A museum without borders

Following from my previous post – the same issue of Radical Philosophy (2.03) includes an excellent essay on ‘The Palestinian Museum‘ at Birzeit by Hanan Toukan.

It opens with a series of sharp questions about the very idea of such a museum:

How are we to think about a museum that represents a people who not only do not exist on conventional maps but who are also in the process of resisting obliteration by one of the most brutal military complexes in the world? What is, and what can be, the role of a museum in a violent colonial context compounded by the twin effects of imperialism and capitalism? Whom does the museum speak for in such a context? And what can or should it say to a transterritorial nation while physically located in a supposed state-to-be, that has no real prospect of gaining control over its land, water or skies through current international diplomatic channels?

Hanan’s discussion is framed by four issues:

First, the convoluted, bureaucratic and deceptive nature of the Oslo Peace Process and the new phase of colonisation that it inaugurated in 1993. This predicament, which has been described as one of living in a ‘postcolonial colony’ is largely defined by the paradox of living in a state without sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza under the guise of a diplomatic process leading toward a two-state solution. Under this regime, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), established in 1994 as an outcome of the now unpopular Oslo Peace Accords, did not gain full sovereignty for itself or the Palestinian people it‘represents’. Rather, it became the middleman of the Israeli Occupation, managing security and repressing Palestinian dissent on behalf of Israel through its own internal military and intelligence apparatus, helping to intensify Israeli colonial strategies of spatial segregation and economic control. At the same time, despite its increasing unpopularity the PNA has continued to act as the internationally recognised representative of a state-to-be in international diplomacy. This role has necessitated its participation in cultural diplomacy and top-down identity formation in an attempt to rebrand the image of Palestinians as non-violent and modern global citizens residing within the 1967 borders – processes that are key to understanding how and why the Palestinian Museum has, from its inception, had to think about representing the story of the Palestinian people outside the limits of the diplomatically sanctioned, yet now probably defunct, two-state solution.

Second, ‘ongoing Israeli colonial practices of cultural exclusion and military domination’ that materially limit the space within which it was possible for the museum to emerge [when I see images like the one above, from Frieze, I can’t help but think of Eyal Weizman‘s wonderful work on the optical geometry of Israeli occupation] – and third, closely and crucially linked, the restrictions imposed (and to some degree subverted) by ‘the European museum’s western-centric yet universalising mission of acquiring, conserving and displaying aesthetic objects as part of the project of constructing nation-states and indeed modernity itself.’

And finally, ‘the wave of state-supported building and renovation of museums and other art institutions underway largely in the Arab Gulf states but also in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and to a lesser extent Jordan, from which the Palestinian Museum is arguably set apart by virtue of its status as an institution representing a transterritorial and stateless nation.’

As should be obvious from even these brief passages, the essay’s reach extends far beyond the museum itself.

Counter Investigations

News from Forensic Architecture of an exhibition of their collective work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, 7 March – 6 May 2018.  The official opening is Tuesday 6 March from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m; all welcome:

Counter Investigations is the first UK survey exhibition of the work of Forensic Architecture, an independent research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London.

‛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. In recent years Forensic Architecture has undertaken a series of investigations internationally into state crimes and human rights violations, spanning events within war zones and instances of politically and racially motivated violence and killing.

Counter Investigations presents a selection of these investigations. As historically contextualised interrogations of contemporary social and political processes, they put forward a form of ‛counter forensics’, serving as sites for the pursuit of public accountability through scientific and aesthetic means, in opposition to the monopolisation of narratives around events by state agencies.

The exhibition outlines five key concepts that raise related historical, theoretical, and technological questions. Explored in an accompanying series of public seminars, they add up to a short course in forensic architecture.

Last Sunday’s Observer had an appreciative notice from Rowan Moore of both the exhibition and FA’s work: you can find it here

The organisation’s founder and director is Eyal Weizman, a British-Israeli architect. Its primary mission is research, to “develop evidentiary systems in relation to specific cases”; in so doing, it acts as “an architectural detective agency”, working with NGOs and human rights lawyers to uncover facts that confound the stories told by police, military, states and corporations. “We think that architects need to be public figures,” says Weizman. “They should take positions, whatever they do. We map the most extreme and violent forms.”

“We’re building a new sub-discipline of architecture,” he adds. “We just have to figure it out.” They use whatever means they can to reconstruct a hybrid of physical and virtual space – the metadata surrounding phone calls and phone-camera videos, meteorology, eyewitness accounts, reconstructions. They might scrape thousands of images of a bombing off social media and match them with material facts to fix facts in space and time, as if with the coordinates of a multidimensional map. They learn from ancient as well as modern methods, such as the memorising techniques of Roman orators and Elizabethan actors, when helping ex-prisoners reconstruct the monstrous and secret prison of Saydnaya in Syria.

They are engaged in a game of wits with military and security services. Their arena is shaped by surveillance and data collection – factors that give rise to well-founded fears that they might be abused by power. Forensic Architecture aims to make these techniques benefit rather than harm human rights.

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).

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.

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.

Zombie law

Britain's Kill List cover JPEGOver at ESIL [European Society of International Law] Reflections [5 (7) 2016], Jochen von Bernstorff has a succinct commentary on ‘Drone strikes, terrorism and the zombie: on the construction of an administrative law of transnational executions‘.

His starting-point is the UK report on the government’s policy on the use of drones for targeted killing that was published in May 2016 in response to the killing of Reyad Khan in Syria last August: you can find more in REPRIEVE’s report on Britain’s Kill List (April 2016) and in two commentaries at Just Security from Noam Lubell here and Kate Martin here.

In Jochen’s view, the UK has effectively endorsed the policies of the Obama administration and in doing so has hollowed out fundamental legal regimes that supposedly constrain state violence.

First is the concerted attempt to legitimise the unilateral killing of suspected terrorists outside ‘hot’ battlefields – in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, for example – as a new form of pre-emptive self-defence to be invoked whenever the state whose sovereignty is transgressed is ‘unwilling or unable’ to take appropriate counter-measures.  I discuss other dimensions of this in ‘Dirty dancing’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and pay attention to its colonial genealogy, but Jochen emphasises another even more starkly colonial inflection:

‘The main protagonists in this discursive effort take it for granted that the new legal regime will not be applied among us, which is among Western states and the five permanent Security Council members. There will be no US-drone attacks in Brussels or Paris to kill ISIS-terrorists without the consent of the Belgian or French government, even if these governments proved to be unable to find and arrest terrorists. The new regime is a legal framework for what can be called the “semi-periphery”, consisting of states that do not belong to the inner circle or are not powerful enough to resist the application of the regime.’

Second, and closely connected, is the claim that armed conflict follows the suspect – that the individuation of warfare (‘the body becomes the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou has it) licenses the everywhere war: simply, wherever the suspect seeks refuge s/he becomes a legitimate target of military violence.  But there is nothing ‘simple’ about it, Jochen contends, because this involves a wholesale exorbitation of the very meaning of armed conflict that completely trashes the role of international human rights law in limiting violence against those suspected of criminal wrong-doing.

Finally, Jochen concludes that the arguments adduced by the UK and the USA (and, I would add, Israel) demonstrate that international law is so often transformed through its violation: in Eyal Weizman‘s ringing phrase, ‘violence legislates‘.  Here is Jochen:

 ‘The Zombie is created by a fundamental reconceptualization of the notion of self- defence and armed conflict in international law with the aim to get rid of all legal constraints on state violence imposed by the law enforcement paradigm. Is this a new legal regime? Are we really moving towards an administrative law of transnational executions? It is an inherent problem of international legal discourse that measures of Great Powers violating the law will often be reformulated as an evolving new legal regime and legal scholars should be extremely sceptical of any such claims, since whoever says “emerging” in an international legal context very likely wants to cheat.’