Curators: Joel Stern (Liquid Architecture) and Dr James Parker (Melbourne Law School)
Exhibiting artists: Lawrence Abu Hamdan; Samson Young; Susan Schuppli; Athanasius Kircher; Fayen d’Evie and Jen Bervin with Bryan Phillips and Andy Slater; Joel Spring; Manus Recording Project Collective: Samad Abdul, Farhad Bandesh, Behrouz Boochani, André Dao, Michael Green, Shamindan Kanapadhi, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, Jon Tjhia; Sean Dockray; William Blackstone.
Silence is what allows you to hear everything here
Taking an eighteenth century law on eavesdropping as its starting point, Eavesdropping is framed around a pervasive contemporary political problem: the control of, and access to, sonic space and privacy. Curated by Joel Stern (Liquid Architecture) and Dr James Parker (Melbourne Law School), this exhibition considers what it means to eavesdrop in a contemporary western society – not just to overhear a conversation, but to listen from above, through panacoustic measures of control. Eavesdropping implies a legible, boundaried space for those that can hear and those prevented from doing so — or those who cannot stop hearing. It is the condition of our digitally-connected society. An ethics of eavesdropping informs how one listens in the world.
The act of muting is also an act of amplification.1
Unexpectedly, what resonated loudest in Eavesdropping were the implications of silence in the condition of overhearing. Through a consideration of silence, or silencing, what can we learn of the socio-political dimensions of sonic control? To silence one voice inherently amplifies others. At times the gap created by silences is louder than the sounds that once occupied that space.
Setting the scene in the exhibition at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Sean Dockray’s video work, Learning from YouTube (2018), explains that Google, parent company of YouTube, places artificial intelligence (AI) at the forefront of their companies research. YouTube’s primary audience has shifted from human to machine, as AIs learn to ‘label hundreds of thousands of different sound events in real-world recordings … just as human listeners can recognize and relate the sounds they hear.’2 What are the ethics of machines judiciously listening? As Dockray’s work asks, can AI listen for signs of black aggression and needlessly call the cops? Does AI listen for white collar crime?
Nearby, the three ‘female’ voices of Dockray’s Always Learning (2018) discuss the weather forecast for the day. Colloquially familiar, Alexa and Siri exchange pleasantries with ‘Voice 1’ in a looping conversation that folds upon itself repetitively in an ever-developing conversation between home assistant devices.3 The second time I visit the exhibition, an impasse has been reached; Always Learning is mysteriously mute. I wonder where Siri learnt to navigate the conversational effect of a weighted pause. Conspicuously, these ‘home assistants’ are regularly pre-programmed as women, engendering the assistant as the patriarchy-oppressed housekeeper. Or, following Susan Schuppli’s description of the female secretary, as ‘gatekeeper to the patriarchal realm.’4
In her work The Missing 18 ½ Minutes (2018) and accompanying lecture Material Witness (2018) Schuppli presents archival material to unpack the role President Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, allegedly had in erasing the infamous Watergate Tape 342. Sonically quiet, these works probe the significance of the 18 ½ minute gap in the recorded material of Tape 342, crucial to the Watergate Scandal. Today, the National Archives refuse to play the tape until the technology has been developed to unscramble the magnetic voice that still clings to it. At the Potter I listen to a copy of the tape (satisfyingly presented through headphones that mirror those in the archival images); the buzzing and irregular clicks indicate it has been tampered with. This tape, in its repose in the archive, is in fact ‘far from silent, inured, or mute,’; it holds future testimonial inflections.5
Alongside Forensic Architecture colleague Schuppli, Lawrence Abu Hamdan presents Rubber Coated Steel (2016), a transcribed tribunal hearing on the murder of Palestinian teenagers Nadeem Nawara and Mohamad Abu Daher by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. I watch this video as if from a gunman’s position, the evidentiary spectrograms brought forward replicating bullet-riddled shooting targets to be inspected.6 Subtitles dictate testimony that describes soldiers replacing rubber bullets with live ammunition, enabling them to shoot live rounds silently into Palestinian crowds:
Please explain to the tribunal which gun fired this inaudible shot?
It was the quietest gun on earth.7
Though this work is foregrounded in sound, its testimony is completely silent — the voices and sound of gunshots are removed, displayed as text and evidentiary images. ‘This is a silence that forces us to listen to sound which would be incomprehensible to most visitors, even if they were to hear it. The result is a levelling of the playing field between what is voiced and committed to language, and what is suppressed or willingly silenced.’8
The border between sound and silence is border between life and death.9
As this work ends, a loud pitch cuts through the whole space. Abu Hamdan’s work Saydnaya (the missing 19db) (2017) activates a digital mixer with motorised faders, spotlighted in the corner of the room, the faders jumping to kinetic attention. The loud pitch descends to quieter levels, each step coinciding with the decibel level of a familiar noise — a jet taking off, Times Square, a cough. With each sound, the faders move lower.
No, it’s lower than that.
The mixer reaches an impossibly quiet decibel level that demonstrates the level of noise heard inside the Saydnaya Military Prison in Syria, gauged through interviews between Abu Hamdan and ex-detainees. The prison enforces a complete lack of vision and sound as a means of controlling the prisoners, and as ‘a form of torture in and of itself’. Notably, one ex-prisoner’s memory of the prison’s volume was 19db louder than the others — he was released prior to 2011, before complete silence was enforced. Since then, over 15,000 people have been executed at this prison. Here, mass murder is measured in whispers. The men interviewed describe listening as others were taken from their cells, loaded on trucks and driven away. Fifteen minutes later, the trucks return empty. Fifteen minutes of silence is the sound a mass execution makes.
Silence is what allows you to hear everything here.^11
Central to Eavesdropping is how are you today (2018), a project by the Manus Recording Collective: a collaboration between Samad Abdul, Farhad Bandesh, Behrouz Boochani, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, Michael Green, Andre Dao and Jon Tjhia. Each visit to the gallery presents a different aural rendering of life on Manus, recorded by the detainees. By choosing to release material, do the men short circuit the constant surveillance they are under, or reinforce it? Does it reinforce an agency in what is known of the men — a reclamation of their public self that is mediated by the media? Or, to consider their always precarious position: what are the legal repercussions of speaking out when you are seeking refugee status? This work doesn't demand a performance of fact, truth, or witness. Here, the men are artists before they are detainees.
Overhearing is both spatial and in excess — to hear too much, or in a sovereign context. The context for the Manus [Recording Collective’s] work is to open a channel to hear something in a certain way that is systematically — by virtue of law, politics, interest — normally under-heard. Overhearing is a corrective to position of under-hearing in this particular work.12
how are you today’s provocation is to practice a corrective overhearing by not walking away.13 I listen for ten minutes to the sound of Behrouz walking in silence through the rainforest. What is ten minutes of time, compared to six years in detention? how are you today communicates not only a creative expression of what the men choose to record, but a mark of what they choose not to. For every ten minutes of listening, I am presented with what cannot be captured in this short recording — the projected silence of the other 1430 minutes of their day.
A sonically loud, chaotic and layered exhibition, Eavesdropping reconstitutes silence at an urgent register.
Jacqui Shelton is a Melbourne based artist and PhD candidate at MADA, Monash University.