How Much Does a Sound Weigh? [a portrait of Samer]

Infinite Ear: Portraits is a collection of stories of individuals who were confronted with a transformation in their perception of sound and relationship to hearing. A number of authors accepted the challenge of translating these experiences through writing. Authors, readers, and the portraits’ subjects are confronted with the main questions behind Infinite Ear’s research: how can we understand and feel perceptions of sound radically different from our own?

Samer was one of the detainees of Sayndaya, a Syrian regime prison, 25km north of Damascus, where over 13,000 people have been executed since the beginning of the protests in 2011. The prison is inaccessible to independent observers and prisoners are kept in darkness. The memory of those few who were released is the only resource available to learn of and document the violations taking place there. In 2016, artist and audio investigator Lawrence Abu Hamdan worked with Amnesty International and the London-based research programme Forensic Architecture to produce an acoustic investigation into the prison.

                                                    ***

While we were attempting to reconstruct the sound of the main door in Saydnaya, I began playing Samer the foley sounds of metal doors in order of ascending intensity. None of the door sounds I played satisfied Samer’s acoustic memory, and he kept telling me to raise the amplitude of the sound. I continued doing this in four-decibel increments, just over the threshold of a perceptual change in loudness to the human ear. As another means to increase the magnitude of sound at each interval, I also raised the reverberation time by 0.5 of a second, to simulate the sound resonating through a larger space. The sounds were getting louder and louder and the virtual space larger, until finally I played back the sound of a huge slamming metal door, 24 decibels, five or six times louder than the original sound. At this point the sound also had a 3.5-second reverberation time, equivalent to the reverberation of Notre-Dame Cathedral, that is to say, a vast cavernous reverb produced in part by the 35-meter height of the nave. The height of the corridor through which the door’s sound would reverberate into his cell was estimated at four meters, so such a magnitude was unlikely to be present there.

As this sound was played, Samer was taken aback. He stopped me and told me, “this sound was present in Saydnaya, this was the exact sound, not of the door, but of the box of food being dropped on the ground at the end of our corridor. From that sound, I could tell how many loaves of bread were inside.” The laws of physics would tell us that it is impossible for a box landing on the ground to make such a vast sound, but it wasn’t the laws of physics that were at work here. Samer’s complete conviction that this was the exact sound of the arrival of food made me understand that we were not talking about the intensity of sound, but inadvertently about the intensity of hunger. This was the sound of a threshold at the threshold of the medium of sound itself, both the sound of hunger and hunger’s effects on auditory perception, to the extent that the state of hunger made a box of food landing on the ground sound equivalent to the amplitude of a reverberant metallic impact resonating through a space equivalent to the Notre-Dame.

Samer’s listening here operated between material reality and subjective perception, distorted by his extreme hunger. The sound of the weight of the box of food arriving was a key signifier for how many loafs of bread it contained, so the exaggeration of amplitude and scale of its sound hitting the floor communicates how hunger came to overpower and condition his perception of the acoustic environment of Saydnaya. This sound became the conduit for something that although it could be technically communicated—“We didn’t eat for seven days at a time”—was made somehow more measurable by its impression on the human sensorium.

This sound may also have been heard with such exaggerated amplitude because with the arrival of food came some of the worst beatings in Saydnaya. Another witness, Anas, described the distribution of food: “When they start opening the door, it sounds like a battle upstairs […]. That’s how we know the food is coming.” This shows how the sound of the box landing on the ground could be associated with the sound of a huge slamming door: they both inaugurated torture. What Samer was hearing was the sound of a threshold; not the sound of a door itself, but a sound that signified both potential torture and, depending on the weight of the impact it made on the ground, represented the opening or closing of the door to extreme hunger.

At some point of the interview we arrived at a paradox, where precision and inaccuracy existed within the same utterance. I realized that the key elements to understanding life in Saydnaya and the violations taking place there were often captured most viscerally at a moment of sensory confusion and factual inaccuracy. The precise sound of the arrival of the box of food was heard with deafening amplitude because it was of vital importance to survival in Saydnaya. The exaggeration of the sound is testament to the state of hyper-attentiveness that Samer was forced to occupy. In this distortion in amplitude we are able to hear what it means to listen as if your life or the lives of your friends depended upon the sensing of a sound. More than the measurement of the sound of the door or the sound of the box landing on the ground, what became important was the difference in amplitude between the two sounds, the physical and the remembered.

Only by understanding this gap can we begin to measure the violent forces that cause the transformation of the sound of a box landing on the ground to a sound of large metal doors crashing together, reverberating for 3.5 seconds. Thus, hearing the door as a box of food makes audible and convolves three of the main violations taking place in Saydnaya: starvation, beatings, and blindness. A material trace exists in the distance between these two sounds, which forms a direct link to the states of experience that the extreme conditions at Saydnaya provoke in those who have survived and those who are still there.

TEXT BY

  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan


    The portraits, designed by Goda Budvytytė, are printed on the occasion of the exhibition Infinite Ear at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, taking place from June 8 to September 2, 2018.

Image: A video still from Abu Hamdan interview with Saydnaya witness Salam. Istanbul Turkey 2016, source: http://saydnaya.amnesty.org/