Art Seen: International

SCRATCHING FICTIONS // LAWRENCE ABU HAMDAN AT DAADGALERIE

By Vanessa Gravenor

In Helmut Lethen’s text ‘“Knall als sich”: Das Ohr als Einbruchstelle des Traumas,’1 he reflects on the technical shock the machine gun had on WWI soldiers. Rather than the following the majority of post-traumatic stress theory (and post structuralist theory for that matter) that focuses on the image as the site of the traumatic real, Lethen writes that the site of atrocity can be found in the return of sound.

This sound—which accompanies weaponry and most experiences of bodily trauma—is the subject of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s film Walled Unwalled (2018), where sound is as much a container of memory as it is the transporter of information. Using a performance lecture format, Hamdan appears in the former sound-recording studios of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) broadcasting network at Funkhaus Berlin. Reading from a text or sometimes even his iPhone, Hamdan presents different case studies which function to structure the film.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Walled Unwalled, 2018. Installation shots, daadgalerie. courtesy: Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD and the artist. Photo: Jens Ziehe

The first is the Saydnaya Prison in northern Syria, where former inmates were blindfolded and prohibited to make sounds—even under torture. In 2016, Amnesty International commissioned artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture to reconstruct and analyze the prison by interviewing former inmates who were unexpectedly released. Projected onto the sound studio walls of the Funkhaus is a recording of one of Hamdan’s sessions. The meetings attest to the phantom like properties sound took on in the prison, where the cramped space of the prison resounded. One sound of a rubber tube hitting human flesh gave off a beckoning echo, making a sonic illusion that the narrow walls of the prison cells were being demolished. In their reconstruction of the site, they discovered the prison was structured with three pronged walls that adjoined in the center around a hollow tower—a listening station that could be compared to an inverted or sonically-oriented panopticon. The architecture literally mirrored the Mercedes Benz logo. This prison model was formulated in the GDR and developed in Angola, Lebanon, and Syria to create the Benz of prisons: an architecture—not dissimilar to weaponry technology—that uses sound as a main instrument of torture, an architecture that vibrated with the 250 hertz of sound displaced by torture.

Hamdan puts this case in relation to the Supreme Court case Kyllo v. United States, a ruling that found it unconstitutional for the police to take evidentiary thermal imaging without a warrant—like the ones taken of Kyllo’s home without a police search warrant that measured high levels of heat radiating from the home, used to prove Kyllo’s illegal growing of marijuana. When consumed, Kyllo’s weed was said to produce hallucinatory highs and paranoia, similar to the solidity of walls. The Supreme Court ruled in Kyllo’s favor, and as Hamdan notes, not all countries or peoples have the luxury of this barrier. Under the Bush and the Obama administration, Iraqi and Afgahni bodies became hypervisible and subject to drone strikes that often missed their targets—not given Kyllo’s luxury of privacy. Today, biometrical data of refugees are passed from country to country to track and make further invisible barriers. The irony of walls is that even when walls are being built, the physicality of the real renders all the immaterial walls invisible. A wall, like in the case of the Saydnaya prison complex, is merely a hoax, an instrument, and a tool.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Walled Unwalled, 2018. Installation shots, daadgalerie. courtesy: Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD and the artist. Photo: Jens Ziehe

Touching on the irony of walls, Hamdan recounts the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius in South Africa that received considerable media coverage because of Pistorius’ high profile. Pistorious, a beloved South African athlete, murdered his girlfriend while she was behind a closed door in their shared home.  Pistorius claimed that because she was behind the wall, he could not see her; it was plausible for him to deduce that she was in fact an intruder. Pistorius who initially received six years in prison, had his sentence doubled to thirteen years, as reported in the Guardian last November. Pistorius received the minimum sentence for murder in South Africa, largely believed this was because he was a white, wealthy celebrity.

While the bathroom door between Pistorius and his girlfriend could be considered a wall, depending on the race of both people on both sides, this barrier changes. A wall, Hamdan upholds throughout his video, should not be taken as a universal form as it is also semantically embedded within culture. In the daadgalerie, this logic is echoed in the cut-out wall with plexiglass that serves as the screen for work, but also a window onto the gallery’s storage unit. This is Hamdan’s nod to works, such as Gorda Matta Clark’s Splitting (1974), where under the doctrine of institutional critique and anarchitecture an abandoned house was split in half. It is in the gallery space that the viewer’s attention gets drawn to the only material wall of the room: the institutional white cube that frames the work.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Walled Unwalled, 2018. Installation shots, daadgalerie. courtesy: Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD and the artist. Photo: Jens Ziehe

Sound is often a signal or a transmission, as in the case of Radio Free Europe that transmitted radio waves across the iron curtain from Munich. Today as more walls (the US/Mexican border being the most obvious one in American discourse) are erected to create barriers and the political message is focused more on the division and exclusion of bodies into detention centers, Walled Unwalled seems to ask: what sounds are we creating to build borders and through what signals can we detect their fictions? Like the soldiers of WWI, but also all the numerous victims of bodily violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria whose brains can never forget the sounds that are inscribed on them, we remember these sounds because they systematically entered machines and architecture in order to terrorize. The questions to be asked now is: how can their fictions be scratched?


Walled Unwalled: Lawrence Abu Hamdan runs at daadgalerie Berlin until December 9, 2018.

1 Knall als sich is roughly translated to “Pop at you,” here in relation to being fired at. “Das Ohr als Einbruchstelle des Traumas” translates to “The Ear as the Breach of Trauma.”

 

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