Forensic Architecture, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

By Robin Miller

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A bomb cloud is the consolidation of architecture, ‘a gaseous representation of both a grave and a building.’ Daily I reflect on the poetry and horror conveyed by Eyal Wiezman’s words as I am bombarded with images of violence and destruction via social media. I hear some say these images desensitize us to the brutality of violence, but what if they could be used for something else, something good? What if they could be used to prosecute those that perpetrate this violence? Earlier this month, I attended a lecture by Eyal Wiezman, founding member of Forensic Architecture research agency, as part of the Cooper Union Intra-Disciplinary Seminar (IDS) public lecture series. I become interested in the work of Forensic Architecture (FA) after reading a Twitter post by one of my LIS 651 colleagues on the Ayotzinapa case FA worked on in Mexico in which 6 people where murdered and 43 students were forcibly disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero.

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I was in awe as the researchers discussed their project. I am new to the world of data visualization and I was astounded by the 3D architectural models and cartographic incident mapping used in this case. As they spoke, I was immediately reminded of Yochai Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, and his hope for “a new information environment… one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy” (2006). Consequently, I visited the FA website and was thrilled to discover that Eyal Wiezman, one of the founding members of Forensic Architecture, had been invited to participate in the IDS series and was to speak at Cooper Union less than a week later.

In addition to his role at Forensic Architecture, Wiezman is an architect, professor of spatial and visual cultures, and Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. His lecture introduced the audience at the Rose Auditorium to the incredible work being done by FA, through 2 examples – Rafah: Black Friday, a detailed account of battles on the worst day of fighting in Gaza, and Saydnaya, an architectural recreation of a secret Syrian detention center from the memory of several survivors. He began his lecture by reminding us of the complexity of publicly available data. Citing one of his early projects, a drone mapping of the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories, he went on to explain that once their data was published, it was used by the Israeli military to facilitate the extension of their border wall causing further disruption and destruction for the Palestinians living in the surrounding areas. This was a strong reminder to all those involved with data collection, that no matter how noble are your intentions, the data can be used against you and the probability of abuse must always be at the forefront of your mind.

So what actually goes into the production of a split-second moment? For the Forensic Architecture agency each case is built by using gathered testimonies of witnesses compiled with data and images obtained through multiple channels such as satellites, ground footage and social media. Additionally, they analyze clouds, explosions, smoke plumes, and shadows to verify and correct the metadata of these gathered images. Wiezman demonstrated the forensic architectural building process through a projected video. The result is a critical narrative that he calls the Image Complex, which allows his team to probe the spatial and temporal relationships between the images and begin to reconstruct a timeline of events in realtime. Watching the build process is stunning and absolutely worth going to the FA website where they have videos available for all their projects.

The mission is simple, Forensic Architecture works with the UN, Amnesty International and other activist groups to help them build cases and bring violators of human rights to justice. The technological and ethical complexities of their work are, well, complex. In a world where anyone with a mobile phone can be an activist and an image is “currency in real-time storytelling” (forensic-architecture.org) we open ourselves up to incredible possibilities, but will we use them to help or to harm, engage or exploit? I left Cooper Union that evening and walked up 3rd Avenue with a feeling of optimism, quite rare for me these days, towards the future of Forensic Architecture and their pursuit of justice for those who violate the human rights of others.

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Sources

Benkler, Yochai (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, 1–18.

PERCS: The Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies. “The ethics of fieldwork.” Elon University.

http://ids.cooper.edu

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The Ayotzinapa Case

Rafah: Black Friday

Saydnaya

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