In today’s world of contemporary art where anything can be deemed art as long as enough people say so, the ever-blurring boundaries of the subject are becoming fuzzier by the minute. If one end of the spectrum sees art reaching its metaphysical heights, at the other there are organisations like Forensic Architecture, which works to uncover the truth of real events in minute detail. Although the London-based research agency seems far removed from today’s general perception of contemporary art — a world filled with eccentricity, concerns of gallery representation and commercial sales — Forensic Architecture is nonetheless nominated for this year’s prestigious Turner Prize. Having just won the Beazley Design of the Year award, the agency is treading new territory, navigating between the spheres of science, architecture and now, art, to provide justice for some of the world’s most underrepresented communities.
Founded by Eyal Weizman and based at Goldsmiths University, Forensic Architecture works on behalf of international prosecutors, international rights organisations and political and environment justice groups. Its practice involves recreating and presenting architectural evidence from specific events through advanced methodologies of research in order to accurately establish accountability for controversial events that occur around the world. Nathan Su, a researcher at Forensic Architecture, puts it another way. He tells It’s Nice That: “We’re interested in consolidating, finding and revealing truth misalignments in the reporting of events.” From a counter-investigation of a seized NGO rescue vessel aiding migrants crossing the Mediterranean to the ongoing examination into the devastating case of Grenfell Tower, the work of Forensic Architecture remarkably challenges statements by the highest of governing authorities, establishing a timeline of events which often reveals a tragic violation of human rights.
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Forensic Architecture: The Iuventa
“Our primary motivation is to reveal truth in a way that helps those who are disenfranchised by events that we’re investigating,” says Nathan. Through corroborating various media, whether that be verbal testimony or video evidence, the agency compares gathered material that either supports or invalidates a given version of reality. In the case of The Iuventa, Forensic Architecture counter-investigates the NGO vessel accused of colluding with human smugglers during the migrant crises in June 2017.
The Iuventa case came about at the end of 2016 as increasing numbers of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were accused by Western European governments of contributing to the growing issue of illegal immigration through making deals with traffickers. While assisting migrants from the Libyan coast en route to Europe, the German NGO vessel Iuventa was accused of illegally crossing Mediterranean waters on multiple occasions by the Italian government and the EU. The vessel was seized on 2 August 2017, after the Iuventa refused to sign an imposed “code of conduct” that would have greatly restricted the humanitarian impact of its work. In turn, Forensic Architecture was brought in to counter-investigate the Italian authority’s allegations.
Working alongside Forensic Oceanography, the counter-investigation cross-referenced material taken from onboard the vessel to establish a meticulously detailed timeline of the Iuventa’s activities. Forensic Architecture compiled elements of evidence into a “coherent spatio-temporal model” that cross-referenced GPS coordinates, go-pro videos, mobile phone images, and the ship’s AIS data (an automatic tracking system installed in all ships). “Through referencing this material, we were able to slowly build a picture of where things were,” explains Nathan, who worked as a researcher on the case.
Unlike most of the agency’s cases which are land-based, the Iuventa presented new challenges in terms of its technological work flow. In urban landscapes, the team can use programmes like Google Earth to obtain a wider picture of the geographical environment which can then inform 3D architectural models. However, when it comes to the ocean, “everything is in motion”, according to Nathan, and it is impossible to record sea level patterns as waves change all the time. Despite this, the team still managed to build up a solid picture of events to certify that the evidence being used against the Iuventa was “totally insufficient to [the authorities’] claims of what was happening.” As Nathan puts it, the Italian government, along with the EU, presented evidence that was “taken out of context” in an attempt to criminalise the rescue activities of NGOs. This scheme can be “understood as a two-pronged strategy to close off the central Mediterranean at all costs,” he says, and amounts to an attempt to “physically contain migrants in a country where their lives are endangered”.
In a time when migrant solidarity groups are attacked and criminalised across the world, the case of the Iuventa is significant in every sense. It highlights the lack of respect given to the migrants’ welfare as well as a lack of vocal representation for the migrant communities themselves. The case sits at the intersection of various media, from news reporting to academic research, and although it does not seemingly present itself in the context of art, these cases reach a wider audience through utilising the art world’s platform as a propellor into other forms of mainstream conversation.
The Iuventa is just one case in Forensic Architecture’s output that unapologetically speaks uncomfortable truths to power. Regardless of socio-economic status, the agency examines “the sense of scepticism between the media’s representation of events and the political agendas of those that surround it”, says Nathan. Through precisely analysing evidence, the significance of the organisation’s work fundamentally lies in its open “approach to give a voice to marginalised stories”.
Although there are methodologies that the agency consistently returns to, Forensic Architecture adapts its working processes to the case in question. In some instances, the team is able to conduct on-site visits, and in others it is deemed too dangerous or the site may have been destroyed. In the case of Umm al-Hiram, the team was able to cross-reference material gained from the physical field with analytical lab technology.
The case was sparked by a series of tweets in January this year. Israeli police raided the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran as part of an effort to force Bedouin communities away from land earmarked for new Israeli settlements. Two people were killed in the raid: Yakub Musa Abu al-Qi’an, a Bedouin resident of the village, and Erez Levi, an Israeli policeman. The Israeli police and government allege the deaths were caused by a “terror attack” caused by Yakub, who they associate with the terrorist group ISIL. Yet eye-witness reports contradict the claims and Forensic Architecture built a case that meticulously reconstructs the events of the night to establish what in fact happened.
Using the same model of car as was used in the shooting, the agency recreated the event through a physical reconstruction in the same location to gage how the slope of the road and the terrain would affect the car’s movement. The team gathered new media from the site, using the latest advancements in photogrammetry to create a digital simulation of the landscape by stitching together hundreds of photos. This highly detailed 3D model “maps out all the little bumps and curves in the road”, says Nathan, recreating a digital map “of the exact topography”. Then, Forensic Architecture was able to “digitally simulate a car moving down the road and project images from the night onto the architectural map”. In particular, the Umm al-Hiram case demonstrates the forensic cross-referencing “between three different forms of evidence: material evidence, digital and physical reconstructions and time stamped social media records.”
As with the case of The Iuventa, the presentation of the “facts” in Umm al-Hiran are seriously tainted by the political agendas of the parties involved. “We live now in a world where proliferation and ubiquity of recorded media has this two-pronged effect”, says Nathan. “One involves being able to manipulate narrative through a curated selection of sequences. The other effect of the media holds the potential to be a mass of evidence that we can in fact use to question the actuality of events.” Forensic Architecture’s analysis fundamentally challenges our perception of reality. “Do we see media as a way to verify truth or gain the truth? Or do we see it as a way to question everything that we are presented with?”
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Forensic Architecture: Umm al-Hiran
Forensic Architecture is currently building a case around Grenfell Tower in support of the victims and their support networks. Working towards a public presentation next year, the ongoing inquiry hopes to “support the community and their legal representatives”; however, the ultimate intention is to create a public resource around the complex social issues that resulted in the devastating event. Through reading hundreds of documents and inspecting thousands of photographs, Forensic Architecture is looking into finding a way to record this data into a navigable document that is “legible both for the public and for all the parties involved”. A daunting task, not only because of the catastrophic events of the night, but also because of the associated issues of socio-economic inequality that stretch far back in time. “We want to build some kind of intuitive way where we can really understand the effects of a policy and how responding to a particular emergency call simultaneously plays out in time and space,” says the researcher. Not only is Forensic Architecture constructing a picture of the event itself, the team is creating a vast social map that documents the consequences of legal and architectural mishaps.
Along with the rest of Forensic Architecture’s investigations, its findings present larger, social issues around the fickle nature of representation. Returning back to the looming Turner Prize nomination that will be announced next week on 4 December, the spotlight will turn on the agency itself. Whether the team wins or not, their perception in the media is changing through association with the prize and an increasing presence in the art and design world. “As an office,” says Nathan, “we have to be careful about navigating through that line between art advocacy and more.” Although it’s “totally honouring and humbling” to be nominated for such an award, there is a slight note of doubt in Nathan’s voice that could reflect a reluctance to be tied to such a self-celebratory award. “In some ways it’s very positive for the office to have an amplified voice and presence in London.” In other ways, Nathan notes, “it’s also made the navigation between whether we’re practicing as artists, or as scientific experts, in some way more difficult.”
Forensic Architecture: Grenfell Tower
Forensic Architecture: Grenfell Tower
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.