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19 Decibels (the measure of silence)

An exhibition by Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Curated by Pablo José Ramírez

In the Syrian regime prison of Sayndaya, 25km North of Damascus, over 13,000 people have been executed since the protests in 2011 began. The prison is inaccessible to human rights organizations,  independent observers and monitors. In 2016 Lawrence Abu Hamdan worked with Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture to produce an acoustic investigation into the prison. 

Saydnaya (the missing 19db) is the first of a series of articles of evidence produced, in which Abu Hamdan developed research based on sound as political evidence, and the construction of the testimony as fragile truth. The artist interviewed a group of past inmates who were released from the prison and, based on the traces of auditory memory –the tones, the whispers and silences inside the prison– the work develops, then, as a testimonial apparatus that is eventually presented as evidence in international courtrooms.

19 Decibels (the measure of silence) is inspired in The Missing 19db, part of the research repertoire on the prison of Saydnaya. For this work, Abu Hamdan interviewed past inmates using two lines of comparative timelines as basis: those who entered the prison before 2011 and those who entered afterwards. The dialogue with the inmates was based on auditive memories from within the prison; a place predominantly dark, in which any kind of conversation was prohibited. In this way, the artist rebuilt a series of events linked to torturing techniques and executions within the prison, developing in a tangential manner a theory of silence based on the inmates’ muscular memory. The results are blunt: silence at the prison, used as a torturing technique, increased exponentially after the the 2011 protests began.


 “In Sayndaya, silence rules. There’s a lot of silence. You can’t raise your voice, you can only whisper. And silence is what allows you to hear everything,” reports an inmate, when remembering those long moments of silence. In Saydnaya, silence was used as a torturing technique; no one could speak, and the only sounds heard were the metallic movements of the doors or of trucks full of inmates arriving and leaving the prison. No one could scream of pain as that would only increase the hitting. No one could show compassion for the other, only memorize their names. The silence in the artist’s work does not reflect absence, but a heightened expression of violence and terror. 


Abu Hamdan has transformed the debates on the relationship between art and politics in an unorthodox manner. His projects that focus on sound research have served as an essential tool in collecting information, constructing testimonial apparatus and rescuing evanescent auditory memory when traditional research techniques are insufficient – either due to its limits or because the politics of research continue to favor the visual as a sensitive experience. Thus, Abu Hamdan has expanded the limits of what is traditionally defined in the Anglo-Saxon world as artistic research, demonstrating that art can carry out something else, much more, than interpreting or denouncing. 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan is a “private ear”, his interest with sound and its intersections with politics originate from his background as a touring musician and facilitator of DIY music. The artist’s audio investigations have been used as evidence at the UK Asylum and Immigration Tribunal and as advocacy for organizations such as Amnesty International and Defense for Children International together with fellow researchers from Forensic Architecture


Abu Hamdan received his PhD in 2017 from Goldsmiths College London.  In 2019 Abu Hamdan was nominated for the Turner Prize for his exhibition Earwitness Theatre and his performance After Sfx.  In 2017 his film Rubber Coated Steel  won the Tiger short film award at the Rotterdam International Film festival, The audience award at 25 FPS Festival in Zagreb,  and the Dialog Award at European Media Art festival in Osnabruk.  In 2016 he won the Nam June Paik Award for new media. Abu Hamdan is a fellow at the University of Chicago, was 2017/2018 guest of the DAAD Kunstler Program in Berlin and the 2015-17 fellow at the Vera List Centre for Art and Politics at the New School in New York.

His solo presentations have taken place at Witte De With, Rotterdam (2019), Tate Modern Tanks & Chisenhale Gallery,  London,  Hammer Museum L.A (2018), Portikus Frankfurt (2016), Kunsthalle St Gallen (2015), Beirut in Cairo (2013),  The Showroom, London (2012), Casco, Utrecht (2012). His works are part of collections at MoMA, Guggenheim, Van AbbeMuseum, Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern.

Pablo José Ramírez is a curator, researcher and cultural theorist. He is currently the Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art at Tate Modern. He has a masters degree in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths College in Londres. Ramírez has served as jury and as board member for Gasworks, the Visible Award (Pistoletto Fondation and Fondazione Zegna), Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo (MADC), Fundación Ars/Teorética and Delfina Foundation. Among his projects and exhibitions are The Shores of the World: on communality and interlingual politics, Display, Prague (2018); Guatemala Después, co-curator, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Parsons School of Design, New York (2015); This Might be a Place for Hummingbirds, co-curator with Remco de Blaaij, Center for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow (2014); El Partido de los Otros: Terike Haapoja, Ciudad de la Imaginación, Guatemala (2014). In 2015, he co-curated the 19th Paiz Biennial: Trans-visible. Ramírez was the awardee of the Independent Curators International/CPPC 2019 Award for Central America and the Caribbean. His interests focus on issues of translation and colonialism, the relationship indigeneity - contemporary art, non-human thought and the sound as speculative political experience.

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