A series of workshops involving teens and the electro-acoustic musician Tarek Atoui, Empty Cans is a project focused on youth discovering their own truth and presenting that truth through technology. On July 27, the New Museum’s Artist in Residency, Tarek Atoui, began his first of two week long Empty Cans with twenty fourteen- to nineteen-year-olds from the Museum's G:Class high school program and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation's RECYouth program.
In the first week, Atoui worked with eleven teens at the Tony Dapilito Recreation Center. Arriving with a large tote bag draped over his shoulder and a midsized suitcase pulled behind him in hand, the tall Lebanese artist with disheveled hair was greeted with a couple of “cools,” several “toughs,” and a “tight.” Having seen Atoui’s performance the previous week in the Museum’s Get Weird series, the Tony Dap teens were curious and intrigued by the artist; in particular his machines. The question on everyone’s mind: “How did he do that?” In beginning the days work, Atoui unpacked his bags and led the group through a tutorial of his “machines”—software, computer, Wii controllers, motion and touch sensors, switchboards, etc. He informed the teens they would be “feeding his machines” with their own graphics, film footage, beats, voices, etc., and then activating/retrieving them to create a work of art. But before going any further, they needed to buckle down and determine their subject or message. For the next two days, the Tony Dap teens brainstormed and honed in on notions of codes. Interested in codes of the everyday, such as uniforms, religions, and languages, and how codes are broken, the teens began to collect visuals and audios that they felt were relevant. In taking ownership of the project, instead of using stock sounds, the students drew from their pool of talents and unanimously decided to use the smooth sultry voice of their peer, Jude, in their recordings of fictitious news announcements, such as “This just came in. According to the Sharp Corporation the new Sidekick has seen unprecedented sales this year. In other news, perhaps coincidentally, high school academic scores have dropped 90 percent. For next year Mayor Bloomberg has mandated schools to extend the five-day schedule to seven.” Intermixed with techno and house beats, the audio tracks characterized the teens’ humorous nature and balanced the more straightforward visuals being used.
The following week Atoui met with nine teens, from the Chelsea Recreation Center, who took a very different approach to their subject. Taking on a narrative form, the Chelsea teens used a problem-solution strategy in representing money. Beginning with the misuses of money represented by images of Wall Street and 5th Avenue juxtaposed with dark, spooky noises, the sounds become jazzier while the images change to sped-up footage of Time Square recorded by the teens. Next they segued to images of what money should be used for, ranging from health care and education to green architecture and pictures of NYC’s homeless population, all in quick transitions, with an upbeat soundtrack of house music. In concluding with alternative modes of spending, images of underground cultures, such as graffiti and skateboarding, were coupled with the lesser-known beats of industrial music. After recording, filming, and pillaging the Internet for images and videos, both groups began to organize their archive into the empty portals of Atoui’s self-made computer software program, Empty Cans, from which the workshop’s name derives.
On August 8, after a week of intense workshops and a morning of rehearsing, the teens gave a performance in the New Museum theater. Retrieving audio and visuals in real time, the teens’ multi-sensory projects created a great deal of interest from the audience, which was captured in the Q&A that followed. The teens now had a chance to talk about their experience and the impact of their collaboration with Atoui. Matthew, a teen from the G:Class partner New Design High School, thanked Atoui, saying, “I learned a lot from this. A lot. It’s hard working with so many people to come up with an idea. But, with practice and lots of patience, you can make something like this! Tough!”