Finalizing the modernist call between art and life, L. Abu Hamdan is both an artist and an audio investigator, working collaboratively with human- rights organizations, creating installations invested with the twofold status of artworks and pieces of evidence invested with judicial authority, admissible in courts. Innovative, unsettling, and multilayered, at the intersection with art and politics, his work reconciles the aesthetics with ethics. Out of his sonic investigations, L. Abu Hamdan explored and documented, among others, former detainees’ memory of acoustic violence occurring within Saydnaya’s prison which I will deal with in this article.
His open-ended laboratory exhibition consisting of three installations: Earwitness inventory /After SFX, Walled Unwalled, and Saydnaya ( the missing 19 db ). Casting aside the disengaged contemplation, the artist urges the beholder to engage in an audio reconstruction of Saydnaya’s environment. As J. Rancière formulated it ‘ Aesthetics does not designate the discipline dedicated to the study of art or the beautiful, it designates a regime of experience.’
These three installations were born following a demand formulated by Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture group to generate key dedicated earwitness interviews essential for the investigation into the inaccessible Syrian regime prison of Saydnaya. Approximately 13,000 Assad’s political dissidents have been executed in Saydnaya since 2011 and only a handful of detainees were released. The human rights violations occurring within this prison are
simultaneously unknown and unseen as prisoners are mostly kept in darkness, blindfolded, and enforced to remain silent. The artist exploited the extension of hearing acuity due to the obstruction of sigh.
L. Abu Hamdan is fascinated by sounds’ intangibility, the impossibility to contain them in a recipient, ‘ they will always leak’ as they only reach consistency when tied to an image. The artist firstly used BBC and Warner Brothers Sound Effects Libraries, nevertheless their imprecision led to the elaboration of the artist’s own sound effects library under the umbrella title of Earwitness inventory or after SFX (2018). Scattered around the gallery space, this installation conjures up 95 custom designed and sourced objects pertaining to forensic reconstitution of crimes including pinecones, cannelloni pasta, army boots, mobile phones, cauliflowers, and bags of sand unwound videotape, overturned meta catering trays and trolleys, paddling pools, shoes.
The testimonies highlighted that the perception of acoustic violence was shaped by cinematographic production as the first experience of violence is often cinematographic. Witnesses enhanced the discrepancy between the sonic expectation with reality which they led them to picture the sounds negatively ‘ the punch did not sound like a punch.’ Or rather to describe the real sound in terms of alternate sound effects to overcome the auditive gap, soliciting objects they are reminiscent of, to the point that, the object and the sound became indistinguishable from one another as they were simultaneously encoded in the memory. This synesthesia revealed an incongruous semantics. For instance, a building collapsing sounded “like popcorn.”
By contrast, After SFX performs the sounds of the objects which results in a cacophony of violence. After SFX emphasizes the existence of a shared sonic – imaginary, but also illustrates the language’s unsuitability to depict sounds revealing the necessity of an artistic sensibility both to decode the acoustic memory and to elaborate pieces of evidence.
Beginning on the hour and repeating at 15-minute intervals throughout gallery opening times, the audio work Saydnaya ( the missing 19db ) is played via a mixing board with automated volume controls in a small darkened soundproofed room to echo the deprivation of visual and sonic stimuli within the prison environment. This installation juxtaposes acoustic reports, oral testimonies read by a first-person male narrator who recounts the five survivors’ narratives in Arabic with included translations and L. Abu Hamdan’s explanations about the origin and aim of his curatorial strategy. An animated text discloses the role each object played in audio investigations in Abu Hamdan’s work, as well as other legal cases. Therefore, although the objects remain silent and inactivated, the noises they are reminiscent of and by extension, the acts to which they infer, transform the audience encounter with them.
The artist attempted to ‘ measure ’ violence: 19 db the low decibel level at which interviewees could whisper to one another while remaining undetected which testify of the muting of dissent in Syria. L. Abu Hamdan gave voice to silence stored in the muscle memory. Abu Hamdan begins Saydnaya ( The missing 19db ) by playing a series of test tones that diminish to the low levels of sound reported. Each tone is described in terms of an equivalent and recognizable amplification, ranging from airplanes, freight trains, and other vehicles, to lobby music and intimate conversation. The prison’s regime of sonic oblivion demanded a 19 – decibel reduction in volume – ‘ the difference between a jackhammer carving up a pavement and a dishwasher rinsing food off a plate.’
‘Walled Unwalled’ installation echoes the solid yet porous structure of the cell walls, which some did not leave for three years which only enabled the detainees to grasp inaudible compressed noises through tiny holes.
Relaying on a scientific acoustic reenactment and a ‘ sonar echolocation device’ which recorded the way sound waves bounces off architectural surfaces, Abu Hamdan digitally mapped the architectural layout of the prison and documented recurrent events occurring within. ( beating, whipping, execution, etc. )
Abu Hamdan’s choice of a sonic medium is justified by Saydnaya’s detention conditions. His installations are embedded in an artistic shift emerging across contemporary art and performance practices that embrace a growing artistic interest in audio processes. Although these installations are testaments of the disappearance of the historically prevent visual mode of representation, they nevertheless accentuate the legacy of visual representation concerned with the realistic depiction of the visible world on 2D surfaces. Indeed, through Saydnaya 19 db, under an entry titled ‘ Aluminium Step Ladder’, Abu Hamdan underscores the utilization he made of perspective to map a metallic staircase as well as the location of objects and events.
Although art’s autonomy is a dead – end, the imbrication of the artistic and forensic methodologies in L. Abu Hamdan’s art darkens art’s identification from other socially – engaged activities. His work may be associated with N. Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics which aimed at transforming Art from a formal and phenomenological framework into a social and relational practice integrated to life. However, L. Abu Hamdan’s leitmotiv may be more well – illustrated by John Cage’s prophecy thereby ‘Ethics is the aesthetics of the future’, the contemporary artist is no longer a disengaged demiurge but rather a committed actor of the social change.
This triptych raises the controversy of the aestheticization of violence, the voyeuristic exploitation of pain which is turned into an uncomfortable spectacle. As Phineas Harper noticed it ‘ Forensic Architecture winning the Turner Prize would risk turning sensitive investigate work into insensitive frivolous entertainment’. Although this view may be tempered by the twofold agency at the origin of the installations shared with the witnesses, the evidential value of art is not fully acknowledged and art’s autonomy is being challenged.
E. Weizmann, founder of Forensic group acknowledges that the counter-intuitive evidential value of art may weaken the investigation. Nevertheless, Abu Hamdan’s nomination for 2019 Turner prize, following Forensic Architecture’s nomination in 2018 threw light on their investigation and offered a palliative to former detainees in case of judicial defeat. Its investigation illustrated through an architectural installation ‘ The Long duration of a split second’ ( 2018 )’ directly contributed to charges being brought against the Israeli police and eventually, just as Forensic were shortlisted for the Turner Prize, to the closing of the case by Israel.
‘Lawrence Abu Hamdan: Triptych of the ethical aesthetics’ is an article written by Helena Sinibaldi. You can follow Helena on his Instagram.