hubris ~ humility

Before the curtain falls on humankind and we take our bows, let us be asked: Why did you do that?

The climate activist and writer Siana Fitzjohn raises a simple inquiry that expands across myriad realms of our motivation as human beings. It shouldn’t be difficult to answer such a straightforward question. But over and over, we are constrained to witness the sinister acts of people corroded by their fear of losing power, and in some cases, by unbridled hatred.

War mongering and murder proliferate. There’s no shortage of stories of conquest, cultural annihilation and collapse of our beautiful world. Powerful artistry mirrors a failed culture still bent on lynching people. Historians conjure recent parallels such as the enormous expenditures and lack of oversight in the second Iraq War with the contemporary bidding of contracts in pandemic protective gear manufacturing.

We think we’ve adapted to one failed imperial adventure, one endless war, one psyche-depleting degradation of another Black man swinging from a tree or dying beneath the weight of a murderous white police officer’s knee. Another pops up, and another and another, like a game of whack-a-mole.

Art as Witness

Three artists harrow into the gut of hubristic acts and their potential to heal, even as an unexpected journey to safety from egregious harm. It’s an odd overture, a gesture of hope. Over the years, Earlid has featured work that deeply disturbs. And yet we must tunnel into the distress so that we save a bit of ourselves for that gesture, awaiting its call. To listen to such art making, rooting out brutalities, individual, structural, and global in scale, is to open the ears to the possibilities of change.

Sound artists Meira Asher, Evangeline Riddiford Graham, and Bassel (Myra Al-Rahim) offer a sonic stage. Witnesses, we peer over the edge, no doubt complicit in the allure to do so. All three have lived outside their home countries or have returned after a long stretch (Asher spent years in Europe, and is back in Israel; Riddiford Graham lives near Manhattan, though is from Aotearoa (New Zealand); Bassel spent some childhood years in London, surrounded by Iraqi immigrant family members and is now Brooklyn-based). Perhaps these vantages are particularly pointed ones to glimpse otherness, to weigh hope’s heft.

Still, how best to mire oneself in the heinous to possibly revel in its opposite, humility? Each artist strives to reveal this potential. Or maybe it’s the listener’s ears that submit to the carnival ride.

Don’t we have enough mothers of dead boys?

Still Sleeping is a kind of document, an artistic witness to an atrocity no one wants to encounter.

As an Israeli mother herself, Meira Asher breeches the chasm from our ears to the heinous act of a Palestinian boy being burned alive in the Jerusalem forest. One might say that’s an easier vantage: mother imagining mother, mother protecting her own children while imagining another mother’s burning boy. It’s a gasp in the middle of the night from a bad dream we all might awaken to.

The artist’s voice hisses over the crackly heat of a fire, and she wonders why she attempted to offer a sound walk at night to the site of the burning, hateful, agony: an unspeakable crime. She says she didn’t anticipate that her own experience as a mother would enter the fray, her art, this trek. She was dissuaded by the curator, but she proceeded.

Her ambivalence is palpable. Her children are still alive, still sleeping; the burned boy’s mother aches in her loss.

Is it arrogant to make art from a vantage of the group in power? Mary Oliver says evil is one part of our beautiful world. And like Oliver, sound artist Meira Asher is not blinkered. She is trekking out to the forest and the burned boy’s ashes. It seems she, too, feels “… the almost muscular agony of impotence before it …”


Hubris arrives, holds fast, steers in alleged straight lines. But it doesn’t. It swerves and circles and circles back.

Evangeline Riddiford Graham’s work listens to Dog Woman, the persona of Melinda Freudenberger who writes about sexual trauma as a kind of filter. She’s a woman who growls, bites and lives on her hands and knees. Her whispered poem reverberates. And Riddiford Graham’s slow build, sub-throttle machine-redolent hums and repeated bellows (Are you a good girl?How does a good girl behave?) try to rip apart the vice-hold patriarchy and trauma have had on Dog Woman.

The vocal repetitions mirror Dog (digging the same hole) and Poet (the strategy of refrain) and Woman (ongoing pummel of internalized misogyny).

They allow us to enter stories and spaces we’re not supposed to listen to or believe have ever happened. Of the poet’s persona Riddiford Graham explains that a mask can make a work sound more true.

Wave after wave

Bassel (Myra Al-Rahim) rummages through time and catastrophe. She points to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, an angel in a storm, who remains stuck with open wings hurtling through the air, his back turned on the future, staring down the rubble heap of now.

As a child of Iraqi/Lebanese families, Bassel is keenly curious in the creative use of a former U.S. president’s drawl, yawning on about his luxury of hindsight.

George W. Bush echoes his ‘mistaken’ reasoning for his launch into the Second Gulf War as if that absolves him of the hubris of his tenure. And what do we hear in his voice 15 years later? Nothing but conceit.

There’s an eerie reminder that the atrocities never stop. Wave after wave of arrogant actions are mirrored in her sonic layers. The piece floods the body, not just the ears. Bassel’s work offers a radiophonic eulogy to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. At a distance, it feels more like homage, though less of praise.

Its final scene performs an echo of voices reciting the same phrasing that perhaps suggest a fissure into humility.

Powerful works demand self-preservation as they will echo and reverberate in your ears for a long time. Please listen with care.

Joan Schuman, summer 2020

Listen to the XMTR (Transmitter) Radio Hour, ep. 27 (Jan. 2024) from Social Broadcasts/UK, featuring Earlid’s curator, Joan Schuman, in conversation with XMTR’s Lucia Scazzocchio, speaking to these sonic stories and others, Hubris + Humility.