CONVERSATIONS Mousse 47
Sounding Phoney: Lawrence Abu Hamdan
by Minhea Mircan
Hinging on “conflicted phonemes”, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s installations capture the “other” of Western societies as sonic trace, as echo replayed and analysed within new laboratories of aural control. Fleeing from famine or conflict in Africa or the Middle East, these itinerant biographies come to depend on the enunciation of single syllable, framed by those patrolling political and linguistic borders as proof of citizenship or origin that outweighs an identity card. “Is it not more likely”, the artist writes, “that a genuine asylum seeker’s accent would be an irregular concoction of voices, the biography of a journey, rather than a pure voice that avows its unshakable roots to a single place?”
Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s recent projects incorporate a wider range of strategies into a demonstration that audibility is at least as fraught a regime than the far more discussed forms and perils of “visibility”. Either devising ways to visualize sound, its frictions and topographies, as with the remarkable Tape Echo recently presented at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, or unpacking political events as new configurations of voices, hearings and their respective legalities, such as the performative series Contra-diction, Lawrence Abu Hamdan unveils a cacophonic map of our present, constituted by unconventional borders and unstable jurisdictions, exclamations, silences and pre-emptive listening.
MIHNEA MIRCAN: I’d like to start from the notion of cross-examination, which was also the title of our first collaboration. I wonder if this legal procedure and quasi-allegorical image has any traction in relation to your work: as a mode of interrogation, it seeks to recompose truth, and resonate its wholeness, from distinct vantage points; as unwitting metaphor, it seems perched between a sense of martyrdom, where the oath crucifies the witness, and a cartographic form, a grid that maps the cardinal points of truth’s transparent consistency—and, by extension, those of a comprehensible political world.
LAWRENCE ABU HAMDAN: I was myself once subjected to a gruelling (albeit not quite crucifying) cross-examination by the UK Home Office, when I was called as an expert witness in the deportation hearing of a Palestinian asylum seeker. My works try to be continuous in their content and form, or collapse the distinction between their aesthetics and their politics—but this was never more so than when I testified in that tribunal about other peoples’ voices, whilst the judge barked at me to keep my sworn-in voice “up” and to talk slowly, because “everything you say is being written down”. Testifying about the voice, my research became enacted in a way that I always had imagined my installations could achieve. It showed the fundamental way that listening is a concrete political technology and at the same time it reinforced the centrality of the voice in understanding the omnipresence of law, its transcendence and its religious origins. In my work, I am zooming in on the specific linguistics and phonetics of a given legal or political exchange at a time where our speech has entered a new realm of political sensitivity, an age where “keywords” have all but replaced the classic speech-acts. In times past, when we swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth in a court of law, we would undergo a transformation; once those words were uttered, we would inaugurate new conditions of listening and our speech would transmute from normal conversation to liable testimony. Yet now we are in an age where we become sworn-in the minute we accept the terms and conditions of a particular communications software or email provider. These vast apparatuses of listening constantly filtering our communication for incriminating keywords mean that all the speech we utter is liable, wherever we are. This points to the nature of my enquiry, wherein a close reading of emerging media and surveillance technologies, as well as practices of forensic listening in legal hearings, are the tools through which larger concepts such as truth, borders and the law as a conceptual space are tackled.
MM: A number of works question the specious or insufficiently tested technologies that filter truth from perjury, and territorial origin from pronunciation. How did you come to be interested in forensic linguistics?
LAH: Forensic linguistics, in the service of the law and the police, spoke to exactly the type of enquiry I outlined above: it is the technical instantiation of listening as a fundamental political act, and it frames the voice as a mechanism of truth, as the singular thing from which legal truth is derived. The way forensic linguistics is practiced today is not so inspiring: juridical forums are filled with terrible listeners and audio charlatans, as The Freedom Of Speech Itself and The Whole Truth (both 2012) demonstrate. The former looks at the forensic phonetics company tasked with enforcing the inane accent tests asylum seekers must endure as a means to prove their national origin, while the latter examines the new, phoney algorithmic lie detectors that determine whether someone is lying or not by listening to the micro-vibrations of vocal chords, regardless of language. Yet the founders of the field, people like Dr. Peter French, still listen deeper and better than perhaps anyone in the world, and this refreshingly material approach to sound—a formal approach to language that opens up new avenues to sound and operate politically—is a fundamental point of inspiration for my work. French told me in an interview in 2010: “Last week, a colleague and I spent three working days listening to one word from a police interview tape.” And this was the moment I became interested in forensic linguistics.
MM: I think the critique of this discipline produces another forensic exercise, where its ideology and error margin, its practitioners, subjects and victims are set within a wider condition, extending across national jurisdictions. These projects shift between different political contexts and turbulent sites of enunciation. With both speech and silence increasingly scrutinized, we exit the emancipatory paradigm where those unheard must be given a voice and perhaps enter a political echo chamber: how does one speak the truth to this new regime of political interlocution?
LAH: The rhetoric of liberal democracy is to give voice to all. Yet I am of the strong belief that voice cannot be given and retain its politics. I had a discussion once with an anthropologist of the UK asylum process about the use of accent tests as a means to identify the origins of undocumented migrants by the Home Office. We were both very critical of this process, yet he began using the humanist rhetoric of the importance of “listening to the voices of migrants”, of “allowing them to speak”. I pointed out to him that these migrant voices were being listened to in excess: listening to their voices was the last thing we needed to do anymore. Their voices had been objectified and muted by these accent tests, and using the liberal paradigm of free speech to protect them occurred to me as a redundant form of political intervention. To speak freely is considered a component of a healthy democracy and one is constantly encouraged to declare one’s thoughts publicly. Freedom of speech promotes the society that can have no secrets, a society where everything we say is in the realm of politics. Edward Snowden reminds us that speech may still be free, but the conditions of listening that we face have certainly changed. It is in this new regime of political interlocution, as you call it, that we must resist falling back on the freedom-of-speech crutch and instead call for the institution of the “right to silence” to replace it as an internationally recognized human right.
MM: Two recent projects look at forms of dissimulation, at situations where truth and sound are emphatically disconnected. In one case, speech shades silent truth: the Druze practice of Taqiyya, which you investigate in Contra-diction, is a jurisprudence that sanctions perjury as camouflage, to safeguard the integrity of a subject under inimical circumstances. Research commissioned by Defence for Children International takes your linguistic/aural toolkit into ballistic analysis, differentiating between the sound of live ammunition and that emitted by rubber bullets. At these extremes of the political spectrum truths are hidden, rather than revealed, by sounds.
LAH: These are productive points of comparison because they both pertain to the politics of disguising, cloaking and silencing sounds. Yet they also interweave to reveal a contradiction inherent in my position as an artist: a maker of artifice if you like, who is producing “real” sonic evidence and analysis, both for trials and for legal investigations. On the one hand I am developing projects that disclose the impossibility of the Western conventions of truth production or the inherently unfaithful nature of all forms of testimony, and on the other hand I am producing evidence and testimony myself. In one project I am calling for the right to silence, while in the other revealing or shaming a sound that has been suppressed and silenced. Working as an audio investigator, as part of Forensic Architecture’s (Goldsmiths College) study for Defence for Children International, Palestine, we looked at cases where Israeli border guards shot to death two teenage boys and then denied the charge against them, claiming that they had only fired rubber bullets. My job was to identify from the sound of the shot if it was in fact live ammunition, or rubber bullet gunfire. An important conclusion from this audio forensic investigation was the identification of a distinct sound that is not a rubber coated bullet sound, nor is it the sound of live fire but rather a confluence of the two. A rubber bullet extension mounted on the soldiers’ rifles ostensibly made them look like they were firing rubber bullets, but the sound of the shots told a different story. The extension suppresses the sound of live ammunition and, to a lesser extent than a silencer, it can be used to disguise the presence of live fire. This is an important sound signature to identify because, coded within this cloaked sound, there is an intention to conceal the act of murder. My “classic” artistic contribution was to produce the imagery of these gunshots: it was as much about seeing the sound as hearing its distinction. I used sonic analysis software and protocols that I have learnt through my research into and interviews with forensic linguists all over Europe. Almost all of these experts work in the service of police departments and states, and so I saw that there was no one listening back to them or practicing forms of forensic listening onto the state itself. My role as an artist who has an intimate relationship with sound, its technologies and its politics, was to do just that. It was to reclaim forensic listening from those in a position of total power, but also to reclaim the role of the artist as a producer of evidence, at a time when the manufacture of evidence and the production of specific images, sounds and narration are intimately intertwined. In his presentation to the UN Security Council, Colin Powell made his case for the war against Iraq by a totally artificial production of evidence, and it is this artifice that I also want to reclaim from the powerful. Not simply to point out and reveal the fallacies of truth production, but to learn it as an aesthetic practice, to appropriate its strategies and intervene within it. And so the inherent contradiction, resolved in the figure of the artist, is that at the same time as I am developing these investigations into the truth of sound, I am also composing a series of performances around the concept of Taqiyya, which in its simplest form can be understood as a divine permission to lie.
MM: Let’s end with Contra-diction: you frame Taqiyya as a political strategy applicable beyond its geographic/religious context, as a live palimpsest of the right to speak and the right to be silent.
LAH: No longer satisfied with either the right to silence or the freedom of speech, I went looking for another way: to add another legal right to these more tried, tested and exhausted laws that govern our voices and patrol our ears. Looking for a precedent and a more robust means for our voices to retain their politics in the regime of algorithmic truth production, I found an old and esoteric piece of Shia Islamic jurisprudence called Taqiyya. It is a legal dispensation whereby a believing individual can deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal acts while they are at risk of persecution or in a condition of statelessness. In that it is a legal dispensation to not speak the whole truth, Taqiyya could be seen as the legal precedent for the 5th Amendment and the so-called Miranda Rights. Taqiyya’s strength, however, is that it can exist as silence in the guise of speech. Taqiyya is neither loud nor silent: it is silence camouflaged by phonetic articulation. As the right to silence is not a universal human right, only granted to citizens of nations that observe this law, you cannot always be assured that your speech will not be extracted from your body through torture. Therefore Taqiyya is born out of stateless and precarious legal frameworks where one is not afforded the right to silence. This is why we hear it emanating from border zones, disputed territories, at lawless altitudes and on ceasefire lines. Yet like all strategies of survival, once learned, it becomes automatic and embodied into the minutia of all interlocutions, it becomes equally employed in the loudest of claims and in the most trivial chatter.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan (born 1985 in Amman, Jordan) is a London-based artist and researcher whose projects explore the politics of listening and the relationship between sound and urbanity, through audio-visual installations, graphic design, sculpture, photography, workshops and performance. He is currently completing the doctoral program of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College (London) where he is on the research team for the Forensic Architecture project. Abu Hamdan’s works have been widely exhibited in the UK and abroad. His solo exhibitions include The Freedom of Speech Itself, 2012 (The Showroom, London), The Whole Truth, 2012 (Casco, Utrecht), Tape Echo, 2013 (Beirut in Cairo and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven). Most recently he has been selected for the 2015 Armory Artist Commission and will also exhibit his works at the New Museum Triennial.
Originally published on Mousse 47 (February–March 2015)