Documenting Dystopia: Bergsonist’s Bodiless Archive

  • Words
  • Claire Mouchemore
  • Photography
  • Enrico Brunetti

Begsonist is first and foremost a producer, but just like you and I, she is also navigating her way through the current dystopia that has been set by our world’s questionable political climate as well as the sudden unattainable desire to know as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

French philosopher Henri Bergson ponders theories that encompass practices emphasizing the validity of our intuition. And besides adopting his name, Moroccan-born, New York-based Discwoman artist Bergsonist also injects elements of this very theory — derived from Gilles Deleuze’s Bergsonism — into the music that she makes. “People relate more to intuitive music,” she notes. Bergsonist’s music is instinctive. It resonates peril and its imminent triumph, which she documents via her routine struggles as an artist and immigrant living in New York City. She uses music as a form of personal liberation, political commentary and as a tool to archive day-to-day encounters in a world where we lack sufficient storage systems and constantly toy with the idea of losing everything.

In a time where music is constantly being shared, downloaded, reposted and rediscovered the question of where to store these precious sounds is often posed. For Bergsonist aka Selwa Abd, her NTS radio residency lives to serve this very purpose; each month she plays tracks and musings from her archive. “I’ve been thinking a lot about new ways of storing archives and securing music — I still don’t think there is a way, but radio seems like the best format right now.” This initiative is an experiment to combat Selwa’s fears about how to keep sounds safe – a subject that she explored during college. She researched and wrote her thesis on the compatibility between computers and storage systems, and how those systems can become redundant at any given time. Each month Selwa delivers yet another self-released EP to listeners, and her aim is to finish the Arabic alphabet. Each EP takes the name of one letter and is released via her Bandcamp where she boldly states “preservation of digital content within the narcissistic digital era is dead.”

The Bergsonist project has long exuded mystery, which was of course on purpose and an effort on Selwa’s behalf to hide the music she created from her family back in Morocco. It was kind of like a secret garden that she didn’t want anyone to discover. Through hiding behind Bergsonist Selwa was always able to disassociate. Due to her lack of physical presence and carefully put together persona fans began to assume she was a man, which angered her and prompted her to finally show her face and reveal more about her personal life to listeners.

bergsonist, new york, 2019 © borshch

Tending to shy away from archetypal techno styles, Selwa’s music is more in favor of experimental industrial and electro sounds that come together in the form of textural rhythms that pulse and thump before dispersing into atmospheric resonance. Additionally, Selwa runs BIZZARBAZAAR, the independent music platform and research studio which catalogs fellow artists’ moving forces and musical endeavors.

Selwa spent her childhood listening to all kinds of music. She embarked on her own path of musical education until she finally discovered the sonic aesthetic that seemed to fit and would — through experimentation — grow to become her very own sound. A sound that she describes as a fictional narrative that purposefully lacks structure and entices the listener first with drums and then leads them to wander into the abyss of melody. This idiosyncratic sound is what earned Selwa releases on BÖRFT RECORDS, New York City’s very own Styles Upon Styles, and UK-based label Where To Now?.

Upon immigrating to New York in 2010 Selwa purchased her very first machine: a Korg ER-1 that she found on Craigslist. This kickstarted her experimentation with turbulent yet gratifying sounds. Through her sound studies in the US, Selwa’s professors introduced her to minimal and conceptual sound artists, which prompted her to think of sound outside of the context of music. “That kind of [conceptual] sound felt so natural to me. You need to cultivate appreciation and understanding with certain scopes of sound, but for me, it was immediate.” Selwa’s class attended a Pauline Oliveros show, not long before her passing, where the composer and deep listening advocate spoke on listening as a practice and had the students engage in a sonic meditation. This engagement and interaction with Oliveros was a turning point for Selwa and evoked her impulse to document her discoveries of unconventional sound. ”You never lose time with music. Music soothes whatever anxiety you have and then you have this artifact, this souvenir that you can use, come back to or bury. It’s a diary of your life that you can capture with sound.” Whether it’s through discovering futuristic FM sounds on her Yamaha Dx200 or challenging herself to recreate previously captured field recordings, Selwa engages with sound as a method of cleansing.

By giving tracks names like Boycott and the not so subtle Deadly Police Shooting Sparks Anger in Crown Heights, Selwa uses titling to attract her listener’s attention to certain subjects and allows them to contemplate those subjects critically. “I think it’s vaguely political because I just use whatever words I’ve been hearing on the news and from that, I try to respond with music. I always try to use titling as a way to denounce something, send a message or share an opinion. It’s easy to tell people to do something but I don’t think we are entitled to tell people what they should do. With music too. I like to give one vague title and then the listener can think of what’s happening on their own, and if they are interested they can research further independently and keep things in the air.”

By playing with the frequencies, decay, and delay of obsolete sounds via her many machines, Selwa created Colonial Revolution, a track that shifts so much that by the end it becomes something else entirely — much like the state of an appropriated country amid post-colonization. “I’m an immigrant, I’m from Morocco which was also colonized and right now in the world still there are so many colonization processes happening.” The track was featured as a contribution to the Physically Sick project, a charity compilation by Discwoman and Physical Therapy’s Allergy Season imprint that enlisted 42+ artists and was released in 2017 as a protest against Trump’s inauguration, with all funds raised being donated to The American Civil Liberties Union, Callen-Lorde, The National Immigration Law Center, and Planned Parenthood.

In July of 2018, Selwa was called upon once again to participate in another charitable compilation release initiated by Terry Radio. This time the profits went to The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a non-profit that aims to reunite families that were separated at the US border under the Trump administration. “I really love the community that I’m involved with and how being broke actually makes you really creative. I feel like since my struggles here I’ve been pushed to make more music. When you’re broke and beat down you don’t have anything to lose. Living in New York revived my incentive to make music.”

During her time living as an immigrant in the U.S. Selwa often felt anxious about her future in the country, especially with the ever-changing political climate that had already seen the ruin of many who had resettled in America. She learned to channel that anxiety into making music just as a child would seek the help of their parents when faced with a problem – Selwa knew she could always turn to music.

“That’s why I engage with the process of making music because I’m able to make people feel something. Well, at first it’s a bit narcissistic because it’s a process to somehow express myself and then the listener is a guest. My music is just like an invitation and if someone likes the sounds then they accept the invitation and dive into the music, trying to understand my world and what’s happening in my mind.”

published first in borshch 4