This article was originally published on TiP, Balmond Studio and is republished here with permission.
When an atrocity occurs how do we unpack the truth, using the learnings of architecture, science and art to seek justice?
His team of architects, filmmakers, designers, lawyers, scholars and scientists are hired not by the State, but instead work with international prosecution firms, NGO’s, political organisations and the UN, to investigate ‘crime scenes’ – like forensic detectives.
Using a variety of techniques, FA works with multiple sources such as satellite imaging, social media, and testimonials, to build up a complete picture – interdisciplinary analysis which can be presented as fact, often in law courts.
FA’s work is far reaching. The team have investigated air strikes in Syria, war operations in Gaza, drone activity in Pakistan, Gaza and Yemen, migrant crossings in the Mediterranean Sea, and environmental violence and genocide in Guatemala. Most recently FA created a virtual reality reconstruction of the notorious Saydnaya prison camp in Syria for Amnesty International. The team travelled to Turkey to interview five survivors and used their testimonials to visualise an interactive, audio and digital map. Available to view online, it’s a potent campaign tool. It also revealed new insights on emotion, memory, trauma.
The work of Forensic Architecture is unique, ambitious and necessary. Here Eyal discusses how it all began, the power of interdisciplinary thinking, memory technologies, and why he wants to create a forensic academy.
How It All Began
It started as a strange experiment. Here we were, a few architects, artists, theorists, philosophers, lawyers and scientists. We were writing about the history of architecture, trying to see how architecture is presented as evidence. And we started thinking: what does it mean when the introduction of architectural language is applied to legal language – that is court and other political forms? We wanted to see how a very particular design intelligence or architectural intelligence can come to bear on issues that other forms of investigation cannot penetrate.
And so we formed a forensic agency without any training, without any knowledge of the field, besides me having written a few books on the history of forensics. We had this incredible idea but no clients – slowly we asked around and started investigating the things that were important to us, what we were politically committed to, like various issues in Palestine for example.
And then the flood began. We started receiving commissions when the world of international law, of political activism, environmental activists and human rights prosecutors started realising there was a missing analytical narrative frame that was incredibly important and just not around.
If you think about it most human rights violations and acts of state violence take place now not in open areas but places in cities and buildings.
In contemporary wars, from Pakistan to Palestine, most people of those that die, die inside buildings. The majority of those die in their own home – this is a significant shift. This also means the house and building itself bears the traces of what has happened in it.
From here, starting from space, we can start recreating the history, undertaking an archaeological study of the present, interrogating the present through the way it has manifested itself in space.
When we started, architecture was the object of the analysis – i.e the building as an index. Slowly it shifted: how do you take all those other traces and activities happening in space and make sense of it? We created what we call the architecture assemblage, by which we locate those evidence elements in relation to each other in space. Thus space becomes an optical device, a means of synthesising and of cross-referencing, of navigating between various bits of evidence.
When you are a Forensic Scientist, you usually work for the police or the state.
We never work for the state; we never accept any work from the state. We always work for civil society groups, for political activists or Freedom of Rights organizations. That means something very important. It means that we are a counter forensic agency. That also means that we do not have at our disposal the very same means that the state has.
If you wanted to take a purely scientific forensics we would need scientific labs and technologies and high resolution information and a big meta-data database.
Instead we have fragments and traces; we have signals with which we confront between.
We confront the denial of state. The state would both perpetrate violence and it would deny that it has done so, like in drone strikes and the Israeli killings that we investigate for example. They do the killings and then say ‘no we haven’t done that’. So you go against lies and here there is something that we call the Forensic Aesthetics.
Forensic Aesthetics is something that is beyond the calculable. It is something that allows you to reach people and convince them by taking them there in a very subjective manner by connecting to characters and to testimony, or by other means, through techniques and sensibilities that come from the arts.
This is an important thing that we do. We always want to change the position and point of view of the way the state is looking at something. We will try to look at it from the point of view of the victims themselves and kind of disturb and subvert, to a certain extent, the ‘truth’.
An investigation is always an assortment of techniques to work together. You need to build a case, and building a case is always weaving threads of various sources so each of the things that we do would cooperate or contradict another piece of information that we have. That would create another trajectory of analysis that we can then untie and move on from.
One thing about our work is that we never end with the physical causes of the event but we will go after the political reality and political reasons that enable that event. So if we research a day in the Gaza war, we could ask in what kind of world such a day can happen? What are the geopolitical, military, ideological and sometimes even financial conditions that enable such days? If we look at the shooting of a Palestinian kid in the West Bank we would ask, in what kind of reality of domination could such killing take place? You would always interrogate and you always start from a molecular level and scale out immediately into the macro level.
There are truths that are beyond science, inaccessible of science – we try to use our architectural intelligence to unpack. Our work is a combination of artistic aesthetic sensibilities, architectural intelligence, and technology. It is never technology itself. It is technology filtered through these other sensibilities.
The Plume Analysis technique actually came about through a study of art history. (Plume analysis is used by FA. It analyses the movement of clouds released in warfare, such as those that appear after a bomb explodes.)
The problem of representing clouds in painting has been a recurring problem throughout art history since at least the Renaissance.
Various techniques from- Masaccio to Constable to Ruskin- have been used to capture that kind of constant metamorphosis of clouds and the way in which people were thinking about mapping those mutating objects in the air.
The reason that we are doing it is that we had to sequence and understand a very complex event: a one-day battle, one-day attack that happened in Gaza on 4th August 2014 as part of the war on Gaza.
We had thousands of sources, images and clips but had no meta data. We had to sequence them in time and space to create what I mentioned before, the architectural image.
We could not do it by looking at the plans on the ground so we created a huge Cloud Atlas.
Think of the Cloud Atlas’ of the 19th century, of Luke Howard and others that was a mapping and classifying of meteorological cloud.
However, smoke clouds are different kinds of clouds. They are anchored in the earth but they continuously morph and mutate. It is exactly their transformation and being able to capture them in an archive and database of clouds which allowed us to move from one image to another, to triangulate the images to see if those images repeat in any of the others. We calculated these to assist in mapping out the war.
We are looking at clouds as architecture, as definite volume that constantly mutate, techniques of parametric design as such. It’s almost like the final validation of blob architecture where you look at parametric architects using various algorithms too. We were using similar techniques, using the metamorphosing architecture of the clouds, but for a very different reason. Not for a design reason but to expose the history of a massacre.
All the techniques are at the intersection of artist, architect and scientist.
Memory And Emotion
We are now developing the architecture of memory technologies. With witnesses to violent crimes, traumatized witnesses often, the closer they get to the essence of testimony and to the very heart of violence itself, they tend to forget or there is repetition and distortion in memory. Often when those witnesses are willing to recreate their testimonies we can help them by building architectural models with them.
For example, Hania Jamal in our team went to Istanbul, meeting with a group of Syrian refugees who were in a prison there.
The individuals arrived at the prison blindfolded and experienced horrific conditions and were tortured in that building but never saw the building.
They could only record it by counting footsteps, of seeing light and dark as they walk through the building and pass windows, a slither of floor tiles and the texture of the floor. They might just remember the acoustics, hearing other people being tortured, remember climbing stairs etc. By working with several witnesses, getting these different memories over the same space we were able to create the reality of that prison.
Something that is very important is that the memory often distorts space. It elongates corridors; it enlarges spaces where pain was experienced. It is very important to keep those errors in the models we make because those errors contain another truth, they contain the truth of trauma. The errors sometimes contain more truth than faithful description, if you understand the paradox.
So this time we were developing something between architecture, acoustics and testimony.
We have also developed a new technology that we are calling ‘Pattrn,’ posted as an Open-source.
This is a crowd sourcing Human Rights monitoring software that aims to put the victims of violence as also the Human Rights researchers.
People can basically upload information onto that platform from situations in conflict. The software finds repetition and logic within the relation between different incidents.
If we have developed architectural, sound, or plume analysis, we can teach everybody to do that so it can be shared and undertaken. We do not want to keep the expertise to ourselves. We want to create a forensic academy in which we can train people to do this themselves.
Climate Change And Conflict
Part of our new research is looking at the relationship of climate change and environmental destruction, conflict in places such as the forests from Guatemala and Brazil. We are very disturbed by the way in which the whole discussion around climate change is framed as if it was collateral. What we strongly believe is if we look at climate change from the point of view of colonial history you can see that the transformation of the climate has always been a project of colonial modernity. Colonizers wanted to make the desert bloom. Colonizers wanted to make the forests into productive fields. Colonizers wanted to make the arctic warmer. Now we are suffering the consequences of it. Looking at it from this perspective, you look at climate change as a battlefield – it is a literal battlefield between colonizer and postcolonial state and indigenous people.
On this we are working in close collaboration with environmental scientists and also with indigenous communities such as Waimiri-Atroari in Brazil in areas of the Amazon which has been deforested. This combination of indigeneity and science is important.
Being An Architect
To thrive as an architect relies on optimal conditions of capital and political will to support it. When these conditions exist it seems we take them for granted. When one of those conditions gets screwed up, it becomes impossible to build- either physically impossible or morally impossible. Of course, for an Israeli, to build right now in the areas of Palestine is to support the economy of domination which persistently and consistently rob Palestinians of their dignity, of their freedom and their basic human rights. So, it’s not that I have anything against architecture; on the contrary I always have this desire. There is always a sketchbook of ideas that I would realise if I could at some point. But right now I believe that my architectural intelligence is best used to create those conditions in which architecture could thrive, before the point zero which those conditions for architecture could actually exist.
If we need to resist an existing regime, the way to resistance is multiple. Forensics is not the most important. It’s part of a puzzle. It’s part of a nexus of actions which will include political and other forms of civil society action. I don’t think the Israeli regime is the most murderous. The murder and bloodshed that is happening around the world is persistently skilled and undemocratic and is treated as democracy. It is not an affront to me as an Israeli or a Jew, but as an architect.
Eyal Weizman is Professor of Spatial and visual cultures and Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University Of London. He is a founding member of the architecture collective, DAAR in Beit Sahour/Palestine. His books include Mengele’s Skull, Forensic Architecture and The Least of all Possible Evils.Forensic-architecture.org.