Re-launch and Rescue

The much-missed Radical Philosophy has just re-launched as an open access journal with downloadable pdfs here.  The site also includes access to the journal’s wonderful archive.

Among the riches on offer, I’ve been particularly engaged by Martina Tazzioli‘s Crimes of solidarity. which picks up on one of the central themes in the last of the ‘old’ RP series.  It addresses what she calls ‘migration and containment through rescue’, the creeping criminalisation of the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean.  In a perceptive section on ‘Geographies of Ungrievability’ Martina writes:

The criminalisation of alliances and initiatives in support of migrants’ transit should not lead us to imagine a stark opposition between ‘good humanitarians’, on the one side, and bad military actors or national authorities, on the other. On the contrary, it is important to keep in mind the many entanglements between military and humanitarian measures, as well as the role played by military actors, such as the Navy, in performing tasks like rescuing migrants at sea that could fall under the category of what Cuttitta terms ‘military-humanitarianism’. Moreover, the Code of Conduct enforced by the Italian government actually strengthens the divide between ‘good’ NGOs and ‘treacherous’ humanitarian actors. Thus, far from building a cohesive front, the obligation to sign the Code of Conduct produced a split among those NGOs involved in search and rescue operations.

In the meantime, the figure of the refugee at sea has arguably faded away: sea rescue operations are in fact currently deployed with the twofold task of not letting migrants drown and of fighting smugglers, which de facto entails undermining the only effective channels of sea passage for migrants across the Mediterranean. From a military-humanitarian approach that, under Mare Nostrum, considered refugees at sea as shipwrecked lives, the unconditionality of rescue is now subjected to the aim of dismantling the migrants’ logistics of crossing. At the same time, the migrant drowning at sea is ultimately not seen any longer as a refugee, i.e. as a subject of rights who is seeking protection, but as a life to be rescued in the technical sense of being fished out of the sea. In other words, the migrant at sea is the subject who eventually needs to be rescued, but not thereby placed into safety by granting them protection and refuge in Europe. What happens ‘after landing’ is something not considered within the framework of a biopolitics of rescuing and of letting drown. Indeed, the latter is not only about saving (or not saving) migrants at sea, but also, in a more proactive way, about aiming at human targets. In manhunting, Gregoire Chamayou explains, ‘the combat zone tends to be reduced to the body of the enemy’. Yet who is the human target of migrant hunts in the Mediterranean? It is not only the migrant in distress at sea, who in fact is rescued and captured at the same time; rather, migrants and smugglers are both considered the ‘prey’ of contemporary military-humanitarianism.

As I’ve explained in a different context, I’m no longer persuaded by Grégoire’s argument about the reduction of the conflict zone (‘battlefield’) to the body, but the reduction of the migrant to a body adds a different dimension to that discussion.

In the case of the eastern Mediterranean, Martina describes an extraordinary (though also all too ordinary) ‘spatial rerouting of military-humanitarianism, in which migrants [fleeing Libya] are paradoxically rescued to Libya’:

Rather than vanishing from the Mediterranean scene, the politics of rescue, conceived in terms of not letting people die, has been reshaped as a technique of capture. At the same time, the geographic orientation of humanitarianism has been inverted: migrants are ‘saved’ and dropped in Libya. Despite the fact that various journalistic investigations and UN reports have shown that after being intercepted, rescued and taken back to Libya, migrants are kept in detention in abysmal conditions and are blackmailed by smugglers, the public discussion remains substantially polarised around the questions of deaths at sea. Should migrants be saved unconditionally? Or, should rescue be secondary to measures against smugglers and balanced against the risk of ‘migrant invasion’? A hierarchy of the spaces of death and confinement is in part determined by the criterion of geographical proximity, which contributes to the sidelining of mechanisms of exploitation and of a politics of letting die that takes place beyond the geopolitical borders of Europe. The biopolitical hold over migrants becomes apparent at sea: practices of solidarity are transformed into a relationship between rescuers and drowned.

There’s much more in this clear, compelling and incisive read.  A good companion is Forensic Architecture‘s stunning analysis of ‘Death by Rescue’ in The Left-to-Die Boat here and here (from which I’ve taken the image that heads this post).

News from Forensic Architecture

If you haven’t received the latest newsletter from Forensic Architecture in your mailbox, you can sign up here.

(The image is taken from one of the reports, ‘Ground Truth’, a project that ‘aims to provide historical and juridical evidence on behalf of communities in the illegalised Palestinian Bedouin villages in the northern threshold of the Negev/Naqab desert, Israel’; the newsletter provides details of this and several other current investigations around the world).

Conflict Urbanism

I’m in Copenhagen – and still bleary-eyed – for a symposium organised by my good friends Kirsten Simonsen and Lasse Koefoed at Roskilde on their current project  ‘Paradoxical spaces: Encountering the other in public space‘.  I’ll be talking about the war in Syria, drawing on my previous work on attacks on hospitals, healthcare workers and patients (see ‘Your turn, doctor‘) – which I’ve now considerably extended as I work on turning all this into  a longform essay: I’ll post some updates as soon as I can – but now adding a detailed discussion of siege warfare in Syria.  More on that in my next post; but for now I wanted to share some remarkable work on Aleppo by Laura Kurgan and her students at the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia:

Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo is a project in two stages.

First, we have built an open-source, interactive, layered map of Aleppo, at the neighborhood scale. Users can navigate the city, with the aid of high resolution satellite imagery from before and during the current civil war, and explore geo-located data about cultural sites, neighborhoods, and urban damage.

Second, the map is a platform for storytelling with data. We are inviting collaborators and students to bring new perspectives and analyses into the map to broaden our understanding of what’s happening in Aleppo. Case studies will document and narrate urban damage — at the infrastructural, neighborhood, building, social, and cultural scales — and will be added to the website over time.

We invite ideas and propositions, and hope to build on the data we have compiled here to create an active archive of the memory of destruction in Aleppo through investigation and interpretation, up close and from a distance.

That last phrase is an echo of Laura’s book, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics, published by MIT in 2013.  The new project emerged out of a seminar taught by Laura in 2016:

Students worked collaboratively to develop a series of case studies using a map developed by the Center for Spatial Research, specifically designed to research urban damage in Aleppo during the ongoing civil war. Their work incorporates a range of disciplines, methods and results. Each student was asked to create case studies and add layers to the existing map. The results — spatializing youtube video, interior borders between fighting factions, imagining urban survival during wartime, imaging escape routes, audio memory maps, roads, water, hospitals, informal neighborhoods, religion, communications infrastructure, and refugee camps at the borders — are [available online here].

I’m particularly taken by ‘Spatializing the YouTube War’.   One of the challenges for those of us who follow these events ‘at a distance’ is precisely how to get ‘close up’; digital media and the rise of citizen journalism have clearly transformed our knowledge of many of today’s conflict zones – think, for example, of the ways in which Forensic Architecture has used online videos to narrate and corroborate Russian and Syrian Arab Air Force attacks on hospitals in rebel-held areas Syria; similarly, Airwars has used uploaded videos for its painstaking analysis of US and coalition airstrikes and civilian casualties (see this really good backgrounder by Greg Jaffe on Kinder Haddad, one of the Airwars team, ‘How a woman in England tracks civilian deaths in Syria, one bomb at a time) – and I’ve used similar sources to explore the effects of siege warfare on Aleppo, Homs and Madaya.

Here is how Laura and her students – in this case, Nadine Fattaleh, Michael James Storm and Violet Whitney describe their contribution:

The civil war in Syria has shown how profoundly the rise of cellphones with video-cameras, as well as online video-hosting and emergent citizen journalism, has changed the landscape of war documentation. YouTube has become one of the largest sources (and archives) of information about events on the ground in Syria: since January 2012 over a million videos of the conflict there have been uploaded, with hundreds of millions of views to date. Major news agencies have come to rely on YouTube as a primary source for their reporting, and human rights organizations often cite videos as part of their advocacy and documentation efforts. This independently reported footage has created a new powerful archive, but opens up crucial questions of credibility, verification, and bias. As with all data, every video comes to us bearing the traces of the situation and intentions that motivated its production. This does not disqualify it – quite to the contrary – but it does demand that we approach everything critically and carefully.

We set out to investigate YouTube as archive of the Syrian uprising and to develop a method for organizing that archive spatially. We used the frameworks that we had developed for the Conflict Urbanism Aleppo interactive map, together with a naming convention used by Syrian civic media organizations, in order to sort and geolocate YouTube videos from multiple sources. We then produced a searchable interactive interface for three of the most highly cited YouTube channels, the Halab News Network, the Aleppo Media Center, and the Syrian Civil Defense. We encourage journalists, researchers, and others to use this specifically spatial tool in sorting and searching through the YouTube dataset.

The Halab News Network [above] shows a wide distribution of videos across the city, including the city center and government-held Western side of the city. The Eastern half of the city — in particular the Northeastern neighborhoods of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), Hanano (هنانو), and Ayn at-Tal (عين التينة) – is the best-documented.

In contrast:

The videos published by the Aleppo Media Center [above] roughly follow the formerly rebel-held Eastern side of the city, with a small number of videos from the central and Western areas. The highest number of videos is in the neighborhood of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار). Particular spots include ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), coverage of which is shared with the Syrian Civil Defense. Another notable concentration are two neighborhoods in the Southwest, Bustan al-Qaser (بستان القصر) and al-Fardos (الفردوس).

They also analyse the video geography produced by the White Helmets [below]: ‘The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, have uploaded videos primarily in the formerly rebel-held Eastern and Southern areas of Aleppo. Only the Western area of ash-Shuhada’ (الشهداء) falls outside of this trend.’

This, like the other collaborative projects under the ‘Conflict Urbanism’ umbrella, is brilliant, essential work, and we are all in their debt.

You can read more about the project in a short essay by Laura, ‘Conflict Urbanism, Aleppo: Mapping Urban Damage’, in Architectural Design 87 (1) (2017) 72-77, and in another essay she has written with Jose Francisco Salarriaga and Dare Brawley, ‘Visualizing conflict: possibilities for urban research’, open access download via Urban Planning 2 (1) (2017) here [this includes notice of a parallel project in Colombia].

The rise of Forensic Architecture

Andrew Curry has an interesting essay on Eyal Weizman‘s development of his Forensic Architecture research agency out of his work on the role of architecture in enacting and enforcing the Israeli occupation and colonisation of the West Bank here.

En route Andrew illuminates the combination of patient, meticulous analysis with imaginative, affective public engagement that is the signature of the ‘forensis‘ to which Eyal constantly appeals (and demonstrates):

Since Weizman, 46, founded FA in 2010, it has established itself as a unique hybrid of architecture studio and human rights investigator. The agency’s reports balance high-flown architectural theory with cold facts. “To build a quasi-discipline requires a combination of theoretical, historical, experimental, and technical capacity—along with serious historical analysis and serious theoretical understanding of the relationship between the architectural materiality and events,” Weizman says. “On the other hand, we’re very practical. It’s important to provide evidence to convince people and win cases.”

… The agency’s flair for showmanship is thanks in no small part to Weizman himself, who manages to marry undisputed intellectual heft—he’s published more than a dozen books (Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability comes out in May) and teaches at the University of London and Princeton University—with undeniable stage presence. Take his appearance outside an Israeli Army base in the West Bank, filmed for a 2014 Al Jazeera documentary called The Architecture of Violence: Weizman initiated a shouted exchange with an unseen (but presumably armed) soldier concealed inside a tall concrete watchtower. “Is this place only yours? It’s everybody’s place,” Weizman yelled in Hebrew, with an exaggerated wave and theatrical shrug. “Why are you here, anyway? Is that tube your home? It’s not even your home and you’re sitting in that tube telling me what to do?”

Point made, Weizman turned his back on the tower and strode through a scrubby field back to the waiting camera, sporting a toothy grin under aviator shades. “Fuck them,” he said dismissively. “Doesn’t he look ridiculous, inside his pipe house? Like he’s king of the hill, inside his tube?”

UPDATE:  There’s a first look at Eyal’s new book of essays, Forensic Architecture: violence at the threshold of detectability, at We make money not art here.

Breaking Aleppo

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-10-37-53The Atlantic Council has issued a new report, Breaking Aleppo, which uses satellite imagery, CCTV clips, social media and video from the Russian Ministry of Defence and the RT network to explore the siege of eastern Aleppo and in particular attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure.

It includes an analysis by Forensic Architecture of the bombing of the ‘M2’ hospital in the Maadi district of Aleppo on 16 July 2016.

Here is part of that analysis employing Forensic Architecture’s signature methodology:

One strike [on M2] was reported on July 14; on July 16, another attack was reported, again with CCTV footage showing the moment of the attack from multiple angles. In this incident, photographs and videos from the attack allowed locations in the photographs to be firmly identified, allowing analysts to confirm that the locations featured were indeed M2 Hospital. To begin this process, a photograph taken outside the hospital after the attack, showing debris and damaged vehicles, was geolocated.

forensic-architecture-analysis-of-attack-on-m2-hospital

A video published by the Aleppo Media Center (AMC) showed the aftermath of the attack, with patients being evacuated to another medical center. During the video, a sequence showed one patient being transported through the building into an ambulance waiting outside the building. It was possible to match the balcony visible in the geolocated photograph to a balcony in the background of the exterior shot in the Aleppo Media Center video.

By following the journey of the patient in the AMC video back to its starting point inside the hospital building, it was then possible to match the route to CCTV footage showing the moment of the attack, also posted on YouTube by AMC.

This CCTV footage, from the same cameras that captured the June 24 bombing, clearly shows that the building was damaged on July 16; parts of the video show the explosion throwing debris through the air with civilians, sta , and patients caught in the attack. The images show the moment a civilian is hit by a large piece of material flung through the air by the explosive force of the attack….

Taken together, these images from multiple sources over a period of several months confirm that the M2 hospital was repeatedly struck between June and December 2016.

But this doesn’t do justice to Forensic Architecture’s analysis of the strikes on M2; for that, you can go here and also watch the video here (its privacy settings prevent me from embedding it):

From June to December 2016, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the Omar Bin Abdul Aziz Hospital, also known as M2, has been subject to 14 strikes by pro-government forces. The strikes have been predominantly by air to surface missiles, but also included illegal cluster munitions, barrel bombs, naval mines, and artillery. The hospital sustained significant damage in this 6 month period which has put it out of service numerous times.

Photographs and videos taken in and around the hospital allow us to analyze some of the consequences of the strikes. Each piece of footage captures only a small part of the building, but composing and cross referencing them allows us to reconstruct the architecture of the building as a 3D model and locate the images of the bombings and their damage.The model becomes the medium through which we can navigate between the different images and videos of the incidents.

There are a number of CCTV cameras in the hospital that are continuously on, capturing every strike. We locate each camera and its orientation in the building. We integrate footage from the CCTV cameras, handheld videos, and photographs within virtual space. Locating each video clip in space provides a tangible link between them, verifying their place and constructing their relation to each other.

One essential video which moves from inside-outside becomes a hinge to the geolocation of the hospital. By analyzing what we can see in the video we can demonstrate a common disposition of the built environment in satellite imagery. Due to the spatial link we created, we are able to anchor all footage to this exact location. We therefore establish the location and multiplicity of strikes and as a result raise questions about intent.

fa-analysis-of-m2

The video embeds a series of video clips and CCTV footage within the model of the hospital.  It concludes with a grim roll call of the strikes on M2 – 14 strikes in six months.  Remember that this was just one hospital attacked repeatedly – and as the map from Breaking Aleppo below shows, it was but one of many hospitals targeted.

The report takes the scale and systematicity of the attacks together with the Assad government’s ‘intimate knowledge of the terrain’ and its regular confiscation of medical supplies from humanitarian aid convoys to opposition-controlled areas across Syria as evidence that hospitals were being deliberately targeted ‘as part of a strategy intended to break the will and infrastructure of the resistance.’

You can find a version of the report with video embeds here.

Here is its key summary:

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Aleppo was hit by 4,045 barrel bombs in 2016, with 225 falling in December alone. A record of attacks compiled by the first responder organization Syrian Civil Defence, known as the ‘White Helmets’, covering the period from September 19, 2016 until the evacuation in mid-December showed 823 distinct reported incidents, ranging from cluster-munition attacks to barrel bombs. By comparing satellite images of the east of the city taken on October 18 with those taken on September 19, HRW was able to identify 950 new distinct impact sites—an average of more than one blast an hour, day and night, for a month.

Over the course of the year, the SNHR recorded 506 civilian fatalities from barrel bomb attacks, including 140 children and 63 women. Separately, the Violations Documentation Center recorded the death by military action of 3,497 civilians in Aleppo from June to mid-December 2016.

This evidence was gathered by multiple, independent witnesses using a variety of sources, from on-the-ground contacts up to satellite photographs. The sources reinforce and corroborate one another. They reveal a collage of thousands of mostly indiscriminate attacks, and their devastating impact on life and death in Aleppo during the siege.

The scale of attacks on Aleppo makes it almost impossible to compile a robust and verified record of every attack on the city. But drawing on a broad range of information, it is possible to see that an extensive aerial campaign was waged in Aleppo, and that a high proportion of the munitions deployed against the city and its population were indiscriminate.

The indiscriminate strikes were not one-sided: armed opposition groups also engaged in rocket attacks on civilians in western, government-held Aleppo. Casualty numbers are more difficult to find, but the SNHR reported sixty-four civilian deaths during the period from April 20 to April 29, 2016, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded seventy-four civilian deaths during the opposition offensive to break the siege of Aleppo in late October 2016. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks is equally disturbing, and subject to analysis and judgement under the same international laws as any other attack on civilians in the conflict. However, there is little equivalence between the two sides when considering the scale and resources employed in the conflict.

aleppo-hospitals-bombed-3-june-to-14-december-2016

The report insists that

Aleppo was not broken in the darkness. Numerous witnesses provided evidence, some of it conflicting but much of it consistent, to substantiate claims of chemical attacks, barrel bombs, air strikes on hospitals and schools, and the deaths of thousands of civilians.

Its authors summarise an extraordinary campaign of disinformation that has three prongs: ‘denying the deeds’; ‘militarizing the victims’; and ‘attacking the witnesses’. I was astonished at the extent – and the mendacity – of this ‘campaign against the evidence’, as Breaking Aleppo calls it, when I first encountered it while analysing attacks on hospitals and medical workers in Syria.  It was (is) by no means confined to the alt.right and the devotees of Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ but reaches across to the far left, including an uncomfortable number of academics who have been willing to forego any critical understanding in order to absolve Russia and Syria of any and all culpability.

You can find my own arguments in previous posts here and here.

Human Rights Watch has also just issued a report on co-ordinated chemical attacks – illegal under international law – conducted by Syrian government forces as they advanced into eastern Aleppo between 17 November and 13 December 2016.

Forensic Architecture

weizman-forensic-architecture

Here’s something (one thing) to look forward to next year: Eyal Weizman‘s richly illustrated Forensic Architecture: violence at the threshold of detectability, due from Zone/MIT Press in April:

In recent years, a little-known research group called Forensic Architecture has begun using novel research methods to undertake a series of investigations into human rights abuses. Today, the group provides crucial evidence for international courts and works with a wide range of activist groups, NGOs, Amnesty International, and the UN.

Forensic Architecture has created a new form of investigative practice, using architecture as an optical device to investigate armed conflicts and environmental destruction. In Forensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman, the group’s founder, provides an in-depth introduction to the history, practice, assumptions, potentials, and double binds of this practice. Weizman has collected an extensive array of images, maps, and detailed documentation that records the intricate work the group has performed across the globe. Weizman offers Forensic Architecture case studies that include the analysis of the shrapnel fragments in a room struck by drones in Pakistan, the resolution of a contested shooting in the West Bank, the architectural reconstruction of a secret Syrian detention center from the memory of its survivors, a blow-by-blow account of a day-long battle in Gaza, and an investigation of environmental violence in the Guatemalan highlands. With these case studies, Weizman explains in image and text how the Forensic Architecture team uses its research and investigative methods to confront state propaganda and secrets and to expose ever-new forms of state violence.

Weizman’s Forensic Architecture, stunning and shocking in its critical narrative, powerful images, and daring investigations, presents a new form of public truth, technologically, architecturally, and aesthetically produced.

I’ve noted the impressive work of Forensic Architecture on many occasions, but if you are unfamiliar with the research agency (as Eyal now calls it) you can find out more here.

There’s also a revealing conversation between Eyal, Yve-Alain Bois, Michel Feher and Hal Foster on Forensic Architecture in October 156 (Spring 2016) 117-140, and you can watch Eyal’s 2015 Wall Exchange on Forensic Architecture (referred to in the conversation) here.

Sound(ing)s

DAUGHTRY Listening to warMy interest in the militarisation of vision is longstanding, but it’s important not to exaggerate the salience of an increasingly ‘optical war’.  Through ‘The natures of war’ project (see DOWNLOADS tab) I’ve also been drawn to the importance of sound in conducting, surviving and even accounting for military violence (see, for example, herehere, and here).  And, as Martin Daughtry‘s remarkable Listening to war (2015) shows, sound continues to be significant in later modern war too.

Even its absence is significant, sometimes performative: think of all those video feeds from Predators and Reapers that, as Nasser Hussain so brilliantly reminded us, are silent movies – apart from the remote commentary from pilots and sensor operators:

‘The lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage.

The contemporary militarisation (or weaponisation) of sound is double-edged, and I mean that in several sense.

First, Mary Roach has a revealing chapter in Grunt: the curious science of humans at war (2016) on what she calls ‘Fighting by ear: the conundrum of noise’.  It turns out that 50 – 60 per cent of situational awareness comes from hearing – and yet the sound of war can be literally deafening.  The damage is often permanent, but in the heat of battle hearing loss makes it difficult to parse the torrent of noise – to distinguish offensive and defensive fires, to detect direction and range, and to send and receive vital communications.  Mary explains:

ROACH GruntFor decades, earplugs and other passive hearing protection have been the main ammunition of military hearing conservation programs. There are those who would like this to change, who believe that the cost can be a great deal higher. That an earplug can be as lethal as a bullet. Most earplugs reduce noise by 30-some decibels. This is helpful with a steady, grinding background din — a Bradley Fighting Vehicle clattering over asphalt (130 decibels), or the thrum of a Black Hawk helicopter (106 decibels). Thirty decibels is more significant than it sounds. Every 3-decibel increase in a loud noise cuts in half the amount of time one can be exposed without risking hearing damage. An unprotected human ear can spend eight hours a day exposed to 85 decibels (freeway noise, crowded restaurant) without incurring a hearing loss. At 115 decibels (chainsaw, mosh pit), safe exposure time falls to half a minute. The 187-decibel boom of an AT4 anti-tank weapon lasts a second, but even that ultrabrief exposure would, to an unprotected ear, mean a permanent downtick in hearing. Earplugs are less helpful when the sounds they’re dampening include a human voice yelling to get down, say, or the charging handle of an opponent’s rifle. A soldier with an average hearing loss of 30 decibels may need a waiver to go back out and do his job; depending on what that job is, he may be a danger to himself and his unit. “What are we doing when we give them a pair of foam earplugs?” says Eric Fallon, who runs a training simulation for military audiologists a few times a year at Camp Pendleton. “We’re degrading their hearing to the point where, if this were a natural hearing loss, we’d be questioning whether they’re still deployable. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.”

TCAP

For that reason the US military has been experimenting with what it calls ‘Tactical Communication and Protective Systems‘ (‘Tee-caps’, shown above): ear protectors that incorporate radio communications.  They are a response both to the cacophony and the geometry of war:

No one, in the heat of a firefight, is going to pause to take off her helmet, pull back her ear, insert the plug, and repeat the whole process on the other side, and then restrap the helmet. There’s time for this on a firing range, and there might have been time on a Civil War battlefield, where soldiers got into formation before the call to charge…  You knew when the mayhem was about to start, and you had time to prepare, whether that meant affixing bayonets or messing with foamies. There’s no linear battlefield any more. The front line is everywhere. IEDs go off and things go kinetic with no warning. To protect your hearing using earplugs, you’d have to leave them in for entire thirteen-hour patrols where, 95 percent of the time, nothing loud is happening. No one does that.

Saydnaya 1 JPEG

Second, sounds can intimidate – sometimes deliberately so – but they can also be reverse-engineered to reveal the geometry of violence.  One obvious example is the use of sound-ranging to locate artillery batteries on the Western Front in the First World War; but less obvious, and of critical importance, soundscaping can form an important part of a forensic investigation into crimes of war. This brings me to yet another mesmerising project from Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture agency. Eyal explains:

In 2016 Forensic Architecture was commissioned by Amnesty International to help reconstruct the architecture of Saydnaya – a secret Syrian detention center – from the memory of several of its survivors, now refugees in Turkey.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians, including protestors, students, bloggers, university professors, lawyers, doctors, journalists and others suspected of opposing the regime, have disappeared into a secret network of prisons and detention centers run by the Assad government. Saydnaya, located some 25 kilometers north of Damascus in an East German-designed building dating from the 1970s, is one of the most notoriously brutal of these places.

Torture has become routinised there – and not as a weapon in the grotesque arsenal of ‘enhanced interrogation’ (which, for any Trump fans who have stumbled into this site in error, has been demonstrated countless times not to work anyway).  Amnesty could not be clearer:

There are no interrogations at Saydnaya. Torture isn’t used to obtain information, but seemingly as a way to degrade, punish and humiliate. Prisoners are targeted relentlessly, unable to “confess” to save themselves from further beatings. Survivors say they dreaded family visits as they were always followed by extensive beatings.

Eyal continues:

As there are no recent photographs of its interior spaces, the memories of Saydnaya survivors are the only resource with which to recreate the spaces, conditions of incarceration and incidents that take place inside.

In April 2016, a team of Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture researchers travelled to Turkey to meet a group of survivors who have come forward because they wanted to let the world know about Saydnaya.

To understand the role of sound in the investigation, what Eyal calls ‘ear-witnessing’, here is Oliver Wainwright writing about the project in the Guardian:

“Architecture is a conduit to memory,” says Weizman, describing how an Arabic-speaking architect [Hania Jamal] built a digital model on screen as detainees described specific memories and events. “As they experienced the virtual environment of their cells at eye level, the witnesses had some flashes of recollection of events otherwise obscured by violence and trauma.”

One drop of water

Inmates were constantly blindfolded or forced to kneel and cover their eyes when guards entered their cells, so sound became the key sense by which they navigated and measured their environment – and therefore one of the chief tools with which the Forensic team could reconstruct the prison layout. Using a technique of “echo profiling”, sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan was able to determine the size of cells, stairwells and corridors by playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison.

“Like a form of sonar, the sounds of the beatings illuminated the spaces around them,” says Abu Hamdan. “The prison is really an echo chamber: one person being tortured is like everyone being tortured, because the sound circulates throughout the space, through air vents and water pipes. You cannot escape it.”

Oliver continues:

Saydnaya detainees developed an acute aural sensitivity, able to identify the different sounds of belts, electrical cables or broomsticks on flesh, and the difference between bodies being punched, kicked or beaten against the wall.
“You try to build an image based on the sounds you hear,” says Salam Othman, a former Saydnaya detainee, in a video interview. “You know the person by the sound of his footsteps. You can tell the food times by the sound of the bowl. If you hear screaming, you know newcomers have arrived. When there is no screaming, we know they are accustomed to Saydnaya.”

Architecture of sound

You can find full details of the project, of its architectural and auditory modelling, and its findings here, and there is also an excellent video on YouTube:

Documenting what is happening provides an essential platform for political and eventually legal action against those responsible.  You can joint Amnesty’s campaign here (scroll down).  Please do.