“Toward a more investigatory counter forensic endeavor”
Forensic Architecture (FA) is a London-based research agency at Goldsmith University, specifically focused on using architectural design tools for investigating human rights violations worldwide. The FA team consists of twenty-five people, mainly architects, but also investigative journalists, filmmakers, artists and programmers, and lawyers working on human rights investigations in multiple fields, one of them is borders and migration. We as Migrazine conducted an interview with two of the researchers, Kishan San and Christina Varvia, about the work of FA, their past and future projects at the intersection of security, technology, art, violence, and national borders.
Migrazine: FA works in the field of human rights violations with transdisciplinary tools and also with artistic and aesthetic strategies. Could you tell us briefly how you make this connection in your work?
Christina: Forensic Architecture is a research agency that takes commissions and does investigative work for specific human rights investigations. Architecture has come to be important for forensic work because lately, wars happen in cities, and therefore within the city itself, we can read ruins and scars on the buildings to understand what took place. Buildings sometimes become the instrument of violence themselves when they collapse. This type of work helps to understand what kind of an attack or strike was inscribed on the ground. But beyond that, wars also are happening usually within a dense media environment. Especially now with the proliferation of recording devices, there are often hundreds to thousands of images and videos that come out of any conflict.
I think the relationship with aesthetics has to do with the question of who is able to read images and videos and to understand how to draw information from them. That is why we work with filmmakers, photographers, artists who know how film and photography work, and how, for example, the technical specifications of the image-making come to condition the type of image we see. Whether that is a blur, whether that is a field of view, whether that is the framing of an image or the frame-rate in the video, all of these things determine what you see and what you don't see. So, our work essentially is about reconstructing scenes of violence from partial media objects, in order to figure out the actors involved and finally to argue for accountability.
Kishan: The profession of forensic architects existed prior to FA, it denotes the work of experts often brought in by the state to analyze the collapse or damage of a building. This type of analysis is useful because it acknowledges that a building is a dynamic temporal form that, as Christina was saying, records marks and scars and that documents the process and the power structures that act around it and on it. But forensic architects are often employed directly by the state, and that's a key distinction between what the profession of forensic architecture does and what we do. We are trying to reverse that kind of investigative lens, and hold the embedded power structures of the present accountable, be they states or corporations; to create a more bottom-up civil and civic approach to investigation. We call it Counter-forensics.
Christina: Yes, forensic architects are building surveyors, our practice tries to incorporate more layers beyond the strictly technical in an investigation. As Eyal Weizman, the director of Forensic Architecture, explains the Latin root of forensics is “Forensis” which means the art of the forum. So, rather than submitting our report to state institutions, we present a case within different fora, including courts, art galleries, museums, the media, and other spaces where truths can be argued, contested and reformed. In our projects, we always question ourselves, where do we present? Is it at court, art spaces, media, the parliament, etc? So we always look for the appropriate forum that will create the most political action. Because beyond the technicality of the work, there is also political intervention.
You are working on worldwide cases like Triple Chaser, which shows the entanglement between art and the arms business. Also, you have research on The Killing of Tahir Elci, a prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer, who was shot and killed during a press conference in the City of Diyarbakır, Turkey, or The Murder of Halit Yozgat. Why does Forensic Architecture deal with such cases? In a world filled up with state-based violence against vulnerable populations, what is relevant for you when selecting a new case? What conditions should the case have for you to start the research?
Kishan: Generally, we are invited in. We are a remote team in London, so we cannot get into the nuances and granular detail of every place. Generally, our entry point to a case is a human rights agency, the family, a journalist, somebody on the ground, with an intimate understanding. From there we apply our skill set and work with them to unpack the case. For example, for the "Evros/Meric River" project in the “Turkish-Greek border”, we started a conversation with human rights groups, including HumanRights360 and GLAN (Global Legal Action Network). In addition, we made contact with survivors and interviewed them through our "Situated Testimony technique"1. Or when the shootings took place at the border, at the Evros river, we were also able to interview witnesses who were there on the ground. I think it's very important that we are aware of our position as a remote organization and be careful about how we present and represent others.
Christina: We take cases that have a political urgency. As you said, there are too many that need support, unfortunately, so we have to be selective, and the way that we do that is usually to try to identify cases where we can develop a technique, which is important because we are also a research agency. Of course, it needs to be a case where we can offer our particular skill set. There are certain cases that are incredibly politically important, but what they need is a traditional legal analysis, a human rights report or journalistic work, for example. For us to take up a case there needs to be some sort of spatial question, or spatial and temporal question that we could answer with the type of tools that we have.
Of course, the way that it works, as Kishan was explaining, is that often one case leads to another. For example, the work we were doing in the Greek context, almost cascaded from our NSU work in Germany. We made a collaboration for the exhibition of “The Society of Friends of Halit” in Documenta. As part of that exhibition, the family of Pavlos Fyssas, who was murdered by Golden Dawn in Greece, was present and invited us to look at that case too. So, many of our projects really come through solidarity groups.
Naturally, some people might just write to us through our website and ask for help. If we figure out we cannot take the case, we try to support groups in other ways, like training them, helping them with the framing of the investigation or strategically thinking about where to deploy their work, etc. We started working on a more supportive capacity as well because we realized that we have a limited capacity in terms of how many cases we could be working on at any given time.
The Killing of Muhammad Al Arab, The Killing of Muhammad Gulizar, The Case of Ayse Erdogan show us the human rights violations, police violence, and surveillance and control on the Turkish-Greek borders. We see information in your works, which is not told in public or in the media. How do you deal and determine your strategies against the discourse of national borders and security, if we take these works as an example?
Kishan: The contestation between states, especially Greece and Turkey, creates a violent infrastructure in a condensed space of land that traps migrants and often vulnerable communities within it. I think for us, as we were saying, it is quite an opaque form of violence very hard to penetrate. Especially with the Evros/Meric River project, we had to develop some of our tools further to really demystify what happens in that space. So, for example, with the Situated Testimony, we had to work on gaming software to model and analyze the landscape, the river, the trees, in an attempt to assist the witnesses record their testimony. Similarly, with the Al-Arab case, there was footage available that we found through open source investigation, but we also had to develop new techniques to integrate ourselves within aid groups set up by the migrants themselves and attempt to gather more media and testimony that way. It happens similarly with the channel crossing between the UK, France, and Belgium where very little media comes out of any kind of conflict that happens there. That's another zone that we are interested in tackling, but it's quite difficult to penetrate.
Christina: What we saw in the March 2020 events at the Evros/Meric river is that there is heightened political tension between the EU and Turkey. Turkey is trying to exercise political power so that it gets support in Syria and to do that it takes the vulnerable population, which is people who are trying to find safety in Europe and pushes them to the border with Greece, a country that is then in a very difficult position. Of course, Greece is absolutely responsible for human rights violations for migrants crossing throughout. At this moment, what you see is that push weaponizes the migrants themselves and creates this so-called “hybrid war”. The Greek government referred to a hybrid war, meaning a war where the weapon is those people who are stranded trying to cross into EU territory. This is quite violent, to begin with, and I think it is important to highlight these incidents in terms of how the EU decides to deal with migration at a moment of political tension. The fact that there is a campaign of complete denial of any human rights violations in Greece and in the EU is really what allows this circle of violence to continue to happen. So there is a disjunction in the rhetoric of who we want the EU to be. We see all the official letters and all kinds of responses from the Greek government and the EU saying that they always uphold the highest standard of human rights and that it is important to be a liberal and protective Europe. But, at the same time, on the back of that, there is systematic violence that is happening every day: people are being pushed back on a regular basis and it is the same attitude that erupts when there is a political moment of conflict that includes shootings. So essentially, what happens in the dark beyond the rhetoric of “we are all good and we are all following human rights” is a sort of “necessary“ evil. But the argument that it is necessary to push back people is never spoken within those forums. This is only implied or explicitly said within right-wing groups that are much more shameless about their xenophobic politics. The fact that there is a campaign of denial from the official platforms of the EU allows then the Neonazi extreme-right ideology of “necessary violence”.
Kishan: I think also in these cases the fake news narrative is mobilized to quash the story quite quickly. With the March 2020 events, the Greek government mobilized twitter to influence the public consciousness, to such a degree that certain news outlets would consider the stories/incidents as disputed and would be unwilling to publish or investigate further. In these cases, our work operates to contest that denial and combat the fake news agenda.
Police violence is central to your recent and unfinished research Police Brutality at the Black Lives Matter Protests as well. Since the assassination of George Floyd, the BLM Movement has been seen more broadly in the news and written about. What is specific to this research you are working on?
Christina: The work obviously started with the killing of George Floyd and of course when there is an incident like that we are keeping an open eye. Some of our partners from Bellingcat started a quick project on Twitter when they noticed there were a lot of journalists that were being targeted and attacked during the protests. So they started asking if there were more people who had footage of violence against journalists. This work is important because of course there was clearly widespread violence across the US, but specifically, the targeting of journalists suggests a systematic suppression of the imagery and media narrative that describes those protests and an attempt to control the narrative. So we quickly realized that we could offer to develop a new platform with the software we have designed called TimeMap. This is an open-source software where one is able to plot different incidents on a map and on a timeline and in that way try to archive the evidence, as well as create an overview of the events. We were able to see that, specifically in the BLM protests, the violence was beyond an individual decision of an individual state governor, but it was on the scale of the federal state.
Then, it was very important for us to record incidents beyond the assaults on journalists and to try to document the violence exercised by the police towards the BLM protesters. What we also saw is that there were moments when there was an opposing protest from a white supremacy group and there the police were always acting to protect these types of protesters, essentially siding with them, while at the same time being extremely violent to BLM protesters. We see that the police take a political stance and not only fail to protect people’s right to be in the streets but actively attempt to quash their voice.
Kishan: From a more technical perspective, we usually interrogate the media frame by frame to try to unpack and unravel it beyond the boundary of the frame and the image itself. But what I think was quite interesting in the BLM project was that rather than unpacking it frame by frame, we were zooming out and taking in all of the media and plotting it in space. It was a different method, interpreting data from a wider angle. Of course, when you zoom in, you might be able to read it in more nuanced, but in this project, we could read a pattern of nationwide institutional and systemic racism.
Most of the material you receive originates from what the victims or witnesses share from the event. Also, the use of technology and digital tools are a key factor in your work. How do you see the use of technology as a resource that can empower the security of civilians? What are the potentials of organized platforms that share information among the victims? Do you see potential in that way that victims organized platforms to share information?
Kishan: I think technology can be an emancipatory tool. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter bear witness to incidents across the globe. For the Muhammed Gulzar Case, we managed to collect over 150 videos of the instance itself, and within those videos, you often find that the migrants and the victims are not just aware of the shootings but they are actively inscribing the image and the video with more information. For example, in the Al-Arab case, we often found people would speak directly into the phone and point out: “the Greek soldiers did this”, “the day is March 2nd, 2020." I think that highlights the fact that this isn't simply an active form of filming, but it’s the creation of evidence and for those filming it is also an evidentiary act.
Christina: The tools that we used are not incredibly sophisticated. For most of the cases, we are using digital tools like 3D modelling, gaming, and animation software that are widely distributed. The only trick is to appropriate them for analytical and political purposes. For example, using video editing software, not in order to cut and slice and edit a film together, not to create fiction, but to figure out how each clip fits with one another and to use it to see where the cuts have been made, in order to resynthesize that. In a way, it really depends on which technological tools we are talking about, but we are always quite open to trying to figure out how any new tool could be reappropriated for human rights purposes, not forgetting that there is a political afterlife in all of them: whether it is filming and photography or whether it is machine learning and artificial intelligence. We know how problematic the uses of those technologies have been in the past in terms of surveillance, securitization, face recognition, etc. But we also think that if there is enough care and attention these tools could be used for the support of human rights work and solidarity movements. There are thousands of images circulating on the web, which contain certain types of munition or tear gas, for example, that human eyes can not look through fast enough. We have reached a stage where there is such an abundance of information that the labor necessary to analyze all of it is simply beyond our capacity. We work with people who have the technological expertise to understand how these tools work. The key trick is to try to reappropriate them and figure out how they could be useful for the service of those who have suffered a state of violence, rather than for the state to oppress people.
Kishan: I agree. A key aspect of our work is to reform tools that are often associated with the production of capital. So, for example, architectural modelling software would traditionally be used to analyze how many square meters of housing units can be squeezed within a certain space, we re-appropriate these tools to build a model of an incident – toward a more investigatory counter forensic endeavor. In the “Evros/Meric river" case, for example, we use this software to see how far away the Greek soldiers were from the migrants and whether that was within the range of their rights. I think that the most beautiful aspect of our work is spinning these ubiquitous tools around toward a more humanitarian agenda.
The interview was conducted on 12.11.2020 via Zoom.
1"Situated Testimony is a technique of interviewing developed by Forensic Architecture over the course of half a dozen projects, throughout our history. Situated testimony uses 3D models of the scenes and environments in which traumatic events occurred, to aid in the process of interviewing and gathering testimony from witnesses to those events. Memories of traumatic or violent episodes can often be elusive or distorted, but we have found that the use of digital architectural models has a productive effect on a witness’s recollection. Together with an architectural researcher, a witness is filmed reconstructing the scene of an event, exploring and accessing their memories of the episode in a controlled and secure manner." (From https://forensic-architecture.org/)