The Art of Forensics
An Interview with Eyal Weizman
Eyal Weizman is the founding director of the multidisciplinary research agency Forensic Architecture, based at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures. He is the author of a number of books and has held academic positions at universities worldwide. He is a member of the Technology Advisory Board of the International Criminal Court and the Centre for Investigative Journalism. He is the recipient of many awards, including being elected a Life Fellow of the British Academy in 2019 and in 2020 receiving a MBE for “services to architecture.” As well, Forensic Architecture has received the Peabody Award for interactive media and the European Cultural Foundation Award for Culture. To date, Eyal Weizman and Forensic Architecture have conducted 81 human rights and state violence investigations in countries all over the world, including Israel, Greece, Ukraine, Germany, Palestine, Colombia, Yemen, the USA, Myanmar, Chile, France, Lebanon, Indonesia, Syria, Spain and England.
The work of Forensic Architecture has been mounted as exhibitions in art galleries internationally: “Cloud Studies” at the 12th Berlin Biennial in 2022; “Three Doors” at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, 2022; “Forensic Architecture: Witnesses,” Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, 2022; “Terror Contagion” at the Musée d’art contemporain, Montreal, 2021; “Triple Chaser” at the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, New York, 2019; “The Long Duration of a Split Second,” Turner Prize, Tate Britain, 2018. This partial list of the engagement by Forensic Architecture of art galleries as sites for the understanding and presentation of their work exemplifies their use of aesthetics in the traditionally understood sense of the word, and in part this is correct. Making an argument in a setting that doesn’t foreground science and a delineated set of verifiable, cross-referenced, peer-assessed, institutionally supported facts opens the possibility for consideration of events in a manner where experiences of sound as well as a sightline, the inclusion of the rhythm of a syncopated heartbeat, the scent of something immediately evocative but difficult to record, the feeling of misted air played across the skin are all amplifications leading to something closer to a kind of verification the state or polity would prefer not be achieved.
More broadly, the reference to aesthetics is to the full employment of the senses, to sensory perception, to a more complete apprehension of a situation or an event that moves beyond what might be readily apparent. It’s what Eyal Weizman identifies as an expansive field of aesthetics in which researchers are not experts with a single specialized area. It’s this approach that is elaborated by Eyal Weizman and Matthew Fuller—what they describe as “investigative aesthetics” in their book Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth (Verso, London, New York, 2021). Forensic Architecture uses open source investigation (OSInt), which is readily and publicly available—a partial list as follows: “videos and photos posted by witnesses or perpetrators of violence, commercial satellite images, online databases of scientific data and publications.” But still, finding the root or source in poetry and, here, drawing from Stéphane Mallarmé’s noting, “Things already exist, we don’t have to create them; we simply have to see their relationships.” Who better to trust than poets and artists whose sources are always open?
In art and literature, the notion of “trace” is a poetic point of departure. Something fully manifest needn’t be repeated, but the tantalizing incomplete trace of something as ephemeral and as unmeasurable as a cloud can be a rich source of potential data, if … Weizman refers to the Locardian principle that states “every contact leaves a trace,” and from here all that would be necessary for investigation would be to rewind from trace to source to data. But clouds are, by their nature, always transient, won’t be stilled to be measured, and in crimes committed by the state or crimes of terrorism there are clouds created by explosions, fire, tear gas, airborne toxins.
Here is one example of Forensic Architecture’s use of aesthetics to unravel, decode, pin down, comprehend and explain a multitude of wicked and effective acts of state control and violence. It’s in the clouds, but looking up could be deadly. The capacious mind of Eyal Weizman and his colleagues recognized that painters have been grappling for centuries with the aesthetic issues around setting a cloud, in pigment, on canvas, and thinking that 19th-century British painters like JMW Turner or John Constable could also be collaborators in locating the edges of this slipping elusive vapour, making it visible, subjecting it to a productive scrutiny, joining the aesthetic with the investigative and still allowing it to retain its imaginative possibilities. Weizman tells us in the interview that follows that looking at the shifting morphology of clouds from different perspectives as some kind of time indicators, for example, provides data and there is more still to pursue in querying, “What does it mean to be in the fog that is both optical and epistemological?” But first, the imagination. First, in these references, which he says are conceptual, theoretical and also scientific—clouds have to be imagined. Their edges can’t be seen but their effects—think of tear gas— certainly are felt.
Forensic Architecture presented their video Triple Chaser at the Whitney Biennial in 2019. Triple Chaser is a reference to a highly effective and widely used tear gas produced by the Safariland Group, owned by Warren B Kanders, who was the vice-chair of the Board of Trustees of the Whitney Museum. As well as his interest in visual art, Mr Kanders supported the Aspen Music Festival, to which he donated $2.5 million. In honour of this generous donation, the Aspen Music Festival renamed the Sunday Concert Series and performed Richard Strauss’s very beautiful “Four Last Songs.” With the celestial music of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” playing in the background of Triple Chaser, Forensic Architecture listed the warnings made to doctors of “possible danger.” The list is lengthy and chillingly comprehensive, though uninflected in delivery. Here it is in part: danger of cerebral edema, danger of pulmonary edema, severe allergic reaction, anaphylactic shock, convulsions, disturbed cardiac rhythms. While clouds remain the elusive subject of paintings, the vanishing traces of explosions, the briefly visible evidence of the state using tear gas against civil protests or the disappearing trail of a drone strike hitting its target—the effects are manifest and these can be measured. As Eyal Weizman pointed out, “The threshold of detectability is the threshold of accountability.” From the imagination to representation as an object in the form of a constructed model, the edges of a cloud become visible and undeniable in an evidentiary forum.
What interested American artist Robert Rauschenberg was working “in that gap between art and life.” This was the space of engagement. For Eyal Weizman, too, and the work he does, the gap is a productive space. He speaks in this interview about Walter Benjamin’s notion that a powerful social or historical moment can explode outward from history and become catalytic. Forensic Architecture identifies certain events that are so intense with significant potential that working even at what they describe as a molecular level, the “the microphysics of a split second” can allow access that furthers their investigation. Their pursuit here would be to bridge the gap between the micro-history they’ve been able to grasp and a longer duration at a political scale.
Again, they turn poetic, titling their exhibition for the 2018 Turner Prize “The Long Duration of a Split Second,” referring here to their investigation into the Israeli police killing of Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qi’an, a Palestinian Bedouin teacher in the illegalized village of Umm al-Hiran and the fatal split-second decision to shoot in self-defence. The consequences, the repercussions of police decisions are increasingly being made and justified as split-second responses, as though happenstance were an active party to the event. And the consequences resound and expand and linger. Hence, “the long duration of a split second.” This active, resonant gap is seen by Weizman not as a deficiency but as an occasion for further elaboration, since the verity of testimony is itself questionable. Here the gap is elastic and expands to include the breathing of the videographer, whose images are no longer visible but where accelerated breathing is redolent with information: running, gassed, crowded, pushed. Weizman tells us Forensic Architecture collects all the blacked-out, redacted missing pieces, “all the cursing and crying and praying and shouting … all the movement, the rash movement,” and on.
It may be that the gap, the long duration of the split second is all the enlightenment we ever receive, all the comprehension we ever have. It is to this brief ellipsis, Weizman told us, that they are drawn. “In order to harvest the totality or much more of a bandwidth [of testimony], you need space, you need aesthetics, you need the visuals, the architecture, the movement of the body in space to get closer to understanding the errors and limitations in the testimony.”
Always questing, it’s a way to raise doubts, and in the gap between knowing and questioning some flicker of truth slips in.
This interview was conducted by Zoom on August 25, 2022, with Eyal Weizman, who was at the Forensic Architecture studio at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Border Crossings: We’re interested in the aesthetic contours of your project. I know you go back to a Greek view of aesthetics, as that which lends itself to the senses. But I’d like to move us forward into something that is more Kantian. I promise not to trap you in the prison house of beauty, but I want to concentrate on the artfulness of what you do and your strategies of making. In your work, references to other art forms often come up: obviously architecture but painting and photography as well. I wonder if that’s an instrumental use of language, or is it just the way in which language is promiscuous and allows us to naturally make those associations with other art forms?
Eyal Weizman: In a practical, pragmatic way, you reach for the references you are surrounded by. I’m here teaching and Forensic Architecture is based at Goldsmiths in the Department of Visual Cultures. There’s a lot of debate around the documentary turn in art, the pedagogical turn in art, around representation of what we used to call nature and environment, around deep time, the materiality of media, et cetera. For me, theory and aesthetic theory are a way of increasing our sensibility as researchers to find modes of engagement with a particular problem. So Hito Steyerl’s works on the materiality of media and the pixel, on the limit of vision, are becoming our common sense, if you like, and become go-to references. When Harun Farocki works on aerial images, or when he works on software in action, these are things that we’re looking at and are inspired by. So there are a lot of ways in which artists and art, or the combination of art and theory, allows for an approach to things different from a more science-based approach to a problem. Because we are not experts with one set of expertise, our engagement with a forensic problem is initially trying to conceptualize the question and the mode of engaging with it. How are we going to do it? How are we going to think about it? These are things in excess of science that come from the expansive field of aesthetics. So there are different ways in which aesthetics and theory end up influencing our work. It’s in the augmentation of the sensible, to aestheticize as a verb, as an action, as a way of increasing our sensibility and sensitivity to signal, to trace, in matter, in space, in image, in the voice of victims. How do you increase your sensitivity and sensibility to voice through reading about the limit and difficulties and paradoxes of testimony? How do you increase your sensitivity to matter through all the critical literature that is around media and critical computer studies? It’s not as simple as saying, “Okay, let’s increase the aesthetics level. Let’s look at the trace left in things where trace is otherwise unnoticeable.” This is to hyper-aestheticize. I can hyper-aestheticize the wall behind me by augmenting either my own or the material sensitivity to register relations or traces left in that wall, and then network it with multiple other signals coming from memory and coming from media. But the way you create this composition is not to work from a traditional scientific expertise, because then you’d have a tried-and-tested set of protocols, methods, assumptions. What interests us in our work is the intuitive, ungraspable element because we need to conceptualize our entry points. This is why we think as deeply as we do about the origins of clouds and cloud studies, and the limit of forensics and the limits of media, computation and capturing and grasping it, thinking about clouds both as form and as medium, thinking about looking at them and being in them and what this means politically. This is where it’s tying different types of expertise rather than moving along a groove of scientific process that is tested.
I’m fascinated by your concentration on the notion of trace. When you look at clouds, for instance in the drone strike pieces, often your language turns painterly. You talk about the palette, the density and the plumes of the smoke. So my context when I’m looking at the videos is a painterly way of thinking. Is that a legitimate way to measure how you talk about cloud and trace?
You are right. Because the mile-one principle of forensics, the Locardian principle, is that every contact leaves a trace, but it does not work on clouds. Because so much of the violence we are looking at is airborne—it’s the air itself, in a sense—you need to think about the limit of visibility and the limit of description. You need to think about clouds as a condition. Then we are drawn to something that we found great empathy with, the moment of the birth of meteorology as a rather unique combination of artists and amateur scientists working together. The science of meteorology emerges out of perhaps one of the last great collaborations of artists and scientists. Those early observations of clouds came from artists interested in light and refraction and conditions of fog, where cloud meets solid objects on the earth. The classification came from artists like Constable and Turner, and you see a search that required both scientists and artists. The artists were interested in light and in the density of different gases; the scientists were interested because they needed a certain way of classification, and the trained eye of an artist allowed the creation of that archive. So there’s this moment of art and science working together that we wanted to honour, but it also gave us a way to actually understand some things we needed to understand in order to do our work. For example, looking at the shifting morphology of clouds from different perspectives as time indicators; understanding the sense of being in a cloud, in a cloud of tear gas, in a cloud of a chemical strike, or in the remnant of one’s environment becoming vapour and surrounding you. What does it mean to be in the fog that is both optical and epistemological? This is why the references are conceptual, theoretical, and also scientific because clouds always have to be imagined rather than described as finite objects. The end of the cloud depends on what optics you are looking at. We are looking at tear gas and there is about four seconds in which you see a white substance coming out of a canister, but after that white substance evaporates, the chemicals are still there. They need to be imagined, or they need to be described using both mathematics and other techniques of dynamic spatial representation. They cannot be seen, but the cloud is still there. So where is the edge of the cloud? Is it the white stuff that you see, or is it things that you don’t see in the air that are simply becoming lesser and lesser and lesser in density?
That’s the threshold of detectability that is so central to the perceptual way you operate inside the pieces. I’m risking philosophy here, but it’s almost a question of being and not being. The whole notion of detection and what is visible to the senses is crucial to all your investigations.
Yes, because with clouds the threshold of detectability is the threshold of accountability. In multiple investigations that we’ve done and that we’re still doing now, for example on the repression of the Black Lives Matter in Portland, the police and the regulating bodies simply think that the moment the cloud of tear gas is invisible, it’s no longer there. There’s no accountability beyond the threshold of detectability. So it has to be created, imagined and represented as an object. And that’s another aesthetic move. Where is it, that cloud? Is it in the leaves, in the ground, in the water, in the air and up to where? How do you make people see it? We were working in Hong Kong and what we were seeing was absolutely bizarre. You would think that tear gas, like any other gas and matter, is dense in the centre where the emission point is, and then it goes on dissipating. But urban environments are nonlinear and create nonlinear movements. So tear gas dispersed around the bottom of a high rise building gets sucked into the air circulation system, short-circuits the entire building and is exhausted at a roof level of one building, and from there arrives at a window of a slightly higher building in a nearby place. Or a different kind of air turbulence occurs because the different surface materials of buildings and the morphology of the city take tear gas into completely unexpected places.
That Locardian principle of exchange, the idea that every contact leaves a trace, is especially interesting. I thought of John Berger’s wonderful essay on Caravaggio in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. He takes the Locardian notion and moves it from contact to a kind of ignition, so that when two different substances—“fur and skin, rags and hair, metal and blood”—come into contact with one another, there is a charge. It seems to me that recognition and its measure is an aesthetic one as well. I don’t want to trap you inside Berger’s version of the world, but can you play a little bit with this idea of trace moving to ignition?
This is wonderful and thank you very much for the insight. I think with Berger there’s always a kind of Benjaminian undertone in which this radiation or explosion is, in a sense, both physical and metaphorical. In a moment of cognition and recognition, an object and the social, political and economic forces that fetishize into an object can explode outwards, and from history, right? I think that’s the Benjaminian notion. Our version is to say that there are incidents and events so pregnant with political and transformative potential that we can dive into the molecular level of time, into the microphysics of a split second or of a pixel, into one place charged with usually contradictory vectors that coalesce into one moment in time and location, and that allows us to do something very important in our work. And that is to bridge the micro-history, the molecular history of an event with a long duration, with a political scale. We see that in moments like this second-and-a-half gap in the history of London in which nobody knows whether Mark Duggan was holding a gun in his hand. Now we have a good idea that he was not. So there is the contradiction between what the state says and what people feel was happening there. It’s a disturbing factor that still exists and remains unresolved. That gap in time had so much political effect, not only in the uprising that happened in Tottenham after Duggan’s murder, but in the still unresolved relation between the police and people here in the UK around that incident. So that is the long duration of a split second. The idea is that to understand political forces and to change political dynamics, rather than trying to describe big-picture borders, history, states, geopolitics, you dive into one point, into its molecular level, and try to release the power captured within that moment. Sometimes it works; often, it doesn’t. But when it works, it’s especially powerful. In our case, the investigation of the Israeli police murder of Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qi’an is still that moment; the split second is still creating a considerable political dynamic around it. It is now, what, five years later? The debate between the former hands of the security service, the police, the prosecution, the whole new colonial displacement of Bedouins, is still captured in the moment of killing this Palestinian Bedouin teacher. This is where our work differs from scientific expertise, because we are looking for those points of acupuncture where you can put maximum pressure on a small point and try to generate a larger effect.
The analysis you do about that second-and-ahalf in The Killing of Mark Duggan, and whether or not the gun is actually thrown or whether it’s placed by the police, is a captivating attenuation of time. What you do is make time spatial. You literally give it a form. I’m interested in it, again, as an aesthetic pursuit. The combination of time and space in The Killing of Mark Duggan is central to a viewer’s understanding of what is going on, not just in that moment but in the larger context of the relationship the police have to people in Tottenham. The idea is that time and space are attenuated and then formed so that we have something we can actually measure.
In the case of Mark Duggan, we are working for the family in a civil case. At the moment of negotiation that came before it goes to court, the police see the evidence for the first time, and they give the family more than what they initially asked for in order to stop the evidence from being shown. But they’re unable to stop it because it was widely shown in The Guardian, and then in an exhibition in London with a community group that had been working for a decade on that case. This case is also conceptually interesting because Mark Duggan, the one witness whose testimony would be most significant, is destroyed. All the other existing testimonies are from police officers after they have colluded with each other, so they are bad witnesses. There’s no video: all that exists is just words, words. Words that are very possibly biased, skewed and not correct. We needed to see what drives this language, so we break this second-and-a-half into nine stages. We create a huge matrix in which each of 11 officers speaks about each one of those nine stages of the second. We look for predictions. We look for collusions. When you look at testimonies where witnesses agree with each other, you’re like, “Okay, that pushes the probability towards a certain scenario.” But when they agree too closely, it kind of flips. It starts pointing to rehearsal and collusion, and when you have several witnesses making the same error, that becomes very suspicious. One of the most important things we found during this process is that several of the witnesses say a silver car was a golden-coloured car. One person can make that mistake because of light conditions, but when you get multiple people making it from different perspectives, you go, “Okay, here is evidence of collusion rather than evidence through a colour of something.” Then we looked at the way in which the event was described. We realized that the language that the officers were using was completely videographic. They’re describing an incident in which there’s no video recording, but it’s as if they’re watching an imaginary video—they’re pausing, zooming, panning, looking at the minute detail, kind of zooming in, pulling into the level of pixels. It’s as if memory is a series of still frames. And that still frame is the effect of video on the imagination. Our sense of time is not necessarily in one still frame after another. The term “split second” emerged sometime in the mid-eighties in the US, which was already the time of video recordings. This was the time in Los Angeles in 1991 just before Rodney King and that famous still-frame debate. But with Mark Duggan, in one sense, you have the entire imaginary; you have a situation in which there are no videos, and you only have videos. You have 11 video cameras, all aligned with each other, making this strange film in a skewed and biased way.
This contribution of testimony is fundamental and raises all kinds of problematic questions. I can think of a couple of artful examples where multiple testimonies or multiple stories are central. Faulkner’s great novel As I Lay Dying has 15 different narrators talking about the same scene through 59 chapters. Kurosawa’s Rashomon has five characters telling the same story over and over again, and they’re all different. Is testimony a complicating factor because it can be unreliable? And what are the safeguards in recognizing that testimony, as you suggest with the British police, is actually a performance in which the subjects are performing their role in the narrative of their own life and experience?
First, I’d say that every bit of evidence has its own bias or sets of biases that have to do with the modes of collection, modes of interpretation, the calibration of the optics and the threshold of detectability to what needs to be sensed. I would suggest what we are saying about the instability of evidence is perhaps a more intensified moment of that thing. What is interesting for us is not to look at the shortcoming of testimony in that way, but what the gap—the delta between what we know has happened and the way it is being described— tells us. It’s not an imperfection, it’s more data. So when a victim makes an error, sometimes the error is more informationally enriched than a true Cartesian description, as, for example, when a person who was incarcerated in the Sednaya prison in Syria is speaking to us and saying, “I was taken to a place, it was circular, it was a hole. People were looking at me, I was surrounded by doors, and I was beaten in there.” After we know for sure, by cross-referencing various other bits of data, that this person was in a straight corridor, the question is: Why is it described as a circle of space? And the error actually adds information rather than masking it because it points to what a person has seen and filtered through, or distorted through, a sense of trauma, a sense of pain, a sense of total incarceration. When somebody tells us the corridor was longer or the distance was longer, something was higher, there were more people than we knew, it could be seen as imprecision or it could be yet another layer of information. The latter is how we prefer to look at testimony. So when the testimonies of police officers converge in a strange way, the error or the inaccuracy points to collusion. This is one thing. The second thing is that testimony is meaningless for us without space and spatial representation.