Between Dissenting Voices and Vigilantism

Ulf Meyer
25. 5月 2022
Installation view of The Architect's Studio: Forensic Architecture - Witnesses (Photo: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Kim Hansen)

It is not every day that a torture prison in Syria, an internet café in a small town in Germany, or a private house in Pakistan are featured in a high-level architecture exhibition in a high-level museum of modern art. But in the case of Forensic Architecture – Witnesses at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, such places are displayed in great detail. London’s Forensic Architecture (FA) rebuilds crime scenes in physical and/or digital models to investigate spaces that could affect legal judgments of occurrences within them. Not a design studio, the research group “investigates human rights violations including violence committed by states, police forces, militaries, and corporations.”

Two full-scale reconstructions of scenes of conflict have been built for the exhibition: an internet café in Kassel, Germany, where neo-Nazis shot the owner in the head twice as part of the NSU (National Socialist Underground) murder spree; and a home in Waziristan, Pakistan, hit by an American drone strike in 2012 killing four people. “Since 2004, American drones have killed thousands of civilians in the area,” FA claims. The mapping of this exemplary drone strike documents the loss of — potentially innocent — inhabitants. Still, more contextual information would be needed to truly judge the event politically. “Collateral damage” is as inevitable as it is unacceptable.

The story behind the internet café where Halit Yozgat was killed by neo-Nazis is particularly chilling because an agent of the state intelligence service was in the café during the murder but claimed to not have witnessed anything. The space was built to recreate his testimony and prove that the police reconstruction was false. The evidence against the agent seems overwhelming. It is courageous to exhibit their controversial works on such a big scale.

The Murder of Halit Yozgat, 2017. In 2017, 21-year-old Halit Yozgat was shot and killed by a neo-Nazi group in an internet café in Kassel. Drawn 3D-model in combination with recordings from a reconstruction of the crime scene. (Image © Forensic Architecture)

The FA team includes artists, software developers, journalists, lawyers and animators and is led by architect Eyal Weizman. They are intelligent, as the exhibition proves, and highly skilled at using architectural tools to conduct spatial analysis of incidents of crime or injustice. But their approach of “carrying out investigations on behalf of people affected by political conflict, police brutality, border regimes and environmental violence” can border on vigilantism or self-administered justice. This “new kind of courtroom,” in other words, is helpful but also questionable.

The work of Forensic Architecture sheds light on events, based on the spaces where they took place, using “witnessing as a spatial practice.” By reconstructing spaces and events through 3D modeling, FA gives “voice to materials, structures and people by translating and disseminating the evidence of the crimes committed against them.” Violence and the records of witnesses are spatially analyzed, acquiring visual form. Even changes in bricks or leaves on a tree can be modeled.  

“Any material can bear witness,” Weizman states. His models facilitate memory recollection from often traumatized witnesses and even allow for reenactments of events. The investigation and representation of testimony depends on how an event is perceived and documented. But perception does not equate truth.

Drone Strike in Miranshah, installation 1:1, 2016. (Photo: Oliver Santana © MUAC)

Forensic Architecture created a new means of architectural activism that recently became popular “by combining architecture, law, journalism,” as they proclaim, for the sake of human rights and the global environment — a task for Hercules! The political implications of this self-appointed responsibility represent a burden. Turning “Forensics into Aesthetics,” as the office calls it, also implies the danger of fetishizing violence. But so far they have resisted that temptation.

Creating their “image-spaces” can relieve trauma and help illuminate and potentially even solve crimes. Their expertise of visualizing even sound, smoke and gas is stunning and probably beats the police and other authorities’ skills and means. So, ultimately the questions of which incidents Forensic Architecture investigates and which ones it does not become most important — and political.

The Architect's Studio: Forensic Architecture – Witnesses (May 20 – October 23, 2022) was curated by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art's Kjeld Kjeldsen together with Eyal Weizman and Christina Varvia from Forensic Architecture; the exhibition was designed by Luise Hooge Lorenc.
Watch the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art's one-hour interview with Weizman here.