Digital Reconstructions, Forensic Listening, and the Sounds of Prison in Syria

Curator's Note

This contribution analyzes the production of the recent interactive documentary, Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison (2017), made in collaboration between Forensic Architecture, media artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and Amnesty International. Prior to their collaboration, there were no publicly available images or representations of Saydnaya. The project employs sonic evidence, forensic listening, and acoustic modeling in a world of missing images, fragmented memories, and incomplete evidence. Forensic Architecture constructed a 3D model of the prison-based on collected testimonies by Amnesty researchers to facilitate a form of “situated testimony,” whereby the Saydnaya survivors became active co-creators in the final project by correcting errors and adding immense detail to the original 3D model. For survivors, the act of situated testimony led to a further recall, sparking deeper insights and memories. This situated testimony relied on the accounts of “earwitnesses” rather than eyewitnesses that privilege visual knowledge.  "Earwitness testimony, as opposed to eyewitness testimony, is the most prevalent source of evidence," posits Abu Hamdan. "Why?" he asks “‘because sound leaks.'"

This leakage occurs despite all attempts of the state, the Assad regime in Syria, to shield themselves from evidence production by not making images or recordings of anything at the prison. Detainees were held in darkness and heavily enforced silence, interspersed with horrific screams of torture and banal sounds such as the drip of leaky pipes, whirring air ducts, and scraping pots and pans. The more mundane sounds and images provoked sense memories in the prisoners that lead to the recovery of further repressed memories and trauma. In the absence of the camera, acoustic and 3D modeling and situated testimony combine to produce a digitally reconstructed representation of unseen state violence. These practices add new dimensions to documentary activism via the practice of counter, mediated forensics and the production of militant evidence through “forensic listening” and earwitness testimonies as interventions against acts of state violence that remain purposefully out of view.






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