Katherine Chandler responded to the History & Theory of New Media Lectures 2013-2014, held by the Berkeley Center for New Media.
A Response to Eyal Weizman’s “Forensic Architecture”
Eyal Weizman’s most recent work, a series of collaborative projects brought together as forensic architecture, asks publics to examine scenes of death through a range of media. Weizman uses the etymology of forensics – the art of the forum – as a basis, indicating how early Roman practices of accounting for death triangulated between a contested object or site, the public and an interpreter. Through the current projects, artists, architects, scientists and other activists engage the materiality of objects and sites of death, calling on publics to examine the forensic analyses they provide. A photograph of a crack in a Palestinian building, Weizman suggests, might be a starting point. Architects tend not to think of entropy and the disintegration of the sites, buildings and locations they plan and build. Yet, the crack is the materialization of a break down, pointing out how nearby archeological excavations by the Israeli state have disrupted the literal foundation of Palestinian buildings. Forensically examining how a building becomes cracked, Weizman advocates a practice of engaging with materials that does not plan, construct or create, but rather lets the material “speak” to its context.
I am particularly interested in the role of media in these practices, which might lead one to say forensic interpretation is also mediatization. Weizman’s claim about Palestinian buildings is enabled by the photograph he has taken of the crack and projects by his collaborators take mediatization further. In these works, the materiality of death speaks through maps, simulations and images. Some examples include “Forensic Oceanography,” a series of maps made through radar imagery, geospatial mapping and drift modeling of lives lost in the Mediterranean by refugees fleeing from Libya; “Living Death Camps,” produced by 3-D scans of a former Nazi and Serbian death camp outside Belgrade, integrating layered, archaeological images with the lives of the Roma people who live there now; and video re-constructions that visualize the impact of unmanned aircraft and the violence they enact in Waziristan. In these ways, “speaking” is also image and map making, and the projects have been shared in international forums, public talks and exhibitions.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt describes the worldlessness of mass society as resembling a spiritualistic séance “where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that the two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible” (48). The missing table exemplifies how otherworldly transcendence remains in modern societies, commenting on the disengagement between humans and world they make. And while the interpretation is not suggested by Arendt, the spiritualistic séance she refers to could mark how media and materiality are typically disjoined by mass society. Forensic architecture, I think, offers a rejoinder to the magic trick by using media to engage with materiality, pointing to the ways both “speak” to publics. In these projects, media products and interpretations that inform them point to the material, political, visual and digital conditions they were produced by, as well as the sites of death that led to their making, calling for action through contemporary forums. Using material evidence, media practices and interpretation, forensic architecture makes death and violence tangible, which may, perhaps, serve to re-examine how people come together and with what consequences.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.