Sunday, 25 March 2018

Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture at the ICA

Legal cases usually allow both legal teams - prosecution and defence, in criminal cases - to examine and make use of the relevant evidence. But while governments have their own evidence-gathering experts and the money and knowledge to commission additional external expertise if needed, the people and organisations that might find themselves having to defend themselves against or challenge the state generally don't have access to these kinds of resources.

That's where Forensic Architecture comes in. It's an "independent research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London", according to London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, which is showing an exhibition of the agency's work.

The ICA's website says: "Forensic Architecture is not only the name of the agency but a form of investigative practice that traverses architectural, journalistic, legal and political fields, and moves from theoretical examination to practical application."

Actually, if the exhibition is a reliable guide, then the agency practices very little architecture as most people would think of it, and really carries out research encompassing interviewing, forensic examination, reconstruction and - the area where architecture is most at play - digital and physical modelling.

They've been commissioned by non-governmental organisations and families to examine evidence relating to potential human rights abuses, crimes and state violence, including police killings, state airstrikes, and the EU's handling of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean.

It's a fascinating subject for an exhibition, and the ICA devotes a lot of space to it, including multiple videos and charts and a recreation of the floor-plan of an internet cafe where a murder took place.

Eddy Frankel was fairly scathing in his review of the exhibition in Timeout, and he has a point when he says:

"All along the opening walls of this show are long, involved, mega-academic essays on the ‘forensics of aesthetics’ and shit like that. Is it a concession to the usual blah-blah waffle of the art world? Or is it simply an inability to condense down all the inward-looking, shoe-gazing academic theory at the heart of Forensic Architecture into something that can really connect with people? Probably a bit of both."

The section of the exhibition he highlights is interesting in flagging that aesthetics plays a part in courtroom presentations of forensic evidence even though evidence itself is supposedly straightforwardly factual, but it's a point that has minimal relevance to the case studies presented. There are also far more accessible ways of saying that the human body records evidence of the impacts of some of the things it experiences.

Furthermore, it's not always clear what, if anything, resulted from the agency's work. In some cases this is because the work is ongoing, but in others - such as the reconstruction of an airstrike - it seems to have been left out.

Likewise I had doubts about some of the findings. An increase in deaths in the Mediterranean is attributed to a specific cause, whereas it looked to me like it could have been due simply to the seasonal increase in attempted migrant crossings during the summer. A video is asserted to show a soldier pretending to discharge a shell from a rifle, when actually something that looks very much like a shell clearly ejects from the chamber.

But Forensic Architecture is, as I said, a fascinating agency that seems to help provide a counterpoint, in situations of a massive power imbalance, to the ability of governments to control the generation of evidence and expert analysis. And this exhibition provides a substantial, if at times somewhat confusing and frustrating, insight into how it does that.

It's well worth dropping by.

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