Back to All Events

Exhibition: Eavesdropping

  • City Gallery, Wellington, Aotearoa/NZ Te Ngākau Civic Square Wellington New Zealand (map)

17 August - 17 November
Curated by Joel Stern and James Parker

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, suggesting that lack of evidence could be evidence of something. Sydney-based Wiradjuri artist Joel Spring presents recordings of conversations with his mother—a health worker, activist and academic—about a disease that causes hearing loss in Aboriginal children. For his video, Hong Kong artist Samson Young has singers suppress their vocals, so we only hear the incidental sounds their bodies produce, their breathing, the rattling of their scores. 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.

Fayen d’Evie and Jen Bervin, with Bryan Phillips and Andy Slater, research cosmic eavesdropping. Their installation—a dissipated poem to an interstellar dustcloud, which mingles field recordings with the stories of individuals and collectives dedicated to listening to extraterrestrial signals—is an artistic outcome emanating from Bervin’s participation in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) artist-in-residence programme.

Eavesdropping is an ongoing collaboration by Liquid Architecture and Melbourne Law School. It was first presented at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, last year.