Seth Kim-Cohen considers the politics of sound at City Gallery Wellington

By Seth Kim-Cohen

Susan Schuppli, The Missing 181⁄2 Minutes (detail), 2018, sound installation and archival images. Courtesy the artist

I had always taken Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) to be little more than a psychological thriller set in the world of surveillance. But then I read media theorist Thomas Levin’s analysis of the film’s final scene. Surveillance expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, searches for a bug in his own apartment. He rips the wallpaper from the walls and tears up the floorboards. The scene is shot from an angle that places the camera outside the apartment – above the ceiling and beyond the walls – a position that is, in Levin’s words, ‘epistemologically unavailable’ to Caul. ‘Surveillance’, Levin writes, ‘has become the condition of narration itself.’

Eavesdropping, curated by Joel Stern and James Parker at City Gallery Wellington, assembles thirteen works by eight contemporary artists and collectives exploring the act of eavesdropping and the positions the act establishes. The show also intervenes in the relationship between eavesdropper and eavesdropped, drawing attention to, and problematising, the epistemological distance between listeners (or devices) and the listened- to (most of us, most of the time). A number of the works engage in a kind of ‘forensic’ listening. In Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s audio installation Saydnaya (The Missing 19db) (2016), former prisoners at Bashar al-Assad’s notorious detention centre near Damascus detail the conditions of their detention. Blindfolded, they gleaned understandings of their surroundings largely through sound. We hear the interviews, conducted in collaboration with Amnesty International, of prisoners detained at Saydnaya before and after the Arab Spring in 2011, whose testimonies aid Abu Hamdan in identifying a significant decrease in environmental volume (to an estimated at 19 decibels). Silence was enforced as uprisings spread across the region, and any prisoner who spoke was now violently punished, or killed. Abu Hamdan’s video Rubber-Coated Steel (2016), meanwhile, uses real sonic evidence and a fictional judicial framing to demonstrate that Israeli soldiers who shot and killed two Palestinian teenagers in 2014 had attempted to disguise the sound of live ammunition as rubber bullets. The tip in this case comes from Palestinian protesters who are attuned to sonic characteristics of gunfire – direction, calibre, steel vs rubber bullets – to which even forensics experts are deaf.

Played through headphones, Susan Schuppli’s The Missing 18 1⁄2 Minutes (2018) offers a recording of the eponymous duration of redacted tape from Richard Nixon’s extensive archive of audio surveillance. Ironically, the very absence of the voices speaks eloquently of Nixon’s crimes. A collaboration between the Manus Recording Project Collective, which comprises six prisoners at Australia’s Manus Regional Processing Centre, and three artists outside the refugee detention centre is realised as 84 ten-minute audio recordings (totalling 14 hours) that play consecutively in a black box space. Recorded at different points during the day, they provide a fragmented portrait of the immigrants’ lives in detention: talking, singing, listening to recorded music, cooking. A kind of double eavesdropping emerges. The audience listens in – to life in detention under a neoliberal and racist regime – while the detainees listen out – on the wider world, via the snatches of music on the radio, news bulletins or sports commentaries.

The distance that Levin identifies in The Conversation is transposed, in Eavesdropping, to a set of geopolitical spaces: identity positions, tribalisms, governments and the governed. Eavesdropping becomes a description of our position as subjects-cum-objects in a world where everything is overheard, recorded and algorithmically filtered. Sound is so often epistemologically unavailable: signals arriving from distant times and places. It’s also vulnerable to capture by distant listeners. Out of sight may be out of mind, but in our wired world it’s never out of earshot. The works gathered in Eavesdropping insist that the epistemological distance that separates listener from listened-to is always also an ethical distance. Contrary to common appeals to the political ‘voice’, power in the Age of Alexa may reside more meaningfully in the ear.

Eavesdropping at City Gallery Wellington, through 17 November

From the Winter 2019 issue of ArtReview Asia