98 Weeks project investigates the politics of listening.
BEIRUT: Anyone who lived through Beirut's 2005 "Independence Uprising" will recognize that mass politics can be performative.
When the Beirut Spring's managers organized events in which masses of people would raise tiles to assemble Lebanese flags and Hariri portraits for television cameras -- and with ad-company branding exercises displacing hand-drawn placards -- it reminded onlookers that the performing arts' artist-audience divide can also be applied to mass politics.
"I am interested in the performance of politics and that moment when a law is announced in a space," said Lawrence Abu Hamdan, "and that before every law can come into effect it has to be announced and heard." Understanding politics as performance in this way, he continued, allows you to "appropriate certain elements of that moment."
A Ph.D candidate at the Center for Research Architecture at London's Goldsmiths College, Abu Hamdan's interests have led to his present collaboration with the Beirut arts organization 98Weeks. His art project "Aural Contract" is a study of the contemporary politics of listening, with a specific focus on the role of the voice in law.
Abu Hamdan's foray into literature began last year, when he and 98Weeks produced an audio version of Harold Pinter's play "Mountain Language," which relates to themes of state censorship and representation.
"I was very interested in Lawrence's work because it very much fits what we do," recalled 98Weeks co-founder Marwa Arsanios, who persuaded Abu Hamdan to propose "Aural Contract." "His approach of working with aurality and language, and the [multi-layered] complexity of his project ... continues to be of great interest to us."
"We want to recreate certain listening conditions," Abu Hamdan explained to his nine workshop participants scattered around the 98Weeks studio space this evening.
The nine have come out in response to Abu Hamdan's ad calling for volunteers to help him cast, design and produce an audio book of "A King Listens," a short story by Italo Calvino centering on a lone despot's paranoia and psychology of listening. At the end of this workshop, the audio book will be performed live for an audience seated upstairs, and recorded.
The volunteers nodded, wary that, in a couple of hours, they'll be performing their version of Calvino's work.
One participant suggested the audience be given a copy of the text to help them follow along with the story -- "especially if English isn't their first language." This is an exercise in listening, Abu Hamdan replied, not reading and comprehension.
"The research takes its point of departure from the various practices of listening that become politically affective," Abu Hamdan explained, "and so, actually shape people's lives and draw judgments on them."
Abu Hamdan's research employs diverse fields of study (from literature and sound production to politics and forensics) and pursuing his research question has led him down various, at times incongruous, avenues -- publications, performances, exhibitions, workshops and audiovisual presentations. The focal point of the work is an audio archive in which the threads of his project intersect.
Contributions have come from an equally wide range of sources, including interviews with stenographers, lawyers and forensic analysts of speech, sound and language and relevant samples from films such as Stanley Kramer's 1960 feature "Inherit the Wind" -- a thinly disguised version of the so-called "Scopes monkey trial."
Because Abu Hamdan is so interested in the listening audience, theatrical performance is a natural extension of his work. His audio plays are an exercise in "putting the audience in a listening position analogous to the ones I am researching," he said, "the kind of positions that judge, that determine people's origins unconsciously."
Practically speaking, this might mean exploring the authoritarian role of the director in the theatrical context, dissecting the director's text-interpreting practice, organizing voices on the stage, and determining which ones ought to be enhanced, or else subdued.
Abu Hamdan's interest in performance practice spawns from happenings outside the conventional theater, where his gaze often falls for corroboration. Take Colin Powel's (now notorious) 2003 address to the U.N. Security Council -- during which he used intercepted recorded conversations among Iraqi officers (and the weapons of mass destruction they putatively discussed) to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Participants in Abu Hamdan's workshop spent the first few hours re-reading Calvino's text and considering how to bring its implicit themes to life. "I think one of the best ways to let people into the research is to give them the reigns of the performer," Abu Hamdan opined, "allowing them to be inside the whole process of production, of how to realize and research, rather than talk about it."
Workshoppers deliberated about how best to capture the complex spectors of voice which appear in the story, simultaneously functioning to empower and to enfeeble the voice of the king.
The use of a chorus -- sometimes harmonious, at others discordant -- brings power to Abu Hamdan's adaptation. To determine who was to speak and when, the location of, and distance from the microphone became a singular point of reference to every workshop participant.
As with any performance, style is a consideration. Given their function in the narrative, how should the voices be represented? For Abu Hamdan, the question of representation is emphatically technological, relating directly to voice alteration -- doubling, harmonizing, pitch-shifting and distortion -- used during trials.
In order to protect the identities of witnesses testifying in defense of Sadaam Hussein during his trial, for instance, the witnesses' voices were pitched higher. This effectively infantilized them, inspiring ridicule. "Yes, son," one judge quipped. "What else do you have?" His response to the witness' altered voice gave credence to the perception that any witness willing to defend Saddam was one of the "children of Saddam."
The treatment of these witnesses represents the unfortunate side-effects of voice distortion through technological means. His appropriation of literary works affords him the unique opportunity to assume the role of the censor in a directorial capacity, and take risks with his findings, "to find new perspectives."
It's not too late to participate. Asked where 98Weeks' artistic partnership with Abu Hamdan will go next, Arsanios predicted their collaboration will be long-term.
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