Private Power in Public Space

By Reena Devi

In her second GRC piece, Reena Devi comments on the practice of multi-disciplinary research group Forensic Architecture, pushing the shifting parameters of a seemingly insular art world, and exploring the power of private individuals and organisations in the public sphere.

Forensic Architecture, 2018. Image courtesy artnet news.

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If you asked me what I would consider the most intriguing new development in the art world of late, I have one answer for you—Forensic Architecture.

If you googled the phrase and referred to its Wikipedia description, you would be rightfully confused about how “a multi-disciplinary research group based at the University of London that uses architectural techniques and technologies to investigate cases of state violence and violations of international human rights” could constitute as art, or even part of the typical art world.

Yet, Forensic Architecture has been making waves in the art world, from their nomination for the 2018 Turner Prize, a renowned annual prize presented to British visual artists, to their most recent exhibit at the Whitney Biennial 2019, the longest-running survey of American art by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

The group, founded in 2010 by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, comprising architects, filmmakers, investigative journalists, software developers, and scientists uses “technology to create animations, interactive maps, and navigable 3-D models of conflict zones to uncover crimes and human rights abuses around the world”.

Working on behalf of NGOs, one of their projects involved mapping the Grenfell Tower Fire in the UK, which killed 71 residents in June 2017, raising concerns about immigration and socioeconomic inequality in the country. Others include investigating allegations of collusion between human rights organisations and human traffickers to smuggle refugees across the Mediterranean.

While politics and art have always been not so merry bedfellows, the real intriguing question is how did largely investigative, immensely technological, deep-dive research and documentation become art, let alone taken seriously by a highly myopic contemporary art world?

In 2018, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London launched an exhibition presenting an overview of Forensic Architecture’s projects around the world, exploring how the use of spatial analysis provides new evidence on legal cases. In fact, the findings were even presented at the European Courts of Human Rights later that year as evidence against a closed sea border.

A more internationally visible foray into the art world came with the Turner nomination for their work on the Grenfell Tower Fire. The jury, which was made up of art world personalities such as art critic and international editor at Art Review, Oliver Basciano, “praised Forensic Architecture for its highly innovative methods for sourcing and visualising evidence used to uncover human rights abuses, which have been used in courts of law as well as exhibitions of art and architecture.”

Particularly relevant and noteworthy is the amount of buzz and headlines the collective made for this nomination. So what caught everyone’s attention?

The unlikely nature of the nomination—the bounds of what constitutes art was stretched uncharacteristically to include visual presentation and documentation of highly investigative research acquired through diverse technologies. “Sourcing and visualising evidence” could be considered art.

As an arts journalist who started out reporting the issues and gaps in the arts scene for a local news daily and currently writes broad-based analytical pieces on the art industry based on deep-dive methodological research of 3 to 4 months on average a piece, you could say it is professional narcissism that makes me fascinated with Forensic Architecture and their unlikely place and impact in the art world.

You would not be entirely wrong, but what I find far more fascinating is how they shine the spotlight on anyone—individual or organisation, in the art world or beyond—who views their role with a high degree of insularity and exerts this social rigidity as a form of influence, power, and exceptionalism in the public space.

This is why I consider Forensic Architecture’s most revelatory work to be TripleChaser (2019) at this year’s Whitney Biennial.

Triple-Chaser (still showing various Safariland tear gas canisters, Forensic Architecture, 2019. Image courtesy Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films.

Let’s backtrack a bit. In November 2018, Hyperallergic revealed the Whitney Museum’s connection to the ongoing migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border. Whitney Museum vice chairman Warren B. Kanders purchased defense manufacturing company Safariland in 2012 for $124 million. It is reportedly one of “two companies, owned by Kanders, whose logos appeared on the tear gas canisters and smoke grenades launched at  asylum seekers on the border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California on November 25, according to multiple on-site reporters.”

Three days later, more than 100 museum staffers signed a letter “demanding that their employers respond to the article’s allegations”. The letter, first published by Hyperallergic, states, “To be silent is to be complicit”.

Kanders himself responded in an open letter addressed to the “Whitney Community” available on ARTnews in full. The museum director wrote a note to his staff, also published on the same site. You can make of these letters what you will, but their content is pretty much the kind of white noise we have grown used to in the public sphere today, thinly disguised as fact-based rhetoric just because it comes from personalities of affluence and influence in society.

But deep-dive research and factfinding speaks for itself, especially in contemporary public discourse overwhelmed by positive whitewashing and disingenuous oversharing.

In May 2019, Forensic Architecture’s ten-minute film was unveiled at the Whitney Biennial as one of the exhibition’s stand-out works. Triple-Chaser, both the title of the video work and the name of the grenade produced by a subsidiary of Safariland, showcases still images and video footage “showing tear gas being deployed at the US-Mexico border, and other evidence of the use of the Triple-Chaser Grenade in numerous countries”.

The film was produced in collaboration with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, most famous for Citizenfour, the award winning documentary on renowned American whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In addition to the visual documentation of an in-depth investigation using machine learning technology regarding Kander’s companies and their use of tear gas and bullets worldwide, Forensic Architecture also shared their findings with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) which proceeded to serve legal notice to the bullets manufacturing company in question.

On July 19, Forensic Architecture along with 8 other prominent artists in the Whitney Biennial wrote a letter addressed to the Biennial curators and published on ARTFORUM asking to “withdraw our work from the Whitney Biennial for the remainder of the show. This request is intended as condemnation of Warren Kanders’ continued presence as Vice Chair of the Board. We would appreciate if you presented this letter to the Board to let them know the seriousness of the situation.”

One week later, Kanders resigned from the museum board.

We talk a lot about public space and what it means in the 21st century, in Singapore and in other parts of the world. We talk about the role government plays in shaping or curbing this space almost to the point of comatose stupor. But we often ignore the real problem in today’s public space which is the unchecked ability to wield an unhealthy combination of excessive private wealth and social rigidity to keep certain situations, practices, and thinking as is. The art world is definitely one of the public spaces this mask of affluence and influence is most visibly used.

Forensic Architecture may have made its name tackling exigent geopolitical issues but its ability to render this mask of power impotent with a savvy use of technology, documentation, and investigative research is worth exploring in today’s public space.


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