Lawrence Abu Hamdan

View of “Earwitness Theatre,” 2018, Chisenhale Gallery, London. Photo: Andy Keate.

As many as thirteen thousand people have been executed at the Saydnaya Military Prison in Syria since 2011, a number that remains an estimate as the site is inaccessible to independent monitors. The prisoners are mostly kept in the dark or blindfolded and thus develop a sharp awareness of sounds. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s current exhibition in London details the experiences of former Saydnaya detainees through an extensive sound library and a listening room, with an audio essay charting the subtle transformations of their voices within Saydnaya following the 2011 uprising in Syria. “Earwitness Theatre” is on view at Chisenhale Gallery in London through December 9, 2018.

THE WHOLE IDEA FOR THIS PROJECT was to work with the threshold of perception because the detainees of Saydnaya catch nothing but glimpses from the corners of their blindfolds. Hearing has become their primary sense, and it was therefore vital for me to solicit sonic memories in order to gather as much information about the prison and what was happening to people inside. One example comes from the former prisoner Salam, who gives a comprehensive account of the sound each cell door made, as distinct from its neighboring door. This account allowed us to approximate how many cells were in use in his wing. This was one of many details that made it possible for Amnesty International, which co-commissioned the project with Forensic Architecture, to estimate how many prisoners were being incarcerated at that time. The collaboration between us was so much about the particular rust of a hinge or the level at which one could whisper—I think the specificity of these memories helped us to get through or avoid triggering traumatic memories that may have not yet been processed by the prisoners, while also arriving at a more detail-orientated modeling of their experience.

There were times when I was met with the unprocessed memories of these former detainees. Anas’s complete conviction, for instance, that the sound of a digger truck he heard repeatedly was like “dried bread” made me understand that we were talking not about the intensity of sound, but, inadvertently, about the intensity of hunger. Though this did not get me closer to understanding the architecture of the prison, it offered a rare glimpse into the way starvation distorts the senses.

I was compelled to make artworks about the prisoners’ distorted memories because I wanted to find a language in which there could be an outlet for elements of testimony that were both extremely lucid and somewhat hallucinogenic. A comprehensive study and reconstruction of Saydnaya cannot seek to define limits and draw solid boundaries, as this would not be a true representation of the violence its witnesses and victims endure. Rather, evidence of sensory deprivation exists at the borders of what constitute both experience and its evidence—where silence can be physically and materially manifest and where hunger becomes a sound.

One of the strategies I used during the interviews with the survivors of Saydnaya was to accompany the questions I asked with the playback of sounds from Foley film sound libraries to simulate prison sounds such as doors, locks, and footsteps, not explicitly with the purpose of being able to find the precise sound present in Saydnaya but to act as mimetic devices and to try to give the discussion about sound between us a higher detail of precision. This sometimes worked well, but for future endeavors, I decided that what I would need to do would be to create my own sound effects library specifically for the investigation of earwitness testimony, rather than for cinematic or televisual use.

In order to make my own library of sound effects for the purpose of soliciting earwitness memories, I began researching transcribed and recorded testimonies from all around the globe. What I found was that just like in the Saydnaya investigation, objects started standing in place for experienced events in strange and unexpected ways. I discovered witnesses describing punches like “a lighter being thrown to the ground and popping,” or “the noise of a cinder block falling on concrete,” or “an egg cracking,” and a “watermelon smashing.” This signaled, for me, that the objects in my personal sound effects library were not only things to create scientific reenactments with, but were actually vehicles that borrowed from cinematic theatrics to access memories. Objects are often the means through which sounds are encoded into memory, and that might be because we don’t yet have a precise vocabulary for the description of sound. In response, we attach sounds; a process is linked to objects that it may resemble, and this renders objects integral to the way the memory is encoded and retrieved. So, I built a customized series of door instruments and sourced a total of ninety-five objects—including an unwound videotape, a cinder block, a rack of trays, an egg, an inflatable pool—for my new Earwitness Inventory, a work that is based on the ways in which earwitnesses have historically described sound as a stand-in for a language yet to be developed to describe, document, and recall our acoustic world.