In the 21st century, human rights crimes are executed at inconceivable scale, orchestrated through state-of-the-art surveillance and algorithmic military power. States and corporations have in their arsenals drones, chemical gasses, computational surveillance, sensors, and disinformation, which are launched at targets, often in urban settings, remotely through complex computer interfaces and dizzying transnational networks. In these next-level true crimes, there is no obvious smoking gun. Conventional forensics cannot adequately find, collect, analyze, and present evidence to make a case against perpetrators. Where do prosecutors, human rights investigators, environmental justice groups, journalists, documentarians, and civil society organizations even begin?
For the last decade, a research agency called Forensic Architecture has directed a spectacular coordinated response, led by architect Eyal Weizman. They have written a new language of evidentiary techniques called “counter-forensics” to advance justice and expose state, military, police, and corporate crimes of magnitude on behalf of advocates and affected communities. A brilliant multidisciplinary collective of minds and makers, Forensic Architecture includes architects, computer scientists, artists, machine learning experts, media specialists, archeologists, filmmakers, and engineers who, together, develop coherent and legible ways to gather, analyze, understand, and synthesize the evidence from the scenes of these crimes.
Using sophisticated architectural techniques such as lidar, radar, photogrammetry, and advanced platform software, for each case they build an elaborate digital 3D model of the scene of the crime. The team then situates individual pieces of evidence “on stage” within frameworks such as open-source data, satellite data, surveillance footage, citizen video, audio, mobile phone meta-data, witness testimony, and 3D representations of physical objects and people. The pieces of data are placed in space and across time within the landscape. These models become more than mere representations of real world spaces, they then become devices for analysis. The models allow for the study of the relational dynamics between images, camera positions, timelines, buildings, infrastructure, actions, and incidents.
Moreover, Forensic Architecture has refined “investigational aesthetics” by poetically translating these investigations into artworks and media installations that resonate at multiple registers: from the courts and parliaments to museums, art galleries, web platforms, and the mainstream media.
Forensic Architecture’s first project in 2012 was an investigation into the killing of Bassem Abu Rahma in Bil’in for human rights lawyer and activist Michael Sfard, which was eventually presented to the Supreme Court of Israel. In 2012, their work exposed the Israeli use of airburst white phosphorus munitions in Gaza. Since then, they have conducted 76 distinct investigations in 45 countries (on land and in water), working with a multitude of diverse partners such as Amnesty International, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Médicins Sans Frontiers, The New York Times, BBC, Bellingcat, Citizen Lab, and many others.
Notably, their long-form investigations make large-scale systems of exploitation visible. Their ongoing Digital Violence multi-media web platform tracks the global use of malware Pegasus, created by the Israeli cyber-surveillance company NSO group. Their exhibition Cloud Stories pulled together eight of their investigations on chemical warfare to demonstrate the vast and pervasive impact and history of toxic airborne violence unleashed on humanity and vegetation.
For co-creating an entire new academic field and emergent media practice, using digital 3D modeling for human rights investigation and documentary, to speak truth to computational power on a planetary scale, Forensic Architecture wins an Institutional Peabody.