Artist Profile: Lawrence Abu Hamdan

The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Contra Diction (Speech Against Itself) (2015; courtesy the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris; photo, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Jäggi).

Your current solo exhibition "تقيه (Taqiyya)–The Right to Duplicity" in St. Gallen brings together recent works exploring the ways in which "enforced expression" is manifest in contemporary society. Contra Diction (Speech Against Itself) (2014) focuses on the (apparent) forced conversion of a group of Syrian Druze—a Levantine cultural minority who practice an esoteric religion which incorporates aspects of Islam but which is considered "heretical" by Islamic purists—by Jabhat al-Nusra. You cite the doctrine of Taqiyya—a feature of Islamic jurisprudence which you compare to the concept of diplomatic immunity—as underlying the apparent ease of the conversion: i.e. that the Druze were expressing Taqiyya as a means of resisting their conversion rather than cooperating with it. A number of your works explore this tension between verbal expression and "truth". Could you speak about your views regarding such "sonic geographies" as contested spaces?

Contra Diction (Speech Against itself) focuses on the event you spoke about because it is a very fleeting moment where Taqiyya raises its head, and people start to make claims about whether this is Taqiyya or not. It’s not really in line with the work or what I’m interested in to make any claim that this was a forced conversion, or that this use of Taqiyya was a strategy in order to avoid converting by employing stealth, or to make a conversion that saves face. Taqiyya is very difficult to talk about because it’s essentially about the right to lie; because of its proximity to lying, it becomes very difficult to place or to make any direct assertions about. That is very interesting not because of its use in this event in particular, but as a way to take a legal right to speech like Taqiyya and have it stand shoulder to shoulder with more conventional ways in which speech is governed in society, like the right to silence and freedom of speech. I find that quite urgent—as can be seen in a number of my works: we’re living in a kind of "post freedom of speech" society. Freedom of speech is increasingly being understood as something that exists without the right to silence. President Obama made a speech where he was talking about the trials of the Guantanamo inmates where he said there should be trials, but they (the inmates) shouldn’t be allowed the right to silence. Without the right to silence, we can see that the freedom of speech becomes part of a confessional society, where everything that people are afraid to say qualifies them with a certain guilt, so that when people don’t want to say something out loud, it means they have something to hide. This became increasingly interesting to me in both in the case of WikiLeaks and the NSA, which rely on different understandings of total transparency. There is the idea that something like Taqiyya would emerge to challenge this way in which freedom of speech has become about the enforced full disclosure of speech. So I was kind of using it in that way, to challenge both what it means to speak freely and also that we insist on this speaking of the truth and to ask, "what does it mean to speak the truth in the age of the NSA?"

What’s important with Taqiyya is the fluidity of being multiple—insisting on it as a way to push politics forward, and I think we’re seeing this more and more with collaborators like Varoufakis, who speaks the language of the hedge funders, or Edward Snowden who has made several kinds of conversions himself in the course of becoming a whistleblower. I’m really interested in the role of the collaborator and the way that Taqiyya can be understood as a new type of progressive politics. Of course, it also has a very dark side in that it’s not about being objective in one’s critique of society, but is actually symptomatic of society’s ills. This does start to speak about sonic geographies, but not really that kind of classic sonic geography of producing aural jurisdictions or sonic conquest over the other’s speech; rather, what this points to is something more profound about the politics of representation. It’s about a politics of listening, about how we can be heard and what kind of hearing we’ll receive when we utter a claim. So that’s why I think these moments add to the discussion of the ways in which we represent ourselves in this all-hearing, all-speaking world.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes (2012; courtesy the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris; photo, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Jäggi).

You’ve spoken of the "palimpsestic" quality of audio tapes in works like Tape Echo (2014). This metaphor seems to resonate with your work, Conflicted Phonemes (2012), in that the accents of refugees often have a palimpsestic quality as well. In the work, you show how a word, or even a single phoneme, can make the difference between being granted or denied political asylum. The technological capacity of voice analysis provides a kind of "certainty" with regard to a particular portion of data which is then privileged by the authorities, and this then licenses them to discount other data (for example, the biography of the person seeking asylum). Do you feel that this false, technological "certainty" is playing an increased role in political disempowerment in technologically advanced societies at large?

You draw a very interesting parallel between the tone of the works in the Tape Echo series—which is called Conversations with the Unemployed, which involves microscopic enlargements of the surfaces of the cassette tapes—and the subject matter of "Conflicted Phonemes", because, like a cassette tape, an accent is something that never really loses or fully erases its biography. Unlike digital recordings, cassette tapes don’t delete their media. They constantly overlay and overlay, so that what you have on top is every recording and tape head ever applied. In some ways, the biography of an accent is very similar because, of course, our accents are really the product of all the different people we’ve ever spoken to in our lives. This gains even more power in Conflicted Phonemes in which people’s voices and accents are being used—rather than their biography—as a birth certificate. What they’re trying to say is that the accent is from one place, that it’s from where you were born and that’s it. But, of course, having lived a life in migration, as many asylum seekers do, the opposite is probably true: if they really want to find a genuine asylum seeker, they should look for voices which show irregularities, and reflect an itinerant life. In a lot of works, I try to use the visualization of sound to expose its complexities, the ways it resists being fixed to an association with a specific physical space.

It’s very important to emphasize that it’s not a technology that is doing these accent tests; it’s actually a Swedish company which is using former refugees who have no linguistic expertise to screen applicants’ accents. It’s really anecology, using former refugees, and it’s a very unscientific way of screening anybody, for a number of reasons. What’s very important to say is that it’s politically disempowering because the attack is on speech, and speech is what makes us political animals in the kind of society we’ve constructed. Speech is the form by which we negotiate our rights. What many of the asylum seekers say is that they don’t want to speak back to the state because they don’t know how they’re being listened to. The conditions of listening have changed, and I think that is really the key moment of political disempowerment. It’s an attack on speech; the conditions of listening are what have altered the means for those people to speak and to testify about their plight. We’re increasingly seeing—in what you call "technologically advanced societies"—an accelerating shift in which listening is moving outside what we could think of as "listening to what we say", and more towards listening to "other parts" of our speech. And it’s that shift from what we say to how we say it that produces the political disempowerment of the people being listened to.

This points to another work I did about lie detectors—it is currently installed in Kunst Halle St. Gallen—seven walls, acoustic panels painted with sound deadening paint. It’s called Beneath the Surface. I realised the seven articulations of the seven verdicts that the machine gives, and showed the micro-second where the machine makes the verdict, and then I hand drew the pitch of the voice at that moment to try to expand on this tiny moment where this machine produces something that can have a great effect on somebody’s life. In reproducing them by hand, you reinsert the human behind the machine.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Tape Echo (2014)

In Gardens of Death (2013), you discuss the floating sound-system culture of Cairo in which open-topped boats blast party music along the Nile, creating what you describe as "sonic islands". These represent the classic paradox of loud music vs. the sort of noise that characterizes urban life: It seems that the devotion of perceptual attention to one set of sounds over another is really the sole means of distinguishing what is noise and what is music (i.e. one boat’s music is another’s noise, and vice versa). Clearly, there are questions of power and aggression in this dynamic, which The All Hearing (2014) also touches upon. Do you feel that the question of "sonic autonomy" vs. "sonic aggression" will be an increasing topic of ethical/legal study in the future, not least that a new generation of "sound weapons" are being developed by Western governments for use as "non-lethal" crowd control technologies? 

The questions that the Tape Echo project throws up with works like Gardens of Death and The All-Hearing include "what is noise?" as well as "what is hearing, in fact?" When we talk about hearing damage, hearing itself as a measurable capacity has its own history and its own discriminations, and I think it’s a very interesting area through which to talk about conflict and negotiation in mega-cities, of which Cairo is one. It’s one of the loudest cities in the world.

In The All-Hearing the question becomes more urgent because of the political conditions that surround noise pollution. When I first asked two Cairene sheikhs if they’d be interested in delivering sermons about noise pollution and hearing damage, there was no law at that moment which would forbid the sheikhs from talking about what they wanted to every Friday. So you have a city that is awash with ethical promise, telling you about how to live the life. There’s a huge cluster of amplified ethics that fills the sonic environment of Cairo every Friday; I was very interested in noise pollution being one of the discussions that enters this very intense sonic environment—that was my initial intention as a means of intervention. Of course, it became much more urgent when a law was passed to forbid sheikhs to deliver sermons. Of the three sheikhs I asked to work with me on this, two of them felt the law, passed in the name of noise pollution by the government, made it even more imperative for them to talk about noise pollution and to give their perspective on it. Noise pollution became a way to talk about the censorship they were undergoing. That meant that they didn’t directly address it, risking even more fallout. In a similar way to Taqiyya, it was both subversive and submissive at the same moment, and that also gets close to the question of sonic autonomy and sonic aggression. The question of what noise is became vital in fighting censorship as well as discussing what those kinds of relations of aggression and autonomy in the sonic space mean in a space like Cairo.

What is interesting in the original question is that word "future", because if we’re to talk about the future of listening, some things are being outlined for us already. Basically, any science that reveals a greater ability to listen is immediately being swept up into the economy of surveillance. This is something I touch on with A Convention of Tiny Movements (2015), which talks about the near future of listening. It is a work that really looks in detail into the experiments of scientists at MIT who have realized that all objects can function, basically, like microphones, particularly, those which have a plastic- or foil-like consistency—such as a potato chip packet. Speech that vibrates this surface is recoverable using high-speed cameras. To talk about it now is a kind of "near future fiction", which is what I call A Convention of Tiny Movements. It is also important not to allow these things simply to go from the lab in MIT to the workshops and backrooms of the NSA. Opening this discussion means that we can start to think about other applications, and it means we aren’t in a position where we’re subjects to the technologies that are emerging but that they are something we can participate in developing.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, The All-Hearing (2014; 2 minute extract).

In your talk for "What Now? The Politics of Listening", you mentioned an episode in which Defense for Children International applied your forensic audiological expertise in an investigation of an IDF shooting. Do you feel that the blurred competencies research-heavy art work such as your own may provide a means of increased interdisciplinarity between the arts, sciences and, possibly, the political sphere as well, in that art and aesthetic practice can often conceptualize or formalize questions that the sciences and politics overlook or fail to account for? Or, is it more likely that information generated through artistic practice will be discounted by structures of authority in other disciplines?

I was asked by Forensic Architecture if I could determine whether or not the sound of gunfire was rubber bullets or live ammunition in the case of the murder of two boys in the West Bank by Israeli Defense Forces. This case, which involved Defense for Children International, threw up interesting questions in the nature of your question regarding the roles of discipline and expertise because I could, in fact, do this investigation very easily, as could pretty much anybody who has experimented with digital music. From the perspective of somebody who has worked with the aesthetics of audio and somebody who has a keen ear, this question was very simple. This was not a question of expertise. The real experts are those Palestinian boys and girls who can identify in a micro-second what a shot is. And that’s something that’s more difficult than it sounds, because the live rounds are being suppressed by a rubber bullet extender that works like a kind of silencer, so the sound of a rubber bullet and live ammunition is being conflated. The rubber bullet adapter is being used to disguise the fire of live ammunition, but these Palestinian teenagers can exactly identify a tiny distinction in the frequencies and react accordingly. Those are the real acute listeners in this case. Someone like me—an artist, a practitioner of audio aesthetics—can simply provide a visual language for understanding the differences. It's very interesting to turn the nature of expertise on its head and to reclaim the skills that we artists—or musicians, or image-makers, or graphic designers, or architects—have learned from our field of aesthetic practice and research, so that we can listen back to the state and use these tools in other ways as a mode of political intervention. I think it’s really a question of aesthetic training, and this comes from my studies under Eyal Wiezman, who is my Ph.D. supervisor, who set up a very important centre for forensic architecture which exists to do exactly this kind of thing. It’s an inspiring space in which to think through questions about the role of the artist.


Age: 30

Location: Beirut

How/When did you begin working creatively with technology: 1998

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

Still Studying-Ph.D. candidate: Research Architecture Programme at Goldsmiths College, London.

What do you do for a living, or what occupations have you held previously?

Private audio investigator (& visual artist).

What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)


William Kherbek is author of the novel Ecology of Secrets, published by Arcadia Missa (London, 2013). He has been the visual art critic for Port Magazine since 2012. His work has appeared in the essay collection Turning Inward, published by Sternberg Press, a forthcoming novel, UltraLife, will be published by Arcadia Missa in 2016.