Anyways Elastic

Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability

Zone Books, 368pp, £30.00, ISBN 9781935408864

reviewed by Bernard Hay

How can you find the truth from pixellated imagery, memories erased by trauma, and stories suppressed by state censorship? Founded in 2010 and nominated for this year’s Turner Prize, the architectural detective Forensic Architecture has become a leading voice in socially engaged spatial culture. Over the past eight years it has developed a practice gathering, analysing and presenting architectural evidence in their search for truth against state-sanctioned injustice. In Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, Eyal Weizman, founder of the studio, has given arguably the most comprehensive overview of their work to date, alongside using the medium of the book as an extension for their practice.

In his preface, Weizman remarks that the aim of the collective is to ‘reverse the forensic gaze’. Forensic analysis, be it finger-print dusting or following the digital trace of money-laundering, is something we associate with state agencies like the police, not architecture departments in a South London university. Although popular culture is filled with detectives and personal investigators that operate outside these institutions, the reality is that states (and private corporations) hold technologies and law-sanctioned powers that give them greater ability to investigate – and defend their interpretations of – violence and injustice. Whilst, as Weizman remarks as an example, satellite imagery on platforms such as Google Maps are pixelated in line with legislation to protect privacy rights, military satellites are not so constrained, giving them a more accurate ‘birds eye’ view of potential conflict zones.

How can you reverse the forensic gaze when the technologies of forensic analysis are not available to you? Forensic architecture’s solution is to draw on the traces that can be read from the immediate urban and digital environments, be it through testimony, debris or information made available through publicly available sources. Part One of the book reads as both a theoretical and practical tool-kit, providing an overview of the forensic practices used by the collective, as well as their respective genealogies. The chapter artfully connects reflections on the legal and ethical position with practical case studies. In a discussion of their 2016 project Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison, for instance, Weizman shows how the studio used witness testimonies and digital rendering to make visible an architectural instrument of torture by creating a virtual memory palace, at the same time reflecting on the politics of forgetting.

The case studies in this book provide further tools in the studio’s armoury, providing legal and historical precedents for their future work. Aesthetics has often been connected to justice, and at times truth too. In the work of Forensic Architecture the forms of visual practice – be they films, digital renderings, graphs or installations – become legal evidence. Discussing the origins of forensic photography in the 19th century, Weizman notes that for him ‘aesthetics’ refers to the 'modes and means by which reality is sensed and presented publicly', not beauty or disinterested pleasure. While many modernist practices purported to separate the spheres of art and politics, in the hands of Forensic Architecture the aesthetic becomes the mode in which justice is sought out and argued for.

The research studio’s work requires a meticulous attention to detail in gathering evidence, often working against the limits of the media they rely on. In the second part to the book, Weizman recounts the interrelated cases of the tragic killing of two teenagers and a military search for an Israeli soldier in South-Gaza during August 2014. Over 80 pages the events of days are unpicked, expanded, and reviewed, referencing numerous powerful images and diagrams that populate the text. Drawing on over seven thousand images and videos gathered from individuals and social media, the studio reconstructed a 3D model of the city to make the case that unlawful killing had taken place by Israeli soldiers, justified by an obfuscation of the facts. Even at the end of the section, however, Weizman notes that the achievements of the studio are always contingent and open to reversal: ‘any partial success could also be abused, and the line between winning and losing is often unclear.’

Scale also makes an appearance across the book, from the microscopic investigation of chemical layers to changes on a planetary order. In Part Three, the intersections between environment, urbanism and politics become the focus of a final case-study. Examining the area just north of the Negev desert, the studio sought to show how environmental change was promoted and deployed as a way of displacing the local Bedouin population. The desert becomes a moving and porous border, shaped by mass-planting and land-clearing over a century. Again, the case study shows the extent to which their work involves groups of different magnitude, in this instance drawing on environmental science, human rights agencies and the knowledge of local populations. But the specific cases also reveal broader truths. For Weizman the conflict of the desert shows that climate change is not a just an ‘accidental . . . consequence of industrial development’ but ‘a possible tool in the arsenal of colonization.’

The politics of the Negev desert were debated in a forum titled ‘Ground Truth’, hosted in a temporary structure outside the al-Turi cemetery in January 2016. Throughout the book, Weizman distinguishes two ways in which Forensic Architecture operates. Alongside gathering and presenting evidence in courts of law, the collective also sees itself as a civic practice tasked with engaging broader publics with the issues it investigates. Through numerous exhibitions, talks and public events, the collective has occupied art galleries, biennials and other spaces as public forums to share knowledge and spark discussion. In a comment on the nomination of Forensic Architecture to the Turner Prize this year, Eyal Weizman noted the dangers being involved in the art-world can bring, not least undermining the status of the work as a form of legal evidence. But if there is one lesson to take from this book, it is that the dichotomy of art and politics is a false one. In a recent interview with Ellen Mara De Wachter in Frieze Magazine, Weizman declared: ‘Whatever “art” is, is anyways elastic. Abandoning the term to appease our critics is giving up too much. We should rather insist, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, on the evidentiary value of art and its truth value!’
Bernard Hay is a writer, editor and education curator based in London. He is Producer of Adult Learning at The Design Museum and co-founder of four by three magazine.