On August 4, 2020, a 2,750-ton cache of ammonium nitrate exploded at a warehouse of the main port in Beirut, Lebanon, in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. An enormous toxic red cloud hung for days over the city; according to Human Rights Watch, 300,000 people were displaced by the damage, 7,000 injured, 218 killed.11
“They Killed Us From the Inside,” Human Rights Watch (August 3, 2021). https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/08/03/they-killed-us-inside/investigation-august-4-beirut-blast.
An official investigation is ongoing, and no clear resolutions have yet been found. The city—and country—has since been subject to long power blackouts, a collapse of healthcare infrastructure, and skyrocketed inflation. “My government did this,” reads a graffiti scrawled in black ink by the side of the port. The artist and self-styled “private ear” Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who has previously conducted sonic investigations into asylum tribunals in the UK and ballistic reports of instances of military brutality in Palestine, turned his attention to these events; judging the explosion the result of state negligence, he began to map out a longer history of governmental corruption and military occupation in the region.

On 8 March, 2022, a crowd gathered in Sharjah’s “Flying Saucer,” a Brutalist theatre shaped like a star, where Abu Hamdan presented an audiovisual essay. He circled the perimeter slowly as we tilted our faces to watch the projections cast onto the Saucer’s wide dome. The performance, Daght Jawi, was a log of one year’s military violations of the Lebanese airspace. “May 2020,” Abu Hamdan began, “147 violations… 100 unmanned aerial vehicles, 46 fighter jets and one drone. Total flight time 511 hours and 45 minutes.” As the numbers escalated and dropped, the overhead projections showed handheld videos of planes, shot on cellphones in darting patterns. The performance slowly expressed the long violence perpetuated by military occupation, and the debilitating psychological and physical effects on those who are subject to its forces. In Abu Hamdan’s work Air Conditioning (2022), a 54-meter length image of a cloud wraps around a white cube. The cloud is comprised of layers of varying thickness and colors, each corresponding to a type of jet, drone, or unmanned vehicle. This is Abu Hamdan’s visualization of “atmospheric violence.” These works—in a manner that is characteristic of the artist’s practice—are more than just representations or the processing of very complex data: for Abu Hamdan, art is a “truth-producing mechanism.” We had the following conversation at the gallery space, surrounded by the cloud.

Skye Arundhati Thomas: Your new work, Air Conditioning (2022), tracks Israeli military incursions into the Lebanese airspace over 15 years. This is accompanied by a forthcoming online database AirPressure.info (2022), where you are uploading the data you have found of each airspace violation. The performance Daght Jawi (2022) zooms in on one year of these flights. The three together feel like an extended essay, each coming to a single investigative question from different levels.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan: I suppose all of my work is part of one continuous thesis, guided by a similar set of arguments that I’ve tried to make. There is a strong political motivation, and often, there’s a political claim. I have a desire to combat specific forms of occupation and subjugation. With Air Conditioning, there was a beginning, and it was a painful one. While I have experienced the Israeli jets, I left Beirut on the day of the 2006 War. I had not heard the most extreme version of that sound, nor experienced what it does, the pure destructive force of occupation. I’d only ever heard it as this strange background noise of the planes in the sky. When the port explosion happened in Beirut on August 4 2020 witnesses claimed they had heard planes before the explosion, so I looked into it.

I found that while there were Israeli military aircraft in the Lebanese sky on that day, they were too far from the port to be the explosion’s genesis. But Israeli combat vehicles have been in the skies every day, and for so long. They are still culpable in the ongoing atmosphere of fear and violence. I decided to do an analysis of this permanent sonic condition, and its intensification over the last 15 years. I started to engage with the violence sonically, as an artifact.

It was a long process of studying the sky and its relationship to the ground. It was about accessing a kind of ambisonics. The project naturally split into tidier spaces. First, it became clear to me that there was no single data source for all of the planes in the sky, and that no one had a sense of the scale of it. I have since come to understand that in the last 15 years there have been almost 22,000 incidents of jets, drones, and other military aircraft in the Lebanese airspace. But the planes have been pushed into the background; it’s an act of terror that’s integrated into everyday life. You might not always hear them: maybe you’re on the phone, maybe the car is running, maybe you’re boiling a kettle. They compete with other sounds. It’s an atomized experience. We accessed data of every plane that had entered and exited the Lebanese sky from meticulous records kept by the UN and the Lebanese Ministry of Defense. Though the records were comprehensive, the documents were not easy to source. Much of the initial work involved accumulating and digitizing disparate and poorly organized scans of documents from the UN digital library.

It took about a year to understand that the project was simple. To start with, I needed to take these documents and put them in an Excel sheet and make them into one data source that anyone could look through. The first stage was to get all the numbers: on some days there were 40, 50 planes in the sky. The second stage was to understand them, visualize them, which is the cloudscape. And the performance is where the two stages collapse.

SAT: You build a landscape of occupation and then immerse us into it. You seem to be reaching for something quite particular with the long cloud, the large database, and the meticulous record-keeping. These are not works about single events or single, spectacular moments of violence.

LAH: When the single moment of the port explosion is individualized it becomes an isolated event. But the violence of the ammonium nitrate massacre did not begin on August 4; it’s part of a long sequence of lethal corruption that I’m dealing with in other works too. These are crimes that move across generations. This is an approach I learned through the works I have made with the writer and historian Bassel Abi Chahine. Bassel is the reincarnation of Yousef al Jawhary, a soldier who died during the Mountain War of 1983–84 at the age of 17. In the film Once Removed (2019) I interview Abi Chahine, and I find that his and Yousef’s conjoined memories extend the time of witnessing, consolidating their biographies. I apply this same logic to my analysis of the sky in the sense that I don’t focus on a single event but rather on an accumulation of 22,000 events: on a violent atmosphere. The numbers and the website are the hard facts. The clouds are abstractions. Aesthetic work can help to unfold some of that experience and thinking: it’s a way of thickening time. I don’t think numbers have that power, which is what necessitated the production of images for Air Conditioning. I intended to make something beautiful, because beauty is a demand on time. It asks you to sit down. Through that attentiveness to something visually captivating a horror emerges, and how the violence is unceasing comes into focus.

SAT: The distinction you make between the static representation of war versus a dynamic, long critique of a continuous state of occupation is important. Maybe aesthetic experience can help build new languages for negotiating violence.

LAH: We need new strategies to make this thing sensible.We only talk about Israeli military aircraft in the Lebanese sky when there’s a war or a missile strike. But these small everyday invasions have accumulative effects that over time may be much more intense. These are not images of war, but rather an attempt to render a representation of something much harder to condense: occupation. Occupation is another set of affects, and this demands another set of images. It’s this experimentation that put me in a place where I ended up with a 54-meter-long image of a cloud.

In April last year, a video of a drone firing tear gas in Northern Jerusalem circulated on Instagram. At that moment I felt like the Israeli defense force had lost control of its image. For people to point to the sky and film a drone firing tear gas felt, for the lack of a better word, unfashionable at a time when the world was ready to accept police brutality as wrong in the US. That level of militarized police and riot control felt damaging to the ongoing attempt to demonstrate to the world that occupation and expropriation are just. And Israel’s is a highly aestheticized and mediated military occupation with lobby groups that defend it, and vast sums of money pumped into PR and image-making. But this one cellphone video of this nasty, Terminator-style drone was maybe unraveling it. And that’s the crack that I wanted to climb into, with the images and with the performance, because it seemed to me that there was something to exploit in the failure of cleanly mediating occupation.

SAT: It’s also about not provincializing conflict. Certain nation states (like India, where I live) are going to see that tear gas drone and want to buy that technology. That’s also where the spectacle of war operates beyond affect. Where it’s also advertising. Where nation-states learn from each other, and what you see in Palestine one day could very well be in Fergusson the next.

LAH: Yes, and that’s maybe where people begin to understand Palestine or Syria. The buying and importing of technologies start to undo of the clear narratives of occupation. It’s hard then for people who have found it so easy to say, oh, Palestine is somewhere else. It’s about finding ways of making things inseparable.

SAT: You have previously called art a “truth-producing mechanism.” In the absence of clarity from the state, you look through the flight data and make a claim. Do you produce truth?

LAH: Art is a mode of truth production that finds truth in ambiguity. That’s not so different from other forms of truth production. Science also finds its truth from doubt. With these works, what I’m trying to say is that truth is in the terrible inseparability of things: in this cloud, the thickness of this atmosphere. The demand that’s made of forensics is always to create isolated fragments. And the problem with sound—or maybe the beautiful thing about sound—is that it’s very bad at that. It’s difficult to isolate. What I try to show is how things become toxic in their coagulation, not in their separability.

SAT: We’re also unreliable witnesses. Forensics are an imperfect science, and testimony can be faulty. The law is not designed to accept these gaps in knowledge. In other works, such as your reincarnation series with Bassel Abi Chahine, you present us with a new category of witness, which feels like a way to dispute the tight compartments the law tends to make. In Once Removed (2019), Abi Chahine takes us through his collection of objects, military equipment, and photographs of the People’s Liberation Army and Progressive Socialist Party, militias led by Walid Jumblatt during the Lebanese Civil War. His meticulous archiving shows a very interesting relationship to that history, and those crimes: he is someone who has experienced the war, yet who also lives in a time where there is little knowledge about it, and is thus trying to fill those gaps with his own research and collecting.

LAH: The ambiguity of witnessing, testimony, or scientific fact is not where it stops. I think it’s the premise on which a claim can be made. With the film Once Removed (2019), I resist trauma being used as an interpretation of Abi Chahine’s life as a reincarnated child soldier. It’s not about an inherited trauma. Abi Chahine is not traumatized. Asserting him as a new category of witness is a move to say we are not simply traumatized by the past. By embodying lives we did not ourselves live, we can find a way to account for the past, and to diagnose its continuation into the present. That someone is ambivalently sitting on the boundary between life and death gives them the possibility to create claims. My impulse was just to follow Abi Chahine there. In the way that corrupt leaders in Lebanon tell the story, they are battling each evolving crisis over the last 45 years, where each issue is isolated from the others, and each culprit is separated by some conveniently ascribed context. Instead of this, we could accept a line of continuation, a collapse of time and events. Abi Chahine shows how the very same people who were responsible for the death of a child soldier at the age of 17 in 1984 are those who have stolen the future of teenagers growing up in Lebanon today. It’s one long crime.

SAT: You have said, “I look at things the way that I’ve been taught to listen.” You bring the background into the foreground, pay attention to leaks and slips. The show at the Sharjah Art Foundation is called “The Sonic Image”; maybe you could tell us what that phrase means.

LAH: A sonic image is an image whose indexical value, or truth value, is derived not from a single source, but from its relational qualities. It’s not just a visualization of sound. Air Conditioning is a sonic image because it’s an image that’s asking you to hear. There are various experiments with what a sonic image is in the exhibition. There are the birthmarks of those who have been reincarnated (For the Otherwise Unaccounted, 2019), the cloud that illustrates a militarized airspace (Air Conditioning), the lights flashing from a trial from the 1940s (Witness-Machine Complex, 2021), and the visualization of the sound of a gunshot (Earshot, 2016). It’s a relationship to the image where one sees as one hears. It’s not just listening to images—although it’s also that—it’s about a bleed between the senses, about undoing the distinction between image and sound. I want to collapse the binary readings of the senses and say, maybe there’s something in the mingling of the two. I try to produce an image, or an image-making practice, which acknowledges that when we listen, we are also generating images.

SAT: It’s like taking two very unstable things and making them inform each other, creating more instability, which is maybe the point? From what I understand, the sonic image exists as a set of relationships, versus individual instances or representations.

LAH: I think the conception of sound as unstable is what makes it really good when you apply it to an image. All images are just as unstable. Things are always in relation to one another. I’m trying to break the idea that images hold an evidentiary quality, while sounds don’t. And to bring that together and say: no, actually, the evidentiary quality is in the instability between the two.

SAT: The notion of an “evidentiary quality” is an unstable thing in itself. Maybe things can get more interesting when we admit that the forensic method is a speculative one, then we can start constructing truth differently. So we’re talking about truth not as an absolute, but instead as a process.

LAH: Corruption and occupation already exceed the bounds of the law in processing criminal acts. Because they’re long processes, they slip through our grasp. So how do we create a language, or even a forum, to think of these crimes? Maybe we could even go as far as to speculate that the crimes know that the law cannot hold them to account. They understand and push the limits of the law’s ability to conceive of singular events and timelines.

Take the TV show The Wire (2002–8), for example. You have scenes where a bag is dropped from a balcony, caught, moved, and paid for around the corner. The camera can never catch the whole drug deal in a single frame. This forces officers to multiply their modes of capture. Something similar is happening with my work, in order to render the long crimes of corruption and occupation—where the act and the effect are not in a direct relationship—we need to multiply the techniques of witnessing and capture. It’s impossible to isolate crimes like those to a single image or evidentiary fragment. Since the law is inadequate in creating forums of representation for such long events, we need to make our own forums and extra-evidentiary practices of capture.

SAT: These new forums often begin with a difficult negotiation. The first step of processing the violence, to make sense of it, is to restage it in some way. We have to do that to move the violent act toward an analysis or argument.

LAH: Restaging the violence, or pointing to its particulars, can return us to our diagnostic capacities. Air Conditioning doesn’t reproduce the violence exactly as it is, but it tries to capture it. This necessitated a certain engagement with that violence—for instance, the over 400 videos that I collected from just one year of Israeli military aircraft in the sky. The videos are strange artifacts because they’re of beautiful days, of blue skies; you don’t always see the planes, but you hear them. There is a discrepancy between what we hear and what we see.

There is a school of psychology and trauma management that says to cure certain kinds of trauma, people have to re-immerse themselves in it. They use virtual reality in the treatment of soldiers with PTSD, for instance. They try to recompose the scene, not in all of its violence, but in something of what was there: a fan in the corner of the room, maybe, or someone sitting in a specific position just before a blast. This seems to be a process of returning someone to their diagnostic capacities, to help their ability to enter an analytic space at a distance from the thing that continues to haunt them.

The closer you are to the traumatic event, the more impossible it is, and the more it’s continually an explosion. But sometimes, there is a need to access that violence to understand it. To return to the scene of the crime. With the combat aircraft, what sounds like a cacophony at first, the more you hear it, you’re able to discern that it’s not an abstract sound, but specifically an F-35. I suppose that’s the journey I’m trying to make with the works. These are attempts to access new means of paying attention to violence.