Since 2010 Lawrence Abu Hamdan has been working on a project titled Aural Contract, and this title became an umbrella for a series of events, publications, exhibitions and workshops that examine the contemporary politics of listening and focuses on the role of the voice in law.
Throughout the project Abu Hamdan has built up a sound archive, containing audio extracts of his works together with specific moments of juridical listening and speaking gathered from a wide range of sources such as the trials of Saddam Hussein and Judas Priest, UK police evidence tapes, films such as Decoder and readings from texts including Italo Calvino’s A King Listens. The components of this archive are then mixed together, generating audio documentaries and narrative compositions that immerse its audience in the heart of a discussion about the relationship of listening to politics, borders, human rights, testimony, truth and international law.
For the exhibition at Casco, the Aural Contract Audio Archive is presented as a “voice activated” sound installation. Just as the law requires you to speak and vocally testify, so does the Aural Contract Audio Archive. Here the audience must speak to the archive and voice their desire to listen to its content as the speech recognition software becomes used as a compositional tool. The microphone and headphones that constitute this installation (as pictured above) are called The Bosch Ultro Discussion System developed by Bosch SecurityTM; the world’s leading amplifier and transmitter of testimony. This system is installed in many courtrooms and political forums including the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the UN Human rights council in Geneva and the UN Security Council in New York.
In September 2012, Abu Hamdan held a meeting in Utrecht to discuss a controversial topic: the phonetic policies that govern the acceptance or rejection of migrant asylum applications in different European countries. The group consisted of twelve Somali citizens who had been subjected to an analysis of language and accent by the Dutch system of migratory control and whose applications had been rejected, as well as linguists, researchers, activists, cultural organizations, and the graphic designer Janna Ulrich.
The diagrams made by Ulrich as the result of this encounter are responses to the unilateral outcome of the rejection of asylum: they offer a silent protest—purely visual—to the involuntary manifestation that the Somalis’ voices had suffered. The diagram’s density reflects the complex task of recording in these voices biographies of hunger and conflict; the necessary adaptation of capacities of oral communication during long migratory journeys; and the vital obligation of hybridization and contamination during years in overcrowded refugee camps. The complexity of these maps is a performance of the irreducibility of the voice to a passport, and its inapplicability to fix people in space.
These diagrams prompt us to rethink how borders are made perceptible in configurations of vowels and consonants transformed into a legal responsibility that the artist attempts to complicate and dismantle.
This work was commissioned by Casco and has been exhibited in different art institutions and various spaces for refugee organizations in Europe. The maps were presented by the asylum seekers to a Dutch immigration judge and during a deportation hearing in a British asylum court.