That technology lives a double life is hardly news. A decade ago, Twitter, still in its optimistic infancy, was used to galvanize opposition protests in Iran; today, it's attempting to clean out Russian-linked troll accounts. But Forensic Architecture – a research group based at Goldsmiths, University of London – reminds us that surveillance tools and resources in the age of big data can, with effort, also be turned back against unaccountable states.
Consider how the gaze is inverted in Drone Strike in Miranshah (2013–16), which solders together smuggled phone footage showing the aftermath of a 2012 US drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan. We wonder why certain parts of a building's internal wall, the scene of the blast, are missing tell-tale shrapnel markings. Think of the wall as a piece of photographic film, the voiceover tells us, and look again. When the revelation falls into place, it's horrifying: just as the negative is exposed to light, human bodies have absorbed the impact of the explosion, and left haunting outlines behind.
Forensic Architecture was founded in 2010 by architect Eyal Weizman, whose early work charted how the landscape of the Occupied Territories – from 'apartheid roads' to hilltop settlements – had been weaponized. Weizman was deeply influenced by Edward Said's demand for a counter-cartography of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And if Said demonstrated how maps were 'instruments of conquest', architecture, too, Weizman argued, had always been an explicitly political enterprise. Now Forensic Architecture's multidisciplinary researchers present their first UK survey, 'Counter Investigations' at London's ICA, which remaps state impunity. Recent investigations, many of which have been used as legal evidence, are here realized as films and weekly workshops.
If architecture too often impresses its materiality upon us, then it's the emotional properties of sound that are foregrounded in Torture in Saydnaya Prison (2015–16), shown as a documentary reconstruction of Bashar al-Assad's notorious Syrian torture cells. With journalists denied access, Forensic Architecture's investigation relied on survivors's testimony. Prisoners were kept for years in total darkness, and their painful stories are recounted in sonic terms – the drip-dripping of a tap, the crack of electric cables, and the screams of new arrivals. These traumatic memories are combined with echo profiling, as a digital model of the prison unfolds on screen.
The Murder of Halit Yozgat (2016–ongoing) is narrated through a video triptych, which revisits the 2006 shooting of a Turkish-German man in an internet cafe in Kassel, Germany – part of a wave of neo-Nazi attacks across the country. What made the killing exceptional was that a state intelligence agent, Andreas Temme, was in the cafe at the time; Temme later claimed not to have heard or smelled gunshot, or noticed the dead body before exiting the building. Forensic Architecture's film follows their building a 1:1 replica of the cafe from leaked police reconstructions, using it to track the sound of gunfire, smell of gunshot and Temme's line of sight, with damning conclusions. Temme was originally cleared as a suspect, but after Forensic Architecture's findings were shown at last year's documenta 14, the case has received renewed interest from authorities.
Jean Baudrillard famously articulated his anxieties over hyper-mediated living in his expression 'the map precedes the territory', acknowledging how our representations of space might become more 'real' to us than lived reality. His cynicism misses how maps can be redrawn and contested, revealing new territories. In an animation calling on thermal imagery, distress signals and mobile data, The Left-to-Die Boat (2012) by Forensic Architecture's offshoot project, Forensic Oceanography, traces the deadly course of refugees in the Mediterranean, set adrift off the coast of Libya in 2011; their boat is met by a succession of vessels that never stop to help. It's a tragic testament to the map's power – only when the waters are reconstituted as a mass of electromagnetic waves can we glimpse the real murder weapon: an abdication of responsibility.
Forensic Architecture, ‘Counter Investigations’ runs at the ICA, London, until 6 May.
First published in Issue 195