Lawrence Abu Hamdan: Earwitness Theatre

From the Chisenhale Website:

Abu Hamdan’s work questions the ways in which rights are being heard and the way voices can become politically audible. In 2016 Abu Hamdan was asked to create dedicated earwitness interviews for Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London’s investigation into the Syrian regime prison of Saydnaya. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 people have been executed in Saydnaya since 2011. Inaccessible to independent observers and monitors, the violations taking place at the prison are only recorded through the memory of those few who are released. The capacity for detainees to see anything in Saydnaya is highly restricted as they are mostly kept in darkness, blindfolded or made to cover their eyes. As a result, prisoners develop an acute sensitivity to sound.

During the interviews with Saydnaya survivors Abu Hamdan used BBC and Warner Brothers Sound Effects Libraries, as well as encouraging the mouthing-out of sounds and the use of test-tones, to gain insight into the actions taking place inside the prison. Unsatisfied by the imprecision of the sound effects used for feature film and television, Abu Hamdan has since amassed his own sound effects library, specific to the investigation of earwitness testimony.

For his exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery Abu Hamdan presents this expanded library of objects for the first time. Earwitness Inventory (2018) is comprised of 95 custom designed and sourced objects all derived from legal cases in which sonic evidence is contested and acoustic memories need to be retrieved. Tuning into earwitnesses descriptions, such as a building collapsing sounding “like popcorn” or a gunshot sounding “like somebody dropping a rack of trays,” Abu Hamdan’s new installation reflects on how the experience and memory of acoustic violence is connected to the production of sound effects.

Alongside this installation, which includes pinecones, cannelloni pasta, unwound video tape, a selection of shoes and a series of customised door instruments, is a new animated text work that further reveals Abu Hamdan’s acoustic investigation into Saydnaya, as well as earwitness testimonies from legal cases across the world. Central to the exhibition, and surrounded by this collection of objects is a contained listening room hosting the audio work Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017). In this work Abu Hamdan oscillates between listening to the testimony of former detainees and listening to their reenacted whispers as a form of sonic evidence in itself.

Both installations presented as part of Abu Hamdan’s new exhibition explore what can emerge from audio-focused investigations, examining the role of artifice, illusion and creative labour in the construction of evidence and the specific truth that artists, and artwork, can produce. Earwitness Theatre comments on the processes of reconstruction, addressing the complexity of memory and language, and the urgency of human rights and advocacy. What will emerge through this process is a body of work that testifies to the threshold of an experience – where sounds are remembered as images, where objects have unexpected echoes, and where silence becomes an entire language.

This was one of the most engaging exhibitions I’ve ever been to, and I think that has a lot to do with balance. The audience of Eartwitness Theatre aren’t spoon-fed. You have to be patient with the piece, as things will make sense the longer you engage with it. Yet you’re given enough to want to engage with it. Your attention is caught, and sustained by intrigue of how it all fits together.

The presentation of the text animation is hugely responsible for this, I think. Some context to the surroundings is necessary – without it you’re looking at a load of objects with no relation to each other. The text piece is the vehicle to connecting all of the dots, and the format makes you engage with it fully. If it was written on the wall, for example, you could skim read the whole thing quickly with little effort. As a text animation, the pace at which you read is controlled. You are fed the information at a set rate, meaning the only way to read it is fully.

I had to work for the exhibition to get everything from it, and I feel that doesn’t often happen in exhibitions. Either you have nothing provided, no tools for understanding; or you have too much and everything is given away. This was the perfect balance.

The work itself was as engaging as its curation. It made me think about psychoacoustics a lot – how our reception of sound is affected by personal factors, like our state of mind, environment, physical proportions, etc.

Sound by itself can be misleading, as Lawrence shows here. A gun can sound like a tray dropping, a footstep like a crash. Without visuals to verify, the images sound can stimulate in us are anything from the original source to something entirely different. Abstracting sounds (or using found sounds from an existing library) could be an interesting way of creating mental images in a listener.

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Vicarious Wednesday – Toni De Jesus

By way of avoiding writing my dissertation, I went to the ceramics ‘Vicarious Wednesdays’ talk by Toni De Jesus, and it was extremely helpful. Hearing what a recent graduate did in 3rd year reinvigorated me and got me out of a rut I’ve been stuck in. Toni spoke about:

  • Documenting his process. The video (above) shows his process and how he makes his pieces. Artist’s ways of working have always interested me, and seeing this makes me want to establish more of a routine. If I had to make a video of my process, what would I put in it? I struggle with a consistent work schedule with the nature of my work (nowhere to record or quiet places to edit) so I’m going to prioritise sorting out a space for that. I work well with routine, so I need to establish the right environment for it.
  • This made me think about how we document art in general. The most commonly used method is photography and film, but they often provide a limited experience of objects. What if archives used audio descriptions of objects/artworks, describing them in a way that creates a stronger experience in your mind? I’m touching on this in my diss, but I think it’s creeping into subject now too.
  • He also spoke about his website and creating a professional ‘outfit’ for yourself. I definitely want to have a clean, professional website that shows my practice well by the time of the degree show, so I need to start working towards that.
  • Networking came up as well. The work always made my skin crawl – if I was in a position of authority, nothing would make me want to work with someone less than if they purely spoke to me to get something from me. Natasha and Toni spoke about it in such a way that felt more positive. They said how people enjoy talking about what they’re passionate about, and you should talk to people to learn from them. I always saw it as a talking to people to get something from them, but the perspective of sharing skills, knowledge and ideas feels much more positive.
  • The last thing Toni touched on was knowing where you want your work to be exhibited. Galleries? Museums? Homes? Site Specific? I need to think about this a lot more, as I’ve realised how much the space my work resides in affects my work’s reception. I have thought as well, sound isn’t bound to a physical space. Radio, the internet, mp3s etc all have the capacity to exhibit sound pieces. I want to explore these areas more, especially the radio with being a part of Pitch. I might look into prerecording a sound piece/essay to air.

http://www.tonidejesus.com/

Cold War

This film was incredibly bleak, and I don’t think I would have understood much if I hadn’t studied a lot of post war European History during my A levels. Cold War was enjoyable and ‘good’ however. The main things that stuck with me were:

  • How integral music was to the film. It carried us through different decades, parts of the character’s lives, the countries they were in, etc. Each environment was firmly established by the soundtrack.
  • This made me think more about how sound and place are so strongly linked, as is sound to memory making. This is something I want to explore more in my practice, developing on further from the Venice soundtrack I made.
  • Folk music was of huge importance. The film opens with a group of artists recording different rural villagers’ folk songs, their motivation being trying to capture an authentic Polish sound. This shows how deeply folk is embedded in a sense of place, and how integral it is to how we interpret and learn about places.

Windswept Baby

Over the summer I visited ‘Windswept Baby’, an exhibition at the V&A by Bethan Lloyd Worthington. The exhibition had an overarching structure: Bethan Lloyd Worthington asked writers Lucy Biddle, Luke Turner, Amy Pettifer, Jack Underwood, Kayo Chingonyi, and Megan Nolan to each choose a ceramic artefact from the V&As collection. She then asked each of them to respond to the artefact they chose by writing, and performing/recording, a short piece. Bethan then responded to each writer’s piece and original artefact by creating a new piece. The V&A’s website describes the exhibition as an ‘interdisciplinary display [that] explores tacit connections, material and poetic meanings.’

Bethan Lloyd Worthington, Luctor et emergo
Bethan Lloyd Worthington
Luctor et emergo
London, 2018
Stained beech, stoneware with marbled slip, velvet with glass weighting

The concept and execution of this exhibition immediately intrigued me, for several reasons:

  • The translation of mediums is something I’ve been interested in for a while. How text translates into an object, vice versa. For me, curation should be about enhancing the accessibility of an object/artwork. Illustrating them in this way is an interesting method for both doing that, and interpreting the artwork in more detail yourself.
  • In my diss I’ve been researching non visual histories of objects – what you can learn/gain from an object/artwork other than what your eyes tell you. Galleries frustrate me in the way they are constantly a blank canvas – one exhibition ends, all trace of it is removed, and a new work installed afresh. Obviously this has many advantages, but it’s the traces left behind in environments I find most interesting. By enhancing the non visual histories this can be maintained I think. One way it happens unintentionally is when you visit the same place twice, with a different show on each time. When visiting the new show, you can’t help but remember the last time you were in that space, and what that space was like.
  • How language can attach meaning to objects. The way we talk about objects and artworks arguably creates our whole perception of it.
  • The curation was interesting in how it made you navigate the work. Headphones were provided so you could listen to the written pieces whilst viewing the sculptures and artefacts. It made experiencing the works in conjunction with one another a lot easier, and the whole thing flowed well.
  • Collaboration methods. Often when thinking of collaboration I think of people trying to work together at the same time on the same piece. This exhibition really affirms for me the way I like to work collaboratively: in response to the output of a collaborator in my own space.

I loved this exhibition, and it influenced our Made in Roath Exhibition Vantage Point.

Arrival

I watched a lot of films over the summer that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen usually, but because of that they made me think a lot more and I learnt a lot from them. Cinema is an interesting platform to explore ideas in, I think – ideas are intermingled with narratives and emotions, creating an experience you can connect to more than a lot of ‘art film’ pieces.

Arrival was very intriguing – I was reluctant to watch it at first because I thought it would be too frightening, but it wasn’t like that at all. There wasn’t really any violence, it was more an exploration of language and communication. In the film, the main character has to work out a way of communicating with aliens by trying to learn their language and find a method of communication. She notes how the language we speak affects the way we think. This is linguistic relativity:

If this is so, and our language affects how we think, is that true of how we hear? Does the language we speak affect how we hear music/sounds in general too? Languages are also deeply embedded in the place they’re from, enhancing a sense of place and environment. Researching this has made me realise how important it is to keep the Welsh language alive – so many languages are dying out at a rapid rate, including most of the regional British languages. Take Cornish for example: the Cornish language died out, but is now being revived from reading books written in Cornish etc. This is a dead language, however. We don’t speak how we write, the way Cornish is being spoken now isn’t how it was spoken originally.

Exploring language in my work is important, I think. Or at least considering how it would be perceived by different audiences.

Max Richter: From Sleep

Max Richter’s ‘From Sleep’ is an 8 hour long composition, created with the intention of being listened to when asleep: ‘Released last year, it’s an eight-hour opus made to assist the listener in having a better night’s rest. It incorporates specific low frequencies and recurring movements created with the consultation of a neuroscientist to induce a state of deep “slow wave” sleep. But beyond its purely functional elements, Richter also designed Sleep to provide a kind of pause for the listener from the swarm of miscellaneous data that now makes up life in today’s hyperconnected and socially networked world. Sleep promises sleep in a conventional sense, but it also provides a moment of rest from everyday information bombardment.’ The live performance had hundreds of listeners, all in beds sleeping in the concert hall.

The piece being 8 hours long is a deliberate decision, linking it to the 8 hour sleep cycle. The act of public sleeping is a strange notion – you’re sleeping at the same time in the same place as many others, yet it’s a private, personal act. This contrast of the private and public creates a push/pull feeling for me. Again, there is contrast in the nature of the piece itself – is it performance? Installation? Both? Of course, you could listen to this with headphones by yourself in your own bed, but part of the experience is the act of listening with everyone else. There is also the factor of control – in live performance etc, you can’t control the situation, which is part of the immersive quality of it. You can’t press pause, or change the track etc. It’s out of your hands, and you have to surrender to it almost. This state of vulnerability changes how you perceive a piece.

Repetition is crucial to this piece as well. The slow, steady repetitiveness of the music lulls you to a relaxed state. If it was constantly changing and morphing, it would stimulate you and keep you awake instead.  Richter said, ‘I love variation forms anyway because they allow you to play with identity, and memory, and repetition’ about the variation form/nature of the composition.

I’ve been thinking about folk and repetition for a while now, and the variation form could be a good way to explore this. Also how sound affects us in different states. How do we hear in different environments? Whilst we’re performing different acts? In different situations? And the private/public balance as well is something I want to explore more. Is there a way to tailor each sound piece unique to the listener?

Sound Engineering Week 1

To learn more about the medium I work in, I’ve started a sound engineering course with Saffron for Sound in Bristol. Other than feeling horrifically car sick, I had a really good time and learnt a lot. It was good to talk likeminded people, especially since we’ve all come from different backgrounds and have a different take on sound.

Week 1 was mainly about hearing and acoustics. I learnt a lot about the physical properties of sound, and different things that can affect it. Sound waves are essentially vibrations, so they need a vibrating body to ring. That’s why instruments always have a body of some sorts: the wooden body of a string instrument, the metal body of a flute, etc. Sound travels through air molecules to reach our ears and enable us to hear.

90% of sound engineering is the room you are in. Reflection, absorption, and diffusion all affect how we hear. Reflection (or reverb) creates echoes. It’s caused by the sound waves ricocheting off of reflective surfaces, bouncing the sound back. Hamilton Mausoleum has one of the longest echo times in the world:

The Royal Albert Hall, built for music performance, is one of the worst spaces for performance because of it’s huge echo caused by the domed ceiling.The problem hasn’t been solved, but the installation of large ‘mushroom’ diffusers (that absorb the echos) has improved it greatly. You can adjust the space you’re in to improve the acoustics and tailor it to what you want.

Different materials vibrate in different ways and have different affects too. Sponge, for example, absorbs sound – a good choice to absorb an unwanted echo, but not for an instrument’s vibrating body. Metal and wood are both good materials as they resonate well.

One of the most interesting parts of the session for me was learning about how we affect the sound we hear. Psychoacoustics studies how we receive sound and how it can be affected by our mood, bodily state, ideas, upbringing, etc. Biologically as well, sound differs from person to person. Women have a slightly better reception of higher sounds due to evolving to hear babies better. Our physical size, shape of our ear, etc all affects our hearing too – even our hairstyles.

Echo is something you tend to want to cut out when recording – it distorts sound, prevents a clean, editable track. I think it could be very interesting, however. I recorded a sound piece on the stairwell in 1st year, exploiting it’s echo qualities. What if the echo could create some interesting effects in the recording process? Positioning the mic in different locations from the source of the sound? Or playing tracks in the echo space?