On October 18, 2019, a 4-cent increase on Santiago's Metro fare caused an uproar on the streets of the Chilean capital. The citizens' anger escalated quickly, leading to demands of immediate structural changes in the Chilean economic and social system. Alongside the people's call for change, daily clashes between protesters and the police led to excessive use of tear gas by the latter across the country.
Even though the use of tear gas is banned in warfare since 1925, police worldwide are allowed to use it for the sole purpose of scattering protesters, as had happened in Chile. The most iconic example can be seen in Plaza Dignidad (Dignity Square), previously known as Plaza Italia ahead of the social outbreak that erupted in the country: everyday, a camera records the activities around the iconic roundabout, capturing the constant and excessive use of lachrymatory gas every Friday.
Accordingly, Forensic Architecture investigated the use of this toxic gas in Chile, as requested by NGO No+lacrimógenas. The team, led by Senior Researcher Dr. Samaneh Moafi, was able to reconstruct the extent of over 500 tear gas clouds, deducing that toxicity levels have reached around forty times the recommended limit on December 20, 2019. "This toxic gas is not only colonizing the public space of our cities and neighborhoods, but also the domestic space of our homes," explained Moafi in this exclusive interview with ArchDaily.
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Nicolas Valencia (NV): Forensic Architecture has defined itself as a research agency. How does the team understand architecture: do you practice architecture or do you employ architectural techniques?
Samaneh Moafi (SM): We are a research agency investigating human rights violations including violence committed by states, police forces, militaries, and corporations. Our investigations deploy a wide range of pioneering techniques in spatial and media analysis, some rooted in the discipline of architecture but others brought from the fields of journalism, law, science, software development, and film making. Our mandate, in fact, is to develop and employ new techniques for evidence gathering and presentation in the service of human rights and environmental investigations and in support of communities exposed to state violence and persecution. So far, we have been able to share the findings from our investigations in national and international courtrooms, parliamentary inquiries, and exhibitions at some of the world’s leading cultural institutions.
But ‘Forensic architecture’ is also the name of an emergent academic field that we have developed at the Goldsmiths University of London, where we are based. It refers to the production and presentation of architectural evidence within legal and political processes —evidence relating to buildings, urban environments.
NV: Forensic Architecture and No+lacrimógenas worked together to analyze the use of tear gas by police on December 20, 2019, at the peak of the social crisis in Chile. Why did you choose this case specifically?
SM: A short couple of weeks after December 2019, two Chilean educators, researchers, and political organizers, Ángeles Donoso Macaya and Cesar Barros A. reached out to our team and asked us to investigate the use of tear gas as a police tactic in Plaza Dignidad. They had been working with members of No+lacrimógenas for quite some time and were aware of our body of work around tear gas in the United States.
One of our first investigations on tear gas was in 2018. When United States border agents fired tear gas grenades at civilians in November of that year, photographs showed that many of those grenades were manufactured by the Safariland Group, one of the world’s major manufacturers of so-called ‘less-lethal munitions’. The Safariland Group is owned by Warren B. Kanders, the vice-chair of the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art. We were invited to the 2019 Whitney Biennial, and so in response to Warren B. Kanders’ association with the institution, we developed an investigation on Safariland. We trained ‘computer vision’ classifiers to detect Safariland tear gas canisters among the millions of images shared online. This involved constructing a 3D model of the Triple-Chaser and located it within thousands of photorealistic ‘synthetic’ and architectural environments, recreating the situations in which tear gas canisters are deployed and documented.
But the case of Plaza Dignidad, for us, resonated with a much earlier research of ours on the relation between protest and urban form. Throughout 2013-2014, Eyal Weizman and I worked on a project we named “Roundabout Revolutions”—the architectural simulacrum of Tahrir and other major Arab squares, made globally famous in the course of the Arab Spring. We built a folly of these squares on a major traffic intersection in Gwangju, South Korea, and later published a book with the same name. At the time, Eyal had argued that a common feature of that wave of revolutions and revolts had been architectural rather than political: many erupted on inner-city roundabouts. We could not but recognize the correlations between the roundabout in Plaza Dignidad and the one in Tahrir square. Both acted as a vortex, pulling people in. What was more was that in both contexts, chemical agents such as tear gas were used to push people out.
NV: What was the tear gas research about?
SM: On 20 December 2019, hundreds of tear gas canisters were deployed against protesters in an egregious display of disregard for public health by Chilean authorities.
The entire battle for the roundabout was documented by a camera installed on a nearby building. First, alongside No+lacrimógenas, we reconstructed the camera’s cone of vision and confirmed its time code, using shadows. We developed an automated method of video analysis that marked the extent of each tear gas cloud and the approximate location of the canister that had produced it. We counted and located over 500 tear gas clouds. The brilliant researcher in my team, Martyna Marciniak, placed these clouds within a precise 3D model of the roundabout. We then worked with scientists from the Imperial College London, to simulate the fluid dynamics of the toxic cloud, taking into account meteorological data such as temperature, wind, and humidity. This helped measure levels of toxicity in the air, on the ground, and the water of the nearby Mapocho River, which feeds the farms on the southern outskirts of Santiago.
NV: The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned tear gas in warfare, but police can use it to scatter protesters as we saw in Chile. Your report says that “the concentration of tear gas reached toxicity levels around forty times the recommended limit”. What are the risks on people exposed to these levels of toxicity?
SM: In his book Terror from Air, Peter Sloterdijk writes about the birth of the environmental wars during the first world war. He explains the 20th century will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body of the enemy, but the enemy’s environment. The breather, by continuing his elementary habitus, i.e. the necessity to breath, becomes at once a victim and an unwilling accomplice in his own annihilation.
Today, the frontiers of this environmental war have extended from the state borders back to the heart of our cities, our neighborhoods, and our homes. This war is no longer between militaries of state enemies, but it is waged by the riot police against civilians, the elderly and the children, the women and men.
According to the American Lung Association, tear gas causes chest tightness, coughing, a choking sensation, wheezing and shortness of breath, a burning sensation in the eyes, mouth, and nose; blurred vision and difficulty swallowing. They note that “while tear gas is typically perceived as causing mostly short-term health impacts, there is evidence of permanent disability in some cases”. Our collaborators from across the world have provided several testimonies to this.
This toxic gas is not only colonizing the public space of our cities and neighborhoods, but also the domestic space of our homes. In 2019 Hong Kong, we examined a case where the police had thrown a canister into a home forcing a domestic worker to run for her life without even wearing slippers. In 2018 Marseille, we investigated the case of the 80-year-old Zineb Radouane who was fatally wounded by a tear gas grenade as she stood by the window of her fourth-floor apartment. In 2020 -2021 Portland, we are studying cases where clouds of tear gas have filled the homes of elderly residents repeatedly throughout the police repression of Black Lives Matter protests.
The findings of our investigation on the use of tear gas in Plaza de la Dignidad suggest that the levels of toxicity surpassed the thresholds set by the Chilean police as constituting a serious danger to physical health. I'm not sure what the police’s manual considered as a serious danger, but we showed through our counter-forensic techniques that the police surpassed what they themselves had considered serious danger.
SM: We released our investigation on December 20, 2020, the one-year anniversary of the day we had investigated, supporting the medical evidence that that was submitted a couple of weeks earlier by the Chilean Human Rights Commission as part of their complaint against the Chilean military police for the illegal use of chemical weapons against protesters in Plaza Dignidad between October and December that year —evidence of chemical infections and dermatitis.
Within a couple of weeks from the publication of our investigation, a group of local residents submitted an appeal to the Santiago Court of Appeals for legal protection against the Chilean police and the Ministry of the Interior, on environmental grounds. They argued that the police use of tear gas has destroyed the flora and fauna of their neighborhood and the mental health of its residents. They provided testimonies to the way the plants and pets were dying. They shared stories of how the elderly were left with no option but to leave their homes every Friday, so as not to be poisoned by toxic gas released by the Carabineros.
We have presented our work in various cultural forums such as MUAC and socialized our evidence through numerous panels and seminars in Chile, Mexico, Peru, Hong Kong, and the United States, together with our collaborators. We are committed to helping in bringing a universal ban on the use of tear gas as a police tactic.
NV: What can you tell us about Forensic’s ongoing projects?
SM: Forensic Architecture’s Centre for Contemporary Nature engages with environmental destruction through the lens of conflict. Conflict is a major contributor to anthropogenic changes. Violence against the environment may be slow, indirect, and diffused, but we believe it is enmeshed in colonial and military violence, and forms of domination. One of the ongoing lines of research at the center is around bringing accountability to toxic clouds. Mobilized by state and corporate powers, toxic clouds colonize the air we breathe across different scales and durations. Repressive regimes use tear gas to clear people’s protests from urban roundabouts. Petrochemical emissions smother racialized communities. Airborne chemicals such as chlorine, white phosphorus, and herbicides, are weaponized to displace and terrorize. Forest fires in the tropics create continental-scale clouds of carbon. These clouds are both environmental and political. The only way to bring them down, in the words of my colleague Imani Jaquiline Brown in the investigation we did on environmental racism in Louisiana, is by locking arms.
Breathing is beyond a purely biological act. In Achille Mbembe’s words “it is that which we hold in-common”. In Francoise Verges’s words, breathing is “to be held and to hold… to love and be loved, to make kin and communities”. If the turn of the 20th century was characterized by environmental wars where the target was the air of the breather, the turn of the 21st century might be an opening for the breathless, to claim her universal right to breathe.