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Forensic Architecture

Forensic Architecture is a research unit comprising a group of researchers, academics and interdisciplinary practitioners operating from Goldsmiths, University of London,  initiated by director Eyal Weizman in 2010. The highly innovative methodology operates at the convergence of disciplines. Using new media forms, computational analyses and spatial modelling, Forensic Architecture investigates incidents which have occurred under dubious circumstances, often challenging the official narrative of events. The emancipatory aims of the group are self-professed, and their work has proven an effective tool in legal cases.

The investigations Forensic Architecture conduct have so far been multifarious, examining cases from the UK to Cameroon and often operating in conflict zones, with Israel-Palestine a frequent context for their work. It can be very difficult to provide recourse and accountability in these situations, so Forensic Architecture’s work has potency in providing a claim to truth, and defence of human rights.

James Elsey on behalf of Culture+Conflict spoke to Manager Sarah Nankivell in order to get a better insight into their intersection with contemporary art and conflict.

C+C: What are the advantages of having your work seen within a gallery or art space? How have you dealt with a reframing of the context within this sphere?

FA: To begin with, all of our work, and how it is presented, is done through the lens of counter-forensics. This comes from the idea that we don’t always have access to the same materials or the same means of evidence production as in state-run forensic processes, which often includes surveillance and analysis techniques that are used by the state to control and monitor its citizens. This extends to the forums in which our work is presented. In the same way we do not always have access to police techniques, we similarly do not always have access to the courtroom. As a result, as we use alternative methods of investigation in order to invert the forensic gaze of the state back on itself, we also use alternative forums to present our work in a way that is accessible and engaging to the public. As a forum, we have found that the gallery or exhibition space has been a really productive and interesting one. The interest we have received from the art world to show our research in this context has provided us with the unique opportunity to both bring to light the human rights cases that we work on to wide and varied audiences – and to think through the aesthetic dimension of our work in order to present our methods and results in a way that is as clear and accessible as possible. As a public space, it is also is a forum where we can hold public debate, discussion, and engagement with our work through public programming, which we have found to be especially rewarding in opening up new ways of thinking about our research.

Forensic Architecture, 77sqm_9:26min. Computer simulation and motion tracking of Andreas Temme’s line of vision in the internet cafe. Image: Forensic Architecture, 2017

C+C: And have there been any downsides to this? Have they attempted to discredit your work ‘as artists?’

FA: To be clear, we are not artists (although we have artists as part of our team), we are a multidisciplinary research agency who show our work in art spaces for the reasons I mentioned before. There was one occasion where we were presenting the case of the murder of Halit Yozgat at documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany. In this case, a young man was killed in an internet cafe, also in Kassel, as part of  a string of racially-motivated murders committed by a neo-Nazi group known as the NSU and we were questioning the presence of a German secret service agent in the cafe at the time of the killing and whether or not he could have failed to witness the murder taking place. As part of that process, we submitted the results of our investigation to the Hessen parliamentary inquiry. In response to this, the CDU (Christian Democrat party of Germany) attacked these results both in the court and through the press. They never wrote to us directly, however they published a document, an unauthored report on our report that was presented to the inquiry trying to discredit us as experts in this process. One of these arguments, based on the fact that we showed the work at documenta, was that we were artists and therefore weren’t qualified to be doing forensic analysis.

However, I think that sort of misinformed critique has been a small downside compared to most of our intersections with the art world, which have generally been quite positive. Furthermore, I believe that we hold ourselves and our research to account by opening up our work to public debate and critique and this has worked to make our methods and results more visible and more robust. The presentation of the case of Halit Yozgat at documenta 14 took place while the parliamentary inquiry was underway, and the impetus behind the exhibition was to enable the Society of the Friends of Halit to bring  members of the public as well as journalists, politicians, and other key people through this exhibition space during the inquiry and to show them the results of our and other investigations.

Forensic Architecture, 77sqm_9:26min. Fluid dynamics simulation of gunpowder residue particles (ammonia) within the front room of the internet cafe. Image: Forensic Architecture and Dr. Salvador Navarro­-Martinez, 2017

We had another interesting experience when presenting our work on the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students at MUAC (Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo) in Mexico, where, even though the legal case was already closed, we were able to bring a number of politicians and journalists to the exhibition to see this work. In one particular case, an associate justice of the Mexican Supreme Court wrote a review of the exhibition in the art section of a major newspaper, El País.As a judge, he was not able to publicly comment on a closed case  however through writing that review of the exhibition he was able to, in a roundabout way, comment on the case and, notably, the role of the state violence in this incident.

C+C: You worked with Lawrence Abu Hamdan – how did this transpire? Do you work with other artists?

FA: We have quite a long history with Lawrence Abu Hamdan and he has worked with us on a number of projects to undertake acoustic analysis and design. We work with artists and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines depending on the needs of each investigation.

C+C: There has been the participatory turn in art – if we’re framing FA’s as an art practice we find artists trying to create a tangible social or political good. Do you think that FA’s model of doing things might become more pervasive?

FA: We are certainly trying to move more  towards the development of tools and techniques that can be easily used and accessed by other open-source investigators, or civil society groups, or activists on the ground. I believe one of the greatest strengths of our methodology, and the reason why we have had a great deal of interest in our work, is that it is applicable across so many different contexts. We deal with such complex cases of human rights violations, often involving vast quantities of disparate information, and at the core of our practice is the idea of using the space in which these violations occur in order to synthesise all that information, to make sense of it, and to present it in a way that is transparent and comprehensible. This last point is especially important for the victims of human rights violations and their families, who become enmeshed in complex and opaque legal or political processes that are often very difficult to navigate and understand. So if our methods becoming more pervasive it means that we can help to bring them greater accountability and transparency, whether the analysis is undertaken by FA or by someone else, that would be very positive.

Forensic analysis of photographic evidence in the Ayotzinapa case. Image: Forensic Architecture, 2017

C+C: That’s where aesthetics and representation come in? By taking a complex data source and deciding how to show it?

FA: The Ayotzinapa case is an excellent example.  Our investigation began by data mining two massive reports written by an independent international group of experts on the case..  We ended up with thousands and thousands of data points about who was where and when, and we had to find a way to make legible all these relationships between people, narratives, and places. To do so, we created the Ayotzinapa platform, which we we hope will act as a tool and a resource for investigators and journalists, as well as for the families of the victims to navigate and make sense of this hugely complicated event involving so many different actors, each with their own narratives that were often contradicting or obfuscating others.

In addition to the navigable platform, we wanted to create a visual representation of these narratives for the exhibition of the work at MUAC. This resulted in the creation of a mural where you can see all the myriad and diverse narratives laid out alongside one another. In translating this work for an exhibition space, we were able to identify a number of patterns that were not so readily visible within the platform. The most interesting of these, in my opinion, is the big black line on the mural representing the official state narrative. You can clearly see how monolithic and simplified it is compared to those of the witnesses and other actors. In particular, at the end of the timeline you can start to see that the state’s narrative lines up with that of the cartels, which was obtained from cartel members under torture. These connections show the importance of the aesthetic dimension of forensic work and the value of reexamining and reconstructing our investigations in order to present them in a different way, within a different space.   

Ayotzinapa mural. Image: Forensic Architecture, 2017

C+C: It’s like a cliche of cop dramas when they’re putting all the pictures up.

FA: Something like that. What we do is kind of the multidimensional version of the big board with all the photographs and articles pinned to it and the red string connecting all these different pieces. But today there is such a vast quantity of information, and especially visual material, available not only to the police but to everyone with an internet connection, that it is simultaneously becoming increasingly possible to have high-quality, citizen-driven investigations of state violations and also increasingly difficult to verify and analyse all these materials in a meaningful way. I hope that what Forensic Architecture offers is a unique way of seeing and understanding complex human rights issues that can be utilised to bring about greater accountability and justice for those most affected by violence and oppression.

Forensic Architecture, Ground Truth. Ariel Caine, Hagit Keysar, and the children of Araqib fly kites mounted with cameras on the edge of the al­ Turi Cemetery, January 2016. Image: Ariel Caine / Forensic Architecture, 2016