This video of two Syrian protesters being beaten up by pro-regime thugs in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, on 18 March 2011 demands our attention, both as the document of a crime, and as an accidental aesthetic artefact. The reiteration of successive data compressions (in camera, and again following upload) has here produced a weirdly distinctive audio environment, that seems less a simple degradation of the original, than a parallel re-creation - a point of view in its own right.
The loss of audio information generates a wheeling, almost abstract soundscape, that often seems to have little or nothing to do with the images we see. What should have been an unremarkable (if intolerable) ambient field recording is unintentionally transformed into a narrow skein of keening, other-worldly harmonics, interrupted apparently at random by violent, inarticulate voicings of human fear and pain, or equally human hatred and contempt.
What does it mean for this brief, sun-filled nightmare, to circulate in this way as video? How does watching - and listening to - such videos form and frame a people's sense of themselves as agents of their own collective destiny? How is resistance and rebellion written into these images and sounds, not only in the decision by the video maker to film, at the risk of her or himself becoming in turn a target of violence, but also in the very texture of the video itself?
The identity of the thugs we see here is unclear. Since 2011, the Assad regime has increasingly delegated such dirty work to shabihah -- members of long-standing criminal gangs that rapidly metamorphosed into informal militias operating under the direction of the security services. They are called shabihah after the large silent Mercedes in which they used to patrol up and down the Mediterranean coast in their mafioso days, and which the people had nicknamed shabah -- ghosts.
This video documents a criminal act of violence. But in its arbitrary defacing of reality, it does not simply challenge us to try and imagine the real sounds, even the real suffering, that made up this moment of horror. Through one of those unpredictable allegories that precipitate when inadequate technology and imperfect human intention collide, it also invites us to ask: What does it mean to be "real", in a world in which "ghosts" have so much power?
With thanks to Saraa Saleh and Hervé Birolini.