A few weeks ago, I woke up and checked my phone to find a new WhatsApp message from Samad. I listened to Samad’s voice, slow and steady, as I got myself ready for the day: “Hi everyone, it’s Samad from Manus Island detention centre. It was a horrible day, as I did not sleep well, just because of so much negative thoughts on my mind.” In the background, I could hear waves crashing against the shore, and the occasional child – a local Manusian – playing in the distance. “Right now,” said Samad, as I made breakfast for my daughter, “I’m at the beach, and trying to observe the sound of the waves and looking at the ocean. I hope it will give me some strength to feel relaxed.”
Samad’s messages, along with messages from another refugee on Manus, Shamindan, have come to regularly punctuate my week. The messages are always 10 minutes long, and are always recorded on the same device, a Zoom H1 handheld recorder, before being transferred onto a computer, and then sent to me via WhatsApp. The technical details are important because the recordings aren’t simply private messages for me but are part of an artwork, how are you today, in the Eavesdropping exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art and in the lobby of the Melbourne Law School. The 10-minute duration and the recording device are the only conditions on what is otherwise an entirely open artwork: the men were asked to “share the sounds of your life on Manus Island”. In effect, they are free to record whatever they like.
Shamindan sends me recordings of his friend Srirangan cooking a fish curry, of a walk through Lorengau market, of a trip on a local bus to town. He sends me a recording of a visit to a local church, and so, for one day, the gallery space at the Ian Potter is filled with the glorious sound of Manusian voices in unison, singing hymns about God’s love.
Every day the recording in the gallery and the law school changes. The recordings are never more than a few days old by the time they are played in public. Sometimes, they will have been made just a few hours before, in the dead hours of the night, when the men find it hard to sleep. There are six men in the Manus Recording Project Collective: Samad Abdul, Shamindan Kanapathi, Kazem Kazemi, Farhad Bandesh, Abdul Aziz Muhamat and Behrouz Boochani. They have been sending their messages to Michael Green, Jon Tjhia and me, all based in Melbourne. We’ve been providing some feedback and guidance about the recordings, via text message on WhatsApp.
One day, a visitor to the gallery or a law student on the way to class will hear Behrouz walking on his own through the jungle around the camps, speaking only to greet the occasional passer-by, or Kazem setting up his electric guitar in the laundry room in the East Lorengau camp to blast out some heavy metal riffs, or Farhad taking his first trumpet lesson with Sky, a local musician, or Aziz speaking with Nurann, a man on hunger strike.
The effect of listening to these recordings is hard to describe. Many of the sounds are uncannily familiar, like chopping boards and church choirs, or else nondescript – what is that rustling, who is saying hello? The recordings often require a particularly attentive form of listening, lest we forget what it is we are listening to. Instead of horror, or abject suffering, the messages reveal something else about life in limbo. Sometimes the recordings are moving in ways that I’d never expected, even after years of speaking with refugees: I didn’t know, for instance, that I could be so affected by a sentimental Hindi love song – but hearing Samad describe, in his very first message, that “slow music” as his “only friend”, I could suddenly imagine him, just a few hours ago, sitting in a room on his own, finding some kind of comfort or solace. Indeed, many of the recordings involve listening to the men listening to something else: music from home, bird sounds from a relaxation app, the insects in the jungle, and the waves breaking against the shore. All of the recordings are about waiting, in one form or another.
The recordings are also about communication and distance. The work is called how are you today to reflect the futility of the message Michael, Jon and I are constantly sending to the men on Manus. “How was your day”, “How are you feeling” – all the iterations are equally banal, pointless. And yet what else can we say – when something, after all, has to be said?
how are you today goes both ways: it is also a question from Manus addressed to the Australian audience. It asks them if they will sit still and listen to just 10 minutes of a man’s day on Manus Island. It’s nothing, a fraction of a day that is itself a fraction of the five years the men have spent in detention. But it is surprisingly difficult to listen for 10 minutes without pulling out a phone or walking away. And it would be even more difficult – impossible, really – to listen to how are you today in one sitting. By the end of the exhibition, there will be an archive of 84 recordings: 14 hours of life in detention.
Each recording is like a temporary channel opening up across the spatial and political distance between Lorengau and Melbourne. Through those intermittent channels, which are always liable to permanent closure, the men are, if nothing else, asking for our attention. That can seem like a trivial request, but as Simone Weil said, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”.
how are you today is showing as part of the Eavesdropping exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art and the Melbourne Law School until October 28. On October 19, the Ian Potter Museum of Art will be hosting an event where the audience will be invited to spend one hour of their time listening to recordings from this emerging archive – one from each man.
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