James Burton on Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth

forensis_dustjacket_cover_364Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth—a summary introduction

James Burton

http://www.sternberg-press.com/?pageId=1488

In the contemporary world, environmental transformation, globalization and the digital mediatization of virtually every aspect of human existence, seem both materially and symbolically to demand that we see and make connections between everything and everything else. Yet this same hyper–connectivity becomes an obstacle whenever we need to demonstrate—and thus intervene in—the causes of violent effects. Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (2014) takes up this challenge by developing a range of innovative perspectives and methodologies for engaging with some of the most fiercely debated and potentially devastating issues in our political, social, ecological, legal and epistemological landscapes. The diverse group of researchers behind the volume share a recognition of the increasing difficulty of identifying and addressing the complex causes of human and environmental violence, and the increasing urgency today of doing just this.

Thus, as one contribution argues, adequately understanding and addressing the causes of drought-related deaths in the Sahara requires us to take into account not only the complex climatological factors and patterns affecting the transport of aerosol particles in the atmosphere, but the surrounding international and neo-colonialist politics, from negotiations at climate change conferences to the management and treatment of refugees and the exacerbation of ongoing local military conflicts (Lahoud, 2014). Likewise, determining the causes of and responsibility for widespread arsenic poisoning in the Bengal Delta and West Papua requires not only a technical examination of how harmful doses are measured, but of the effects of environmental destruction (flooding, deforestation), the politics of humanitarian aid, legal debates around the extent and assignment of ‘duty of care,’ and arguably even the nineteenth-century history of arsenic poisoning (Ahmed, 2014). Or, when would-be migrants fleeing the 2011 conflict in Libya are left adrift in a boat for two weeks in the Mediterranean, establishing responsibility for the deaths of 63 of the passengers on board, as one of the volume’s investigative teams seeks to do, must relate complex data on the path of the boat relative to other vessels (testimony, satellite imagery, ocean and wind currents, news reports), to the messy politics of humanitarian intervention, maritime law and international migration policy (Heller et al, 2014).

In such contexts the same complex processes that lead to a political, ethical or cultural need for proof of causality—and for its successful articulation and (re)presentation—increasingly obfuscate and perplex attempts to produce it. There are always more data to be gathered and interpreted, alternative perspectives to be considered, complicating factors arising from the proliferation of connections among all relevant domains, actors, processes and objects, and from the ever-more varied and complex range of technologies of recording, visualization and analysis through which they are made observable—not to mention the political technologies governing the ways they are controlled.[1] The challenges and opportunities for interventionist research are further multiplied by the proliferation of non-human agents, both technical and natural, whose influential roles must be increasingly taken into account, and which may be used either to offset or intensify claims of human responsibility—from the superhuman speed of the activity of ‘bots’ in financial trading, to the active legal status of ‘natural’ entities such as trees and rivers (see Nestler, 2014; Tavares, 2014).

Forensics is a field which has traditionally been called upon to shoulder the burden of providing proof in complicated circumstances where questions of the causes of violence, and of criminal and legal responsibility are at stake. Many of the contributors to Forensis find valuable resources and inspiration in the techniques, ideas and history of this hybridized legal-scientific domain. At the same time, they recognize that traditional forensic approaches must be subjected to new exigencies and critiques as they come into contact with scales and kinds of violence and destruction they were not designed to address, whether this takes place in the laboratory or the law court, the seminar room or the bombed-out building, within the virtual space of financial transactions or out on the open sea.

Forensis_pp548-49_Multi layer map_book
​This composite map demonstrates how the pattern of massacres corresponds to transformations in the natural and built environments: deforestation, destruction of Ixil villages, construction of model villages and roads in the Ixil area between 1979 and 1986. These are plotted against a backdrop of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) analysis of the transformation of the Ixil region, 1979–86. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

One might say that, where forensics conventionally uses a logic of contacts and traces to establish causes, Forensis subjects this logic to a Humean radicalization: where absolute proof of linear causality is recognized as impossible, the nonlinear mapping of contacts and traces as fully and extensively as possible must become the basis for critical, political and ethical judgements. If much of the theoretical impetus for such a critical forensics is developed by Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan, authors of Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics, in the volume’s first two essays,[2] perhaps the most concrete examples of a retooling of the forensic approach are to be found in the ‘cases’ dispersed across the volume—this nomenclature simultaneously evoking the social scientific case study and the focus of a legal or criminal investigation. In these collaborative projects, diverse methods and techniques, developed specifically to fit the complications of the circumstances in question, are used to establish the causes and agents responsible for violent acts or events that have proved elusive to existing legal forums. In one case, archival research into reports on drone strikes forms the basis for producing a detailed map of the geographical spread of attacks, cross-referencing data on types of target with numbers of casualties and fatalities. Detailed reconstructions of the architectural and urban environments of particular targets, and the temporal sequence of events during a strike, based on testimony, media reports, satellite imagery and other data, produce new insights into the modus operandi of this military practice and the extent of its destructive effects—giving the lie to official claims of its precision and capacity to minimize collateral damage (Forensic Architecture and SITU Research, 2014a).[3] Another case uses similar forms of data, along with detailed technical information on munitions, to produce digital simulations showing the effects of the use of the incendiary weapon white phosphorus in Iraq and Gaza—again countering claims that its use is controlled and legal (Forensic Architecture and SITU Research, 2014b).

Elsewhere, 3D laser scanning and ground-penetrating radar are used to reveal the layout and organization of a Nazi death camp in a now-populated area of Belgrade (Forensic Architecture and Grupa Spomenik, 2014); footage from multiple sources is used to produce a digital simulation of a fatal shooting by Israeli military of a man protesting an illegal wall in the West Bank (Forensic Architecture and SITU Research, 2014c); transformations in vegetation cover are used to investigate the killing of large numbers of Ixil Maya people—and the destruction of the natural and built environment on which the lives of the survivors would depend—during the Guatemalan Civil War (Forensic Architecture and SITU Research, 2014d).[4] All the cases engage in the quintessentially forensic task of establishing the circumstances and responsibility for death and destruction, yet do so using techniques and an understanding of the extent and qualitative spectrum of destructive effects that go far beyond forensics’ conventional scope.

If the retoolings of forensics exemplified in the cases imply a critique of more institutionalized approaches to the investigation of violence, especially in contexts in which its extended effects are less easy to detect (or more easy to obscure), other essays in the volume take up this critique directly. The shortcomings of existing forensic and legal methods and institutions emerging in these accounts range from the ideological values and political-economic constraints on what is considered deserving of or requiring investigation—for example in terms of the US authorities’ sustained campaign to restrict investigation into and legal jurisdiction over drone strikes (Woods, 2014; Burns, 2014)—to the material limitations arising from the sheer volume of available data, and the complexity of the processes required to transform it into evidence in tribunals such as the ICTY (Schuppli, 2014). Legal experts and practitioners provide first-hand accounts of the huge challenges posed by the judicial system, from the systemic problems in organizing and fostering communication between international courts and tribunals (Sebregondi and Romano, 2014), to the political, ethical and practical struggles involved in defending the rights of Palestinians within an Israeli court system that actively sustains the occupation of their territory (Sfard et al, 2014).

If critical forensic practices are the heart of Forensis, then as the volume’s subtitle suggests, architecture forms a thread running throughout. While in many of the contributions, actual practices of architectural construction, design and analysis—though always considered within a social and political context—form a central focus (see, for example, Cuéllar, 2014; DAAR and Perugini, 2014; van Pelt, 2014; Weiss, 2014), architecture in the wider sense of the structured material of which natural and built environments are composed, is treated throughout as a sensory register of the effects of destruction which the forensic practices seek to expose. This at once reflects the book’s origins in the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, and the subsequent evolution of the organization and composition of the group behind it, which becomes as multiplicitous, nonlinear and multi-modal as the causal relationships it seeks to make tangible. The shared and overlapping—though already diverse—interests of an initial group of researchers form nodal points for the intersection of a very large number of collaborating artists, activists, lawyers, writers, architects and scientists.

The publication of the book itself coincided with an exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, curated by Anselm Franke and Eyal Weizman, in which many of the practical aspects of the research were presented. This dimension is crucial to the broad strategy of the project, which is to develop not only new methods of acquiring or producing knowledge, but of articulating and presenting it, of visualization and representation, from the re-conception of the tourist’s photo album as a document of war (Littell, 2014), to the production of a four- (or multi-) dimensional model of an island, showing the relations between the physical, environmental, legal and socio-political forces which are continually reshaping it (Bagnato et al, 2014). Indeed, as Weizman emphasizes in the introduction, the volume takes as crucial the etymological and social relationship between forensics and the forum: especially in relation to matters of social and ethical urgency, the discovery of truths becomes inseparable from their presentation and articulation, meaning that the project is as much concerned with producing new forums as with the critique of existing ones.

In this sense, again, architecture remains key. The forums in which truths can be heard, debated, and acted upon, are products of the organization of both material space (buildings, offices, courtrooms, archives) and political, epistemological, social space: these material and immaterial dimensions are continually intertwined in the architecture of the forum; and this intertwining is at stake not only in the critical assessment of established forums, but in the attempts to establish new ones—to make room, the right kind of room, and the right kind of spatio-epistemological organization, within which obscured truths can be brought to light.

Each of the examples mentioned above seeks to produce or contribute to the construction of such forums, as does Forensis as a whole. At its most radical, perhaps, this becomes a matter of conceiving and embodying what we might think of as ‘anti-forums’: spaces demarcating, for example, the political fact of a lack of capacity—in the sense of both agency and sufficient room—for public assembly, such as the ‘parliament in exile’ conceived by one research team out of the tracing of a single line on a map (DAAR and Perugini, 2014); or indicating the inconceivability of a forum that would be adequate to the task of remembering, processing, thinking, accounting for genocide, as in Grupa Spomenik’s performance ‘Pythagorean Lecture: Mathemes of Re-association,’ which addresses this issue through the development of what Shela Sheikh calls a ‘forensic theater’ (Sheikh, 2014).

The critical forensic practices that form the core of Forensis are further contextualized and conceptually enriched by several insightful historically and philosophically informed essays, dealing with topics ranging from the microbiological pharmacology embedded in Paul Ehrlich’s pioneering work on immunology (Caygill, 2014); to the mythical invocations of sea and storm as agents in the social history of slavery (Hamed, 2014); to the contemporary transformation of earth and sky—and with them, the way humans see themselves—by the rise of modern visual aerial technologies and ‘military geology’ (Bishop, 2014).

Forensis is by necessity multi-faceted, diverse, interdisciplinary, which also means that it is not without tensions and potential contradictions. It does not offer a singular political or utopian vision, yet nor does it restrict itself to critique and condemnation. Rather, it seeks to make targeted, critical interventions that choose, and often innovate their methods of observation, analysis and (re)presentation in ways that respond directly to the circumstances and constraints of each situation.

Most importantly perhaps, what virtually all the contributors to the volume do share, is a commitment to the critique and production of new truths about some of the most dramatically destructive developments in our contemporary world—and to the creation and fostering of new forums in which those truths may have a better chance of being articulated, heard, and eventually, perhaps, meaningfully addressed.

Notes

1 See Amir (2014), Weizman, E. and Weizman, I. (2014) and Dische-Becker, E. and Ashkar, H. (2014) for sustained accounts of the way media images can obscure as much as reveal violence, another of Forensis’ recurrent themes.

2 Weizman and Keenan are members of the editorial board behind Forensis, along with Anselm Franke, Susan Schuppli, Francesco Sebregondi and Shela Sheikh.

3  See also the several essays accompanying the case in the section of the book titled “Secrets.”

4  Godofredo Pereira (2014: 591-603) gives the name “geoforensics” to these new applications of such techniques.

References

Ahmed, N. (2014) ‘The Toxic House,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Amir, M. (2014) ‘Extraterritorial Images,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Bagnato, A., Kazan, H., Meszaros Martin, H., Fernández Pascual, D., Schwabe A. [Modelling Kivalina group] (2014) ‘The Coming Storm and the Changing Shoreline of Kivalina,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Bishop, R. (2014) ‘Transparent Earth,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Burns, J. (2014) ‘Persistent Exception: Pakistani Law and the Drone War,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Caygill, H. (2014) ‘Ehrlich’s Pharmakon,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Cuéllar, G. (2014) ‘Ruins Under Construction,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

DAAR with Perugini, N. (2014) ‘Lawless Lines,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Dische-Becker, E. and Ashkar, H. (2014) ‘Panorama of Destruction,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Forensic Architecture and Grupa Spomenik. (2014) ‘Living Death Camps,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Forensic Architecture and SITU Research. (2014a) ‘Case: Drone Strikes,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Forensic Architecture and SITU Research. (2014b) ‘Case: White Phosphorus,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Forensic Architecture and SITU Research. (2014c) ‘Case: Bil’in,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Hamed, S. A. (2014) ‘Black Atlantis: Three Songs,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Heller, C., Pezzani, L. and SITU Research. (2014) ‘Case: “left-to-die boat”,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Keenan, T. and Weizman, E. (2012) Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics. Berlin/Frankfurt am Main: Sternberg/Portikus.

Lahoud, A. (2014) ‘Floating Bodies,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Littell, J. (2014) ‘Chechnya Album,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Nestler, G. (2014) ‘Mayhem in Mahwah,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Pereira, G. (2014) ‘Geoforensics: Underground Violence in the Atacama Desert,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Schuppli, S. (2014) ‘Entering Evidence: Cross-Examining the Court Records of the ICTY,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Sebregondi, F. in conversation with Romano, C. P. R. (2014) ‘The Architecture of International Justice,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Sfard, M., Forensic Architecture, SITU Research and B’Tselem, ‘Legal Ruptures: A Conversation with Michael Sfard,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Sheikh, S. (2014) ‘Forensic Theater: Grupa Spomenik’s Pythagorean Lecture: Mathemes of Re-association,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Tavares, P. (2014) ‘Nonhuman Rights,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

van Pelt, R. J. (2014) ‘The Architecture of Negation: An interview with Robert Jan van Pelt,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Weiss, S. J. (2014) ‘Ruins under Construction

Weizman, E. and Weizman, I. (2014) ‘Before and After,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Woods, C. (2014) ‘A Secret in Plain Sight,’ in Forensic Architecture (eds.), Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth. Berlin: Sternberg.

Readers may also be interested in the following TCS Special Sections: Mumbai: City as Target (26.7-8), Air-Target (28.7-8), Urban Problematic (30.7-8), as well as the following articles on architecture:

Metabolism: Utopian Urbanism and the Japanese Modern Architecture Movement
  • Tomoko Tamari

Theory, Culture & Society, 0263276414547777, first published on September 16, 2014

Terminating Architecture: Mega-Development in Hong Kong
  • Li Shiqiao

Theory, Culture & Society, December 2013; vol. 30, 7-8: pp. 277-289., first published on October 7, 2013

Scintillant Cities: Glass Architecture, Finance Capital, and the Fictions of Macau’s Enclave Urbanism
  • Tim Simpson

Theory, Culture & Society, December 2013; vol. 30, 7-8: pp. 343-371., first published on October 10, 2013

Iconic Architecture and the Culture-ideology of Consumerism
  • Leslie Sklair

Theory, Culture & Society, September 2010; vol. 27, 5: pp. 135-159.

Legislative Attack
  • Eyal Weizman

Theory, Culture & Society, November 2010; vol. 27, 6: pp. 11-32.

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