Meet Lawrence Abu Hamdan, the Forensic Audio Analyst Who Paints with Noise

There’s something intimidating about speaking with an artist who has been trained as a forensic audio analyst. That highly skilled practice has key applications in law enforcement, but it can be used more progressively, such as documenting the testimonies of political detainees or refugees. While lending his skills to organizations such as Amnesty International, the 34-year-old-artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who holds a PhD in the history of forensic audio analysis and linguistics in legal cases, has also been creating provocative, often disturbing audiovisual productions whose sights and sounds have filled galleries and museums.

A nominee for this year’s Turner Prize, Abu Hamdan was born in Jordan but moved to the U.K. with his family at the age of 11. In his late teens, while making experimental music with his brother, he took a particular interest in sound, seeing its potential for tackling issues far beyond the confines of the music industry. Five years ago, after finishing his studies, he moved to Beirut with his wife to focus on his unorthodox installations. “Some of the ‘in-betweenness’ you see in my work is the result of going back and forth between two places and having to be two people,” he says. This “in-betweenness” is most evident in his exploration of the elusive nature of memory and speech. “The voice is the last place from which truth can be derived,” he says, understanding that all stories are constantly shifting and evolving,even when his “Ear witnesses” are speaking from the heart

In his recent work, “Walled Unwalled,” currently on display at the Venice Biennale, a video screen plays a projection of Abu Hamdan standing in a recording studio. The artist’s voice soon bombards the visitor with the reading of testimony from legal cases where evidence was collected “through walls”—in other words, where proof wasn’t seen but heard, like the voices heard at the crime scene in the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius’s home. At this month’s Turner Prize exhibition in Margate, England, Abu Hamdan is showing “After SFX,” an installation that uses sounds and stories from his own massive audio library sourced from Earwitness interviews conducted by the artist.

Abu Hamdan’s sound collages can even venture into the surreal. He is currently working on a piece that centers on transcendental memory and reincarnation. The artist has been interviewing and recording the Lebanese historian Bassel Abi Chahine, who believes that he is the reincarnation of the child soldier Yousef Fouad Al Jawhary, who died in 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War. “I’m interested in what sound can teach us,” Abu Hamdan says of his intractable medium. “It allows for seeing things that bleed through boundaries.”

This article appears in the fall 2019 50th anniversary issue of Interview magazine. Subscribe here.