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.