Anwar Wave

No, Anwar Wave is not the newest musical sub-genre (although someone should totally make that happen). It’s a project that converts audio excerpts of Anwar al-Awlaki’s sermons and speeches into letterpress waveforms.

The series consists of six prints that cover a range of his work. For example, The Dust Will Never Settle Down is quite fiery, while on the other hand you have work like Seventeen Rules of Dream Interpretations or the Bearers of Glad Tidings, which, although presenting a conservative religious viewpoint, are hardly offensive. The waveforms sample from between a single word and an entire lecture.

Anwar al-Awlaki’s case brings up some fascinating questions around censorship, justification, and symbols. Reduced to waveforms, his audio message becomes very abstract. Some people found them beautiful. Other said that they looked like scars or gashes. What I find interesting is that you can’t tell what is incendiary and what is not when you look at them this way. This makes it hard to believe that these little waveforms have inspired some people to kill, or that the United States considered these same waveforms so dangerous that they sent a flying robot to blow up their creator and stop him from making any more.

These days, you mostly hear about Anwar al-Awlaki because his work is constantly getting banned from Youtube and Facebook and so on. This led me to assume that it would be very hard to find his work online going into this project. Not so. His complete body of work was like the third search result. I also find it interesting that companies have generally instituted blanket bans on all things Anwar, arguing is that his earlier works give credibility to his later direct calls for violence.

All told, I listened to perhaps 30 hours of his work for this project, which—while hardly a complete survey—is probably a good deal more than most people have done. I am however looking forward to being able to take them off my phone because, for the past six months, every time I connected it to my car, “Another Ramadan” would start playing. As one can imagine, this led to a few awkward conversations.

Letterpress was used because it creates more tactile prints. You can actually feel the sound waves on the page, almost like the grooves on a record. The waves were made using a photopolymer plate and hand printed by yours truly at Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts.

Going to Market

Printing was only the first part of the project. To complete it, I wanted to try selling them. So over a sunny Memorial Day weekend, I set up a small table at the Fremont Sunday Market.

Getting ready for market.

Getting ready for market.

This may not have been the best choice of venues. It seems that very few Sunday market-goers are in the market for jihadi propagandist art (although I had certainly cornered the market so to speak). Even I admit that I’m not entirely sure what one should do with the prints. Would you really want to hang them on your walls for example?

This incongruity was intentional though. I wanted to try selling the waveforms in a very matter of fact, everyday place and not at an art show. My stall was very minimal and did not play up the whole “banned terrorist propaganda” angle or anything like that. So minimal in fact that most people walked right by without even a glance. What was a little surprising however is that even those who stopped generally never asked what prints labeled “Jihad Will Continue Until the Day of Judgement” were all about.

Really, getting a market stall was never about selling the prints but the act of taking them to market (oh god, I’ve become one of those people). There’s something profoundly humorous in taking Anwar al-Awlaki’s work and selling it back to Americans at three bucks a shot. And I couldn’t have asked for a better setting: a block up from a Google campus and two blocks down a statue of Vladimir Lenin, surrounded by all sorts of pop cultural ephemera for sale. I mean, the man across the way was selling a rubber unicorn head mask. You can’t make this sort of thing up.

Why won't it stop judging me!?!

Why won’t it stop judging me!?!

The Long Way to Market

Anwar Wave actually began in December 2017 when I set out to find a professional letterpress shop in Seattle that could print the waveforms for me. This search led to discovering the letterpress courses offered by the School of Visual Concepts, and I signed up for my first ten week program on a whim.

The courses introduced me to an entirely new world and wonderful people who I likely would have never met otherwise. So Anwar Wave went on the back burner as I worked to understand basics like setting type and caring for the ancient letterpress machines. Long story short, it took six months before I was skilled enough to complete the original project.

I notice this pattern a lot in my life: detours that often lead to far more interesting places than those I originally set out for. Even a year ago, I never could have foreseen myself jumping from designing bikinis to letterpressing Anwar al-Awlaki’s words. In hindsight though, the path here was only a series of seemingly minor detours and diversions. Exploring and discovering and learning. Taken together, these small steps have led to some very unexpected places.

I’m done with Anwar Wave, but now letterpress will be taking me to Switzerland for an immersive program. Who knows what new possibilities and opportunities this will open up. The detouring continues.