Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Potato Chips Carry a Message That’s Hard to Swallow
“Can we get some professionals in? This is an art fair; we have ways of moving art!” barks an art handler as a three-tier rack holding individual silver-foil bags of potato chips collapses, sending its bounty tumbling to the floor. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, the 29-year-old British-Lebanese artist selected as this year’s featured Armory Show artist, is attempting to carry his work—which might be mistaken for supplies for one of the fair’s makeshift cafés—to another area of Pier 94, when one such professional quickly intervenes. A trolley appears, and the chip stand is placed gingerly on it, before the bottom shelf collapses once more. Hamdan, dressed in black trousers and a leather bomber jacket, with tortoiseshell spectacles and a wide, goofy grin, is unperturbed. “I hope people aren’t too precious about them,” he smiles. “I hope people take them.”
As we walk through a maze of half-installed booths the day before the Armory opens its doors, Hamdan throws a chip bag at a passing gallerist. “You have to move and manipulate the package to see what it says on the back,” he tells me, stretching the bag’s surface out to reveal a printed text, “They work well in the hand.” It’s no accident that the reflective packets of chips, available for free to fairgoers while supplies last, resemble sachets of space food. “What I’m presenting here is a kind of near-future fiction from 2017, in which I imagine a world where all kinds of objects can record your every word,” says Hamdan.
Known for his research-driven explorations into the politics of sound and listening and recording devices, also on view in the New Museum’s current triennial exhibition, Hamdan is particularly concerned with the ways in which these technologies are, or could be, abused. “The project is inspired by a series of experiments that are happening at MIT, in which they realized that by using high-speed video to record the surfaces of objects, they could recover the sound that those objects were hearing—the sound of the speech hitting this bag could be recovered from the surface of the bag itself,” explains the artist. “The best sound-recording objects they found are potato chip packets because their surfaces are both impressionable and non-absorbent, so they leave traces of the vibrations attached to them.”
Hamdan’s commission for The Armory Show also includes what he calls an “audio dispatch from 2017,” in which a narrator describes a series of surveillance apparatus and sound-recording devices that exist in the present and near-future, systems like ShotSpotter, which detects the sound of gunshots in the streets and which is currently widely deployed across the U.S. For those who don’t seek out Hamdan’s Armory listening booth, he hopes the message will reach them via potato chips. “In the context of the fair, I think it’s interesting because, unlike auctions, where the prices are spoken aloud, the fair has other conventions of speech: how you speak about prices, and how things are negotiated are much more subtle, much less audible. So I like the idea that these chips packets almost become like a rumor that spreads throughout the fair, that there are these objects that are listening to people.”
Lawrence is less enthused about the comestibles themselves. “They’re organic, I wanted them to be more salty,” he remarks, crunching into a chip. “It would be great if lots of them end up in the bin,” he says, envisioning heaps of the futuristic packages and their chilling messages infiltrating the Piers’ waste system. “I’m really trying to think about this world in which our relationships to objects are very different, and how we ourselves also start to become objects. It’s a way of explaining or inhabiting this new world wherein things that people consider trash or detritus actually have a different kind of value, in which objects are going to be listening to us, a world that’s coming very soon.”
Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Writer-at-Large.