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.

In Saydnaya, Assad’s detainees live under a rule of total silence and darkness. Salam Otham, a former prison detainee, shares that ‘you cannot speak loudly, your voice should always be low’. Samer, also a Saydnaya survivor, stresses that ‘you can’t describe [Saydnaya] with words’. By way of the prisoner’s total sensory deprivation, the prison amplifies every sound made through its relation to guards, prisoners, pipes, or even the weather. The fugitive sounds of footsteps, torture and daily meals freely travel through the prison’s corridors to reach the prisoner’s cells and linger in their psyches.


Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World explores how torture annihilates the language of the victim and its world. In other words, the language of trauma is blemished by the oppressor and immediately rendered an unviable record of the past.


Forensic Architecture overcomes this linguistic obstacle -- language’s traumatic fragmentation leads them to entirely reinvent the testimonial form. Sayndaya’s brittle sonic traces become the sole record of the prisoners’ experiences. The former detainees enter into sonic dialogue with Forensic Architecture in order to collaboratively build a sonic archive of their experiences. The prisoners’ traumatic memories of Saydnaya begin to take shape through Forensic Architecture’s artful use of echo profiling (matching reverberations to the sounds the detainees heard in prison).


The detainees ‘try to build an image with the sounds [they] could hear’. For Jamal, a former detainee, the sound of prisoners squishing lice is ‘like when you click sesame seeds with your nails’. These nuggets of poetry illustrate how trauma is most easily deciphered through experiences of the everyday.


Forensic Architecture’s turn to Saydnaya’s sound pattern artfully seizes the building’s spatial leakages. The former detainees’ enhanced exposure to sound artefacts is essential to the recreation of the prison’s architecture and the prisoners’ testimonies.


Forensic Architecture’s reconstruction of Saydnaya Prison poignantly overcomes the ineffectuality of language in the wake of trauma. This project convincingly demonstrates how ambient sound can become a language in and of itself.


With exhibitions at the ICA, MACBA and the Tate, to name a few, Forensic Architecture’s collaboration with Amnesty International leads the pathway towards a new forum for human rights investigations. The team’s research is at the threshold of visual arts and human rights activism. This multidisciplinary and multimedia initiative builds an urgent bridge between ‘us’ and an increasingly convoluted political forum. Forensic Architecture astutely innovates the testimonial form by way of audio-visual investigation.

Eloise Crist is a recent University College London MA graduate in the History of Art. Her research interests regard intersectional feminist, postcolonial, LGBTQIA+ and ecological issues.


The Radical Art Review is a print and digital magazine where art and culture meet activism. We publish the thoughts, philosophies, and stories of all who dare to dissent. We seek to inform, to empower, and to dream of a better tomorrow.

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