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Sounding Trauma: Hearing the Language of a Syrian Prison

by Eloise Crist

Forensic Architecture’s collaboration with Amnesty International leads the pathway towards a new forum for human rights investigations
Luciano Minguzzi, The Unknown Political Prisoner: Figure within Barbed Wire. Tate Britain (1952).

My shoes echo on the marble floor of the Duveen Gallery. The sound reverberates throughout the halls of the Tate Britain. Conscious of my disruption to the silent gallery, I pause to observe Luciano Minguzzi’s The Unknown Political Prisoner: Figure within Barbed Wire (1952).

The printed caption reads: ‘[Figure within Barbed Wire] render[s] homage to the prisoners who have suffered in all concentration camps […] in the middle of a network of barbed wire which interact architecturally’. The arachnid figure is held by a metal cage yet the figure and barbed wire’s limbs appear to have fused together. Caught in an intimate embrace, both the cage and the encaged press against one another. Held in the sculpture’s puzzling dance of push and shove, the cage itself begins to fold open and reveals its porous form.

I continue towards the entrance of the Turner Prize exhibition and am greeted by an island of plush couches framed around a coffee table teeming with books. Title headings, ‘Forensis (…) a mode of public address’ or ‘the art of the forum’, capture my attention. The judicial gazes of the readers skim through the books’ pages in total silence. The readers themselves are staged as the exhibition’s centrepiece.


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I walk into a curtained room that displays Forensic Architecture’s [FA] re-creation of an Israeli police raid in a Bedouin village. The settlement had recently been outlawed by the Israeli government. Visitors inquisitively lean over the glass display cases; others nest together in a dark room that screens video footage of the attack. The visitors discuss the evidence displayed before them as if they themselves were public jurors involved in a high stakes case at the International Courts of Justice.

Forensic Architecture documents human rights violations for the general public by creating accessible and engaging visual media resources. They foster a wide-reaching discussion on these violations by bridging the gap between the visual arts and investigative journalism. Forensic Architecture’s ground-breaking mode of forensic investigation provides the viewer with a new and intimate insight into never before-seen incidents of violence.

Later that evening, I come across Forensic Architecture’s collaborative investigation with Amnesty International: ‘Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison’ . I have now progressed from the lavish couches of the gallery to a total immersion into Forensic Architecture’s black and white model of the Saydnaya prison. Near Damascus, Syria, this prison infamously tortures the Assad regime’s detainees. The digital architecture model glares at me as it ominously rotates on my computer screen.

The building is placed atop a blurred landscape that is seemingly taken from a Google Maps satellite image of the prison’s surrounding landscape. The static sounds of car motors, planes, artillery, gunshots and distant voices flood through my computer’s speakers.

‘Explore’ Saydnaya: Inside A Syrian Torture Prison

A page titled ‘Visit the Saydnaya Website: Explore’ indicates that this interactive investigation is ‘best experienced with headphones’. The sonic quality of my digital exploration is presented as central to my ‘at home’ look into the Saydnaya Torture Prison. I reach for my headphones and plug them into my laptop: so begins my strange digital exploration of Saydnaya, ‘Inside a Syrian Torture Prison’.

The Forensic Architecture team recreates the prison by soliciting survivors’ ‘ear witness testimony’. Essentially, they digitally reconstruct the prison’s interiors by surfacing the prisoner’s memories of its sonic permeability. Everything about the building’s acoustic properties, from ‘wall-shaking’ from torture (Samer & Jamal’s Group Cell), to guards sipping mate and watching TV, or a faint call to prayer seeping through the air vents (Anas’s Group Cell), contributes to Forensic Architecture’s reconstructive project.


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The prison’s traumatic echoes endlessly throng the ears of the Saydnaya survivors. Akin to Minguzzi’s sculpture, where barbed wire melts with the resting figure to prophecy a strange symbiosis between captor and captured, Forensic Architecture’s re-creation of Saydnaya depends on the sonic slippages between prison and imprisoned.

Eyal Weizman, the founder of Forensic Architecture, identifies as a ‘reader of architecture’. He strives to show how buildings, with their creaks and echoes, can develop a vital language of their own.