Activists / Architects / The Sunday Times

Through the eyes of a pioneering forensic architect

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Today, Prof. Eyal Weizman will deliver the 18th Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust Lecture at BMICH. Its open to all, and you should go. From experience, I can tell you that Weizman’s work is both provocative and significant.

We met when the Israeli professor was a speaker at the Falling Walls conference in Berlin. The conference is held every year on November 9th to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall but in 2016, on the morning of the main sessions, the crowd was also anxiously awaiting the results of the US elections. This was an audience made up for most part of scientists, technology entrepreneurs and policy makers—very few of whom were likely to cheer a Trump victory.

As the news came in, the chairman of the Nobel Foundation’s board of directors, Carl-Henrik Heldin who was standing on the fringes of that crowd, expressed his frank dismay to a journalist from The Guardian: “I see a movement towards right-wing populism and isolationism and anti-intellectualism. We move away from logical thinking and rationalism towards a very uncertain direction.”

Amidst the prevailing anxiety, Weizmann offered a tempered response. As someone who had immersed himself in the evidence of the carnage wrecked by Obama’s drone program, Weizman was of the opinion all governments have some things in common. “There is too much emphasis being put on good leader versus bad leaders,” he told the Sunday Times, in an interview given on the side-lines of the conference.

Experience has made Weizman something of a cynic on the subject of governments. The team at Forensic Architecture—the independent research agency Weizman founded in 2010—often appear before international courts, political and legal forums, truth commissions and in human rights reports.

Weizman has never worked in Sri Lanka but he remembers January 2009, when he saw two conflicts in full swing: the end of the Israeli invasion into Gaza and the beginning of the last stage of the war in the north of this island.

“I was following Gaza closely with dismay and concern for the Palestinian civilians under ruthless bombing there but was aware, through the international press, of the intensification of the war in Sri Lanka,” says Weizman. He saw how each conflict was rooted in its own history and contingencies. They seemed to him to almost talk to each other. “The conversation occurred in the language of bombs but also in the language of justification. From there emerged the Israeli and Sri Lankan options for counter insurgency.”

When the dust settled on the ruins of Gaza, it revealed widespread damage—and the need to investigate why and how it had been wrought. With no roadmap to guide them, Weizman and his colleagues had to develop their own tools, their own language as it were. “It was the first time that human rights organisations started a systematic reading of buildings for traces of what happened around them,” he says.

Weizman argues that forensic architecture is a contemporary form of archaeology—“an archaeology of our present for a global era of urban warfare with the aim of holding actors to account for hurting civilians…an optics through which to see a world in conflict.”

Since those early years, their work has included investigations in to torture and detention in the Cameroon, the loss of lives as authorities left boats packed with refugees adrift in the Mediterranean and the deaths linked to environmental violence in Indonesia and Guatemala. They have catalogued the aftermath of multiple cases of covert drone strikes in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Palestine. Says Weizman now: “We can see that any way states are in the business of killing and in the business of denying those killings.”

Based at Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture’s teams vary greatly between assignments. Interdisciplinary units have included architects, coders, artists, scholars, journalists, sculptors, filmmakers, archaeologists, lawyers, and scientists.

Weizman himself is a trained architect. Growing up in the city of Haifa in Israel, he says he saw early on the injustice being done to his Palestinian neighbours, and it sowed the seeds of what would become his career.  “I was trained as an architect through a very long and expensive education,” he says. “I would have loved to have been a practicing architect and to build beautiful things, but sometimes certain political realities force you to use the tools of your trade in a very different way.”

In Gaza, the built environment is riddled with the evidence Weizman is looking for. For reports and documentaries, the Israeli professor looked out on surrounding urban landscapes identify the elements of “an architecture of occupation.” He saw how Israeli homes in Gaza were like optical instruments, laid in rings on hilltops so as to better enable surveillance. Fences, blockades, highways, settlements and checkpoints were deployed to shrink and expand the terrain at will.

Differentiation in something as simple as speed of movement created glaring inequalities: Israelis cruised along unhindered on highways, while Palestinians were halted at borders, and checkpoints, forced to push through turnstiles one at a time, and confronted with valleys they could not cross.

Weizman also studied how public space and private space could be turned inside out when state forces broke through walls and invaded private homes, using their new vantage points to monitor narrow streets and launch attacks on opposing soldiers. In such encounters, civilians were stripped of the protection of their homes and left vulnerable.

Forensic architecture, the discipline in which Weizman is a pioneer, works across a spectrum: there is the physical evidence such as the scorch marks of shrapnel or the rubble in the aftermath of a drone strike; there is photographic evidence collected through social media or satellite imagery and then there are witness testimonies that are collated through processes of memory reconstruction. Working with the team, witnesses have sometimes been able to recall details of even very traumatic moments through the use of 3-D architectural models and reconstructions.

Inherent in all these approaches is a kind of uncertainty. Weizman must contend with fake images online, and shaky witnesses and yet present a case that can stand up to trial. Often the team works by finding ways to anchor their evidence—for instance, by pairing social media footage of bomb strikes in Gaza with the clouds of smokes appearing from these same strikes in satellite imagery, Forensic Architecture were able to construct a timeline and even identify bombs used in the attack.

Sometimes a case hinges on minute details—the team have found that it is possible to identify where people were standing by the distribution of shrapnel along a wall. Trace an empty space in the middle of a cluster of holes, and you could find a human-shaped figure and know that the body that once stood there absorbed the metal shards.

These findings—with their disquieting and sometimes heart-breaking implications—only fuel Weizman’s determination to unearth what evidence he can, using whatever means are at hand. “My understanding is of science and technology is that they have to come into being and mobilize from a political perspective,” says Weizman. “There is no point in my opinion, in being the objective, neutral scientist. We are working always on behalf of victims in trying to get accountability for them.”

Published in the Sunday Times on 30 July, 2017. By Smriti Daniel. Pic courtesy Eyal Weizman.

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