Investigating through sound: the art of Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Reviews 16.02.2024

The FRAC Franche-Comté is devoting a monographic exhibition to Lawrence Abu Hamdan until April 14. Although his work often takes sound and listening as its subject or medium, it takes a wide variety of forms: installations, documentaries, videos, performances, photographs... A Jordanian artist of Lebanese origin, he regularly collaborates with various international organizations as an audio expert. His art is inseparable from the practice of investigation, whose methods and tools he has helped to renew. One question has run through his work from the outset, and will serve as our guide: what is political sound art?

The sound of an Israeli fighter plane flying over South Lebanon, the melody of an ice-cream truck, the screams of a woman behind the wall of a bathroom, the sound of footsteps on the steps of a metal staircase, the silence that settled over the Syrian prison of Saydnaya from 2011 onwards, the rustle of reunions in the reading rooms of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, etc. None of these sounds has any political significance in itself. None of these sounds has any political significance in itself. It all depends on how they are used and interpreted. As long as we don't understand what it means - in this case, the transformation of Saydnaya prison into an extermination zone - silence is just an absence of sound. And the sound of a fighter jet is just one sound among many, at least until we link it to the sounds of all the planes, helicopters and drones that fly over Lebanese territory every day without authorization, exerting constant pressure on its populations.

Atmospheric violence

In The diary of a sky, a video installation created in 2023, Lawrence Abu Hamdan gives a detailed account of this "atmospheric violence" - as he calls it - which began in 2007, a few months after the end of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict in 2006. He describes the investigation he carried out to gather the data documenting these systematic violations of Lebanese airspace: from the UN, which keeps in its archives the letters from the Lebanese representative to the UN containing the information recorded by the army's radars; from the population, whose audio and video testimonies he collected on a dedicated website, He relates the experiences of German physicist Hartmut Ising, who in the 1970s measured the effects on public health of low-level overflights by American fighter planes based in West Germany. But he is also interested in what is happening in Lebanon, in the negligence of its successive governments, incapable of protecting the population from what can only be called a war of noise, in the recurrent power failures that force the Lebanese to equip themselves with generators whose noise volume, at 70 db, is equivalent to that of Israeli aircraft, and in the tourist flights that the Lebanese army organizes in its helicopters to compensate for its shrinking budgets (which only adds to the ambient noise pollution). The situation Abu Hamdan describes is that of inhabitants caught between two wars, the latent one waged by Israel and the no less violent one waged by their own elites. One fact is particularly eloquent: the volume of electricity generators in the country's major cities, when running (often for several hours a day), covers the noise of Israeli aircraft, rendering the latter, and their nuisance, inaudible.

This installation is part of a history that has yet to be written - despite some important contributions such as those by Steve Goodman (Sonic Warfare 2011), Michael Bull (Sirens 2020, a study of the sound and culture of mermaids) and Juliette Volcler (Sound as a Weapon 2011) - that of a geopolitics of sound. In addition to documenting the Israeli Defense Forces' occupation of Lebanese airspace, she also describes the sonic effects of the corruption and factional struggles that plague the country's power structure.

Sonic detective

Alongside his artistic practice, Lawrence Abu Hamdan regularly works as an expert or " sonic detective" (as he likes to call himself) for organizations such as Amnesty International, Defence for Children International and Forensic Architecture. Some of his works have been used as court exhibits. The most famous example is The Freedom of Speech Itself  a 2012 sound installation that documents the English authorities' use of voice analysis tools to assess asylum seekers' accents (in order to determine their origin and authenticity) and which, for the British Asylum Court, became evidence of abuses committed by the British Border Police. These two activities must of course be distinguished from one another, as they serve different and often incompatible purposes. As Abu Hamdan pointed out in an interview: "Most often these are two totally different roles that I play and it is not artworks that end up in court or used for advocacy but rather audio analysis and acoustic research. The artworks I have made that deal with the same subjects as the cases I have worked on as an analyst are an attempt to expand the limits of what is conventionally conceived as testimony before the law." (1)

A particularly striking example is the video Rubber Coated Steel. The work revisits a case Abu Hamdan investigated at the request of the Forensic Architecture agency and the NGO Defence for Children International. In May 2014, in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers killed two unarmed Palestinian teenagers, Nadeem Nawara and Mohamad Abu Daher. He was asked to analyze audio recordings of the shooting to determine whether the soldiers had fired rubber bullets, as they claimed, or live ammunition - which is obviously illegal. The video shows the trial of these soldiers in an imaginary courtroom. In the image, sonograms of the shots fired by the artist move back and forth along rails fixed to the ceiling of a long concrete corridor, like targets in a shooting gallery. The voices of the court members - president, lawyer, prosecutor and expert - fill the soundtrack. To analyze the shots, Abu Hamdan produced sonograms, visualizations of the sound frequencies of the recordings. In this way, he was able to distinguish what, to the ear, seemed to present no difference. Israeli soldiers had developed the habit of masking their live-fire by attaching arubber-bullet adapter to the barrel of their M16 assault rifle. Behind the two seemingly identical sounds of shooting rubber bullets and live ammunition with an adapter, a crime was concealed. What was needed was to make the difference visible, and thus to observe the micro-variations in intensity and frequency between the two shots. At the end of the video, the prosecutor adds that real experts don't need visualizations to perceive these nuances. The real experts are the Palestinian demonstrators. One of them testified that he heard the sound of live ammunition and ran for cover. The real experts can't read sonograms, but they have learned to listen to the sound of gunfire because their lives depend on it. The testimony of these real experts had no legal value because they were the only ones who could hear the difference. To convince a military court, you needed tangible, in this case visible, evidence.

The silence of Saydnaya

In some cases, however, such evidence is not accessible. In 2016, Abu Hamdan investigated with Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture the Syrian prison of Saydnaya, 25 km north of Damascus, where, since the start of the protests in 2011, more than 13,000 people have been executed. Due to the prison's inaccessibility to independent observers, the only source available to investigate the abuses committed there are the (rare) inmates who made it out alive. And because they had seen nothing of the prison (they were blindfolded every time they moved, and kept in almost total darkness), it was only possible to rely on their auditory memory (which they had developed considerably). Abu Hamdan's work consisted of interviewing them using this memory, and reconstructing with them the architecture of the prison and what was happening there, based on the sounds they remembered. Shortly after the passage from the interview quoted above, he added:

" Amnesty International thought they were hiring an audio expert to carry out a technical study, but in many ways what they really needed was an artist. Why did they need an artist? Because it turned out that we had to work beyond language and reconstitute language from (auditory) form: articulating sounds, changing and adapting words to become onomatopoeia, reproducing sounds, playing film sounds or listening to musical notes. Listening to sounds, noises, clicks and pops all became a kind of language that we began to speak with each other over the seven days we spent with these witnesses. If art can be defined as that which exists at the threshold of speak-ability, and which perhaps lies outside language, then this is a good example of how an artist's skills can be put to use in the service of an investigation."

This investigative work then gave rise to several works, including Saydnaya (the missing 19db) in 2016 - an installation about the silence that, from 2011 onwards, was imposed on Syrian prison inmates (on pain of death), Earwitness inventory and Walled-unwalled (both from 2018).

Abu Hamdan's aim was to give substance and consistency to the figure of theearwitness. He was thus able to show that he was no less credible than a visual witness, provided he could accurately reconstruct the sounds heard, which sometimes requires a little imagination. In Walled-unwalled, a video about the resurgence of walls and their permeability to new surveillance tools, he focused on a sound that Saydnaya inmates often heard but could neither locate nor identify: a sound of demolition or collapse that passed through the cell's concrete walls. He discovered that the prison replicated the architecture of certain East German prisons, organized in a star pattern around a central staircase used by the guards. This column of empty air, apart from the staircase, conducts and amplifies sounds from all the wings and floors, making them audible in cells often far removed from their sources. This has the dual advantage of offering guards a listening point on the prison as a whole, and keeping inmates in a constant state of auditory anxiety. An architecture that could be described, using Jeremy Bentham's word, as panauditive. This is how Abu Hamdan was able to identify the mysterious sound: that of a body being beaten with a metal pipe, coming from another wing and another floor, amplified by the central staircase, distorted by the walls, becomes the sound of demolition, which it also is.

Sound policies

Sound (or the absence of sound) is political when used as a weapon or instrument of oppression. It is also political if it becomes a means of control or surveillance. Finally, it is political if it is made to appear as such. Making the political and geopolitical use of certain sounds audible and visible is one of the objectives Lawrence Abu Hamdan has set for his work as an artist (and expert). To this end, he has developed an original form of listening, which obviously presupposes certain tools and technical skills, but whose uniqueness lies rather, it seems to me, in an ethic : that which consists in believing the witness, not using voice analysis software to try to identify his accent, but to understand what he has to say or help him to remember; that which consists in giving those who suffer the violence of sounds transformed into weapons or instruments of surveillance or control the means to defend themselves: to wage legal battles, to transform the situation suffered into a public problem and force the powers that be to reform.


Between Canada and the United States, there's a library that's crossed by the border. One door opens onto Canada, another onto the United States, but once you're inside, the border is just a black line on the ground. After President Trump issued Executive Order 13769 in 2017, banning nationals of ten Muslim countries from entering the U.S., many families were cut in half by the Canada-U.S. border. The only place where they could still come together was this library, the Haskell Free Library. The American half entered through the U.S. gate, the Canadian half through the Canadian gate, and they met in the reading rooms, which rustled with the sound of reunion. The librarians let it happen. No one would have thought of forbidding that sound of joy and tears (2).

Lawrence Abu Hamdan: 45th Parallel from Vuk Dragojevic on Vimeo.

Bastien Gallet

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Aux frontières de l'audibleexhibition from November 19, 2023 to April 14, 2024 at FRAC Franche-Comté, Besançon

(1) "Tracing the Sonic Image", interview with Zachary Cahill, Hannah В Higgins and W. J.T. Mitchell, Portable Gray, vol. 2, n°1, 2019. My translation.
(2) This story is told in 45th Parallel (2022), a video installation dedicated to borders and some of their consequences.

Photos © Blaise Adilon
Photos © Lawrence Abu Hamdan


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