26. April 2018

Investigative methods are not only limited to journalistic, forensic or judicial investigation proceedings, but also encompass the sphere of art. Research group Forensic Architecture is on the trail.

By Maria Sitte

The film “Bil’in” (2009) begins with dramatic scenes. Individually filmed camera footage shows different perspectives on a demonstration against the dividing wall built in this area of the West Bank. A little later, we see Palestinian demonstrator Bassem Abu Rahma wounded by a tear gas grenade. And then: cut. Lawyer Michael Sfard talks about the events and we see how this incident, which resulted in Abu Rahma’s death, is being thoroughly investigated in cooperation with Forensic Architecture.

In the so-called “investigations” carried out by Forensic Architecture, a research group that was founded in 2011 at Goldsmiths University in London, scientific analyses play a very particular role. The group considers itself an interdisciplinary think tank and brings together international artists, architects, scientists, filmmakers, photographers, journalists and lawyers. Together they carry out independent investigations into specific political grievances and scrutinize the safeguarding of human rights – as in the case of “Bil’in.”

An interdisciplinary think tank

With their illuminating approach, the group also attempts to expose specific offenses, cases of corruption and cover-up attempts as threats to democracy. The results of their research are generally narrative films, interactive maps or acoustic works. Renowned artists such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Susan Schuppli have already been involved with the think tank, and although the group’s work is not exclusively artistic, its investigations are shown time and again in contemporary exhibitions, achieving an entirely different visibility through their positioning in the art context.

Forensic Archiecture, Bil’in: The killing of Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahma, 17 April 2009, Filmstill, 5:23 min, Video via forensic-architecture.org/case/bilin
Forensic Archiecture, Bil’in: The killing of Bassem Ibrahim, Abu Rahma, 17 April 2009, Filmstill, 5:07 min., Video via forensic-architecture.org/case/bilin

The visual material and the spatial and architectural settings are at the heart of any investigation. Elaborate video analyses, image comparisons, montages, synchronizations and 3D visualizations are paired with commentary, and it is through this technology that these images expose overarching political conflicts. The real kicker here is that in court, these works serve as evidence and thus there is also a legally effective dimension to them. Thanks to this approach and with the help of the initial material for “Bil’in,” it was ultimately possible to generate spatial information that led to the exposure of the flight path of the tear gas grenade: This showed that the shot was aimed directly at Abu Rahma.

Visual examples and investigative tracing

In terms of content, the research group thus takes an unequivocal position: It sees a clear need to break through the silent acceptance and opportune consensus; or more precisely, to enable art, politics, technology and science to merge and to use the tools of film to reflect on the world. This also raises the question of how truth is produced.

Bil’in: The Killing of Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rahma, 17 April 2009, Video, 12:35 min (c) Forensic Architecture and SITU Research

Forensic and investigative methods currently represent an unmistakable “trend” in the visual arts. Like the work of investigative journalists, projects are often research-based: Papers from records, press reports, photos and sound recordings are viewed, evaluated and presented in the art context. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, for example, recently shone a light on the noise pollution in Cairo, while Susan Schuppli’s current works tackle the toxic consequences of nuclear waste and oil disasters. It is specifically this analytical investigative practice within contemporary art that reveals the pressing need to expose existing injustices and at the same time to come up with evidence that will have a political, ecological or social impact.

Crime in art

Undoubtedly there has long been a fascination for wrongdoings and criminal cases within the artistic sphere. Crimes form the subjects of any number of works by countless artists and writers, from René Magritte to Truman Capote or David Lynch. Crimes are idealized, romanticized, reinterpreted, moralized and caricatured. It is all too understandable, therefore, that this desire for resolution continues in contemporary art, yet the ways and means of clarifying and resolving crimes have changed. The themes have now achieved an entirely new level of complexity – technical, forensic and digital developments play their parts here too. Most significantly, investigations and revelations, leading on then to factual reports, are becoming ever more important. Investigative analysis therefore does not necessarily have to be confined to the state apparatus, as Forensic Architecture proves.

Susan Schuppli, Trace Evidence, Filmstill, 2016, Preview clip via susanschuppli.com