Abu Hamdan explores “truth” through earwitness testimony

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Still of a spectrogram from video Rubber Coated Steel (2016). © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

“There are different types of truth: scientific truth, legal truth and artistic truth amongst them”

This was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s response when I questioned whether his film might contribute to our increasingly insecure grasp on the “truth” engendered by Trump-era “fake news”. He was addressing an audience at a Whitechapel Gallery event I attended a year ago showcasing the Jarman Award 2017 nominees. His response seemed entirely cogent to me. His nominated film, Rubber Coated Bullets (2016), an artistic extrapolation of his work as an acoustic analyst for the human rights research group, Forensic Architecture, navigates a route between these three “truths” using material from their investigation into the shooting of two Palestinian youths by Israeli soldiers in 2014. He makes it clear that his work is has a different aim, a less explicitly advocatory one than the original investigation, which is to raise the problems of defining reality when indistinct perceptual inputs have been filtered through our inbuilt unconscious prejudices.

Much of the film is set in a concrete shooting gallery where ominous streaks mark the walls. We are put in the position of the shooter with the spectrograms (visual representations of the frequency and duration of gunshots recorded by Abu Hamdan) replacing the silhouettes of bodies that are the marksman’s usual targets. An unseen, unheard but gripping courtroom drama unfolds through subtitled text. The spectrograms provide convincing evidence that the boys were shot by live ammunition, not rubber bullets as originally claimed by the authorities. The text of the legal and forensic arguments are fictionalised as the hearing that investigated the killing did not admit the forensic evidence which suggested that the replacement of rubber bullets with live rounds was intentional. The police officer who fired the fatal shot entered a manslaughter plea and was sentenced to nine months for  “causing death by negligence.” Abu Hamdan’s text neatly exposes the conflicts between political pressures and scientific evidence playing out in a legal setting.

Abu Hamdan’s originality and flair has already been recognised by winning a number of international art prizes. Although he did not win the Jarman Award I felt he was robbed: he was the strongest nominee by miles. His groundbreaking work has recently been recognised by a showcase performance at the Tate Modern and at a solo exhibition, Ear Witness Theatre at Chisenhale Gallery. I am delighted to see he has been nominated for the 2019 Turner Prize.This is a really exciting time for art as he has invented a fascinating new sub-genre that combines acoustic science, aesthetics, cognitive psychology and politics.

Walled  Unwalled (2018) shown at Tate Modern in early October is a film inspired by Abu Hamdan’s interviews with ex-political prisoners as part of an Amnesty International investigation. They had endured incarceration in the notorious Saydnaya torture/interrogation centre of the Syrian regime in which an estimated 13,000 people have been executed since 2011.  He found that since they were held in almost complete darkness their memories were encoded entirely in auditory form. As with the blind, their sense of hearing became markedly more acute and they were able to build up an accurate auditory map of the prison. As Abu Hamdan explains ” Hearing things meant making images in the mind…it really is cross-sensory”  The starvation diet they suffered led to distorted memories so their acute hunger massively attenuated the relevant sounds such as the thud of bread hitting the floor outside their cell doors. In the 20 minute film a wide range of examples illustrate the symbolic nature of walls  and the unreliable nature of auditory testimony collected through them. He also reaches the astonishing conclusion that the latest sub-atomic detection technology means that all walls are penetrable so now there is literally nowhere to hide.

The performance that followed was build around 95 objects that were associated with sounds generated by his investigation.  So for example a punch does not sound like we expect it to because the cinema foley artist substitutes a simulation for the real thing. These objects were named but unseen at the Tate. At Chisenhale the same text is used but here all the objects are on show as an installation, Earwitness Inventory (2018).

At Chisenhale his audio work, Saydnaya (the missing 19db)  is a powerful and moving experience. You listen in a darkened chamber recalling a prison cell with two narrow slits to allow us to see out into the gallery. It is filled with tense periods of silence highlighting the gruesome testimony of the prisoners whispered reenactments and their interview statements. Whispering was the only way to communicate with fellow prisoners. The 19 decibels refers to the drop in the typical whispering volume recalled by those prisoners who were detained after 2011 compared to the ordinary prison regime prior to his time.  It is a chilling physical manifestation of the degree of terror imposed.

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Still from video Walled Unwalled (2018) © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Forensic Architecture’s investigations and the spin-off work by artists like Abu Hamdan give hope to those of us who are keen to see the dissolution of the art/science divide and the blurring  of the boundary between art and advocacy.