Wednesday Art Idol

Forensic Architecture: the architectural detective agency uncovering global human rights abuses
By Finn Blythe | Art | 28 July 2021

Still from Forensic Architecture’s 2020 reconstruction of the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

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Despite their Turner Prize-nomination in 2018 and multiple exhibitions, Forensic Architecture (FA) is far from your standard artist collective. Founded by British-Israeli architect Eyal Weizman in 2010, this multidisciplinary research agency based at London’s Goldsmith’s University is conducting some of the most innovative studies into cases of state violence and human rights abuses around the world. 

From herbicidal warfare in Gaza to chemical attacks in Syria, state-sponsored torture in Cameroon and illegal drone strikes in the Middle East, the group’s investigations utilise a wide range of expertise to build cases using a range of complimentary disciplines. Working together with legal teams, NGO’s and local activists, FA’s approach is grounded in the idea of architecture as an analytic device, a map that can be pieced together to reconstruct past events. 

Still from Forensic Architecture’s 2015 reconstruction of the bombing of Rafah, Gaza in 2014

Central to their success is the modern ubiquity of images. From mobile phone recordings, open source data, satellite images and social media posts, their investigations are complex and multi-layered. With a team that includes software developers, architects, animators and image analysts (as well as countless other specialists), photographs, video, satellite, interviews and more are collated to render physical environments in digital form and re-stage the sequence of events. Findings from these investigations have been presented in courtrooms, galleries and parliamentary inquiries across the world, holding national governments to account and delivering justice where few other organisations can. 

In one case that is particularly illustrative of their cross-discipline methods, FA used witness accounts and acoustic modelling to reconstruct the architecture of Syria’s most notorious prison. Originally commissioned by Amnesty International, the ongoing investigation centres on Saydnaya, a prison in which thousands have either died or been tortured since 2011. Since no images of the prison exist in the public domain, five former detainees described details of the building to an architectural researcher who was able translate the recollections, along with written interviews and satellite images, into a model of the space. The results of this investigation were later used in Amnesty’s 2016 report on Saydnaya, in which they brought international attention to evidence collated with the help of FA that the prison was also functioning as a site for mass executions, an assertion confirmed by the US State Department one year later. 

So, how does this find its way into a gallery? At the heart of FA’s ethos is a preoccupation with space, physical and virtual, and how it can be analysed to reveal a story. Reconstruction of these spaces relies on a plethora of different mediums, which, like visual artists, they synthesise into a final work that exceeds the sum of its constituent parts. That these ‘works’ are presented as art, at international venues such as Documenta and the ICA, reflects the group’s ability to traverse multiple interlinking fields of study as well as the desire of institutions to foster new modes of civil practice that engage in critical investigations. 

Still from Forensic Architecture’s 2016 investigation into Saydnaya prison

The killing of Mark Duggan, 2011

In August 2011, officers from the MET Police Operation Trident unit shot and killed Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, sparking days of intense rioting across the UK. Despite initial reports that an exchange of fire had precipitated the killing, an inquest by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) later found that Duggan had not discharged the handgun he was carrying, but that it had been discovered 7 meters away from his body. The officer who fatally shot Duggan claimed he saw him holding a gun, yet no officer could recall seeing the gun being thrown.

Forensic Architecture was commissioned by Duggan’s family lawyers to reconstruct the scene of his death as a navigable digital environment that could be used to scrutinise the testimonies of officers that were present. Using videos, images, witness testimony, hand-drawn plans, as well as a bio-mechanical report, FA reconstructed the scene in virtual reality. Their work allowed the only three possible conclusions of how the gun ended in the grass to be examined in immersive detail. Either, the gun was thrown from the minicab Duggan was riding in shortly before being shot, or it was thrown during the shooting or it was moved by officers afterwards. 

FA’s investigation demonstrated the unlikelihood of the first two possibilities, while also highlighting that the evidence used by the IPCC to rule out the third possibility was dubious at best. After lengthy deliberation, the IPCC declined to re-open the investigation, but the crucial work of FA in this case underlines their commitment to protecting basic civil freedoms with innovative and compelling means of defense. 

Still from Forensic Architecture’s 2020 reconstruction of the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011

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