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What You Hear Is What You Get: Sound As Subversive Art

Beirut-based contemporary artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan uses sounds to shine a light, so to speak, on some of the darkest places on earth.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan is an artist specializing in art and audio investigations.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan is an artist specializing in art and audio investigations.
Sara Elkamel

DUBAI — Crossing a thin, fabric threshold into a pitch black room at Dubai's Madinat Jumeirah resort, visitors come face-to-face with Walled Unwalled, the latest video work by artist and sound investigator Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Inside the room — which feels at once isolating and womb-like — is an image of the artist himself, projected on a glass wall and performing a series of monologues that revolve around legal cases in which evidence seeped, quite literally, through walls — mostly in the form of sound.

Abu Hamdan begins by telling the story of Danny Lee Kyllo, a man who grew "the best weed in Oregon" until the police used a military-grade thermal camera to detect the heat radiating from the walls of his garage. The grower had used high-intensity heat lamps to help his marijuana plants photosynthesize.

The artist also mentions the murder, by Oscar Pistorius, of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, whose cries would have been severely muffled by the thickness of the walls in the bathroom where she was murdered had it not been for the relative sound-permeability of the door. He then reflects on the experiences of ex-prisoners held in Syria's Saydnaya prison, where they were tormented, in their cells, by the carrying sounds of fellow inmates being beaten.

Between monologues, Abu Hamdan occasionally opens, walks through, and closes the creaking doors of the preserved GDR-era sound studio where Walled Unwalled was filmed. At some point, as a video of Ronald Reagan promoting the Crusade for Freedom is projected on an upper right corner of the screen, the artist opens the door to the left of the screen, and I flinch and look beside me; around me. Did he just walk in?

I'm as close to the ears of the viewer as I am to the microphone.

As the winning project of the annual $100,000 commission awarded by the Abraaj Group, the Middle East's largest private equity firm, Walled Unwalledwas screened as part of the annual international festival, Art Dubai, in late March. While watching it, though, viewers find themselves removed from Dubai. Instead they're in the tenuous space between the dark installation room and Funkhaus, East Berlin, where the studio is located. On site in Art Dubai, Abu Hamdan tells me how he wanted us to walk into that room and find ourselves in a space "outside of where you know and where you think you might be entering when you walk into that black box."

Abu Hamdan utters his interlinked speeches from behind a series of microphones that wall his body and face, in different ways. He moves back and forth between a trio of recording booths, their glass seemingly impenetrable. Even so, you hear his voice. And you hear it (very) loud and clear. "I'm as close to the ears of the viewer as I am to the microphone," Abu Hamdan says.

The microphone makes a strange spatial shift; it is located with the performer behind sound-proof glass, but the viewers hear it as clearly as if Abu Hamdan was standing right there beside them, bellowing a little.

The Syrian "ah"

What is the relationship between sound and space? What if sound could travel through space in ways that defy logic? The form and medium of Walled Unwalled is a reflection of one of the key thematic propositions it makes: When it comes to sound, walls can very well be unwalled. The performance film — as the artist refers to it — deals, in varying degrees of directness, with the implications sound travel may have on privacy, surveillance and human rights violations.

Abu Hamdan is sometimes referred to as a sound artist, but this label would only be accurate if it can be stretched in different directions. In his practice, sound is interchangeably a medium, a research tool, and perhaps most importantly, a subject. Like Walled Unwalled, many of his works deal with the political, physical and social effects of sound and technology.

Still in his early thirties, the Amman-born Abu Hamdan has already been deemed an art world star. The Abraaj Group Art Prize is another in a growing list of global recognitions for the artist. Besides appearances in major galleries and festivals the world over, his work has been included in the collections of some of the world's most illustrious museums, including the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

It's not necessarily rare for artists today to produce works in unlikely mediums, but Abu Hamdan often takes it up a notch, using form and media in exceptionally innovative and efficacious ways. As part of his commissioned project for the Armory Show in New York, "A Convention of Tiny Movements' (2015), he distributed 5,000 bags of potato chips across the art fair. Printed on the bags was a text explaining how computer scientists at MIT created a system to extract the vibrations that occur on the surface of objects, and in turn, use that data to recover the sound that produced them. It may have been a work about the unsettling reach of surveillance, yes, but you were also holding part of the work in your hand — and it was a bag of potato chips.

My first real encounter with Abu Hamdan's work was in March 2015, when I saw him deliver a performance titled, Aural Contract: The Voice Before the Law, as part of the Global Art Forum, the largely discursive, trans-disciplinary summit that is usually an element of Art Dubai and often a key highlight of the fair.

In his talk, which ricocheted off of his 2012 documentary, The Freedom of Speech Itself, Abu Hamdan described how a form of voice analysis, called forensic linguistics, has been used by border protection agencies in Europe to determine the origin countries of asylum seekers, immigrants and criminals. In other words, agents rely on accent tests to determine where these people are from. He uses the case of an asylum seeker named Mohamed, who, despite stating that he was Palestinian, was designated by the UK border agency as Syrian, and accordingly denied asylum. In his accent test, they had detected a Syrian syllable, an "ah" sound, when he said the word "banahdoora" (tomato).

"The border agency designates this syllable as a Syrian national, and implies that this vowel, used in the word for tomato, is coterminous with Syria's borders," Abu Hamdan said, as he played a recording of an "ah" sound on repeat, as if off a scarred record. He then cleverly argued that "locating this Syrian vowel in the speech of a Palestinian surely proves nothing more than the displacement of the Palestinians themselves."

After months or years of living in refugee camps with other displaced communities, Abu Hamdan was subtly pointing out, it would only be natural for those fleeing conflict to arrive at a European border with their native speech altered in some way.

To deliver his talk, Abu Hamdan stood on a podium, in a dress shirt and his staple glasses. He read off paper and a computer screen, routinely looking up to face the audience, at times addressing them directly. He interspersed his speech with audio clips, and at times engaged with this pre-recorded audio in real time.

Many people would refer to this method as a lecture-performance — a discipline with roots in the 1960s, in which artists blend together elements of research, lecturing, and performance-based narrative techniques. The word "lecture" implies that as the audience, you will gain newfound information sitting through the performance. And in the case of that Global Art Forum talk, I certainly did. Something about Abu Hamdan's delivery compelled me to straighten my back, listen and take notes. And ever since, I have regurgitated facts shared by Abu Hamdan as if relaying the wisdom of a university professor.

Abu Hamdan prefers the term "live audio essay," however. "So it's almost like an audio piece that you listen to, but live, performed," he tells me. "Walled Unwalled especially is not a lecture, in the sense that it's not really teaching you anything or telling you anything." He maintains that it's just a monologue, firmly rooted in the mode of storytelling, simply linking together a series of narratives.

Abu Hamdan introducing his performance art — Photo: Lawrence Abu Hamdan/Facebook

Worst place on earth

Besides the content of the essay, the mode of listening induced by Walled Unwalled also differs significantly. Even though Abu Hamdan is, again, standing behind a microphone, and reading off a page, or a device, there is a distance there. Besides the glass that quarantines the artist, the complete darkness of the room renders me, the spectator, completely invisible, begging the question: Who is he talking to? (Is this a trial? Am I inside of his head? Is this a bedtime story?) Perhaps, most of all, the distancing force is the exactness of his monologue; more than in other live audio-essays of his, the text sounds like an intricately sewn-up prose poem, and its delivery is free of stutters or moments of ineloquence.

I sat down with Abu Hamdan for the first time in May 2016, at a Lower Manhattan café. He had just finished working on an acoustic investigation into the Syrian regime's secret Saydnaya prison, located 30 km outside Damascus. Through interviewing former prisoners, and carrying out architectural and acoustic modeling, Abu Hamdan and his team managed to reconstruct the architecture of the detention facility — including the dimensions of its cells and corridors — as well as the witnesses' experiences inside what some have described as the worst place on earth.

The investigation was a collaboration between Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture, an "architectural detective agency" based at Goldsmiths, University of London. Founded by Eyal Weizman, a British-Israeli architect, Forensic Architecture has used tools such as eyewitness (and ear-witness) accounts, simulations, meteorology, and reenactments to produce evidence for investigations on human rights violations. For his 2016 acoustic investigation into Saydnaya — where more than 13,000 people have been executed since 2011 — Abu Hamdan traveled to Turkey to meet with survivors, probing their aural experiences within the prison.

A lot of the investigative work Abu Hamdan does with Forensic Architecture "never makes it into an artwork," he says, adding: "I'm very happy that it's just part of an advocacy thing." The interviews — some of which were published as part of Amnesty/Forensic Architecture's Saydnaya Project — "were not art," he asserts.

Still, in the process of collecting these ear-witness testimonies, the technical would often morph into the poetic. Initially, the prisoners were relegated to the use of "sound" and "echo" to describe the things they heard, descriptions that, according to Abu Hamdan, compromised all precision. So it took "the skills of an artist" to conduct these interviews, he says. It was up to him to build a language to speak about the prison, using such non-verbal techniques as playing potentially comparable sounds, engaging in reenactments, and so on. "Some of the investigative stuff borrows from the art stuff," he says. "It's not such a clear line."

Abu Hamdan says that these interviews triggered "a different mode of reflection" for him, made possible by the unusual conditions of testimony. Since the ex-prisoners' fields of sight were limited by blindfolds or the narrow walls of their cells, they could almost only testify about sound. And despite being a stimulating process in itself, interviewing the victims did not mark the end of Abu Hamdan's engagement with the case.

It's not such a clear line.

He presented artworks, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles this year, and the Sharjah Biennial in 2017, anchored in his experiences of interviewing these prisoners. Saydnaya was a case that he elected to take out of "the urgency of a human rights investigation," and reflect on in a longer time frame. The Forensic Architecture cases that do make it into artworks, Abu Hamdan says, are the ones "where I feel there's so much more to be said, and so much more at stake for what it means to listen, and what it means specifically to listen to testimony."

Acoustics of incarceration

Walled Unwalled grew out of the Saydnaya project. The ex-detainees he interviewed, Abu Hamdan says, made him "think about architecture in crazy ways." Excerpts from conversations he had with former prisoners feature in the video, revealing their experiences of sound and silence inside the prison. Describing the sounds of fellow inmates being beaten by the guards, one ex-detainee said to Abu Hamdan: "The sound is coming from the walls. You have no idea if it's above or below you. The whole structure echoes. The walls vibrate from the sound."

The design of Saydnaya, Abu Hamdan explains in the video (standing in a GDR-era sound studio, which at the time was also considered an architectural marvel), was based on a GDR-era prison archetype that, at the time, was a testament to how the East German Republic "perfected the "acoustics of incarceration.""

The prison's design — which was also exported and built, in the 1960s and 1970s, throughout the eastern bloc, Colombia, Angola, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria — enabled sound to travel through its walls in a way that defies the configurations of space. What this means, Abu Hamdan found in his research, is that the acoustic reflections inside the prison made prisoners experience a sound event as if it were taking place much closer to them than it actually was. The sound of their fellow inmates being beaten therefore seemed unrealistically louder.

"Of course it the beating hurts the person who is being beaten, but not as much as the sound suggests. The sound was louder than the pain," one ex-prisoner told Abu Hamdan.

If a wall can be unwalled, can a body be unbodied? Can a self be unselfed?

It hardly seems like a coincidence that, speaking to Abu Hamdan, the prisoners repeatedly likened the sound of a body being beaten to the sounds of walls being broken down. In a way, a wall was in fact being torn down, but by sound: The aural ramifications of violence traveled across walls, like ghosts. These sound-ghosts infected the prisoners with fear, as is clear from the testimonies Abu Hamdan includes in his video. As they heard the outrageously amplified sound of beatings, the prisoners guessed that they were next. Sound, the audibility and intensity of which was a product of Saydnaya's architecture, put their physical bodies at risk. In this condition where physical walls were breachable by sound, it was not merely their bodies that were under threat, but their selfhood as well. When the epidermis — which can be seen as the delineation of the self — is attacked, isn't the self also attacked, or broken into?

When these testimonies appear in Walled Unwalled, we do not see the face or figure of the speaker, save for shadow-like, translucent contours. The picture becomes grainy, overcast and seemingly porous. We see their fingers move, animating their memories of the blood-curdling sounds, the beatings — but was that really someone's hands, or was that a shadow moving across the screen? These obscure images contrast deeply with the sharpness of Abu Hamdan's presence on screen.

And just as well; unlike his previous project on the prison, Walled Unwalled is less about the Saydnaya victims and more the ideas they sparked for the artist himself. The interviews he did with them, which he describes as a "turning point" for his career, acted as a springboard for a more general idea.

Can a self be unselfed?

After speaking with the prisoners, Abu Hamdan reflected on the place of the self in a world where borders are being simultaneously built and broken. He wanted to see if he could somehow "capture the contemporary condition of living with the internet or technology, where we're totally free to look at information, but at the same time, we're more controlled than ever, more surveilled than ever."

Maybe this is the reason Abu Hamdan presented this work the way he did: as you watch Walled Unwalled, as if from the control room of the East Berlin sound studio, you are confronted with how little control you actually have over the video itself.

The history of the self, Abu Hamdan remarks, has always been linked to boundaries. The self is contained, interchangeably or at once, within: "The bedroom, the house, the border, the nation. The city. The body," he says. The question that currently compels him is: "What kind of self is emerging now, when we're both totally exposed and totally confined at the same time?"

The place of the self vis-á-vis the political weaves through Abu Hamdan's work, and Walled Unwalled is no exception. As he meditates on the changing nature of the self in our contemporary world, he brings together a number of characters who have nothing in common but detrimental relationships to sound. He calls the video installation "some kind of strange aquarium," but in a way, it is a space that puts forward another form of citizenship. Instead of being united by borders, these characters are united by the permeability, or porosity, of the borders within which they lived.

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