Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability
(Zone Books, 2017)
After years of drone warfare, neoliberal “creative destruction,” and the proliferation of propaganda via the management of media channels, it is clear that the spheres of political economy and technological warfare are ever more disturbingly bound with the production, dissemination, and obfuscation of information. In an effort to untangle our political and technological positions, we face an imperative to develop models with which to decode inundating waves of data mobilized against civilian victims of violence. In the realms of juridical activism, political aesthetics, and art working, a tendency towards forensic analysis has emerged to work toward this effort.
The artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who has taken up this forensic turn in his work, recently described his practice as a “private ear,” which analyzes “sonic evidence both in its own right and as a constituent part of the means through which it becomes politically perceived.” As an illustrative example, his video work Rubber Coated Steel features digital audio signatures hanging like targets in a shooting range. The wave forms are visual representations of the sounds of bullets being fired that civilians and news media recorded during a specific outbreak of violence in the occupied West Bank in 2014. Just one of the many transdisciplinary members of the London-based research agency Forensic Architecture, Abu Hamdan worked with the team in order to implicate the Israeli Defense Force in the Nakba day (May 15, 2014) killings of two Palestinian teenagers, Mohammad Abu Daher and Nadeem Nawara. The investigation into these killings, and a dense analysis of the events of August 1, 2014 (the deadliest day in the 2014 Gaza War), comprise the second part of Eyal Weizman’s Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability.
Founded in 2010, Forensic Architecture conducts militant forensic research and works on behalf of and with human rights groups, activist organizations, and the families of victims to investigate violence in multiple states—though the crux of their work concentrates on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. If courts had previously relied almost exclusively on positivistic “expert” analysis, the post-war moment saw a turn to testimony—the Eichmann trial being the best example. A parallel turn to testimony in art production emerged with self-reflexive performance practices, (auto)biography in film, and so-called anthropological and archival impulses. Currently constituting a “forensic turn,” activism and variegated “social practices” have again developed somewhat in concert. Following this parallel, and given that national (and supranational) courts are by definition often implicated in the machinations of the very states Forensic Architecture works against, Weizman notes that the art context periodically provides the only feasible, or permissible, forum for the presentation of their research. After all, if a case in the International Criminal Court is blocked, where can one go next?
Forensic Architecture opens, reasonably, with a section entitled “What is Forensic Architecture?” There, Weizman formulates answers to the question by summarizing an array of projects ranging from an analysis of violent urban displacement in Belgrade to the illegal use and subsequent cover-up of “white phosphorus” chemical weapons by the IDF in Gaza. Each specific example serves to illustrate different theoretical methodologies and terms that the group’s practice relies upon: “counterforensics” as a way to invert forensic analysis against the state apparatus; “engaged objectivity” implying an ethical posture from which to navigate between detachment, scientific “expert” analysis, and emotional involvement; and “field causality” which refers to “indirect forms of causality, multidirectional and disturbed over extended spaces and time durations” to expand the scope of evidence analyzed. The third section, “Ground Truths,” focuses on “ecological” underpinnings of slow violence, describing, among other cases, the structural history of Bedouin displacement due to a “fleeting meteorological threshold” between what is considered desert and arable land “drawn on maps and coded into laws” by those states with the power to do so. Weizman traces the generations of violence bound with the classification of the longest continuous aridity line beginning in West Africa and continuing east unabated to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and describes the “politics of drought” and displacement as it emerges from the combination of meteorological conditions, cartographic classifications, and the uneven distribution of land and water.
Of the broad swathe of discursive propositions that structure Forensic Architecture’s work, the “threshold of detectability” holds an important place. The term denotes a condition in which documented “things hover between being identifiable and not” and describes the group’s working relationship to photographic evidence. Analog photography blurs objects of a certain size based on the film’s chemical composition, and analogously, digital film omits anything smaller than the pixel size, creating an optic “net.” While militaries have access to incredibly precise satellite imagery, international privacy law purposefully obscures images of human bodies from publicly available archives of satellite photography because of pixel size. This threshold of visibility has led to abuses, including the neoliberal “humanitarian” justification for targeted drone strikes by the United States military, accounting for 1,614 civilian deaths in Pakistan alone between 2004 and 2014. As proof of the porousness of the optic net created by the comingling of digital imaging technologies and privacy laws, these bombs’ entry points into civilian homes are practically invisible in publicly available images. Thus, pictures have to be read to glean more than just what they “show.”
Following Ariella Azoulay’s writing, Forensic Architecture reads photographs and video recordings not as “inaccessible” conduits documenting an objective gaze, but rather as events themselves. In this consideration, the circumstances and relations involved in how the image is produced, broadcast, viewed, acted upon, and studied become integral to its informational value. Such a “reformulation of the ontology of photography as a political ontology,” Azoulay writes, “constitutes a basis for civil, post-sovereign thinking.” While digital media’s continued proliferation into civilian life has been theorized as a potential corrective to human rights violations, Forensic Architecture’s process demonstrates the extensive amount of time and resources needed to realize this potential ideal. As Weizman writes: “What took the Israeli military a day to destroy (and will take Palestinians a decade to rebuild […]), took our team a year to research.” Thus, techniques for decoding the information in cell phone videos, WhatsApp voice messages, and other digital technologies and apps are crucial to the kinds of resistance Forensic Architecture’s work makes possible.
The group’s mapping of violence is disseminated via extensive documentation on their website, exhibitions in major art institutions (such as documenta 14), media exposure (appearing on Al Jazeera in 2014), self-produced forums, and perhaps most consequentially, in international courts. Weizman’s prolific writing provides yet another forum. In “Walking through Walls,” a widely circulated and celebrated chapter from his 2007 Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, for example, he describes the IDF’s integration of postmodern theory into its military strategy in the early 2000s. In a profoundly perverse example of the recuperation and absorption of resistance, Situationist tactics, such as the dérive, and the writings of Deleuze and Guattari were implemented to invade dense Palestinian urban networks. Similar cooptation is frequently addressed in Forensic Architecture, as well: extreme-right groups adopt models of “lawfare;” military forces utilize activist-produced evidence to manipulate event narratives; states justify war crimes through recourse to “humanitarian” law.
In the case of their investigative work into the May 15 killings, Forensic Architecture’s analysis concluded that live rounds were used by IDF soldiers, rather than rubber-coated steel bullets as they claimed. (The rubber-coated bullets are classified as non-lethal and would legally exculpate the individual Israeli soldiers). Incorporating this evidence into their meticulous research of the crime, they presented their case in the Israeli High Court. State representatives in such cases always begin by denying all allegations, according to Weizman. Then, once denial becomes impossible, the violation is “privatized” with fault assigned to individual soldiers, rendering the state’s actions legitimized in the process. The proceedings led to a minor juridical victory but to no real justice for Abu Daher and Nawara; yet, the trial did succeed in that the vast majority of such cases are usually not heard at all, and the presented evidence set a juridical precedent that may serve future victims and plaintiffs.
At a recent talk at e-flux in New York, Weizman reported that the most common tactic states employ to discredit Forensic Architecture’s work is to label the group’s members “just artists”—thus, practitioners without relevant experience. “Architecture,” Weizman counters in the book, “is a crucial analytical frame to apply when buildings, ruins, and cities are concerned. Similarly, we argued, at a time when there are so many images and so much footage coming out of war zones, the work of the image practitioners on our team—the filmmakers, photographers, and artists—is evidently essential.” Every page of Forensic Architecture documents unbelievable work accomplished by employing “artistic” skills to counter-investigate state violence: from the creation of a “cloud atlas” from thousands of videos of IDF bombings in Gaza to map the attacks to the modeling of Saydnaya Prision, a secret Syrian facility, from prisoners’ memories of traveling sounds and slight fluctuations in light. While the group’s website is a dense resource, and Weizman’s previous writings a deep theoretical foundation to their practical work, a major strength of this book is the interweaving of documented evidence, theory, and practical methodology. Forensic Architecture is both handbook and dossier, a presentation of activist research and a call for further militant activism. A precedent has surely been set.
- Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “Hear, Hear,” Texte zur Kunst no. 108 (December, 2017), accessed from: https://www.textezurkunst.de/108/lawrence-abu-hamdan-en/.
- Unless otherwise cited, all quotations of Weizman come from Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (New York: Zone Books, 2017).
- Ariella Azoulay, “What is a Photograph? What is Photography?” Philosophy of Photography vol. 1, no. 1 (2010).
- The panel, shared with Malachy Browne of The New York Times, can be accessed on e-flux’s website here: http://www.e-flux.com/video/164263/investigative-aesthetics-in-architecture-and-journalism-eyal-weizman-in-conversation-with-malachy-browne/.
- The report is available on B’Tselem’s website: https://www.btselem.org/download/200205_land_grab_eng.pdf.
ANDREAS PETROSSIANTS is a New York-based art historian, and a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.