Yesterday I went to Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘Earwitness Theatre’ exhibition, which develops his investigation into the political effects of listening. “In 2016 Abu Hamdan was asked to create dedicated earwitness interviews for Amnesty International[‘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 the 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.”1
As part of the exhibition there is a listening room, in which you can listen in complete darkness, to aural testimony from former Saydnaya detainees, interspersed with their re-enacted whispers. It is incredibly moving. It almost made me feel sick. In an interview, Abu Hamdan explained that he is “interested in both the use of silence as a form of resistance to state violence and the power in expressing our right to remain silent, but also as a form of suppression, as a form of censorship; silence as a weapon of state violence…In Saydnaya you cannot speak, you cannot cough, you cannot even move, so silence became this extremely physical thing.” 1 Detainees described how they could not talk properly for weeks after release.
I had never thought of silence as a form of violence or torture before, to me silence feels like a kind of freedom, a gift.
After I left the exhibition, I noticed sound much more than usual – all the things we don’t hear because of background noise, or because we’re immune to it:
the sound of my feet on the pavement
how trainers on grass are almost silent
doing a zip up (thunderously loud)
bird wings flapping
traffic in the distance
leaves skidding in the breeze
a distant police siren
the rustle of my jacket as I walk
a man talking on the phone
a passing car
how the sound of a car slowing down for a traffic light is different —
the desire to describe sound more precisely
This did not last long, once on the main road, smaller sounds became inaudible so I could only feel the sound of my feet, no longer hear it.
The rest of the exhibition is an installation of objects used to make sound effects, with projected, animated text on the wall – earwitness testimony from Saydnaya and other events. That exhibition is about sound, but it is silent. A computer algorithm animated Abu Hamdan reading the text, so it sped up or slowed down according to his rhythm and emphasis, so “you feel a voice, but you don’t hear it.” 1
Sound and silence are physical things.
Sound can be used for violence and torture.
Silence can be used for violence and torture.
1 Exhibition brochure, Chisenhale Gallery