Close Look

Legal Hearing: The Politicized Sound Art of Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Legal Hearing: The Politicized Sound Art of Lawrence Abu Hamdan
The 2015 Armory Show commissioned artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan (Photograph by Eric T. White, courtesy of the Armory Show)

In Italo Calvino ’s short story “A King Listens,” a palace becomes “a great ear” for a paranoid monarch. That tale has long inspired Lawrence Abu Hamdan , the commissioned artist of this year’s Armory Show , whose sound essays and installations explore the uses and abuses of listening technologies.

The Jordan-born, London-based artist, who is also showing in the New Museum Triennial “Surround Audience,” treats the human voice as a readily politicized instrument—one that’s easily recorded and analyzed by governments and big data. As he has said , “Now when you speak, you no longer know who, or what technology, is being used to interpret your voice.”

His Armory project, A Convention of Tiny Movements , makes use of new technology ( developed by computer scientists at M.I.T. ) that allows objects to become “visual microphones,” through the analysis of small surface vibrations. The idea is that our voices are imprinted on the things around us. At the Armory, Abu Hamdan will be distributing specially-designed packets of potato chips that could, in theory, be used as listening devices.

Abu Hamdan’s interest in auditory surveillance—and its legal ramifications—makes him the perfect artist for our age of NSA eavesdropping, not to mention the whispering gallery of the art fair. Below is an audiovisual tour of his key works together with video clips related to the pieces.


This vast and growing collection of recordings is a kind of database for Abu Hamdan’s audio documentaries, and includes among its disparate sources testimony from the trial of Saddam Hussein, dialogue from the courtroom scene in Woody Allen’s 1971 film Bananas , and a reading of the aforementioned Calvino story. Everything in the archive has a connection to legal proceedings (real or fictional).


The centerpiece of Abu Hamdan’s first solo exhibition at the Showroom in London, this 30-minute audio documentary is his most high-profile piece (thanks, in part, to its role in a United Kingdom asylum tribunal). An investigation of the use of forensic speech analysis by immigration authorities in the United Kingdom, it called attention to the controversial practice of evaluating the accents of asylum seekers. In 2013 it was submitted as evidence in the tribunal; Abu Hamdan also testified as an expert witness.


Like The Freedom of Speech Itself , Abu Hamdan’s The Whole Truth , which debuted at Casco in Utrecht and was later included in the Tate Modern’s 2013 group show “Word. Sound. Power,” takes the form of an audio documentary. As before, the artist interviewed experts in the growing field of voice analysis; this time, however, he focused on lie-detection, or the measurement of vocal stress as an indicator of falsehood.


In this 15-minute installation, which alternates audio-only recordings with video, members of the Druze community in the Golan Heights are divided by geopolitical boundaries and reunited by sound. Their shouted communications to family and friends reverberate across the Israeli-Syrian border.

THE ALL-HEARING (2014) and TAPE ECHO (2013-14)

These two pieces, which are being exhibited side-by-side in the New Museum Triennial, are perhaps the artist’s most evocative. Both were made in Cairo, a city infamous for its deafening traffic and blaring loudspeaker broadcasts, and both amount to an aural portrait of the Egyptian capital. In the sound piece Tape Echo , some of that din can be heard on overdubbed cassette tapes that originally contained recordings of sermons. And in the video The All-Hearing , two Sheiks deliver sermons on noise pollution in defiance of the government-mandated topic of the week—with the sermons ironically broadcast into the surrounding streets via the mosques' external loudspeakers.


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