“Who wants to hang out with confident people?” – In conversation with Charbel Haber
Part of Other People’s special book series with a multi-media book on what we as humans leave behind. Charbel Haber documented the years 2020—22 in his hometown of Beirut, Lebanon. Haber’s A Common Misunderstanding Of The Speed Of Light was released in November of last year. The project is a combination of a record and book observes the slow passing of life and the illusion of retrogradation in his every day. Simply by documenting — via image, text and sound – Haber assigns value to everything that is cast in amber by this project.
KALTBLUT caught up with the multifaceted artist a couple of months after the release of A Common Misunderstanding Of The Speed Of Light to chat about the project, and why we’re all just children, pretending to be adults.
KALTBLUT: How are you? How’s life been since you released the book?
Charbel: It’s really nice! It’s enjoyable to be on paper. It has a primitive feel to it in today’s digital context, to touch something when all is being turned into ones and zeros. It’s a musical album and a diary inspired by two years of extraordinary times, not that times aren’t usually extraordinary, but these couple years were pretty special, particularly here in Beirut. A friend of mine always talks about solar storms, how one day one of those will wipe out all the servers, and we will lose all our data. I figured the music wouldn’t exist, but I would still have the book. So that’s also something that’s been keeping me thinking.
KALTBLUT: We will have a very interesting time ahead of us if that storm ever happens. Since this project is both digital and physical, does it feel weird to not be able to change the printed version after its release?
Charbel: Yes, it is, of course. These words are printed on paper, they’re not like notes that accompany a record, they’re more than that, they are inner thoughts that I’m accountable for in a certain way because they were shared in the form of a book. Also, people worked on it, invested their time and means, and trees were cut – these words on these pages are quite a responsibility.
KALTBLUT: If you look at it now, is there anything you’d like to change?
Charbel: Probably. If I look deep enough, of course, there will always be something you want to change in your work as an artist.
This is the work of Maziyar Pahlevan, to whom I just sent the text and the pictures without any indication. And he built a narrative with all the material, and it worked like a charm. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t even change a thing. We just discussed the cover. But what’s inside worked from the very first time.
KALTBLUT: It’s a stunning book. There are so many layers to it. What came first, the idea, the photos, the music or the text?
Charbel: I was writing the text as a personal diary. I took those pictures at the same time I was doing the music. Nicolás Jaar contacted me in August 2021. He had mentioned a solo record of mine that he liked, It Ended Up Being A Great Day Mr Allende, released in 2012 on Al Maslakh Records, one thing led to another, and we started talking about releasing new music. When discussing mediums, the situation was really dire in the vinyl industry, with a lot of delays due to the covid pandemic and other production factors.
Nicolás proposed making the book. He liked what I posted on Instagram, text and photos. Then came the idea of the QR code. I was really up for it, I’ve wanted to explore new mediums for new releases, and this was the perfect opportunity. Strangely, it all made sense.
KALTBLUT: There are so many crises all over the world, the attention isn’t on Lebanon at the moment, where you’re based and from. Do you feel with those mediums you’re getting more attention back in the country?
Charbel: I don’t want any of this so-called attention. This kind of momentary media buzz that sparks from a crisis is harmful both for my country, and my art. I don’t like the fact that sometimes my work and the work of other Lebanese artists get press coverage solely because of what our country is going through. It’s reductive, and it makes us artists feel like we’re profiting from our country’s misery. You have to keep in mind that this book is not only about Beirut. It’s about the human condition, its misunderstandings of itself and its perception of what is light and what is not, it’s very much inspired by the words and thoughts of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. The geographical location is not of any importance, everything anywhere anytime is a situation to be lived and explored. In the case of this book, it happens to be Beirut in the early 2020s.
The geographical location is not of any importance, everything anywhere anytime is a situation to be lived and explored. In the case of this book, it happens to be Beirut in the early 2020s.
KALTBLUT: It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It also doesn’t matter how much money you have, at the end of the day, we all have the same fears.
Charbel: Exactly, we all fear death and the unknown, this existential dread hangs over our heads no matter where we’re born, no matter where we live. In a way, death is only just but never kind. I deal with this dread by evading responsibilities as much as possible, by pursuing a Situationist dream, Lebanon really helps in that case, it’s the perfect background for such a dream.
I deal with it by being childless, both my partner and I agree on this, she wants to remain childless too, and we want to remain children, children pretending to be adults.
KALTBLUT: I think most of us are.
Charbel: Most of us are actually, and Lebanon is a terrific playground in that sense. From afar, it might sometimes seem like hell on earth, but it’s not. I admit, it’s a quite strange thing to say and very hard to explain. The city has this unbelievable energy, especially in the last few months. I feel it at every performance, every gig, every party, everything feels like a spiritual awakening, a spiritual ceremony, a gathering of lost souls in ecstasy. This state is not sustainable, I know it’s momentary, it’s not eternal, and soon we’ll plunge again into darkness. What is eternal anyway? Not even darkness is.
What is eternal anyway? Not even darkness is.
KALTBLUT: Art is known to thrive in “difficult” situations anyway, right?
Charbel: Yes true. For example, England gave us its best music and art in the Thatcher days. I guess this says a lot. And we all know in which socio-political climate the Dada movement came to be.
KALTBLUT: As well as playing solo, you’re in a band, too. How does it compare working on and releasing a solo project compared to a band project, where there are more people involved?
Charbel: My solos start as the sketches I propose in the different musical projects I’m involved in. Sometimes they end up becoming pieces on their own. All my work is finally centred around the electric guitar. That’s my thing. I like to play it and process any sound that comes out of it, especially the buzzing and the humming. I started playing the guitar as a teenager after discovering Nirvana’s Nevermind, and then came Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca and post-punk. But my first encounter with the sounds of an electric guitar came at a much earlier age through the music of Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid, my parents were huge fans.
Surf, punk and grunge, and ambient music, that’s mainly my musical DNA. Started by forming the band Scrambled Eggs in the late 1990s, this band went through many phases, from punk to post-punk, from post-rock to space rock with The Johnny Kafta Anti-Vegetarian Orchestra, from art-rock to improve, you name it. Whatever we did was fun and intense. It was quite an experience. Then with projects like Malayeen and Orchestra Omar, I explored my Khorshidian psychedelic tendencies. With Good Luck In Death, it’s a dark ambient trip, in the case of my upcoming album with Fadi Tabbal on Nahal records, Enfin La Nuit, it’s pure ambient melancholia.
KALTBLUT: How does the work process work by yourself?
Charbel: You take all the heat. And, it’s quite narcissistic. I hide behind many loops, under accumulating layers of the static sound.
KALTBLUT: Does that fear ever go away when you release it and get good reviews and reactions?
Charbel: No, it doesn’t. I just feel like an impostor. Well, my friend architect Bernard Khoury always says that I am a charlatan, and I think he’s right. I am finally convinced of my charlatanism.
Maybe it’s my Christian upbringing and all the guilt that comes with it. Who knows? The human mind is so complex.
KALTBLUT: Every artist is playing with that feeling. In a sense, it’s also the feeling that makes art great. If you’re too confident in yourself, it reflects in your work.
Charbel: Who wants to hang out with confident people? They tend to be extremely boring. Most of the time they go into tedious monologues, and it’s difficult to converse with them. People who lack confidence are much more interesting. Unfortunately, the majority of the population is overconfident, no wonder the world is turning to shit.
KALTBLUT: I think I’ll join you there. You started this book two years ago. How has the first picture you took compared to the last one? Did your vision change? How did your feelings and your technique change?
Charbel: I was definitely not thinking in terms of technique, only in terms of storytelling. I like to shoot absence, places without people. I like to shoot the traces of their passage.
I feel that what we leave behind is much more interesting than our actual presence.
KALTBLUT: I’m just flicking through the book now and there’s this photo that really reflects what you’ve just said. There is paper or linens on the floor and the photo wouldn’t be as impactful if there were people in it.
Charbel: Exactly. Exactly! I like us, and I don’t like us. It’s funny. I like what we do, and I don’t like what we do. I like what we did, and I don’t like what we did. I think we did great, and I think we did shit. I’ve never been so undecided when it comes to what I did as a human being and what we did as a species. I’m profoundly questioning everything. And I cope with that by shooting our absence instead of our presence.
KALTBLUT: Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do, though? I think especially in the times we live in right now, not questioning the actions of human beings is pretty much impossible.
Charbel: But you have to be sincere in your questioning. Lately, we’ve been questioning for the sake of questioning. We must be convinced and sincere when we question the universe. It’s not an easy task.
KALTBLUT: How do you convince yourself?
Charbel: I’m still trying to figure that out. I don’t think I’m even close. The book is an attempt at that. It’s my most serious attempt to date.
KALTBLUT: When did you start the book? Was it before, or after the explosion in Beirut in 2020?
Charbel: Before the explosion. I’ve been doing this on Instagram for years. I started with the pictures, then I wrote the text that I had to associate with the picture. It amused me and kept my mind busy, had to be creative for instant validation. When covid hit and we had to go into lockdown mode, all of a sudden I had at my disposal this dystopia I dreamt of for years. The streets were empty, I could finally take photos of my beloved city with no people in sight, only stray cats. It was beautiful. Then came the explosion, and things became weirder and I became more of a voyeur, mentally dissociating myself from the tragedy, making myself an observer, just here to document. Another coping mechanism, I guess.
The streets were empty, I could finally take photos of my beloved city with no people in sight, only stray cats.
KALTBLUT: You started this on Instagram. On Instagram, you get instant reactions that you don’t get from a book. Do you prefer that or do you prefer getting instant reactions like comments and the likes?
Charbel: I like both. Both are important. Instagram is an amazing tool for research, creation and communication if used the right way of course. There are lots of cats too on Instagram. I’m very interested in what biocentrism has to say about the universe being aware of itself and exploring itself. Just like the universe, we’re transforming our lives into data, unless there’s a storm that wipes out everything, we will live forever as zeros and ones on a big hard drive, one of many hidden in an underground bunker, somewhere above the equator.
All photographs, texts and music by Charbel Haber Album mixed by Radwan Ghazi Moumneh Mastered by Kassian Troyer Design by Maziyar Pahlevant Printed by Albe De Coker in Belgium
You can purchase Charbel’s book, A Common Misunderstanding Of The Speed Of Light, on Bandcamp.
Follow @barbelbaber on Instagram to keep up with his work and check out his Bandcamp page for his previous and upcoming releases.