Legal geography

Eyal Weizman advocates for forensic architecture, which reveals to the public the extent of the destruction caused by conflict in order to give it the status of evidence in a trial.

In this work-manifesto, Eyal Weizman, architect and director of Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, defends the practice of “forensic architecture”. The expression, which sounds strange in French, requires some clarification. It firstly refers to a practice, that of architects commissioned after a disaster to carry out investigations and detect construction defects in damaged buildings; it also suggests a form of advertising, in accordance with the etymology of the term which comes from the Latin “forum”. The approach of Weizman and the collective Forensic Architecture, founded in 2010, consists of extending this practice of investigating conflict situations and making the results of these investigations public. How can we prove, for example, using specifically architectural knowledge, that buildings sheltering civilians were targeted by drone strikes even though the states responsible for these shots deny the facts? Faced with the intensification of this type of strikes in the early 2000s, Weizman argues that “the question of evidence (has) now an architectural dimension” (p. 23). In the same way that there is legal medicine, there would therefore be a “legal” architecture, capable of producing evidence and presenting it in court.

Architectural evidence

Based on the observation that contemporary wars mainly take place in urban environments, Eyal Weizman and the members of Forensic Architecture strive to make buildings or ruins speak. Flures, crevices, gunshot impacts, missile or bullet holes, black smoke: based on these signs, rarely taken into account as such, the collective works to reconstruct what happened in the conflict zones. Weizman specifies that if architecture is traditionally used as a tool of domination (this is the case of borders or colony zones drawn on architects' tables), it can also be a counter-power and provide proof that violence has been committed by state organizations. The whole point of his proposal thus consists of reversing the balance of power and turning “the methods and tools of the state against the violence it commits. » (p. 71).

Because there exists, and this is the main obstacle facing forensic architecture, a fundamental asymmetry in access to images and information. the violence committed against people and property by certain states is in fact compounded by another, more insidious violence, exercised against the very evidence of violence, confiscated or rendered ineffective. “Taking advantage of their technological and optical advantage, the military is able to circulate all the images that serve their objective and deny public access to those that bother them, invoking various “national security” reasons. » (p. 79). Weizman develops this idea from the notion of “threshold of detectability” presented in the first part of the essay and widely commented on, in the afterword, by Grégoire Chamayou, author of a Drone theory. If States have very high definition images, the resolution of satellite images accessible to the public is also legally limited to 0.5m per pixel, which approximately corresponds to the dimensions of a human body seen from the sky. established to minimize the risks of invasion of privacy, this threshold also responds to security reasons; important details of strategic sites thus remain invisible, as do the effects of certain violence. Also, to return to the example of drone strikes, traces of gunfire below the “threshold of detectability” are not identifiable at the resolution level of the available satellite images. How then can we prove that strikes took place when they do not appear on any image? Forensic architecture sets itself the task of identifying impacts on the surface of buildings that official images cannot detect.

A theoretical manifesto which defends the idea of ​​an “archology of the present time” and denounces a structural inequality in access to images and knowledge, the essay also presents itself as a practical manual and returns in the form of a “focus” on different cases argued by the collective, supporting images.

A “broader system of practices”

How, in concrete terms, can we access information or images when they are a state monopoly? “How can we access vision when we are placed under a threshold which deprives us of the conditions for seeing? The challenge is to show that it is possible. () Measure the shadows, model the clouds, make the ruins speak, look for the fault. » (p. 181) summarizes Grégoire Chamayou. Forensic architecture is based on the idea that buildings are powerful “sensors of the external environment” (p. 57) and that it is therefore always possible to find traces or material clues if we pay attention to the materiality and texture of constructions. The method also calls upon all forms of available documents or testimonies with the aim of crossing sources as much as possible.

Drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Gaza; secret prison in Syria: the team uses a very wide variety of materials to examine each of these cases. The “clusters of evidence” identified make it possible to “establish relationships between, for example, digital photographs, material ruins, munitions remains and human testimonies” (p. 65). This multiple data is then arranged and formatted, without hierarchy between sources or image regimes. Indeed, as Weizman explains, an event is never captured by a single image; on the contrary, it must be reconstructed by connecting and combining a set of images. Low-resolution photographs, thermal images or images taken by drones, videos of clashes or demonstrations posted online on social networks: the truth lies between these images.

In a recent interview given to the magazine A.O.VS, Weizman specifies that today, “we have thousands and thousands of videos. And each of them can last for hours, a continuous stream of images and information. At that moment, the only way to understand the situation is to look not at the images but between the images. You have to spatialize each video and navigate in this space ()”. The questions underlying the method are therefore these: how to look at the images or more precisely, how to learn to connect them to establish the facts? How, finally, can we restore visibility to these images and expose them? Eyal Weizman insists on this aspect: if most of the investigations carried out by the collective take place in a legal context, they aim to go beyond this framework, hence the not only legal, but also political and aesthetic dimension of forensic architecture.

Because, beyond an activism assumed by the members of the collective, the approach also has an aesthetic dimension. The collective's investigations are in fact regularly presented in galleries, museums, biennials, which appear as so many complementary forums to judicial or media forums. The forensic approach is inherently plural and based on “a broad system of practices” (p. 166). Lawyers, journalists, photographers, architects can be asked to work on the same subject. The investigation carried out into the clandestine Syrian detention center of Saidnaya is exemplary of this multidisciplinarity. In 2016, the Forensic Architecture team was commissioned by Amnesty International to help reconstruct the architecture of this torture center to which Syrians refuse all access.

Virtual tour of Syria's most notorious torture prison – Amnesty International

Based on the memories of Saidnaya survivors, the team recreated and modeled the spaces of the prison. At the same time, a sound artist and audio investigator from the team worked to reconstruct the sounds. By combining the spatial and auditory memories of the witnesses, an overall model of the building was able to be designed. The method thus finds itself at the junction of various disciplines and incorporates fields as different as human rights, science, architecture, journalism and art.

Despite multiple repetitions between the three parts of the text (“At the threshold of detectability”, “What is forensic architecture?” and “Open verification”), due to the form of manifesto that the book claims, the whole work opens fascinating perspectives on the history of recent conflicts and on the way in which the visibility of these conflicts is subject to careful control. the era of post-truth, fake newswhen every idea of ​​truth seems to collapse and the truth falls in ruinsthe approach and tools of forensic architecture appear as powerful and valuable safeguards.