Eavesdropping

published in The Wire No.419, London, 2018
Lawrence Abu Hamdan - Saydnaya (the missing 19dB) (2017) & Rubber Coated Steel (2016)

The task of this exhibition review: talk about the sound. Curated by Joel Stern and James Parker (in a collaboration between Liquid Architecture and The Melbourne Law School), Eavesdropping is all about sound - but it is equally about the politics of sounding. So the real task is how to prise the sonic from the political. Contemporary art exhibitions are all about politics now. Some are insightful; most pay lip-service to ethical clichés which assuage the intelligentsia's guilt over appreciating art. Eavesdropping is aware of this dilemma, and demonstrates rare rigour in focusing on how the artistic and the political collide both within the gallery confines and outside in (pardon the expression) 'the real world'.

To wit: a special commission for Eavesdropping is how was your day by the Manus Recording Project Collective. Each day, a field recording made by one of a the collective's detainees housed within the Manus Island detention facility in Papua New Guinea is uploaded by cell phone to the gallery's server and played the next day. The recordings range from fulsome sonic action (the day I visited I heard the detainees playing soccer) to near silence in closed quarters. The project's simplicity provides a dialectical fulcrum for the exhibition as a whole. We are engaged in listening to the sound of 'the unreal world': the forced artificial zone of the detainees' current situation courtesy of the Australian Government's refusal of these asylum seekers.

Field recording has been de rigeur in sound art channels for a few decades now, following the widespread adoption of ideals of 'acoustic ecology' mixed with the slacker/folksy/chillout backdrop of nature in manifold musical genres. Most field recordings are sonically boring - not to mention patronizing in their supposed raising of consciousness by listening to 'the outside world'. Revealingly, they demonstrate an entitled sense of freedom, as if the world is yours to openly record. how was your day stridently reverses these entitled notions: the detainees are excessively restricted spatially, yet sonically they are still capable of uncovering micro sound worlds through their individual site-specific acts of listening.

(...)


Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Brian Chase.