Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Lawrence Abu Hamdan on translation, Nuremberg, and the juridical unconscious

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, The Witness-Machine Complex (detail), 2021, fourteen LED lightbulbs, seven steel stands, seven projectors, sound, 23 minutes.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s exhibition “The Witness-Machine Complex,” on view through November 14 at the Kunstverein Nuremberg, focuses on the system of simultaneous interpretation that facilitated the Nuremberg trials. Here, Abu Hamdan reflects on the absence of the translation from the official history of the trial and his understanding of interruptions as veracious moments.

IN 2018, I was invited to respond to the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Nuremberg trials, which was exciting because I’ve been thinking about systems of simultaneous translation for a long time, and the very first use of such a system was in Nuremberg. It was provided pro bono by IBM as a way for the company to restore its image after infamously selling census-gathering machines to Germany during the Holocaust—a way to show that it could bring people together after atomizing and individuating them in the most violent forms possible. So it’s a very interesting history, especially because Nuremberg set the precedent for all international trials. How we deal with translation in Europe, all the forums where translation is staged or centered, relates back to this legacy.

I was interested, specifically, in the translators’ role in the trial, but I soon discovered that there was no trace of the translators’ voice in the recordings, videos, or transcript of the proceedings. It’s this really strange thing, where it was necessary to negotiate across Russian, English, French, and German, in all of their potential permutations, but when you watch the trial, there’s just this fluid dialogue across languages. The absent process of translation becomes an elephant in the room. It raises questions about whether such simultaneity is really realizable—there’s an argument that it’s not. But it’s still being implemented today.

So as the presence of the translators was somehow cut from the trial, I started to look for it in other ways. I found that one of the only traces of the translators in the process of translating was their control of two lights located on the witness stand and the judge’s podium: a yellow light to signal “slow down” and a red light that meant “stop altogether.” The rudimentary communication by way of these lights dictated a strange flow. I found the moments they went off to invariably be significant interruptions, revealing not only of what it means to try to arbitrate across these languages, but also of what it means to be a witness in these kinds of international trials: how a certain pacing, performance, and adherence was necessary. It’s never really just about seeing the event and telling people what happened. It’s about understanding and negotiating the apparatus of the trial. And the way that people navigated these interruptive lights, which functioned as a reminder of the mediation of their speech, seemed to me a very telling portal into understanding what a witness is.

View of “The Witness-Machine Complex,” 2021, Kunstverein Nuremberg. Photo: Lukas Pürmayr.

In my installation at the Kunstverein, I’ve distilled eight such moments by installing replicas of the lights in a dark room that are animated in concert with recorded testimonies. The gallery also contains monitors that display English subtitles for these testimonies. There’s an exchange that begins with a Russian witness named Jakov Gregorvion, and you have this sense that there is this dissonance between him and what he’s endured and the way that the court is speaking to him. You feel this tension in the very opening sections of his testimony: He’s asked where he comes from, and the follow-up question is “Does that village still exist?,” and the answer is “No, it does not exist.” And then the yellow light goes off. Already, it’s weird, and immediately the judge tells him to slow down. So this strange and frank detail, which contains a huge amount of violence, is immediately kind of overwritten by the light, by the way the court makes a demand on the voice and what it needs to sound like. When the yellow light flashes a second time, he freezes for over a minute, his testimony entirely derailed. In another instance, Marie Vaillant-Couturier responds to the yellow light by altering her speech to an incredibly robotic staccato, and you understand that, in a way, this is what a witness needs to do. So the exhibition is essentially a kind of history of the trial, not through its grand moments but through its interruptions, which I’ve reinserted into this history. The way they’ve been removed to create an illusion of a smooth proceeding felt quite violent to me, operating against what Shoshana Felman calls the juridical unconscious—the irrational breaks and traumatic repetitions that undergird the law.  

This project positions art as a mode of historical production that, rather than simplifying or abstracting, really faces and insists upon confusion, makes visceral the conditions that produce tension. Art is well equipped to deal with this messiness—to do this dirty work—because art audiences are already attuned to negative space, accustomed to sitting with uncertainty. I went into this project thinking that there wasn’t much more to say about the Nuremberg trials—it’s such a big historical event—but what you realize is that there are things that people still aren’t ready to listen to. Thinking about the translator, who is somehow in the shadows or outside of the frame of the accepted version of this history, I began to tap into that.