Athens, Greece – Beirut-based sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has become known as ‘the private ear’ as his research-based investigative work has been used to investigate murders and expose other rights abuses humans.
sonic detectivea retrospective of two key audiovisual works by the 37-year-old Jordanian-born artist, is now on view at the newly renovated National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens – which reopened on June 16 with a program of exhibition loaded after a long delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Using sound as a tool to connect art and politics – through techniques such as sound analysis, interactive sound maps and oral testimonies – Abu Hamdan hopes to reach a wider audience and stimulate conversations on topics underappreciated in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region.
“[These projects] start with this desire to advance political engagement,” Abu Hamdan told Al Jazeera.
He said art provides the flexibility to cover political issues in a broader and more experimental way that is unbound to the restrictions of journalistic news cycles and storytelling modes.
“The power of art is that artists are usually the people who observe things in the world that are taken for granted, and I think there’s something politically significant about that,” he said. declared.
‘Story about silence and repression’
Raised between Jordan and the UK, Abu Hamdan’s background in music making led to a wider interest in sound and how an audience responds and connects to it.
He then studied sound art and developed his own research-based approach. In 2017 he completed a PhD at Goldsmiths College University of London which saw him work with the Forensic Architecture research group on a project that examined the use of voice analytics in the legal system.
EMST’s retrospectives feature the works of Abu Hamdan Rubber Coated Steel (2016) and Walled Unwalled (2018) – part of the project that won him the 2019 Turner Prize, the UK’s most prestigious art prize. United.
Set in a shooting range, the 22-minute film Rubber Coated Steel tells the fictional story of a real Israeli military tribunal into the 2014 killings, when unarmed Palestinian teenagers Nadeem Nawara and Mohammad Abu Daher were shot dead by the Israeli forces.
The film stems from a report Abu Hamdan worked on with Forensic Architecture which used acoustic analyzes to produce visualizations of sound frequencies proving that Israeli forces fired live ammunition, not rubber bullets as they say. had claimed.
An Israeli soldier, Ben Deri, was later sentenced to nine months in prison for negligent homicide, a sentence which the Supreme Court later doubled after the prosecution accepted a plea deal – despite overwhelming evidence suggesting he had intentionally killed Nawara.
The film is eerily quiet, punctuated only by the rattle of targets moving around the firing range, showing subtitles based on a transcript of the case made public by human rights organization Defense for Children International. and spectrogram images that depict the sounds of projectiles such as rubber bullets and live ammunition.
“The film is kind of a reflection on everything I went through during the investigation,” Abu Hamdan said. “I use story and a series of cinematic strategies to tell a story about silence and suppression – both voice suppression and bullet suppression – about the role it plays in determining who has the right to speak, which voices are legitimate and which are not”.
He said the actual sounds of gunfire do not appear in the film, as a form of silent protest and commentary on the suppression of Palestinian voices, particularly in the justice system.
“Young people who demonstrate regularly can tell the sound of different types of ammunition very quickly, based on experience – they are the real sound experts and yet they are not invited to the table as witnesses,” said he declared.
Walled Without wall
Meanwhile, the video installation Walled Unwalled – created as part of an advocacy campaign for Amnesty International and featuring monologues, images and different sounds – features interviews conducted by Abu Hamdan with three former detainees from the Syrian military prison Saydnaya.
Narrated by Abu Hamdan and recorded at Funkhaus, a Cold War-era recording studio in former East Berlin, the video also includes sounds used as evidence in famous court cases, such as the trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp.
“I was part of a team of investigators hired by Amnesty, who revealed the incidents at the prison,” Abu Hamdan said. “I was the one focusing on the sound because the people I interviewed were blindfolded when the guards entered and almost never left their cells. They didn’t see anything, but they heard a lot.
Inmates recalled hearing and feeling the sound of beatings reverberating through the walls, even though the abuse took place two floors up from the prison cells.
Abu Hamdan’s investigation revealed that the prison’s specific architecture allowed sound to travel down a central tunnel and create a haunting, distorted noise that could be felt throughout the structure, symbolized by an ominous intermittent percussion traversing the video.
Zeina Arida, director of the Arab Museum of Modern Art, believes that Abu Hamdan’s approach of using sound as a political and artistic instrument makes his work distinct.
“His approach is very different and creative in the way he conveys his investigations, while at the same time his installations are a very poetic tool, which is not always easy to combine,” Arida said. “I thought that kind of collaboration [with Amnesty] was quite unique, that he was able to associate himself with such an organization, while creating a work likely to be diffused in the art world.
“[The] the stories or the people he works with are very political, in the sense that we are all concerned with these subjects,” she added. “The scope of his projects is always broader than just the individual story he tells.”
Sonic Detective is among several new shows running through October at EMST, which has now officially moved into a fully renovated former FIX Brewery building after years of delays and boasts three floors of collectible space. permanent and five temporary exhibition halls.
The museum has decided to focus in the longer term on artists from the MENA region, Turkey and the Balkans.
“It’s an organic development – we’re lucky to be neighbors to these regions and also have a Mediterranean identity,” EMST director Katerina Gregos told Al Jazeera. “This part of the world is culturally, politically and religiously one of the richest and also the most contested, and these stories have not been properly addressed.”
Gregos said Greece’s identity after World War II has always been oriented to the west and neglected its neighbors to the southeast.
“[The museum’s shift in focus] is a kind of correctional historiography, but it also makes sense to look at where we stand.
Meanwhile, Abu Hamdan is working on new ventures that continue to use sound to expose injustice in the region.
Earlier in June, he launched an online platform called Airpressure.info that collects data on violations of Lebanese airspace by Israeli aircraft over the past 15 years. Interactive maps and databases of sound and video from a variety of sources aim to give an idea of the psychological effect caused by the roar of fighter jets and the drone of drones overhead.
“This project is a pretty good example of the way I work, because the strategy is that a large research project exists across a range of forums and platforms – whether it’s the courthouse, the advocacy, media or art biennials and art exhibitions,” Abu Hamdan says.
“It’s about trying to get something out into the world that will hopefully reformat the way we talk about things a bit.”
Sonic Detectives is at EMST, Athens until October 30, 2022.