FORENSIS / COUNTERFORENSICS
AN EXTRACT FROM
This book records the work of the research agency known as Forensic Architecture. Although the name refers to the work of building surveyors, our agency is composed instead of an interdisciplinary team of architects, filmmakers, artists, scientists, and lawyers. Our products are evidence files in the form of building surveys, physical or digital models, animations, video and maps of various forms. When we work in a legal context, it is often for prosecutors in international law or human rights cases, but our work is not limited to the legal domain — we also produce evidence for citizen-organized truth commissions and tribunals and human rights and environmental protection agencies. Our investigations seek to extend beyond the procedural limitation of each of the forums in which we are asked to present evidence. We try to present incidents in their historical and political contexts — to reconstruct around them the world that made them possible. A full account of our investigations is on our website. [...]
We use the term “forensics,” but our work actually seeks to invert forensics as currently practiced and return the forensic gaze, otherwise the mode by which state agencies, such as the police or the secret services, survey the people they seek to put under control. We use forensic architecture to monitor state agencies (and sometimes corporations), challenge their claims and, as much as possible, their near monopoly on information in war. The inversion of the forensic gaze is captured in a neologism that Thomas Keenan, following Allan Sekula, called “counterforensics.” The state has monopolized both killing and identification; hence, counterforensics turns the state’s own means against the violence it commits. While forensics is a state tool, counterforensics, as we practice it, is a civil practice that aims to
interrogate the built environment to uncover political violence undertaken by states. The call to “take over the means of production” means for us to take over the means of evidence production. Here, forensics is not only the technical, neutral domain of expert specialists, nor is it the application of empirical science within a well-established
court system and its protocols, but instead an engaged civil practice that seeks to articulate public claims using architecture.
Turning forensics against the state is essential because of the intertwined nature of state violence, which, as previously mentioned, is both violence against people and things and also against the evidence that violence has taken place at all. It is important to confront secrecy and denial not only for the sake of historical truth, a reckoning with the deeds in the past, but because they give legitimacy to state violence and are the conditions that enable its ongoing perpetration.
To salvage the word “forensics” and wrest it from the grip of state agencies and bureaucratic processes, we found an important operative concept in forensis, Latin for “pertaining to the forum” and the origin of the term “forensics.” When the Roman orators of the first and second centuries — Quintilian and Cicero, for example — used the term, they referred to more than just the legal sphere. The forum was a chaotic and multidimensional domain of economy, circulation, politics, and judgment in which both people and things participated and were presented. Small things, such as coins or daggers, could be physically displayed, but things abstract, far away, or too large, such as rivers, territories, wars, towns, famines, or empires, had to be made vivid by the power of representation or aural demonstration — by what Quintilian referred to with the rhetorical trope of “prosopopoeia” — the attribution of a voice to inanimate things. In discussing “giving a voice to things to which nature has not given a voice,” he wrote of the power of prosopopoeia not only as having the power to “evoke the dead”, as forensic pathologists still do in courts today, but also as “giving voices to cities and states”, something that is directly relevant to the practice of forensic architecture. Conviction, he believed, requires not so much the objective weighing of facts as the placing of an invisible reality before the public’s eyes — something achieved by what he called energia, “vigor of style” — a manner of presentation “in which the truth requires not merely to be told, but to a certain extent obtruded.” Today, contemporary modes of prosopopoeia and energia animate material objects by converting them into data or images and placing them within a narrative. Despite its origins in the imperial context of Rome, we found in forensis a productive category that helped us define our practice as a mode of public address and a means of articulating political claims using evidence grounded in the built world — which is most of the world, by now.
The problem in the history of forensics as a term and as a practice is that throughout the process of its modernization, it followed a trajectory of linguistic telescoping. The forum for its use gradually started referring exclusively to the courts of law and “forensics” to the use of science, primarily medical science, in them. The critical dimension of forensis — its public, political element — was lost in the process. Forensics has instead become the art of the police. Indeed, the modern history of forensics is the history of the techniques by which state agencies monitor, survey, and govern their populations, enforce order, and regulate deviations. Its spectrum extends from the nineteenth-century pseudosciences of phrenology, through the biometrics of fingerprints, Alphonse Bertillon’s type police, and the colonial archives, to the image surveillance, digital eavesdropping, and pattern analysis of the present moment. It is in this way that forensics embodies what Allen Feldman has called the “police concept of history.”
Forensics has three sites of operation, namely, the field, the laboratory
(in our case, it would be the studio), and the forum. The field is the site of
investigation. It is the place where violence takes place and where traces
are left. The lab is where material is processed and composed into evidence, and the forum is where it is presented.
Sometimes we must follow these spatial, institutional, and epistemic designations, namely, collect evidence in the field, process it in our studio, and present it in institutions of bureaucratic justice such as international and national courts and tribunals or the UN. Civil practice can of course also be performed in state and intrastate institutions, but in practicing civil forms of forensis, we cannot always rely on such forums. None of these forums is universally accessible — all are conditioned by institutional, legal, political, and geopolitical considerations. We can thus not limit the presentation of our evidence to any single context, but must seek to migrate it between several different forums. At other times, we must search for alternative, informal forums. Tactical and operative, they can take place in the field and on the street. At yet other times, when the necessary forums do not exist, we must conceive, assemble, or construct new ones. In the latter case, we have used the literal meaning of the term “architecture” in “forensic architecture” — we have designed and built places of assembly where there were none. The stereoscopy of forensic architecture has in this case simultaneously looked backward and forward — to debate events in the past, it assembled forums in which this can happen.
The general aim, whether we can yet achieve it or not, is to erode the differences between the domains of field, lab, and forum. In the field, rather than evidence being assembled by professional human rights workers traveling to examine what has occurred on the ground, there is now a multitude of independently generated and processed evidence, such as filmed and written testimonies posted on blogs or social media websites. This material is produced on the terms of those experiencing violence. The field is also not a neutral, abstract grid on which traces of a crime can be plotted out, but is dynamic and elastic, a space that is shaped by conflict and violence and that also shapes the conflict that takes place in the forum.
The laboratory itself gets diffused when stages of investigative work — the exposure, documentation, collation, validation, and analysis of evidence, using satellite images or video analysis — is crowd-sourced. In this context, the classic terms of verification, expertise, provenance, and the chain of custody are replaced by the multiple checks on truth and accuracy provided by the crowd. Such forums also allow us to develop our open-source crowd-sourcing software, PATTRN, to support such developments.
Finally, forums are no longer confined to arenas such as buildings, but become increasingly diffused across a wide spectrum of channels and media forms. We share the techniques we develop, publically on our website and in workshops with activists. Exhibitions in cultural, architectural, or art institutions allow us to present our work in its historical and theoretical context and to generate debate around these issues.
Forensic speech is traditionally undertaken as a relation between three elements: an object or a building “made to speak,” an expert who functions as the translator from the language of objects to that of people, and the forum or assembly in which such claims can be made. To refute a forensic statement, it is necessary to dismantle this triangle of articulation, which means to demonstrate that the object is inauthentic, that the interpreter is biased, or that the translation is unfaithful. But the relations between these component parts have themselves become complicated. Objects are animated in the process of presentation; skulls, buildings, and ecosystems are referred to as if they were human subjects; the interpreters, meanwhile, are no longer necessarily human experts, but automated or semiautomated technologies of detection, calculation, and imaging, while the forums expand to a multiplicity of modes of articulation.
Although forensics is associated with the horror of crime-scene
investigations, with dead bodies and destruction, as a mode of public presentation, it can sometimes be reminiscent of the genre of comedy. To say that something is comic does not necessarily mean it is funny. Forensics is comic because it enacts a fantasy distinct to the genre: that of speaking, acting objects. Evidence never speaks for itself, but speak it does, through its surrogate experts. Forensics is the mode by which the present theatre of horrors is performed by objects in front of a public. Comic moments — a man speaking to a skull and expecting it to speak back, say — can obviously exist in the greatest of tragedies, and forensic anthropologists presenting human remains in court continuously perform variations on this trope. They treat human remains as if they were witnesses, presenting themselves merely as translators or interlocutors. In our presentations, we similarly often employ figures of speech that animate the inorganic, make claims with and pose questions to objects large and small, ventriloquize not skulls, but physical and digital objects — buildings, neighborhoods, software, territories, and digital networks.
The advance of state forensics has also given rise to a multiplicity of counterforensic techniques that seek to hide from, evade, or disrupt the ability of states and corporate entities to collect traces. These extend from migrants using razor blades, fire, or acid to destroy their fingerprints to avoid identification and deportation to forms of digital camouflage against computer surveillance. In all these cases, counterforensics seeks to understand and map the logic of surveillance — investigate the means of state investigations — in order to be able to interfere with, camouflage itself from it, or render it inoperative.
This depends on both opacity and transparency, with the former being the condition for the latter: camouflage from state and corporate surveillance, data protection, and anonymization, as anyone working in this field knows well, is the necessary prerequisite for the exposure of political crimes.
In addition to investigating the means of state investigations, forensic
activists must examine the politics of the forums in which evidence is
presented. No forum is neutral. Each is a product of and situated within a political reality, and each operates according to different sets of protocols. Each forum differently frames evidence’s condition of visibility — what can be said, shown, and heard. Internal autocritique of our own actions and decisions is essential to mitigate collusion and determine when we might need to change course. While courts are important sites of political struggle and for gathering historical research, the danger is that a legal process can also sometimes supplant political action.
We must also learn to engage critically with the juridical and normative frames of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL or “the laws of war”). Such frames cannot by themselves address systemic or structural violations. Merely insisting on normative regulation can end up reinforcing the status quo. Defending rights from within existing social, political, and legal frameworks can be counterproductive if the struggle is to replace the powers that have established these frameworks in the first place. The legal cases are only as good as the political processes of which they are a part. Furthermore, unlike in the context of domestic criminal law, in which evidence is presented in existing and well-established forums, in the context of state violence, jurisdiction does not always exist, and often there are no obvious forums to address. Most of our investigations take place in frontier zones with conditions of extraterritoriality that are outside established state jurisdictions and their frames of criminal justice. These are sites where sovereign jurisdiction is unclear (such as in the Mediterranean Sea), has disintegrated (as in some parts of Somalia or Yemen, where militants headquarter and drone assassinations take place), or has been suspended and is under siege (Waziristan, Gaza, the West Bank, or the remote highland frontiers of Guatemala in the 1980s). To that extent forensis is forensics where there is no law.
Those who confront political injustice in the name of the principles of international law and human rights also need to be cognizant of the way these laws and directives can themselves become instruments of war. Historically, human rights and international humanitarian laws were formulated by states and promoted by organizations such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in order to regulate and moderate the way militaries wage wars. Interpreted and repurposed by military lawyers, however, these legal codes might also become the means by which militaries design and dispense violence. The strategic benefit that militaries can claim from moderation is understandable: Western militaries, increasingly bogged down by a raft of urban insurgencies, are keen to minimize civilian casualties on occasions when they believe that moderation might allow them to govern populations more efficiently or to win over the “hearts and minds” that have continually eluded them since the Vietnam War. But legal advice and court rulings on some forms of torture, targeted assassinations, and settlements in Israel, have given these forms of violence some legitimacy in the name of humanitarian principles. In some historical circumstances the ethical power of human rights claims also involves the dangers of advocating Western military intervention, purportedly to stop mass atrocities.
Indeed, new frontiers of military practice are being explored via a combination of legal and military technologies that use the law as a weapon of war. There are multiple ways in which contemporary warfare is conditioned and empowered by legal and regulatory principles, rather than simply contained and justified by them. A statement recently made by Stephen Preston, the Pentagon’s general counsel, exemplifies the advantages of legal warfare:
We know that the law of war poses no obstacle to fighting well and prevailing. Nations have developed the law of war to be fundamentally consistent with the military doctrines that are the basis for effective combat operations. For example, the self-control needed to refrain from violations of the law of war under the stresses of combat is the same good order and discipline necessary to operate cohesively and victoriously in battle.
These points above are only some of the ways by which human rights principles, generally understood as counterhegemonic instruments for addressing historical injustices, can be deployed to enhance and legitimize domination and violence. It is our opinion that legal and human rights activism should confront and limit military and state power, not become instructions for exercising it.
Forensic warfare, waged by militaries, does not use the law only as an instrument of war, but also extends the conflict into the quasi-juridical domain, where legal categories are employed in a battle over legitimacy. States can mobilize large resources to construct their claims. Militaries maintain their technological and optical advantage and make public every image and bit of footage that serves their aim and deny access to the rest under a variety of “national security” rationales. Through their press offices or websites, Western militaries frequently upload battlefield videos shot from airplanes, drones, or warheads. These highly selective and vetted perspectives on the battlefield always highlight the violations committed by the other side or moments when the military is seen caring for civilians. At the same time, these very militaries work hard to disrupt the possibility of anyone else monitoring their own violations.
The emergence of international tribunals throughout the 1990s — the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 — not only provided some of the first forums for international criminal legal process after the Nuremberg trials in 1945 and 1946, but has also led to the popularization of the principles of international law. Different parties to a conflict started mobilizing legal categories such as “war crimes” or “disproportional attacks” as slogans. The form of legal activism that emerged in the shadow of “forensic warfare” has been referred to by Western militaries and security think tanks as “lawfare,” which they define as “the strategy of using — or misusing — law as a substitute for traditional military means.” Lawfare, it is argued, has become “an indelible feature of 21st-century conflicts.” It is a kind of warfare, they explain, that takes place above the level of the state, in international institutions, and below it, in forums of civil society. This development has made Western states and their militaries vulnerable in the very fields and forums they imagined to control.
War, law, and politics thus do not occupy separate spheres, but rather overlap and interact with each other. International law, human rights principles, and the systems of institutions that exercise and enact them have become part of political struggles, a battlefield on which the law is used by both sides. This fact is bound to disappoint those who imagine that law equals justice. Instead of feeling betrayed by the law, when it provides no remedy, it is more useful to see it as a tool whose effects can be captured by Plato’s notion of a pharmakon, a substance that is both a cure and a poison. Activists must negotiate these problems by recognizing both the potential and the dangers of human rights principles and of international humanitarian law and be vigilant and realistic about what is possible to achieve with them.
In forensis, then, we find both an operative concept and a critical practice — the word critical here indicating something that is vital and dynamic as well as our willingness to interrogate our own position. Our investigations have subsequently simultaneously aimed at state violence both on the battlefield and as embedded in the law.