Text is probably the wrong medium to record a conversation with Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who’s having a killer couple of weeks in New York: There is a floor dominated by his art at the just-opened New Museum Triennial, and he is the commissioned artist at this year’s Armory Show, which starts on Thursday. The 29-year-old has been making art for years that obsesses over the information encoded in the spoken word, over and above what’s being said. (If this was an audio file, you’d hear the urgency in his precise voice, in which traces of his split upbringing—he lived in both Jordan and North Yorkshire—can be heard.)
This interest in the spoken word, and more precisely in what Abu Hamdan calls “the politics of listening,” has taken many forms. Among a trio of works bought by MoMA last year is a wall chart visualizing the component sounds of asylum seekers’ accents, and he has given theatrical lectures at Tate Modern and elsewhere on taqiyya, the Islamic principle that allows forced denials of religious belief to function as silence disguised as speech. While much contemporary art is deliberately ambiguous, Abu Hamdan’s is precise, political, research-driven, and dense with ideas. Engaging with it for a while will leave you interpreting the raw data of the outside world differently afterwards.
When I found him at the Triennial’s preview, schmoozers were circulating around the New Museum as he sat at one of the café’s tables, staring at his laptop, jetlagged and trying to work out where the cell phone he’d left in a cab the night before had ended up. I lent him my phone to make some calls and then he explained the ideas behind his art.
VICE: How did you become interested in sound?
Lawrence Abu Hamdan: A lot of my projects are geared towards the questions of “how do we listen?” and “how are we being heard?” They are, for me, fundamental questions around understanding politics: How technology changes the types of ways that we speak to each other, but also the ways that we speak out. We use our voice in legal and political forums, so how is testimony itself changing through new technologies of surveillance? I have this DIY-music background, so I’m interested in applying the logic of musical production to an exhibition space.
Your work fits well in the New Museum show: There’s a lot of sensory overload.
I also love the title [Surround Audience]. I love the concept. It’s very close to my way of thinking. A lot of my work has to do with these conventions of speech. I often think about this idea that there’s too much freedom of speech and not enough right to silence, and this exhibition has shown me that there’s quite a few artists who are thinking along similar lines.
Don’t we have a right to silence?
No. This is the thing: Freedom of speech is a human right. The right to silence is not.
But they say that you have the right to remain silent when they arrest you.
Yeah, which is exactly the right for them to listen to you, and a transformation of your speech from a normal conversation like we’re having now, to a sort of liable speech. Anything you say may be given in evidence against you. The whole way in which we are liable now has totally changed. Before, you would stand in a courtroom and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This would be the moment when you really had to be careful about what you say. Or [perhaps] you’re in a police interview. Now, you’re more or less sworn in the minute you accept the terms and conditions of an email provider or a mobile phone company. For me, this is quite a violent extension of how the idea of freedom of speech gets transformed into a kind of forced, confessional state.
So we should be able to speak and not always be heard?
Yeah, we should be in control of the conditions under which we’re being heard. So it’s all very well to have free speech, but if it’s your accent that’s being listened to and not what you say, if the way that your speech is being heard is not under your control, that’s a bigger problem.
Do your works in this show engage with that question?
The video The All-Hearing [in which two Cairene sheikhs deliver sermons about the city’s noisiness] is about those amplified voices, which are carrying ethics but at the same time producing another layer of noise. Amplification is a very politically sensitive topic. On the one hand, hearing is being damaged by noise pollution, and on the other side, voices are being censored.
Installation view of ‘ The All-Hearing’ (2014) and ‘Gardens of Death’ (2013) by Lawrence Abu Hamdan. From ‘Tape Echo‘ (2013–2014) at Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Netherlands
You live in Beirut at the moment, after years in London. It seems like an exciting place to make art.
I prefer it to London in many ways, because it’s less professionalized. It fits my more hybrid practice. What it means to be an artist in London, I find that more clearly defined. [However,] there simply is no real art school in Beirut—people came from theatre or film or wherever—there’s this way of adapting to the production of art, which I find more interesting than this logic that comes out of art schools and is applied to the gallery. It’s this idea of things that are not in their natural home in a space, which is an interesting tension. Rather than things which are made to sit there and be looked at.
Has it changed things for you?
For me definitely, but not really in terms of the work. The work is everywhere, more or less, it doesn’t have a [geographical] place.
Is that something that you could only say in this point of time, that the work is placeless, because of the internet and plane travel?
My first ambitious project, for a solo exhibition, was this project The Freedom of Speech Itself, about asylum-seekers who are in this situation where their voice is what defines them in a place. So that’s me from the very beginning saying that this whole idea of monolingualism, of borders, is a kind of fiction. It doesn’t map onto people’s lives.
Tell me about the Armory Show commission.
I’m looking at a whole series of surveillance technologies that are emerging. At M.I.T., they have realized that they can recover sound from the way that objects vibrate minutely. So me speaking to you now, hitting this piece of paper, it makes this vibration, and this paper can record what I’m saying. They’ve found a way to do that. And the object currently that can recover speech in the most faithful way is the potato-chip packet. So for the Armory, the main part of the commission is making these packets, which are transparent about what their role will be in the next era of surveillance.
They’ve been engineered specifically—
No, I just designed the packaging, and they have a disclaimer on them and a logo. I also made a series of amalgamated objects that are distributed around the fair, and a new sound work dealing using these recordings from potato-chip packets and from the laser microphone. People speaking in the interior of rooms can be heard from the exterior by pointing a laser at the window and [detecting] the tiny movements of the window. The idea is that microphones are going to be more embedded into our everyday life—the window pane, the potato-chip packet, all these things that we never considered before can start to have their own kind of way of listening, and also we can hear those objects for the first time, because they have their own unique sound, their own color, their own voice. It’s also playing with the idea of the fair itself, because unlike an auction, where the prices are spoken out loud and everybody hears them—
It’s all whispers.
Let’s say, even incorrectly, that these crisp packets could be listening to everyone. I’m distributing these objects into a place in which things are more concealed, using the resources of the art fair itself—how rumours spread, the traffic, the noise in that space. It’s a nice opportunity to play with the specific environment, where there are conventions around speech.
Does it feel like you’re at a career tipping point right now?
My show at the Showroom in 2012 was where everything began. That was really the tipping point for me, in thinking about how to continue. But, certainly I didn’t imagine that I was going to sell to MoMA before I sold to MoMA. Everything has been a great surprise.
2015 Triennial: Surround Audience is at the New Museum until May 24. The Armory Show runs March 5–8 at Piers 92 and 94, New York City