Private Ears

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This week we talk to two artists who see themselves as detectives. Trevor Paglen has designed sculptures for the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, as well as art that’s been launched into geostationary orbit. His photographs of secret military bases (taken at long range, using equipment made for astronomers) appeared in the Academy Award–winning documentary Citizenfour. We spoke with him about how to care for one’s personal digital hygiene in the age of surveillance.

To document torture, mass executions, and human-rights abuses at Saydnaya Prison in Syria, Amnesty International enlisted the help of sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan. This week we’re presenting Abu Hamdan’s sound installation Saydnaya (The Missing 19DB)—that’s “DB” as in decibels, the standard measure for the volume of sound. It offers an uncompromising depiction of Saydnaya, a notorious military prison in Syria, believed to be the site of up to fifty hangings each day. It’s a compound in the mountains just north of Damascus holding up to twenty thousand people in conditions of enforced silence. Abu Hamdan made the piece through interviews conducted in Istanbul with five survivors from the prison.

This episode also features a luminous and digressive review of the Organist, ripped from the heaps of listener commentary on our Apple Podcasts page, by the writer Vu Tran—no stranger to art as detective work himself. His work has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories, and his novel Dragonfish adapts and carries forward the tradition of writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. In his reflections on this podcast, Vu finds Melville's Secret Sharer in the woods of Vermont.

To learn more about conditions in Saydnaya Prison, visit Amnesty International’s interactive digital model, as reconstructed from interviews by Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Forensic Architecture.

Produced by Ross Simonini

Featured photo of Drone Vision courtesy of Trevor Paglen