Forensic Architecture—Assembled Practices Exhibition at A.M. Qattan Foundation exposes state crimes and violence
The exhibition Forensic Architecture: Assembled Practices, co-curated by Yazid Anani and Shourideh C. Molavi, was inaugurated by A.M. Qattan Foundation (AMQF), Ramallah, and Forensic Architecture (FA), University of London, UK, at AMQF in Al-Tirah, Ramallah, on 25 January 2020.
Yazid Anani, curator of the exhibition and director of A.M. Qattan Foundation’s public programme, highlighted that the showing of this exhibition in Palestine is of great importance, as it informs the Palestinian public about the methodology applied by the Forensic Architecture research group to expose state crimes and violence, using architecture, law, art, and other tools. “It carries the potential for making a significant contribution to the research conducted at Palestinian universities and by civil society organizations in Palestine in the fields of architecture, law, humans rights, and art―such as the projects architecture students at Birzeit University will undertake in the context of this exhibition,” he stated.
Anani then explained why he considers the agency’s work very important, describing how it examines, and re-applies, the modern simulation technologies and tools that are utilized by states to repress, control, and monitor their citizens. The agency commutes these tools into means by which citizens can confront violent regimes and expose their crimes. FA’s work thus presents a paradigm shift and refutes post-colonial theories, especially the attempt to assert that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house."
“In this exhibition, we chose to show the work processes FA follows, revealing how they use a variety of methods that subvert the state’s forensic technologies,” Anani said. They include the role of surveillance cameras in the contesting of police reports that misleadingly describe the circumstances surrounding the murder of African-American citizen Harith Augustus; an on-the-ground investigation of evidence gathered from aerial photographs, taken by the British and German military during WWI, to prove the existence of the historic Palestinian village al-Araqib in the Negev; and finally the utilization of facial recognition technology to detect and identify via media images the presence (and use) of gas shell canisters.
“As Palestinians,” Anani added, “we must learn from the experiences of others who struggle in the Global South and from cases where resistance has been able to expose crimes perpetrated by authoritarian regimes, holding them accountable for human rights violations. This is especially significant in light of the ongoing human rights violations and the violent acts that the Israeli colonial authorities are carrying out daily against Palestinians.”
On display until 2 April, 2020, Assembled Practices showcases three of FA’s investigative cases, focusing on the assembly techniques and diffuse networks of relations that shape their political, intellectual, and artistic practice.
The exhibited cases include the following works:
Torture in Saydnaya Prison is based on the spatial and acoustic testimony of survivors of Saydnaya Prison—a notorious prison, operated by the Syrian government, in which tens of thousands have perished. As there are no publicly available images of the prison’s interior, FA worked with five former prisoners and employed architectural and acoustic modelling to reconstruct the architecture of the prison from the survivors’ memories. This investigation highlights how the spatial structure of the prison is not only the location of torture but also an instrument in its perpetuation. This project will be part of a specialised course at Birzeit University’s Department of Architecture that focuses on prison reconstruction and on visual and spatial techniques that can be used in the documentation of testimonies of trauma.
The Killing of Harith Augustus displays in a series of videos racially motivated police violence in Chicago. It shows an incident in the South Shore neighbourhood of Chicago in which an officer shot Augustus to death during a so-called ‘investigatory stop’ carried out by five police officers. FA analysed the ‘split second’―a temporal ‘state of exception’ in which many people of colour are killed by police forces―that led to Augustus’ killing, using six different temporal lenses that include available urban data and surveillance footage. Through the combination of documentary, testimonials, and visual analysis, FA examines how this act of police violence was motivated by structural and racialised bias. The investigation resulted in a series of legal motions against the Chicago police. FA chose to display this project in Palestine to point out links between the militarised policing practices used against black communities in America and the daily experiences of Palestinians as they are being policed by Israeli forces.
In Triple-Chaser, FA presents the use of machine learning, synthetic image generation, and photo-realistic modelling to detect tear gas canisters manufactured by a company named Safariland, a name that itself suggests the colonial imagination at the heart of this enterprise. Upon realizing that Safariland is owned by Warren B. Kanders—vice chair of the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art—FA responded to the museum’s invitation to the 2019 Whitney Biennial and presented an installation in which images shared online by activists and protesters are collected and interpreted via ‘computer vision’ classifiers to detect the use of Safariland tear gas against immigrants and non-violent protesters. Linking Safariland to actions against civil society and social movements, this research also exposed Kanders’ connection to the brutal violence committed by Israeli military snipers against Palestinians in Gaza through the US bullet manufacturer Sierra Bullets. Kanders was forced to resign from the museum’s board of directors, due in part to the projection of this film at the Whitney Museum.
These projects, as well as the FA’s investigation of Airstrikes on the al-Jinah Mosque, The Battle of Ilovaisk, and Drone Strike in Mir Ali, outline the specific political and architectural contexts in which these techniques have been developed and mobilised.
Forensic Architecture: Assembled Practices is accompanied by a series of public seminars and workshops hosted by AMQF, where members of FA will discuss their practice in Palestine and elsewhere and outline their three displayed methods, i.e., situated testimony, image-data complexes, and machine learning. The program accompanying this exhibition also includes engagement of FA members with leading Palestinian human-rights and legal groups through workshops that present and examine ways in which architectural and spatial methods can be mobilised to serve legal and political resistance in Palestine.
Based at Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture focuses its work on investigating state and corporate violence and environmental destruction. Their research mobilizes architectural and urban data, physical traces, and human testimonies and is built upon a wide network of cooperating partners that includes the communities that experience and resist state violence as well as activists and lawyers.
Founded in 2010, FA in its early work confronted settler-colonial and military violence in Palestine and investigated, in cooperation with and on behalf of affected communities, cases that include the displacement of the Palestinian Bedouin community from the village al-Araqib, routine Israeli and settler violence in Hebron, the destruction of Palestinian lands in Battir, and the ongoing practice of herbicidal warfare in the occupied Gaza Strip. Over the past ten years, FA has expanded its research and applied its methodology to other cases of oppression and violence throughout the world.