As part of “Side Bar,” the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry’s new series of conversations between artists and academics, Jordanian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan was paired in conversation with Dr. Omar Kholeif, Manilow Senior Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and W. J. T. Mitchell, Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History. At just thirty-two years old, Abu Hamdan has racked up a series of impressive accomplishments by way of his sound essays and innovative installations. He first gained recognition with The Freedom of Speech Itself (2012), a solo exhibition at London’s Showroom, which investigated the United Kingdom’s controversial practice of immigration authorities assessing the accents of asylum seekers, in turn using this data to make life-changing decisions. The underlying concept of The Freedom of Speech Itself is conveyed through an audio documentary format, made even more powerful through Abu Hamdan’s own personal connection to the tribunal it follows, which he testified for as an expert witness, further coloring his commitment to exploring human rights and legal abuses in his art. Abu Hamdan’s work might be viewed as a “forensics of sound,” charting out not only how what the ear “believes” reverberates in the world, but also how sound is mobilized by a set of social actors who embed it in the most unstable and dubious layers of power. In short, at once an artist and a sound expert that has been called upon to assist in human rights cases, he decidedly focuses on listening and its political and legal ramifications, simultaneously exploring and disrupting how (and what exactly) we think about human rights.
During the conversation at the Gray Center, attendees viewed one of Abu Hamdan’s recent projects, Rubber Coated Steel, a scripted video at the center of the 2016 exhibition, Earshot. The video is heavily derived from an incident in which two young Palestinian boys in the West Bank died at the hands of Israeli soldiers, and it expands on the original body of evidence in order to give voice to a nearly silent trial, simulating testimonies and calls to witness. The video first shows a few minutes of footage from the West Bank, and then through an effective combination of montage and sound, implies that a homicide has taken place. This is followed by various spectrograms of bullets. These spectrograms, or signatures of particular sounds that reveal how this sensory apparatus leaves a trace much like a fingerprint, become the focal point of the trial. Israel contested the claims that the soldiers fired real bullets, asserting they were rubber. Asked by the human rights organization, Defence for Children International, to investigate the claim, Abu Hamdan conducted a careful “forensic” analysis of sound, which proved that the Israeli soldiers had indeed fired live ammunition on the two young Palestinians.
Again and again, Abu Hamdan’s piece synchronizes the spectrograms with the testimonies of witnesses and the contestations or support of the defendants. The aesthetic qualities of the piece are designed to invoke feelings of isolation. The spectrograms zip forward and backward continuously in a windowless, concrete space that resembles an underground, cold, and callous tunnel. Out of darkness the signature of a bullet that breaks the sound barrier rushes into light, confronting the spectator. The signature of another falls quickly away.
When we are confronted with the fact—the hard reality—that sound leaves traces that can be galvanized through jurisprudence, it leaves a small, burning hole in the stomach. It is true that we all know what power images hold over us, how they create or subvert ideologies and representations of reality, but what we do not often consider is how sound constitutes our lived experience and shapes the various realities we occupy. Moreover, what is so unsettling about Abu Hamdan’s piece—and what paradoxically also lends his body of work its bewitching quality—is that it vividly demonstrates how the sensory apparatus we often take for granted informs figurations of security and legal frameworks. We might think of sound as a subjective experience. Two people occupying the same space might not necessarily hear nor remember the same set of sounds. Yet now with the new legal emphasis on sound, we find sound becoming an empirical figure, at once reified and entangled in the toxic technologies of a capitalist, imperial system. Abu Hamdan’s work points to a new era, or rather, a new ideology of the ear—in the twenty-first century, the ears replace the eyes in terms of reliability and culpability. And as he adeptly demonstrates in another video project, The All-Hearing (2014), our ears are both sites of purity and pollution, order, and disorder. In The All-Hearing, two sheiks deliver sermons about noise pollution in Cairo, a subject Abu Hamdan invited them to address. The sheiks warn that “too much noise” or sound contaminates the environment and generates confusion, and the audience is encouraged to choose their speech carefully, avoiding empty words and phrases. With irony, then, Abu Hamdan cuts to images that reveal these words being broadcast over loudspeaker amidst the rest of Cairo’s multilayered soundscape, which is then punctured by a song pleading for peace and quiet. All of this unfolds beneath the backdrop of a militarized government that wants to monitor the speech of sheiks themselves. The politics of listening becomes a venue both for sacred speech and pollution, and ultimately judgement. What type of sound is good, and when? And furthermore, who gets to decide?
The Silence of Sound, the Sound of Silence
Abu Hamdan posed the question, “How does one represent silence?” at one point in his conversation with Kholeif, Mitchell, and the audience. The question’s formulation lends a particularly interesting quality to sound, asserting or reminding us of sound’s materiality. His “sonography,” for example—the colorful bursts of noise printed out on jet-black backgrounds –resonates incredibly well with archaeology. This said, what are the consequences of an emphasis on silence and therefore sound? Any project that sets out to represent silence paradoxically necessitates the representation of sound. We may discover one day in the future that silence itself has a signature, but until then, we are left approaching these questions—and Abu Hamdan’s practice—through the materiality of sound. Now, more than ever, we have tangible proof that the words we utter, mutter, scream, or sing, leave traces and imprints in the world around us. Before this concept infiltrated and illuminated the legal realm, it was a belief that shaped the very contours of magical and religious thought. Reflecting on his fieldwork in West Africa, Paul Stoller remarked at the 2017 American Anthropological Association meeting that: “Magic has real world consequences, because…words are more than containers of meaning. Words are sound, and sound carries power. It’s why incantations are powerful—sound has a physical manifestation.”
What does this elision between the legal and magical realm possibly mean? Perhaps Lawrence Abu Hamdan may address this conundrum in the future, but until then, his endeavor to artistically engage with what he dubs, “the politics of listening,” offers up many possibilities for rethinking our own social and political engagements, especially in relation to law and justice. A project centered on “the politics of listening” also cannot be divorced from affective projects. I am reminded of the work of the historian Ann Stoler, who advises us to pay attention to the anxious and affective reverberations that colonial histories and the built environment both produce and contain. In this spirit, a provocative question to ask Abu Hamdan is: Can courts really ever listen? What would the court’s ear look like, or rather, what does it do beyond stage a particular set of ethics?
Much work has been dedicated to examining the theatrical qualities and performative aspects of trials. One might argue that courtrooms are similar to houses of glass, to borrow the literary metaphor from Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. In other words, the heart of the trial shatters under the correct acoustic ecology, which depends heavily on affective registers and intonations. Put another way, the moment we lay bare the threads of imperialism, the colonial afterlives that still pulse through the veins of many international organizations and legal structures, the system breaks down. Yet although glass might be a good metaphor—as the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard reminds us, it symbolizes transparency, fragility, and the future—the material itself is a terrible conductor of sound.
An Acoustic Art for the Twenty-First Century
Art enacts and motivates social change when it affords the viewer the opportunity to see the personhood of what is created, aside from spurring interventions in existing situations. It is much easier to theorize what Abu Hamdan’s art means, but harder to realize what it does. I would suggest that Abu Hamdan’s art, given its location in the legal realm, has many legs—or, perhaps even better, ears. It allows us to hear a host of emotions, actions, and consequences. Through teaching us again to carefully listen, we realize the power that sound carries and witness how it shapes and gives form. Our decisions, our perceptions of sound, impact our own lives and the lives of others. What we choose to hear brings life, but it can also bring death. As Abu Hamdan illustrates, if we fail to be vigilant listeners, justice suffers—sound can kill.
*Image courtesy of the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago.
 Stoler, Ann Laura. 2013. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham: Duke University Press.
 Toer, Pramoedya Ananta. 1997. House of Glass. New York: Penguin Books.
 Baudrillard, Jean. 2006 . The System of Objects. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.
 Sansi, Roger. 2015. Art, Anthropology, and the Gift. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press.