional documents:
    1. article by Juan F. Salazar (Sydney/Australia 2005)
    2. article by Jo Bosben (2005)


    Khaled Sabsabi
    Ali or 3li Exhibition Opening (14.10.05)

    Acknowledgements, thanks

    When approaching the art of Khaled Sabsabi (Lebanon, 1965) from afar it is impossible not to think of the prefix trans. His art work may be said to sit at ease, yet restlessly …. across … on the other side of … beyond … through … at the threshold…

    Meaning in his work is always being transferred from one medium to the other, transposed from one culture to another, transported from one place to another, translated from one language to another. His video works are about the transitive nature of art, the transactional nature of community work, the transversal nature of a multimedia work that in Khaled Sabsabi’s case is in permanent transformation.

    Having migrated with his family to Australia in 1979, his artistic work emerges from the realm of sound and music arts, first with a noted interest in the politically engaged hip-hop movement during the 1980’s, then through sound design & installation, to finally cultivate a complex encompassing of video media, multimedia installations, theatre and digital interactive media. He moves not only within the realm of mainstream artistic practice; Dlux, AFI, Carnivale, Belvoir Street Theatre, the MCA, but primordially and for some of use, most importantly, in the fluid, politically charged territory of community media for social change and emancipation; projects for youth suicide prevention, HIV and Hepatitis C education and prevention, drug and alcohol education.

    Sabsabi escapes the logo of a politically correct notion of multicultural artist of NESB working in Australia, and may be better understood as a transnational community worker using art for community empowerment , a Left/over artist, or an “artist who is left out of the main menu of sanctioned artists. It is a people’s artist who understands that their own art making complexities are pushed to new places through their engagement with artists or communities of people who are more on the margins than themselves”.

    A few weeks ago I saw his last work ALI or 3LI right here with my 3-year old daughter. For both of us it was the first time confronted to this piece of work, an artwork of monumental dimensions as you will be able to experience in a few moments. While my daughter’s first reaction can be best described as fear, in my case I can say that what I felt was closer to a feeling of familiarity, of cozyness, as if I was revisiting something with an uncanny familiarity. And this perhaps gives us an indication of what “true art” should provoke, a strange mixture of uneasiness, fear, wakefulness and reassurance.

    After a while I realized, or I thought I had realized that I was also experiencing resemblances to some of my installation work from back in Chile ,which also dealt with the notion of the camp: not the refugee camp as in Khaled Sabsabi’s case, but camps for political prisoners of the military dictatorship.

    The camp has been described as the hidden matrix of the modern, the nomos, or the essence of modernity where geopolitical spaces are separated between those who are included and those who are excluded . As such concentration camps, refugee camps, detention centres act as zones of indistinction and we may see this logic of the camp transposing to other spheres of social life.

    In this regard Khaled Sabsabi’s artwork has a duty a waajab to make a statement about and to be responsible for that statement

    It is precisely this kind of art what we see in Western Sydney, in places such as the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. It is art that questions not only the roots of what means to be a hybrid artist and displaced self living in Australia today, but confronts how we will define Australia in the decades to come.

    An going back to the prefix trans we may see the Community arts activism of Khaled Sabsabi as a form that never conforms nor pleases the majority .. as a form of transactivation,. In molecular biology, a process whereby an infecting virus activates another virus’s genes that are already integrated into the chromosome of the host bacterium, inducing the host cell to replicate the initial virus. This is the virus of politically engaged artistic work that fights against the reduction of citizens to bare life, to those “docile bodies” at the mercy of dominant power structures.

    It is a real honour to invite you to experience Ali or 3Li which exists in a sort of spatial vacuum between this building and the Cambelltown Arts Centre. This continuum, Khaled Sabsabi reflects, “is symbolic of the two spaces; it refers to person and experience, in a way, a migrant one, as being or living in one place but continuously getting overwhelmed by another space, to simplify this is to, imagine you are two separate people, totally different but are chained together, for life, forced to share in each others realities” (interview with Anna Bizzi Sept./05).


    Juan F Salazar
    Sydney, OCT 12,2005.


    Water from a Stone – Video and Sound Artist Khaled Sabsabi

    Meeting an artist after examining their work can have two affects. Firstly, it can change your perspective on the art (for better or worse), and secondly it can give you a belief that you now know the artist (their public persona as well as their hidden side). In the case of Khaled Sabsabi, a video / sound artist and graduate from the College of Fine Arts, my understanding of his work was clarified and deepened after speaking with him, but a sense of me knowing Khaled Sabsabi did not materialise. But I did meet an artist who knows himself.

    Khaled’s images are grainy, pieced together stills and videos of his place of birth, Lebanon. He depicts long rows of medium density apartment buildings, some of which, after being hit by bombs, reveal the internal ruins of people’s homes.

    Not being from a war torn country, the artwork is familiar like news footage. I understand what I am watching in the context of my life, which places a news story about war in between other segments on Australian politics, the health of the Pope and sport.

    “Growing up in war,” Khaled assures me, “makes things different,” both in the way things are seen and remembered.

    Khaled Sabsabi is a dark eyed, tentative man. When he comes to my office at the College of Fine Arts for an interview, he hovers at the entry, hesitant or a little uncertain. Although I later find that he is anything but uncertain, at the moment of introduction it seems neither of us knows quite what to expect.

    After settling on the edge of a low chair, Khaled talks to me for two hours about his life and his art in short, honest sentences. He was born in Tripoli. His parents came to Australia when he was a child. Their intentions were to work short-term and then return home to a city they loved. They stayed longer then they expected but sent their son back to live with his grandmother and go to school. Two years after the family was reunited in Tripoli war struck. Khaled and his parents escaped when he was 13. Since then, and for more than 20 years now, Khaled and his family have lived in Western Sydney. In the “West”, as he calls it, where Khaled discovered racism, repressed anger and art.

    Being poor, from a non-English speaking background and dealing with the ongoing consequences of war are obvious difficulties that the family would have faced in Australia. However, Khaled reveals the harder and more subversive problems were those driven by an invisible undercurrent. “Trying to fit in and not finding a place,” he says.

    What were Australian teenage boys doing in the 80s? “Going to pubs. Listening to music,” says Khaled. The dominant voice of the era, however, that of Jimmy Barnes, and popular Australian cultural pastimes (footy and parties) were not things an adolescent boy recently arrived from Lebanon “could really associate with”.

    Instead, his own voice of expression was instigated through an unlikely source, a hard-edged and unidentifiable sound direct from the United States.
    Hip Hop was a sensation for Khaled. “I could relate to it,” he says. “At first it was the attraction of the music – the sound and the entire subculture, including graffiti. Then I got into the making of it. At the time, there was one radio station, I think Double J, and they had a Black music night. I would listen to it and tape it and then trade it. It was a mystery – technically, how it was made and the cultural side of why it was made.”

    “Tell you the truth,” he admits, “I didn’t understand or know about the history of people of colour in the States. Coming to Australia from a war background I thought we were the only people in the world with a problem. Then I realised that there are millions of people like this and it’s been going on for years, thousands of years.”

    He began to read the doctrines of Malcolm X and listen to Public Enemy and work as a community youth worker. The self-destruction he witnessed in many young people through drugs, violence, and poverty reinforced in his mind the causes of discrimination and divisions between people. White versus Black, The Haves versus The Have-Nots. He says he had “a real anti-white issue for a long time”.

    Then, in the late 1990s, his theories of race, identity, and self-worth were tested. He applied for an Australian educational fellowship to travel overseas and make art in the Middle East. He believed at the time of application he would not get it and failure would prove to him that he didn’t really want to go. The Australian judging panel, however, deemed that his travels and his art were a worthwhile investment.

    Reflecting on his reaction to receiving the scholarship, he says he was shocked and played avoidance games. He made excuses and put off travelling for a year until he was told that the scholarship would expire. Were his delays because he was scared? “I don’t know if it was that,” he says. “More the scars from growing up in war – and not even being aware of it. I ran out of time and in the end. I had to go”

    In Lebanon, Syria and the mountains of Turkey, he explored his childhood, slept on the floors of people who would let him in and, in general, tried to connect to the land and the past. He stayed eight months in total. “There’s plenty of time to think there,” he says. “Life is slow. I spent a lot of time alone. I don’t mind that – you know – isolation. I was there to… yeah, just to see why this region is so full of conflict and always has been. I came away with this thing of identity – that there is no identity… I changed and I like who I am today as a result. I’ve accepted that when you’re part of a minority group the road is different.”

    Khaled says he thinks “art is the starting point for everything.” His video work playing in my computer shows nothing visibly living – no birds, no plants, no people. The streets are dry and desolate. Yet it is full of real and disparate sounds of life, people’s voices arguing, crying. These are the survivors of wars in the Middle East. Khaled has recorded their conversations, hundreds of them, in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon.

    “My artwork,” he says, “has always been about the community and community issues – every minority’s or migrant’s issue.”

    He currently works with two other artists. “We’re like a collective,” he says. “I’ve taken them to Lebanon with me and the next time, we’re going to set up a multi-media resources van. We’ll take it around from camp to camp and let the people broadcast their own programs using the van’s equipment to talk about their issues and maybe getting out of the camps.”

    He likes the idea of what he calls “doing Guerilla work – you know – moving an artwork from place to place,” and giving people what he discovered through music and art – a voice and a way to make it heard.

    Khaled has two upcoming installations in Sydney, constructed in two venues, “but they work as one installation,” he explains. “They’re pretty much about many ideas – time, space and people. Identity is the main thing and it gets people thinking about beauty being in the eye of the beholder.”

    Khaled Sabsabi will be at the Casula Powerhouse Art Centre and the Campbelltown Regional Art Gallery in September 2005. For more information, email Khaled on