Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel, 2022, still from the HD video component (color, sound, 15 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising two painted backdrops.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel, 2022, still from the HD video component (color, sound, 15 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising two painted backdrops.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan

In most of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s installations, the aesthetics of sound take a front-row seat—sound is the “dirty evidence” used to reconstruct the experience of living in a pitch-black prison in Syria or to catalogue objects whose sounds became issues in legal disputes. Abu Hamdan has worked with Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, and has leveraged the collective’s strategies for excavating the hidden truth in visual flotsam in his own search for evidence in remnants of the spoken word. With 45th Parallel, 2022, a film commissioned by several institutions, including Spike Island and the Toronto Biennial of Art, Abu Hamdan moves away from direct engagement with aural stimuli. But traces of this sonic fascination linger in the background.

The film centers on the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which straddles the border between the United States and Canada. A relic of the pre-9/11 relationship of the US with its neighbors, this otherwise unobtrusive building with an address in rural Vermont has a line indicating the boundary between the two countries clearly marked on its floor; visitors are allowed to cross freely from one side to the other. In a five-act monologue written by Abu Hamdan and performed by Danish Palestinian film director Mahdi Fleifel, we learn about a bumbling gun-smuggling ring that was run out of the library. Abu Hamdan connects the conditions of this relatively lighthearted oddity to another, far more serious crime on the southern border of the US—the murder of fifteen-year-old Sergio Adrián Hernández Güereca. With his feet firmly planted on US soil, Border Patrol agent Jesus Mesa Jr. stretched his hand and gun across the line that divides the two countries and shot Hernández, who was playing with his friends on the Mexican side. As the case wound its way to the Supreme Court, its ramifications emerged. In a precedent-based legal system, a decision against the border officer would open the door to lawsuits from individuals abroad who had been harmed by government employees operating on American soil—including, notably, victims of the 91,340 drone strikes carried out across the Middle East by army officers in remote US locations over the past twenty years. Abu Hamdan’s film reveals the mercurial nature of the border: However clearly delineated its physical boundaries may be, the threshold of the frontier is constantly fluctuating, often with lethal effect.

Fleifel’s performance in the film approximates that of a prosecuting attorney in a courtroom. Through his testimony, Fleifel pleads Hernández’s case, as well as those of thousands of victims killed by drone strikes, asking the viewer to consider an alternate future where the “US border is irreversibly punctured.” He reenacts the shooting, using the thick black border line that runs through the theater to illustrate the officer’s position. His performance is connected to Abu Hamdan’s broader interest in the limits and potential of testimony and the mutability of oral narrative. In 45th Parallel, Abu Hamdan delivers testimony through an actor, using speech and gesture to translate the entanglements of the border and the American legal system into a comprehensible format. This decision to corporealize the intangible nature of the border extends beyond the spoken word—each act is illustrated by a backdrop handpainted by set designers. A border claims to be clean, clear, disembodied—but it is maintained through incessant physical violence. By articulating the border’s claim to abstraction through embodied human presence, Abu Hamdan shows how wrong that contention is.