Bringing the State to Heel: Forensic Architecture

You are currently viewing Bringing the State to Heel: Forensic Architecture

Words: Ava Ahmann (she/her)

When Grenfell Tower went up in flames in 2017, 72 people lost their lives to systematic and racialised neglect in the United Kingdom’s capital city. Five years on, the effects have been long unfurling and justice remains elusive for victims. With recent reports emerging about firefighters who responded having been diagnosed with terminal cancer as a result of interaction with carcinogens onsite, it appears that the fallout from the disaster is set to compound. The ongoing inquiry into the fire, and reported negligence by authorities, has had a weakened effect, with fewer than half of the recommendations currently being brought forth having been adopted into law. With no prosecutions to be made until the inquiry is finished, victims and their families are forced to wait with little assurance that there will be any meaningful resolution to what was a wholly preventable tragedy.  

In an attempt to synthesise and better understand what took place at Grenfell, Forensic Architecture, the pioneering research group based at Goldsmiths University, have been compiling footage collected by residents, neighbours, and passersby to serve as a legal tool and act of remembrance about the catastrophe. Additionally, the group has gathered testimony from survivors in order to create a 3D model – a reconstruction of the building – to help aid witnesses’ memories of the event. 

The model, which allowed viewers to hear witness testimony and experience it through animation, was part of an extensive, six month long, exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of art, up the coast from Copenhagen. A mind-boggling display of the research and findings from a series of case work done by the group, subdivided into three sections. Beginning with, witnesses: specifically looking at information gathering and testimony; modes of sensing: examining the nitty gritty material evidence left in bricks, smoke, and leaves; itinerant witnesses: in reference to the specific immigration focused work of the collective, which requires a more abstract form of data gathering given the transient identity of the witnesses.  Although immediately incongruous with the setting, the exhibition, which featured physical representations of the wide case studies, and varied research practises the group employs, is a poignant melding of art and political action. 

The term “forensic architecture” refers to a field in development, pioneered by the eponymous research group, that looks at the presentation and production of architectural evidence, such as environments and buildings, within legal and political processes. Wielding the virtual world as a weapon against state atrocities that are often cast in an armour of controlled narrative, the group uses 3D renders, virtual reality, and cartographic platforms to piece together an alternative narrative, an answer to state wrongdoings. 

Forensic Architecture, as both a collective and an embodiment of this new field, find themselves at a crossroads between art and politics, theory and praxis. Art has always carried political heft – from the essential and indelible work of Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther party, to the disruptive high art interventions of the Guerrilla Girls, to the work of the Palestinian poet Mohammed el Kurd, creation has long been a political act in itself, reclaiming narratives, galvanising action, and allowing for a new world to be imagined – even when it’s difficult to see beyond existence in the present. It’s this “here nor there”, evidence vs art dichotomy, that Forensic Architecture embodies, a middle ground that perplexes specialists and officials, yet proves generative and for the group, rather than stymying. 

The work of Forensic Architecture in leveraging the asset of art and technology is a groundbreaking challenge to state power. Taking on projects as diverse as challenging atrocities committed by German forces in colonial Namibia, gold mining and violence in the Amazon, drift backs in the Aegean sea, land dispossession in Colombia, environmental racism in Louisiana, USA. The array of projects are ambitious in scale and topic, and the team, many of whom might otherwise enter the field of software and video game development, animation, or video editing, infuse creativity into a politically charged universe. 

Architecture, in the eyes of Forensic Architecture founder Eyal Weizman, is about ‘the movements and the relations that are enabled by the way you open, close and channel functions, people and movements within that’. In the same interview with Architecture Daily, Wiesman describes the Forensic dimension of the group’s work, ‘there is a principle of forensic investigation called the “look hard principle” – and it claims that every contact leaves a trace. Because many of the crimes that Forensic Architecture is looking at today happen within cities, happen within buildings, architecture becomes the medium that conserves those traces’. By sifting through the traces, Forensic Architecture can piece together a mosaic of violence, a history that has been not properly swept up, often out of carelessness or equally a confidence, that the state, adorned in technology and heft, cannot be challenged on its own court.

From drone warfare, to pegasus software, to facial recognition and the culling of personal data from social media sites, those engaging in resistance against the state from Ferguson to Atlanta to Palestine to Hong Kong, face a litany of threats against their privacy. It’s recognised, discussed, yet rarely challenged effectively – the growing line in the US, often being to leave your phone at home, to wear all black at protests, to communicate via encrypted networks such as Signal. The scale often seems so tipped, and in the cases that Forensic Architecture examines, the state manufactured line has been upheld, often due to this control and production of data, science, and sheer resources, in many cases long after the atrocity has been committed. In the case of Mark Duggan, a 29 year old Black man killed by police in the UK, Forensic Architcture’s investigation of his case led to a court settlement for his family. There is an immediate impact to Forensic’s work. The state monopoly on technology is challenged by Forensic Architecture, as they reclaim the resources so often used by the state, to excavate the truth. While the title of artist does not carry the same recognisable heft of scholar, theorist, general, politician, or analyst, artists can still bring the state to heel.


0 0 votes
Article Rating

Leave a Reply

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments