Checking out the updated Cabinet website, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s name sits atop the magazine’s contributors’ list with a 2011 article on the history of forensic audiology. Sound has been his research area since time spent as a DIY music producer and, here, he explores its production journey post-1984*; specifically, the act of listening as a practice/function open to increasing levels of phonetic scrutiny within the legal system. Did you know that the continuous recording of the UK mains-grid hum means it’s possible from pretty much any digital recording to precisely map the time and location of any sound?
It’s a fascinating and deeply troubling read underlining, as many of Abu Hamdan’s works do, how civil liberties have been, and potentially could be, eroded. Not to mention the human rights’ violations endured as a result. Meanwhile, eight years on from publication, tech developments and the perceived threat of terrorism and displaced communities continue to have a significant impact on our freedoms (of speech, movement, information), and therefore the need to defend them.
I happened upon this article during an online nose around, but actually the structure of it highlights the artist’s ability to engage, no matter how potentially dry and/or difficult the scenarios he presents us with might first appear. Once you’re in and amongst his research, all other thoughts are pushed to the peripheries. As I’ve mentioned in previous Turner Prize posts, this is another complex body of (time-based) work to introduce. And one that should be experienced, rather than simply read about, in order for anything I say here about its impact and production values to make sense.
In style and tone, Abu Hamdan and fellow nominee Tai Shani may be very different artists, but it could be argued they are equally rigorous in approach. Where his meticulous investigations are experienced through the (often syncopated or rhythmised) presentation of facts, her detailed fictional worlds offer playful, critically open spaces in which to think about existing ideologies or interpretive structures.
They also share a key connection, namely that the communicative power of everything they present is dependent on the ability to harness the performance potential of the exhibition space. It therefore makes sense in each case to abandon oneself to the dynamics of the chosen mode of delivery before attempting to read the situation or contextualise the information being offered.
During the first public play of this reconfigured work in three parts** I learn about such things as: the architecture of Saydnaya, a three-winged military prison in Damascus built around a central cylinder that acts like an audial funnel to induce maximum psychological distress from its prisoners; the importance of ear-witness testimonies in judicial proceedings (Abu Hamdan includes details from high-profile cases such as the Oscar Pistorius trial, which although fascinating also encourage us – as audio voyeurs – to confront our seemingly endless appetites for celebrity culture and true crime); and the changing nature of the wall as both a physical barrier and an ideological manifestation.
“In Saydnaya, the architecture of the prison emerges not only as a location of torture but itself as an instrument in its perpetration”.
Everything in the room, and there isn’t much, is there for a particular purpose – to set the performative tone, of course, but also to present the artist’s findings in an easy-to-assimilate manner. The perfectly timed, scrolling white text on the elegantly installed black screen hosting ‘After SFX’ (2018)*** reveals many different witness testimonies, including some from former inmates describing objects they associated with the sounds of torture in Saydnaya.
The pace of the delivery is sync'd, at points, to tympanic beats that further heighten the tension of the narrative elements revealed, while allowing us to shift between the idea of this as an installation and a library of sounds. And, to acknowledge how much of our collective audio memory is informed by popular culture. It’s a triumph of minimal means used to maximal effect, transporting us visually from the opening crawl of ‘Star Wars’ through the back-end of computer operating systems and onto other textual territories, such as archival lists.
The action then redirects to the far-end wall and a screen displaying ‘Saydnaya (The missing 19db)’ (2018), a rightly anxiety-inducing representation of the barely audible vocal communications of former inmates as audio waves. Bear in mind normal human whispering usually registers at 30db. And, finally, we are drawn back to the centre of the room to witness ‘Walled Unwalled’ (2018), a single-channel performance-video work that depicts Abu Hamdan narrating from an East Berlin broadcast centre used by the German Democratic Republic.
From three glass-fronted recording-studio boxes he explores the materiality of certain infamous boundaries, offering different examples of how propaganda has penetrated them, or internal audio evidence has been able to ‘leak’ out. The visually stunning set-within-a-set diorama the artist creates, along with atmospheric sounds, data visuals and drum solos, pitches the viewer between the maverick sensibility of early Horizon documentaries, avant-garde cinematic devices and late film-maker Chantal Akerman’s formally lush but unwaveringly truthful staging of human stories.
Aside from the extraordinary facts and harrowing details one takes away with them, there is also the feeling of having been expertly – possibly at points unwittingly – guided through a virtual research soundscape, as part of a bespoke and seriously niche audience experience. Given the nature of the artist’s investigation of sound as experiential phenomena it makes sense for him to have fostered this innately theatrical dynamic within the installation set-up itself, but never at the expense of the data and narrative accuracy. It’s exactly this tipping point, between essential ‘info’ and spurious ‘tainment’, the truth of a story and the performativity of its telling, Abu Hamdan expertly frames.
*The year and not the novel, of course, though this is perhaps not an incidental starting place from which to think about sound, speech and the politics of silence
** This work was shown in Tate Modern's The Tanks space in 2018
***Abu Hamdan has also been nominated for ‘Earwitness Inventory’ exhibited at Chisenhale Gallery, London, in 2018. This presentation and the three revised works shown here are from a body of work he has collectively titled ‘Ear Witness Theatre’, based on his investigations as part of research agency Forensic Architecture (supported by Amnesty International), into the conditions of Saydnaya, the Syrian military prison run by Assad’s government. According to the group’s research, for detainees – who are delivered blindfolded and kept in total darkness (on pain of death not to speak) – sound becomes the main sensory means of negotiating and recording experiences.
1. Installation of 'After SFX 2018' © Tate Modern and Lawrence Abu Hamdan
2. 'Saydnaya (The missing 19db)’ (2018)' Turner Contemporary © David Levene
3. 'DC Semiramis' Tai Shani/Turner Contemporary C David Levene
4. 'After SFX 2018' Turner Contemporary © Stephen White
5. 'After SFX 2018' Turner Contemporary © David Levene
6./7./8. 'Walled Unwalled' (2018) © Lawrence Abu Hamdan