When Does Artistic Research Become Fake News? Forensic Architecture Keeps Dodging The Question

When the Haifa-born architect Eyal Weizman was writing his dissertation about Israeli architecture on the West Bank, one of the world’s most contested and most photographed regions, he noticed that satellite imagery showed a strange settlement shaped like a banana. If a student had suggested such a plan, he told an interviewer in 2002, he would have assumed it was a joke: the layout is laughably inefficient, both maximizing traffic and minimizing pedestrian access. Eventually Weizman, working with fellow architect Rafi Segal, realized that the plan has an implicitly political effect: it both bisects a Palestinian road and partially surrounds a Palestinian settlement.

The two men presented this and other findings in the exhibition “A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture,” Israel’s official entry to the 2002 World Congress of Architecture in Berlin. Unsurprisingly, the show was swiftly canceled by the Israel Association of United Architects, which oversees the country’s contribution. But for Weizman—who later published the book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (2007), on this and other designs he sees as instruments of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF)—the findings were formative. He has since devoted himself to using architectural analysis to investigate human rights violations committed by states worldwide.

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In 2010, with the help of a European Research Council grant, Weizman formed a research center called Forensic Architecture (FA) at Goldsmiths in London, where he is a professor. Sustained by grants and university funding, the center draws researchers and students from different departments, and offers master’s degrees and PhDs in forensic architecture, along with the chance to join a team of investigators comprising more than 100 current and former members. And, at least according to the books that members have written on their own work—Forensic Architecture (2017) and Investigative Aesthetics (2021)—FA is more than a formal group: it’s a movement and a methodology.

After realizing how much they could glean about architecture and state power from satellite imagery, Weizman and his collaborators developed digital methods for studying buildings and the traces that conflicts leave on them. They have investigated tragedies including bombings in Gaza, migrant death and mistreatment in the Mediterranean, environmental racism in Louisiana, air strikes in Ukraine, and, time and again, abuses by the IDF. The group’s tools include making models and timelines that cross-reference and contextualize clips and images—evidentiary fragments—in time and space. Mapping videos they find online, source from satellites, or gather from activists and witnesses, FA members create panoramas that document crime scenes. Often, they use a technique called photogrammetry, a technique for extracting measurements from a series of photographs to create 3D models.

Weizman says he often arranges fragments to tell a story that “unfolds between images rather than within images.” Citing theorist Katrina Sluis, the group refers to our current time as “post-photographic,” an era when individual images are less telling than the relations between them. And so they build models to fill in the gaps.

In a gallery, black walls covered in white text have glowing diagrams, all illegible at this scale.
View of the exhibition “Forensis,” 2014, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

THE FIRST PROJECT catalogued in Forensic Architecture’s extensive online archive is a 2012 commission from Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard. He asked the group to survey the West Bank town of Battir and model the impact that a proposed Israeli security wall would have on the residents. FA found the plan would block Palestinian access to an important Ottoman train route connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Petitions and protests proliferated. (When, in 2015, UNESCO granted the region endangered World Heritage status for its striking ancient irrigation system, the security wall project was swiftly canceled.)

Sfard also commissioned FA to look into an earlier incident: the 2009 death of Palestinian demonstrator Bassem Abu Rahma, who was killed by a tear gas canister fired by an IDF soldier. Abu Rahma was protesting the continued presence of a “closed military zone” fence near the village of Bil’in that Israel’s Supreme Court had already deemed unconstitutional. In the video, Sfard says that “expansionist ideas” delayed implementation of the court’s ruling for several years.

The IDF initially decided not to investigate the killing. FA responded by triangulating footage shot by three different witnesses, showing that the shooter, who is outside the frame in all three clips, had pointed his tear gas gun directly into Abu Rahma’s chest. Legally, the soldier was allowed to shoot the projectile only upward, at a trajectory of 60 degrees. The canister’s purpose is to dispense tear gas, not to fire a projectile. The court eventually ruled that the soldier was in the wrong, but it accepted the IDF’s claim that the individual could not be identified. This project, the first of many FA digital spatial reconstructions, kicked off the group’s practice of investigating injustices committed by governments around the world, which often avoid prosecuting their own agents.

FA’s ideas are an effective antidote to the ennui gnawing at many architects. For those fed up with working at corporate firms for long hours and low wages, just to be what architecture critic David Huber has called “designer-minions serving the interests of powerful clients,” the Goldsmiths group represents a way to channel disciplinary expertise toward something more humane. In architecture school, students are often asked to dream up ideal worlds; in firms, they find that only a small sliver of the population has the means to commission new construction, and patrons’ values can sometimes be at odds with their own.

In 2014, Forensic Architecture mounted its first-ever museum exhibition, “Forensis,” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. Very quickly, new conundrums arose. The show included projects commissioned by various human rights organizations, plus a self-initiated work that treated the museum, not the courtroom, as its forum; like FA’s other investigations, this latter piece, which concerns the death of 63 Libyan migrants left adrift at sea for two weeks, was shown as a video. But here, viewers don’t see lawyers speaking in offices or shaky on-the-scene iPhone footage. Instead, the screen looks like a game of Battleship; video interviews with the few migrants who survived show up as small frames plotted on a cool blue map. Meanwhile, a voiceover asks unsettling questions, among them “what are the conditions that turn the sea into a deadly liquid?” With its digital renderings and ominous soundtrack, the work is much more produced than FA’s commissioned projects.

A dozen or so screens hang from the ceiling showing renderings that appear to register audio levels but use the colors of a thermal sensor.
View of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s exhibition “Earshot,” 2016, at Portikus, Frankfurt.

Forensic Architecture is always forthright about who instigates and funds a given inquiry. Whether ongoing cases or self-initiated projects, the group hopes that publicity from museums will put pressure on the powers that be, and effect change. In a 2021 Guardian article, the group wrote—collectively, citing no member names—that it exhibits its findings in galleries and museums “when other sites of accountability are inaccessible,” as if art is the last resort. But this is misleading, since projects are often shown in several forums.

Occasionally, commentators seeking to discredit FA’s investigations will dismiss the group as “just artists,” but FA emphatically refuses to distinguish between art and investigation. They argue that craft and performance—what Weizman calls “aesthetics”—are embedded in every story told in courtrooms and newspapers.

Their presence in the art world establishment is only growing: the group’s work has made a splash in nearly every major biennial of late, and in 2018, they were nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize. Weizman reacted to the news with a tweet, asking, “will it help promote FA’s cause and investigations (what matters) or get us subsumed within the arts-financial-complex?” He then declared, “I’d rather lose prizes and win cases.”

On a curved projection screen in a gallery, three renderings of plants are shown against a blurry airport shot.
View of the installation Cloud Studies, 2022, in the Berlin Biennale.

WEISMAN’S OFTEN-QUOTED COMMENT expressing suspicion about the award suggests that FA was indifferent to the art world until institutions came along, and only then begrudgingly acquiesced in the interest of greater visibility for their causes. But this is not how it happened. When I reached out to Anselm Franke of HKW, who cocurated FA’s inaugural exhibition with Weizman, Franke said that at the time he was a member of the group (or, in his words, “a double agent”). On its website, Forensic Architecture members designate themselves and HKW as the show’s co-funders.

Weizman said in a 2018 Frieze interview that “the decision to show things in exhibitions is made in consultation with the lawyers and families involved.” But this does not always resolve the uncomfortable dynamic at play when it seems as if FA is making a career exploiting peoples’ trauma. Often, they show the research years after the cases have been closed, and it isn’t always clear who benefits from the display.

These dynamics are most suspect in works that focus more on the group’s innovative uses of technology than on human rights violations. FA almost always presents its findings in the form of interactive online platforms, or as videos with didactic voiceovers that explain the situation and the investigative process. The group says that the goal of these explanations is transparency: they are making their methods open-source so that others can replicate them. But too often, in effect, FA’s impressive handling of the technology becomes the narrative’s protagonist.

In their first investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria, in Khan Sheikhoun, the group endeavored to measure the size of a weapon’s impact crater, hoping to help determine what exactly left the indentation. They used a complex process of photogrammetry—but since the crater is less than 5 feet wide and they had collaborators on the ground gathering fragments, a tape measure would probably have sufficed. When Artnet News critic Ben Davis reviewed Airstrike on Babyn Yar (2022), a project about a missile attack in Ukraine, he pointed out that FA’s investigation basically determined that “the time of a particular Russian airstrike was … the same as the first reports of that same Russian airstrike.”

A dozen or so screens hang from the ceiling showing renderings that appear to register audio levels but use the colors of a thermal sensor.
View of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s exhibition “Earshot,” 2016, at Portikus, Frankfurt.

Other works evoke the saying that, to someone with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Some of FA’s architectural spins on human rights abuses can feel forced, though Weizman’s blunt rationale is that “most people dying in contemporary conflicts die in buildings.” Take FA’s project investigating a Syrian military prison located in Saydnaya, just north of Damascus. Prisoners there were kept in the dark for years at a time, sensory deprivation being just one of many ways in which they were tortured. Journalists were forbidden access to the prison. But FA, with a commission from Amnesty International, managed to get in touch with several survivors. Their most vivid memories were of sounds, which they relayed to FA member Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Like a Foley artist, Hamdan re-created the sounds they described, and worked with other FA members to map the noises on a digital model of the prison’s interior that they based on satellite imagery of the exterior. Some prisoners were kept in solitary confinement with so little stimuli that they memorized exactly how many tiles lined the floors of their cells.

The excruciating testimonies sometimes conflict—which is understandable, since the victims were severely traumatized and couldn’t see—but work’s the final form, a 3D model of the building, allows no room for uncertainty or ambiguity. On the website, you can click on various rooms to hear witnesses recall heart-wrenching experiences of torture, along with Foley sounds linked to their memories. Conceptually, re-creating a space based on sonic memories is a darkly poetic prompt. But since the work isn’t meant to be poetic but rather to effect change, it’s less clear why a model of the building is the medium of choice, given that it is based on conflicting accounts, and thus doomed to inaccuracy.

Women in green hijabs spin in front of a desktop background that's set to an image of a desert.
Hito Steyerl: How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, video, 15 minutes, 52 seconds.

MOST FA MEMBERS are trained in architecture, but really, what they produce is video art, insofar as they are constantly showing moving image works in museums. In a 2017 Artforum essay titled “Real Fictions: Alternatives to Alternative Facts,” Hal Foster mentions FA’s practice alongside those of German artist-filmmakers Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerl. Each of the three responds “to the near monopoly, on the part of corporations and governments, over what counts as real.” Bringing in the work of Trevor Paglen, Foster argued that, rather than positioning themselves as deconstructionists who merely challenge meanings once thought secure, these artists reconstruct significant facts: they combine artifice with documentary in order to dredge up truths that have been occluded.

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These “reconstructionists” seem to conceive the artist as a gifted seer, someone who helps all of us see threats and truths hidden in plain sight. In Weizman’s view, “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.” Onscreen, reconstructionist filmmakers might freeze frames or draw circles and lines that show viewers where and how to look.

Weizman has himself cited Farocki and Steyerl as influences, but FA’s practice differs from that of the two German filmmakers in important ways. Steyerl’s 2013 magnum opus, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, exposes facts about the omnipresence of surveillance, and responds with an absurdist instructional video that tells viewers how to hide. Her desperate tips, including a quip recommending “being female and over 50,” gesture toward the futility of the goal.

Steyerl’s work helped popularize an understanding of surveillance technology, as well as a view of technocracy. But it isn’t merely didactic (despite the title): it also deals poignantly with the frenetic and helpless feelings induced by the facts it brings up. Watching it, one is never counting on the work to be fully factual.

Earlier, in his landmark work Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989), Farocki told an astonishing story about the links between pictures and conflicts in a landmark essay film conveyed mostly through visuals, especially, aerial photography. Farocki, Steyerl’s teacher, remarked that he tried “not to add ideas to the film” but instead to “look for submerged meaning” in the footage. The finished works are open-ended. He invited his viewers to be active and engaged, and to come to their own conclusions.

Many early video artists—Dara Birnbaum and Dan Graham among them—were terrified of how easily the moving image could brainwash viewers, so they endeavored to use the tool to awaken a critical consciousness in their audience, to equip them with a kind of skepticism and media literacy. Farocki, in a similar fashion, embodies a mantra from Filmmaking 101: show, don’t tell. But FA, for their part, makes sure there is no room for ambiguity, effectively suggesting that exploiting the medium’s brainwashing qualities is OK if the politics are good.

FA readily embraces technology as a tool, while the German filmmakers proffered endless warnings. Foster reads Images of the World to mean “that we can no longer hold humanist uses of seeing, measuring, and imaging apart from military, industrial, and bureaucratic abuses of such techniques.” But FA contends that “the politics of images are not predetermined by the technology they were captured in.” In other words, they turn tools of surveillance back on the governments and corporations that seek to control those tools.

FA’s works, however, often contradict their own theoretical arguments. The group calls mapping, perhaps its most frequently used tool, a “colonial technique of power.” It decries sensory overload as a form of torture, even “a foundation of state and empire,” referring to how hyperesthesia assaults our senses and confounds our ability to think. But then, Triple-Chaser (2019), one of FA’s best-known works, assails viewers with a long stroboscopic scene depicting tear gas canisters against brightly colored backgrounds. The video can be painful to watch.

A masculine hand is pointing something to an aerial map.
Harun Farocki: Images of the World and the Inscription of
, 1988, 16mm film, 75 minutes.

SURPRISINGLY, IN “REAL FICTIONS,” Foster makes no mention of the danger of artist-researchers proffering alternative facts in the age of post-truth. But today, in the aftermath of a blatantly lying president, rampant climate-change denialism, and a lethal anti-vaccine hysteria, the risk is of urgent concern.

Less surprisingly, FA’s stance on the matter of post-truth is rife with contradictions. In its early years, the group managed to avoid the issue almost completely. But when pressed by interviewers, Weizman has maintained that all news involves some kind of “aesthetics” and questions why it should be distinguished from art.

FA seems to take this as permission to muddle index and inference. When one “fact” in their work is a guess and another is known, we are sometimes told as much in a voiceover, but often, both items are treated the same in the final timeline or model. In fact, the group has stated outright that “forensic aesthetics is about reducing the gap between what is certain and what is probable,” and there are countless places in their confident voiceovers that really ought to include a small hedge, words like probably or suggests. Though the group is transparent about its processes, it is seldom so when it comes to raw data. Perturbingly, even the group photo that accompanied the announcement of their Turner Prize nomination appears, upon close inspection, photoshopped: a few members’ heads float behind the shoulders of others, apparently unattached to bodies that might anchor them to the scene. It can be hard to get a global group together in one room, but why not collage individual portraits in a way that makes the composite nature of the image unmistakable? Forensic Architecture chose instead to cover up the seams.

Weizman has said that most of the “fake news” accusations lodged against FA come from parties who disagree with the group’s politics. But even as the group offers proof in conventional forms, it still cites one of Nietzsche’s most controversial claims—“there are no facts, only interpretations”—as a guiding maxim. In their 2021 book Investigative Aesthetics, Weizman and fellow Goldsmiths professorMatthew Fuller even praise Surrealist artists before them who “insist on the real as something that must be invented.”

In Weizman’s 2019 essay “Open Verification,” published in e-flux Architecture, where FA member Nick Axel is deputy editor, he resorts to mental gymnastics to try to distinguish his methodology from that of the alt-right. Weizman writes that, understandably, he is interested in questioning established authorities: “government experts, universities, science laboratories, mainstream media, and the judiciary.” Then he goes on to say that, rather than descend into resignation or relativism, he proposes a “more vital and risky form of truth production.” But these post-truth relativists are a straw man: wouldn’t most poll watchers and anti-vaccine citizen scientists describe themselves as Weizman does?

While investigative aesthetics “remains suspicious of terms such as ‘fact,’ ‘evidence,’ ‘truth;’ and ‘knowledge,’” Weizman explains, it seeks to “reframe and tease them open rather than abandon them.” Here, as elsewhere, he tries to have it both ways, which is perhaps no way at all. Compounding his contradictions, he claims that, despite the group’s name, what Forensic Architecture really does is “counter-forensics.” This term refers to a practice of Argentinean activists who, in the 1980s, exhumed and analyzed the bodily remains of victims of political repression. Forensics are for police; FA hopes to hold the state accountable for its crimes.

It’s easy to understand why FA members, like many others, are suspicious of “the authority of experts and their institutions of knowledge.” The French philosopher Bruno Latour spent his life urging scientists to consider that their tools for measurement and study are not inherently neutral, but always reflect particular social and political contexts. Latour was influential in asking people to question the ways that knowledge is produced. But late in life, he made an important clarification: in questioning tools and infrastructure, he said, he never meant to pave the way for post-truth. As Farocki and Latour advocated, we ought to abandon our faith not in truth but in tools.

A grayscale rendering of a building with three wings seen from above.
A digital architectural model of Saydnaya Prison in Syria.

ART DOES NOT HAVE PROTOCOLS for verification or accountability the way other disciplines do. In journalism, there are certainly errors, but there are also mechanisms for correcting errors, even though such accountability can never perfectly right a wrong. FA, however, in refusing to be confined by a single discipline also elides professional infrastructures for accountability.

The conceit seems to be: it’s OK if some details are imperfect; what matters are the results. Each case is detailed on FA’s website, where any follow-up is also logged, and the real-world impact is often impressive. When FA showed Triple-Chaser at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, I was, first and foremost, elated that it helped get Warren Kanders off the museum’s board. The businessman owned Safariland, a tear gas manufacturer, and the video showed his products being used to suppress protests around the world. If that were truly the cost of art, no thank you! But in the spectacular and seductive work—with David Byrne as narrator—the group took shortcuts, like saying “we found evidence” of Safariland’s products in numerous countries, without disclosing what the evidence was. This bears some concerning similarities to moves from the Fox News handbook of demagoguery. The video explains enthusiastically how FA’s advanced algorithm aimed to identify canisters that were Safariland Triple-Chasers. Meanwhile, the detection algorithm displays only 6 percent confidence that it has identified a match in a canister shown on-screen with a label as plain as day.

FA’s work is undeniably important and useful. But the beliefs that underpin it—and that it also propagates—are dangerous. And the group’s influence is spreading. When Artnet News writer Hili Perlson covered FA’s breakout presentation at Documenta 14, she said the work on view was “stretching the definition of what may constitute an artwork.” Five years later, when Davis, the Artnet News critic, reviewed the 2022 Berlin Biennale, which included many works by the group, he noted that their “art-as-investigation genre is one of the most prominent and in-demand genres of art.”

FA is certainly not the enemy. I’m reminded of this in their investigation of Nakba Day shootings in 2014, when two Palestinian teenagers, Nadeem Nawara and Mohammed Abu Daher, were killed by IDF soldiers. Nadeem’s father found the bullet that killed his son inside the boy’s school bag, but the IDF claimed the bullet was rubber and the evidence was doctored. FA found, among other pieces of evidence, a chilling comment in an online forum: An anonymous IDF soldier explained how to make it seem as if you are shooting a rubber bullet when in fact you are shooting a live round. Then he adds that such precautions are probably unnecessary, since “in any case … the Palestinians take the body and there is no investigation.” But that year, thanks in part to FA, there was. The resulting sentence was the very first time an IDF soldier was charged with killing a minor—though the trial lasted almost four years, and the prosecution agreed to a plea deal.

Still, I worry that their fuzzy evidence and debatable conclusions sometimes give fodder to the enemies we have in common, even as I understand that the pursuit of truth can seem pointless when anyway, “there is no investigation.” Today, frankly, art with good politics is unlikely to be criticized. But shouldn’t we be asking our allies to do better? Now, as the FA model of investigative artistic research propagates—taking such forms as a news channel by the artist group For Freedoms, or an artist-led podcast on public health called Death Panel—it’s important to think about the consequences. Though the crisis of the moment may feel urgent, the long-term effects of eroding a shared belief in truth are far more dangerous.  

Source: artnews.com

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