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Forensic Architecture: extension of the field of architecture

Contemporary Art | Forensic Architecture is an atypical research agency founded in 2011 and based at Goldsmiths College in London. Its founder Eyal Weizman explains that the term forensic is to be understood by getting back to the Latin forensis, « what pertains to the forum ». Responding to the urbanization of conflicts and their media recordings, the agency develops methods to analyze and understand spatially in 3D the multiplicity of data on conflict sites.

The Architecture of Hellfire Romeo: Drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan, 2012 © Forensic Architecture
The Architecture of Hellfire Romeo: Drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan, 2012
© Forensic Architecture

Real-time archaeologies

Forensic Architecture brings together around its investigations researchers from a wide variety of disciplines : artists, architects, designers, computer scientists, archaeologists, media analysts, lawyers, journalists, scientists. They define themselves as topographers working with media.
Their researches focus on sites of armed conflict, human rights violations, State violence and « ecocide » (damage to a natural environment) in order to produce a spatial, architectural and urban understanding of the site that challenges traditional evidence practices based on post-event witness interviews.

For each conflict site, researchers analyze various types of images : satellite views, aerial images, videos and photographs posted by thousands of individuals on social media during an incident. After carefully analyzing the heterogeneous materials collected, they develop a 3D and animated imagery of the space-time of each conflict site. In order to achieve this, they use photogrammetry, which allows the 3D reconstruction of the site from multiple photographic points of view.

Miranshah © Forensic Architecture
© Forensic Architecture
By comparing and analyzing images taken during the US army’s drone strikes in the village of Miranshah in Pakistan in 2012, researchers were able to precisely locate the impact points. After analyzing image by image a video taken in the room of a house where a drone had been introduced, they reconstructed the room in ruins, identified the weapon used and its movement thanks to its impacts on the walls. These techniques are being developed for many sites, particularly in Syria for the analysis of chemical weapons attacks (in Douma in April 2018, or in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017).

Douma Still © Forensic Architecture
Douma Still
© Forensic Architecture
Khan Sheikhoun © Forensic Architecture
Khan Sheikhoun
© Forensic Architecture
By basing themselves on common landmarks in series of images taken by thousands of people at the same time, researches achieve a mapping of the site : sometimes this may be thanks to a cloud, i.e. a flexible and ephemeral architecture. This is how they precisely located the impact points of the Atimah air strikes on the Syrian-Turkish border in March 2015.

For each project, a new methodology is developed and new tools are found. For the research on the destruction of Yazidi villages in Iraq, as researchers were unable to walk on the uncertain sites, they took aerial photographs by fastening cameras to kites. They compared these images with satellite views from before and after the destruction of the sites and with other available data from these poorly photographed sites. Doing so, they achieved a precise mapping of the sites and reconstructed the architecture of the buildings in 3D. The project was exhibited at the London 2018 Design Biennial to represent the United Kingdom (The Destruction of the Yazidi Heritage).

Yazidi © Forensic Architecture
© Forensic Architecture

A team from Forensic Architecture is called Forensic Oceanography. It focuses on human rights violations in maritime environments. Since 2011, it has been investigating on cases of non-assistance by States and international organizations when migrant vessels are in danger in waters controlled by individual States or by NATO outside of territorial waters. By analyzing the case of a boat of 63 migrants that sank for 14 days in NATO waters in 2011, researchers accurately reconstructed the course of events, revealing how different actors and witnesses bypassed their responsibilities when failing to rescue people in distress (The Left-To-Die Boat). Since then, Forensic Oceanography has revealed other similar cases.

The architectural approach : a sophisticated device for image analysis

By thinking new media research methods and innovative ways of presenting research, Forensic Architecture highlights an extension of the field of the image and its definition. The 3D architectures that researchers create from thousands of diverse and contradictory 2D images provide a spatial understanding of conflict sites by locating action points.
3D architecture is an essential device for looking at images : it means seeing several points of view on these images at the same time, for example where a shot comes from, how it hits its target.
With this architectural approach, Forensic Architecture reveals the image as a field of struggle. Its 3D modeling of conflict sites highlights facts denied by States and international organizations. With the thousands of images of social media on which some projects are based, Forensic Architecture’s devices are part of a political struggle that takes its roots in the « forum ».
In the age of daily proliferation of millions of images and with the considerable danger of fake news, the high accuracy of Forensic Architecture’s analysis proves to be very valuable in clarifying images and facts of conflict sites. The agency collaborates with many international organizations, including the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International.

Prospects for the future

With Forensic Architecture, we are a far cry from what Antonioni’s Blow Up photographer was doing when zooming into the image to see the crime. This is no longer enough : images have become so numerous, complex and contradictory that 3D architecture is necessary to clarify them.
Forensic Architecture’s approach thus acknowledges a transformation of the relationship to the image. To see a space, to understand it, you need to rebuild its 3D objects.

Grenfell © Forensic Architecture
© Forensic Architecture

In its prospect for clarifying images, Forensic Architecture has created The Gaza Platform in collaboration with Amnesty International. The platform is a vast set of data taken before and after the 2014 Gaza conflict that gathers photographs, audio recordings, texts and satellite images. By confronting a multitude of sources, links are established between dispersed individual events, patterns of attacks are characterized, and the conduct of Israeli forces is verified. Forensic Architecture sees this platform as a tool that could be used for future conflicts in Gaza or elsewhere. The platform would be a means of pressure to stop violations of international humanitarian law.

Defining itself as an « agency » , the status of Forensic Architecture is unclassifiable due to the diversity of its members’ skills. Connected to the Goldsmiths College and funded in particular by the European Research Council, its spatial approach to media data is a new field of architectural research that confronts architectures with their media representations. As such, Forensic Architecture is a new academic research discipline.

For Eyal Weizmann, the form of the exhibition is important to experience the agency’s research as space is essential for the understanding of the relationships between images.
In 2018, the agency was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize and this gesture gives evidence of the desire to open up the artistic field to practices engaged in the fields of political forces.

Maud Maffei
Publié le 14/02/2019
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Version française

The Architecture of Hellfire Romeo: Drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan, 2012 © Forensic Architecture

The Architecture of Hellfire Romeo: Drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan, 2012
© Forensic Architecture