Read the first two posts of my online residency at Manifesta Journal here ...
Read the first two posts of my online residency at Manifesta Journal here ...
The first thing you saw when you walked into the empty villa was a silver briefcase on a plinth, framed by the arch between two rooms and lit by a spotlight.
It was open, and in it lay two door-less Walkmans side by side. They had clearly been doctored, and the same piece of tape appeared to be moving through the exposed tape cassettes in both of them. Hanging from a hook on the plinth was a pair of headphones. Putting them on, you heard the distinctive British-accented voice of artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan echoing in a large space somewhere.
“Welcome to Tape Echo,” he said authoritatively. “In mapping the sonic terrains of Cairo, why is the tape sermon such a useful tool?”
Through its impact on the space itself, Abu Hamdan's work transcended both the nostalgia around cassette tapes and the fetishization of Cairo's noisiness.
It was the start of a three-minute documentary-like monologue about tapes and Cairo’s sounds, and what this rigged-up machine you were watching was. It was part of the exhibition “Tape Echo” at Beirut, which consisted of four works each named after tapes the artist found in Cairo and overdubbed with contemporary sounds. This piece was called “Hypocrisy.”
“Unlike digital audio, magnetic tape overdubs its contents.” Abu Hamdan’s voice said. “Tapes do not delete but rather overlay sound and realign their magnetic particles. This process of overdub is exactly what’s happening to my voice as you hear it popping and crackling its way through the tape echo device in front of you [...] By recording and playing back in quick succession, the sound of my voice appears to be echoed in a much larger space than it was actually recorded.”
The same technique was apparently used for Elvis Presley’s voice and to create the sound of Jamaican dub, which, “Hypocrisy” said, makes the music itself appear as a kind of effect or illusion.
“This machine is much like the sonic counterpart to the microscopic images you see in the room adjacent to you,” the artwork pointed out, leaving you to make your way over to “A Conversation with an Unemployed,” in which large photographic prints were spread out on a large low light box. Like the silver briefcase, there was something forensic about them: Laid down like evidence, the increasingly zoomed-in photographs of a cassette’s magnetic tape seemed to encourage you to look for something — but there was nothing there except for noisy, fuzzy patterns that looked, at their most microscopic point, a bit like a beige carpet or a cityscape.
There was a beige-ish carpet laid down wall-to-wall in the third downstairs room: a fuzzy, pixelated, monochrome carpet. Opposite a bench to sit on at one end, two corners each contained two speakers stacked on top of each other on the floor. They were familiar: Large and black and quite bling, with lights on top projecting rotating blobs of bright color onto the ceiling. The noise from the speakers rose and fell, like the noise you hear in downtown Cairo next to the Nile where the boats are — music, lots of bass, a hubbub of voices, atmospheric noise of jubilance and competitive entertainment. The music drew close and moved away, one song drowned out another, sometimes you heard voices talking close to you. The piece was called “Gardens of Death.”
The last piece was up on the roof: “Rendez-vous at Night.” Five basic black cassette players were spaced out on the waist-height wall around the small roof’s parameter playing a short loop of sound. The moving noise marked out the space in anunterritorial way, blending with the sounds of the neighborhood, sounding different depending on where you placed yourself. It was a nice way to experience the roof and look at the nearby buildings and gardens.
“Hypocrisy” spoke of Islamic sermons on tape cassette, once widespread and with political impact, now quite obsolete. It talks of how we can hear the noise the home-duplicated cassettes have accumulated over time, the “layers of overdubbing, the pops and crackles of every recording head every applied.”
In the end these sermons seemed a bit of a red herring in that they were not particularly evident to the viewer, only seeming to emerge in the titles of the works, and maybe, if you were looking for it, in some murmurings you heard amid the party river noises in “Gardens of Death.”
But what the exhibition did do quite triumphantly with the tapes was explore how “in their noisy materiality they bear witness to the past audio life of the city” — and in doing so, it brought the city into Beirut’s villa and the villa into the city. Through its impact on the space itself, Abu Hamdan's work transcended both the nostalgia around cassette tapes and the fetishization of Cairo's noisiness.
His show made the rather stark, white, not particularly welcoming space into something less empty and warmer than it had been in previous shows. Even just the addition of a carpet and a bench to sit on transformed the place into something more hospitable; simple gestures like the spotlight on the briefcase, the bright colors from the speakers, and the darkness of the room with the photographs made the viewer feel less exposed and the space less isolated from the reality outside.
But most of all, it was the sound that broke through the walls of the space and really connected the clean art space to Cairo for the first time. On the opening night the deep bass seemed to shake the building slightly, and made it sound from the outside like a club (or a bit like the primary school next door, when they play pop songs on repeat at top volume during recess). And the roof piece leaked out and mingled with the outside noises and put you out there in view of the people around.
Abu Hamdan is a London-based artist who tends to work with voices, sounds and the "politics of listening," often in relation to physical space and the law, such as in his ongoing "Aural Contract." He made the four works in "Tape Echo" while on residency with Beirut this year. In these fairly simple, not over-thought-out pieces — in particular the three sound works — Abu Hamdan mixed the noise in his visuals and audio with the controlled chaos of Cairo’s streets and the dust in its air, and he let his sounds take up space in a sociable way. Rather than the politics and history referred to, it was the formal qualities of the exhibition and its viscerality that made it so engaging.
"Tape Echo" was exhibited at Beirut, 11 Road 12, Mahmoud Sedky, Agouza, Cairo, from November 10 to December 17, 2013.
article by Silvia Mollicchi originally published here
When seeking asylum in countries such as Australia, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, migrants must undergo a voice test, imparted by a private Swedish company, which aims to verify the validity of their asylum claims. During a phone interview, at the other end of the receiver, a program records samples of the asylum seeker’s voice that are then analyzed to establish his or her specific geographic provenance.
Does the applicant come from a place where living is unbearable enough to justify the concession of asylum? Particular words are chosen to identify the linguistic influence prevalent in the accent, and a lifetime is reduced to a point: one name, one place.
For his recent Conflicted Phonemes (currently on view at the Tate Modern in London as a part of the exhibition Word.Sound.Power ), artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan has worked together with a group of Somali asylum seekers who were all rejected from the Dutch migration office because the results of their accent tests located their place of origin in the relatively safer region of Northern Somalia. But amongst famine, waves of war, the resulting forced internal migrations, and the proximity of a plethora of linguistic groups, the accent of a person from the Horn of Africa exponentially grows in complexity, and establishing an individual’s provenance from a phone conversation becomes a self-defeating and absurd proposition. This not so recent but fairly unknown application of forensic linguistics is another of the many cruelly arbitrary practices intentionally restricting human migration. The practice can be easily contested on the grounds of linguistics, as the test’s accuracy is limited, but more than this it also constitutes a brutal intrusion of legal regulation into someone’s personal voice. It overlooks the obvious point that human migration (and experience, and way of speaking) is more of a glorious over-flowing than a tidy, regimented stream.
To give the migrants, all coming from South Somalia, a chance to express their discontent with the unfair results, Abu Hamdan, together with Janna Ullrich, realized a wall chart that maps internal migrations in Somalia and their impact on people’s lives and voices. The chart traces discrete migratory movements and marks the interaction between migrants and speakers of different dialects and languages. A take-away sheet of paper shows a voice map designed as some sort of engine, a floral Venn-diagram with bike-chain-like petals. Each individual chain rotates on one end around a subject placed in the center of the flower, and on the other end, pointing towards the outside, around one of her interlocutors. What conjoins each couple — the chain itself — is one out of their many potential common languages, ranging from English, to Somali dialects of Benaadir and Maay, to Amharic. The design gives a sense of motion and buzz, an intricate overlapping of linguistic expressions all rotating around the same individual. It is a sophisticated machine that tries to balance centripetal and centrifugal forces, pulling subjectivities apart to then recombine them again.
In the last paragraph of the statement published together with the work, Abu Hamdan explains why he chose to draw a map. Notwithstanding the inevitable tendency of maps to abstract and digest the complexity of reality, this time, cartography lent its services as a necessary tool to make that very complexity appear. Indeed, the wall-chart is by no means simple to read. It is a large spread with color schemes, full of symbols that take time to understand. It requires a careful look and listen.
But beyond Abu Hamdan’s legitimate impatience with maps and cartographies, the project’s way of thinking together linguistic influences and maps of migration holds a special aesthetic power that, for me, stirred a number of more personal thoughts. As most non-native speakers, my learning of the English language was a matter of encounters: an accumulation of words, people, sentences, personal relations, street signs, inside jokes, an open vowel, a closed vowel, books on different topics borrowed from libraries in different continents. It is a list of parts, at times hybridized in a coherent way and others not.
Some inflections can be traced back, but to a line, rather than to a point — to some sort of biography of the sound, intertwined with mine. We can imagine them as streams of concurring vectors, moving from place to place as sequences that I can walk back through, following the influences that, in time, have transformed my way of rounding an ‘r’ or moving an accent from one syllable to another. Looking at this personal map of influences and travels at a microscopic level, though, magnifying (or rather nullifying) the representational scale of the map to a 1:1, the result might look more like a heterogenous amalgam of bits and pieces, meshed together at different levels of intensity, as not all sounds are happily and smoothly accommodated. Some remain a dust or a friction.
And inflections do not accumulate only linearly in chains, but all around. The map may become a flattened landscape where all the bits and pieces appear organized on the same plane as an environment of elements that have been brought together but do not necessarily belong together. They are forced into cooperating and performing more or less standardized pronunciations and, therefore, articulating sense. It is like a weird puzzle in which not all bits fit in, so you forcefully push them together and break them. The outlines are everything but smooth, inconsistencies and fissures are left open, little cracks and gaps appear.
In those gaps the whistle of a rustling ‘s’ comes through, a vowel remains too open, or not open enough, a sound is distorted, ‘gh’ and ‘f’ and then ‘i’ and ‘y’ get all mixed up. The way I visualize this cartographic representation of language, then, is more like a territory of sharp crevices and overhanging, telluric movements and magmatic bulges. These irregular points of conjunction are places of maximum contingency, if not danger. It will take a patient (and passionate) listener not to lose balance and fall. Everything can happen there and so this map will never settle. It will change with every utterance: valid for an instant and an instance and then good for nothing.
Because then there is the act of speaking itself and the traction it provides, the movement, but also the feelings and anxieties, calmness, sorrow and joy that come together with each and every expression. If it is a map, it is one that I keep running on and swirling as I please, or rather one that I perform anew every time I speak, crunching sounds and places, recombining them in my voice.
New policy in which victims can read out statements to the perpetrator as part of court process in UK.
The Field is to the Sky, Only Backwards, an exhibition curated by ISCP alum Aneta Szylak, Artistic Director of Wyspa Institute of Art and Alternativa International Visual Arts Festival, Gdansk. The exhibiton includes works by Anders Bojen and Kristoffer Ørum, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Hiwa K, Katarzyna Krakowiak, MML Studio (Michał Madracki, Maciej Madracki and Gilles Lepore) and Hito Steyerl and questions art as a practice of knowledge.
Studying the intersections of subjects such as economic and social relations, space and architecture, image, material, sound, movement, migration and mobility, the included artists transgress disciplines. They realize forms of research and modes of practice that are coded within disciplines but also inhabit temporary spaces between them. The artists disclose not only what we want to know but how we would like to get to know it. Diverse methodologies merge and cross, seeking the possible in fault lines and unauthorized methodologies.
"Were it not for Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘The Whole Truth’ and ‘Conflicted Phonemes’ the exhibition would have seemed strangely split down the middle. Abu Hamdan’s works were by far my favourite pieces in the exhibition.
Aural Contract is a project that is constituted by a series of events, publications, exhibitions, compositions and workshops that examine the contemporary politics of listening through a focus on the role of the voice in law. Throughout the project I have built up a sound archive, containing audio extracts of my works together with specific moments of juridical listening and speaking gathered from a wide range of sources such as the trials of Saddam Hussein and Judas Priest, UK police evidence tapes, films such as Decoder and readings from texts including Italo Calvino’s “A King Listens”. The components of this archive are then mixed together, generating audio documentaries and narrative compositions that immerse its audience in the heart of a discussion about the relationship of listening to politics, borders, human rights, testimony, truth and international law.
For Manifesta Journal, I have put together a selection of tracks from the Aural Contract Audio Archive to provide an audio analysis of the vocal manipulations and distortions that occur in the two political-juridical forums that buttress the war in Iraq. Here, both Colin Powell’s 2003 “Speech at the UN” and the “Trial of Saddam Hussein”, are examples of the contemporary role of audio as a weapon of war.
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Part 1: Colin Powell’s Sound Evidence
Part 2: Sonic War-Farce
Part 3: The Chipmunk in the Court of Saddam
In March 2003, whilst he was secretary of state, Colin Powell gave a notorious speech at the United Nations Security Council in which he made the case for war in Iraq. The two heavily distorted audio recordings he played to kick start his warmongering torrent of “evidence” speak clearly about the speech as a whole. The contrast of Powell’s amplified address through the audio infrastructure of the UN security council, with the raw crackles of an intercepted walkie-talkie exchange readily reveals who dictates the right to speak and who controls the capacity to hear in such forums. It is in his hybrid role of secretary of state and voice-over artist that Powell is able to both legitimise and initiate the war.
In October 2005, Saddam Hussein’s trial began. Pitch shifting and other voice effects were used throught the trial to disguise the witnesses who testified in defense of Hussein. By aurally zooming into the use of voice manipulation, a set of political intentions can be discerned. Standardized for a long time now by the BBC in addition to other media channels is the voice-disguise technique that pitches down voices in an effort to preserve their anonymity. In Saddam Hussein’s trial, the voices are pitched up to the level of “chipmunk”, an effect that infantilises its witnesses. These absurd and puerile voices allow the court to perform the ascendency of the nation into its “democratic” adulthood while at the same time ordering the death of its father.
These two examples complicate the conventions of sonic warfare: from sound canons and Metallica songs to that of complex audio manipulation and vocal destruction in sites where speech acts. Hence this audio composition gathers together and processes a set of archival materials that testify to the role of listening and voice in both the destruction of nations and the reconstruction of political realities.