City Gallery

Past exhibition


17 August–17 November 2019

ARTISTS Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Fayen d'Evie and Jen Bervin et al., Sean Dockray, Manus Recording Project Collective, Susan Schuppli, Joel Spring,  Samson Young, CURATORS James Parker, Joel Stern PARTNERS Liquid Architecture, Melbourne Law School OTHER VENUES Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 24 July–28 October 2018 PUBLICATION Eavesdropping: A Reader essays Norie Neumark, James Parker and Joel Stern, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Fayen d'Evie and Jen Bervin, Sean Dockray, Manus Recording Project Collective, Susan Schuppli, Joel Spring,  Samson Young SPONSORS Creative Victoria, Massey University Te Whare Hera International Residency

The earliest references to eavesdropping are found in law books. According to William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1769), ‘eavesdroppers, or such as listen under walls or windows, or the eaves of a house, to hearken after discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous and mischievous tales, are a common nuisance and presentable at the court-leet’. Today, however, eavesdropping is not only legal, it’s ubiquitous—unavoidable. What was once a minor public-order offence has become one of the key political and legal problems of our time, as the Snowden revelations made clear.

Eavesdropping addresses the capture and control of our sonic world by state and corporate interests, alongside strategies of resistance. For the curators, James Parker (Melbourne Law School) and Joel Stern (Liquid Architecture), eavesdropping isn’t necessarily malicious. We cannot help but hear too much, more than we mean to. Eavesdropping is a condition of social life. And the question is not whether to eavesdrop, therefore, but how.

Much of the work is expressly political. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, based in London and Beirut, considers the oppressive regime of silence enforced in a Syrian prison, the use of accent tests to deny Somalians refugee status, and the analysis of audio-ballistic evidence that led to an Israeli soldier being tried for manslaughter. Works also engage activist practices of ‘listening back’. The Manus Recording Project Collective—a group of men detained by Australia on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea—made recordings daily for the show, offering a sonic window into their situation and prompting us to consider our place as earwitnesses.

The show addresses what can and can’t be heard. Susan Schuppli, from the London group Forensic Architecture, considers a notorious gap in Oval Office audio-tape records during the Nixon presidency, observing that lack of evidence can be evidence. Sydney-based Wiradjuri artist Joel Spring re-presents a conversation with his mother—an Indigenous health worker, activist, and academic—about a disease that causes hearing loss in Aboriginal children. It is accompanied by videos shot inside Spring and his mother's ears. For his video, Hong Kong artist Samson Young has singers suppress their vocals, so we only hear the incidental sounds their bodies produce.

Technology reigns. Melbourne artist Sean Dockray stages a philosophical dialogue between an Amazon Echo, a Google Home Assistant, and an Apple Homepod on the moral and political implications of networked machine listening. Meanwhile, at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), Fayen d’Evie and Jen Bervin (with Bryan Phillips and Andy Slater) research ‘cosmic eavesdropping’, mixing a SETI radio telescope feed with field recordings and accounts of individuals dedicated to listening for extraterrestrial signals.

There is an extensive public programme. The curators and a number of the artists—Michael Green and Jon Tjia from Manus Recording Project Collective, Spring, and d'Evie and Phillips—visit as part of the Te Whare Hēra Eavesdropping Residency, a partnership with Massey University's Te Whare Hēra, which is supported by Liquid Architecture through Creative Victoria's International Engagement programme. They present talks and performances. When photographer and filmmaker Hoda Afshar is interviewed by Murdoch Stephens about her work with Manus detainees, they are joined by an unannounced guest, writer Behrouz Boochani, a member of the Manus Recording Collective Project, who is visiting New Zealand on a special visa, after six years detention, to speak at Word Christchurch. The public programme also includes screenings of the films: The Conversation, Blow Out, and The Lives of Others.

Eavesdropping is an ongoing collaboration by Liquid Architecture and Melbourne Law School.