We Are All in the Mud

RESEARCH SERIES #32 Eyal Weizman is a London-based Israeli architect, Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures, and writer, who focuses on architecture as a form of political intervention and the role of architecture in modern urban warfare. He is director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he set up Forensic Architecture, a research agency consisting of architects, scholars, filmmakers, designers, lawyers, and scientists. Forensic Architecture undertakes research to gather and present spatial analysis in legal and political forums, providing evidence for international prosecution teams, political organisations, NGOs, and the United Nations. The agency also undertakes historical and theoretical examinations of the history and present status of forensic practices in articulating notions of public truth. Eyal Weizman’s books include Forensic Architecture (2017), The Conflict Shoreline (2015), Mengele’s Skull (2012), The Least of all Possible Evils (2011), and Hollow Land (2007). Lucas van der Velden interviewed Eyal Weizman after his lecture at the 2017 Sonic Acts Festival. LvdV In your lecture Ground Truth at the Sonic Acts Festival in Amsterdam, you talked about borders as thresholds.1 Can you explain how we can think about thresholds and how they relate and interact with each other? EW When one speaks about human rights, the right question to ask is: what is the threshold of the human? This question has been continuously reformulated in the debate about human rights. The United States Declaration of Independence, formulated at the end of the eighteenth century, states it very abstractly and beautifully: ‘All men are born equal and possess equal rights.’ But who are all men? Does this include all Homo sapiens, a category that was not yet formulated at that time? Does it include indigenous people, women, people without property, or black people? One of the struggles for human rights concerns the governance and management of whose rights are included as humans and pushing the boundaries of this threshold of who can enter into this protection. This struggle is an ongoing frontier conflict that led to the anti-slavery struggle, women’s liberation, and so on. The threshold of the human is now articulated in a very interesting way: through the category of ‘legal person’, which is extended first into corporations and institutions, then into various kinds of objects and technologies, and finally into environments, such as rivers, and certain species of animals. The idea is that entering into law is, to a certain degree, entering into the extended definition of a human being. When we think about environments needing protection, we often think of untouched environments, such as deserts – environments that lie beyond the threshold of the fields of land and beyond the areas that have already been entered into the economy. Beyond that is a zone still considered to be a great terra nullius. It is an area beyond the threshold of the law, where nature begins. This even applies to humans who live there; they are also seen as part of the natural environment. The movement of the desert’s threshold – a movement that takes place, for instance, through deforestation or by planting and making the desert bloom – is also extending the domain of the law. It is not for nothing that deserts are considered as lawless. In our imagination, the Wild West is very much rooted in this image of the desert as a lawless place. It continues the desert of the biblical exodus, a desert where the law has been given but does not yet apply. The law operates through detectability. Only that which can be quantified, and identified aesthetically and epistemologically as a singular object – isolated through the senses and knowledge – can enter the law. Thresholds of the law, detectability, and the human are categories that continuously shift in relation to each other. You can actually write the history of the law on Earth, a new nomos of the Earth if you like, as a continuous transformation of threshold conditions in relation to each other. The juridical thresholds that are operative in places such as Waziristan – the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan inhabited by the Pashtuns – are one of the colonial legacies of the UK. If an individual Pashtun attacked the British, they would often retaliate by destroying an entire village. This is still the case today. This frontier area is cut out from the law. You also see an inversion of time there. People are being killed for what they might do in the future, according to pattern analysis, with targeted assassinations using drones.

The village of Al'Aragib has been destroyed several times during the 'battle over the Negev', as Israeli state campaign to uproot the Palestinian Bedouins from the northern threshold of the Negev desert. Pictured here is the Al-Aragib. The photo was produced by superimposing kite imagery over an RAF aerial photograph. The kite image is composed of photographs taken in two seasons when the threshold of the desert is alternately green.
LvdV In The Conflict Shoreline, you argue that instead of looking at climate change as ‘collateral damage’ of modernisation, we should look at it from the perspective of the history of colonialism. Why is this such an important argument?2 EW For human rights activists, the collateral argument is a red flag; we do not accept it anymore. When so many predictive technologies exist for militaries, it is an excuse that comes after the fact. The military says: ‘you know we did not want to kill civilians; we wanted to destroy that military bridge. But, God almighty, one civilian is dead. The side effect of destroying the bridge was killing civilians. We need to keep it to a minimum.’ The collateral argument always leads to an economy of violence: what is more important, civilian lives or the bridge? We are forced to make that calculation, as if we are some Leibnizian God, and choose for the ‘best of all possible worlds’ as a result of it. Human rights activists, who move to environmental science, encounter the collateral argument again. Even the most committed and militant of environmentalists say we need to economise and reduce CO2 emissions. The average temperature cannot rise by more than 1.5 or 2 degrees. We allow entering into an economy of calculation because, I suppose, we can all agree that no one wants climate change. When you look at the origins of the term climate change, you find it first appearing in an exchange of letters between eighteenth-century gentlemen writing about their observations of the climate change caused by deforestation in the North-Americas. They wrote about whether they should burn forests in the Appalachian to irrigate the central deserts in the US. Such ideas make you realise that the world white Europeans were invading – whether in the tropics or deserts – was not a world they could inhabit. The first thing is to conquer land; the second is whether one can live there. As every architect knows, if you build a house, you need a heating system or a cooling system; otherwise, you cannot live there. Realising this kind of design mastery was thought of on a planetary scale, you understand that climate change is also human change. With these ideas came notions about people who live beyond the borders of the desert: different nomad and hunter-gatherer communities, conditioned by the environment and climate in which they live. It’s a notion about how deserts or forests make people idle or lazy and need to be redeemed through labour. Labour is the redeeming force for land. The land has to work to produce food, and people have to work. Hunting and gathering were not seen as work, so they had to be redeemed through labour. This concept of redemption through labour can be seen throughout the history of various colonial movements, including Zionism. The redemption of the idleness of the diaspora Jew by Zionists themselves is to be healed as a living masculine body that is productive and in charge of its destiny in the agricultural world.
The photographic modular: pixel sizes in relation to the dimensions of the human body.
LvdV In The Conflict Shoreline, you write about the notion of an object as a recording device; you even speak about the surface of the Earth as an optical device. EW This comes from my thoughts on aesthetics as the foundation of law and identification. We need to start with what I call material aesthetics: the relation between objects in the world and the way in which the proximity of one object to the other is inscribed in the object. Every object is registering temperature or pressure variation, whether it is through contact with other objects or other forms of remote contact or sensing. Every object needs to be thought of as both presence and representation. This makes every object photographic-like. In that sense, the surface of the Earth could be thought of as a surface of inscription: it is exposed to politics, like film is exposed to light. The surface of the film has to be thought of as topography and meaning. We need to look at it on the level of pixels or grains: the concentration of the grains, their shape and size. We need to look at the surface of the Earth and the surface of the film in relation to each other, both of them as presence and representation. Our politics and description of the world exist between these two surfaces. We need to find the point where you can anchor one to the other, a scientific process we refer to as ‘ground truth’. You need to find three or four anchors in order to know that a particular grain of silver halide on the film refers to a well on the ground or a tent. From there, you can start extrapolating outwards. Representation is never direct and linear. When you look at the surface of the image and the surface of the Earth, there is always something that happens in the materiality. This is also the reason why whenever we work with remote sensing – always an approximate practice – we investigate both the ground and the pixel, drawing an axis between those two surfaces. LvdV In thinking about photography this way, it seems much more than just an image or representation. EW Photography as a practice, as a photographic way of engaging with the world, has completely transformed. Photography is not only about pressing the button; it is about the set of practices that allow the photograph to be taken, collected, processed, analysed, distributed, and reconnected to other things. It constitutes a kind of collectivity around it. It is what curator, filmmaker, and visual culture theorist Ariella Azoulay so beautifully called ‘not the event of being photographed but the event of photography’.3 Photography has become a diagram of relations. At Forensic Architecture, we believe that you need architecture in order to see. Seeing is not a passive thing; it is never about the frame. Every image is a door to another image. It is always about composing between different photographs, testimonies, materials, and so on. The act of composition is interesting because it is not only physical things and media that are being composed. The collectivities that produce the composition become incredibly important. LvdV This leads us to the two disciplines of forensics and architecture, which you have combined into a new mode of practice. EW At the Architectural Association, I studied architecture as the social and political relations of people and things in space.4 Architecture understood in this way functions as a synthesiser. It is a way to combine information from remote sensing, different perspectives of photographs on the ground, witnesses in action, testimonies, change of space, movement in space, politics, the environment, and history. All this gets fossilised into an architectural form. In a way, we turn architecture inside out and turn it into an optical device that allows us to look around. This has proven to be extremely powerful and potent, and it has opened up a domain for architects that would have otherwise been the domain of historians and investigative journalists. Forensics is yet another aspect of why architecture is important. The forensic act is not only the research or the investigation of what has taken place or what will take place. It is also the presentation of the research, with an understanding that it always depends on the forum in which the research resonates. Music played on a string sounds very different depending on whether the string is on a viola, a violin, a cello, or a sitar. It is the same with forensics. You need to find a relation to the forum. Sometimes the forum needs to be constructed. Forensics, as in that which pertains to the forum, not only requires the theatricality, the gesture, the tone, the presentation but sometimes also the assembly of forums around the evidence. It is only around those detectable and agreeable facts that we can create a new kind of social arrangement. A social assembly around our facts is an absolutely essential notion of facts. Fact cannot simply be a fact outside of the forum in which it is presented. In court, various protocols turn a finding into evidence and evidence into proof. In science, it is the peer review process. For us, working in the politics of counter-forensics, we often need to construct our own forum in order to make our statements effective in the world. LvdV In an interview with Radio Web MACBA in 2015, you talked about the progressive potential of the act of making things public in the political arena, about the role of the artist as an aesthetic practitioner, and art as an aesthetic quest for truth.5 EW For one of the cases we did. I met with a lawyer, and he said to me: ‘I would really appreciate it if you didn’t mention the word aesthetics in court because the law believes that art is a form of imperfect mimicry or a kind of emotional manipulation.’ This doesn’t interest us. What interests us is detection and creation of facts, the creation of communities of work, and the presentation of these facts. Politics is a process of continuous unfolding, of continuous re-alignment, of social structures around things that we can agree upon and determine. This process can be seen as an intervention with facts around which various political constellations can be formed, a way of moving the spirit of politics onwards in relation to various things. Artists can contribute fundamentally to this process on various levels. One is the art of detection, the augmentation and radicalisation of sense perception – listening, seeing, detecting physicality, and bringing to attention – which is perhaps more connected to the older idea of art as a form of intense connoisseurship. The connoisseur is an individual expert, a professor, a highly talented person. The other level is a collaborative, networked one. At Forensic Architecture, each of our facts is produced through a collaborative social constellation. The production of facts is the creation of communities of practitioners that do the research. For our research on the airstrikes in Syria, Omar Ferwati from our office has been able to produce a group of collaborators; a community of practitioners on the ground that work together with us and produce that fact. It is the same thing with dissemination. Both the production and dissemination depend on the creation and intensification of social networks. So I think these are ways in which art and aesthetic practices can exist in today’s world: on this level of augmented sense perception or as new modes of producing work, new kinds of collaborative practices, and new dissemination techniques that continuously invent the ways in which facts appear and the ways in which social structures can be organised around them.
An image of a former Nazi death camp at Treblinka, Poland, uncovered using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology.
LvdV In your new book, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, you start with the David Irving trial, a case about Holocaust denial and negation.6 Why are negation and negative positivism such important concepts? EW Holocaust denial, in its various approaches, is based on one principle: it has a problem with the survivors because they are telling more or less similar stories of what has taken place. Holocaust denial is based on negating witness testimonies. To propose an alternative argument, they must attack the very notion of testimony. They argue that since these testimonies are from people who were traumatised or who have something to gain from it, they should be disregarded as a historical source. This basically means that we go back to a Palaeolithic concept of history: a history without language that is only based on material traces. Until the David Irving trial, hardly any attention had been given to the deniers’ return to materiality, which created a massive epistemological shift in Holocaust studies. Since Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah, the Holocaust has been completely married to the sanctity of testimony and largely neglected materiality.7 The negationists had an open field because historians were not working on the archaeology; they were mostly working on documents and testimonies. The deniers would argue these documents were fabricated. A lot of the documents these historians worked on came from the Soviet Russia. There is a long tradition of Soviet archives falsifying documents. The deniers would argue that the testimonies came from witnesses who have everything to gain from them, such as compensation for Holocaust victims. So the material is the only thing that is supposedly ‘neutral’ and not contaminated by ideology. Of course, that is a very reductive way of understanding science. It is a negative positivism: taking positivism not to combine support – cross-referencing a story that contains all type of evidence – but to bring in material science, thus negating the witnesses’ capacity to speak to history at all. LvdV By starting your new book with this trial, one reads the rest of the book – on how Forensic Architecture operates – in a slightly different way. In your interview with Robert Jan van Pelt, he asserts that Holocaust denial has forced us to look at a much larger body of evidence and that this has helped to transform the way we think about evidence. Can you explain what this transformation is? 8 EW It is an epistemological shift. Holocaust studies and Holocaust history has an almost theological relation to testimony. There are so many religious or quasi-religious ways you can read the Holocaust as something sacrificial. In both Jewish and Christian culture, there is the sanctity of the word. Materiality was always seen as a debased existence in relation to the word. In Jewish culture, materiality has always been under or beneath the sanctity of the word, and Holocaust study continues this. When the negationists found and used this gap, they had to be confronted, thus forcing archaeology back into the history of the Holocaust. Archaeology was not entirely absent, but the emphasis was elsewhere. Historians and archaeologists undertook research and recovered material from places that had become commemorative monuments. They brought such places back into science and into history. Another reason for the forensic turn or archaeological turn in Holocaust studies is because the witnesses are dying. My grandparents are all gone. The people that had the first contact with the Holocaust are all gone. To continue the research, you have to do archaeology, which is helped by new technologies. Caroline Sturdy-Colls developed a technique for remote sensing archaeology using a subterranean radar system.9 This means you don’t need to excavate the ruins. In Jewish religious culture, it is not allowed to dig up gravesites. Many Holocaust sites have vast graveyards, but they are off limits for archaeological work. With this new technique, it is possible to see the foundations of the buildings, the roads, and rail tracks. The Treblinka site was completely destroyed by the end of the war. Now, earth and forest cover it, but there is an entire camp underneath. Using Sturdy-Colls’ ground-penetrating radar, photographs can be made showing what stood where precisely. If the material does not fit with what we knew before, then we can see that the story has to be rewritten. LvdV Your recent investigations with Forensic Architecture in Syria and Palestine rely heavily on video and audio recordings made by people on the ground. If nation states say you cannot trust these videos, can you still win these cases? EW You must win! There is no alternative but to win because this is how truth is produced today. When Russia Today interviewed me, you can see exactly how the argument goes.10 Russia Today asked: who are your sources? I told them the videos came from the White Helmets and the Syrian Observatory. Russia Today reacts: the Syrian Observatory! They are anti-Russian. Then, they asked: Who funds you? I answered: the EU and others. Then Russia Today responds: the EU is against Russia; you are biased! And so on. As if having a position in the world already disqualifies your capacity to speak politically. But we can no longer rely on neutrality. A scientist or a researcher who transcends politics does not exist in our world anymore. We are all in the mud; we all have our perspectives. Donna Haraway has a perfect term for this: all knowledge is situated.11 It allows you to say things that are correct, but, of course, they are also partial. You cannot simply disqualify all videos that come out of Palestine because Palestinians made them or because they have something to gain from it and just want to make the Jewish state look horrible. Similarly, you cannot say: since Holocaust survivors receive compensation, they have an interest in falsifying the reality of the Holocaust, and, therefore, we cannot listen to them. It is the same argument. That argument must be won. On the one hand, with negation and denial, there is a local fight about what happened locally. What are the facts? Are we going to conduct politics based on these facts and what happened there? On the other hand, there is the debate about who and what can participate in the production of history. This is a very serious debate that must be won and will be won. There is no way this will be lost because it is a desperate rearguard conflict. People now are very committed. LvdV Facts are currently a hot topic in the media … EW There is supposedly a panic about the so-called post-truth reality and alternative facts. First of all, I dislike those terms; and secondly, I don’t think they are correct. We are not living in a post-fact world. This is just a desperate reaction of people who are losing every struggle. The aircraft carrier that was not heading to the North Korea, and the size of Trumps inauguration crowd, these are established facts, and they are not open questions.12 We have not lost any war here! I don’t think we should panic about it. People ask me: what does one do in a post-truth environment? What post-truth environment? Just because Trump is talking about it, should we accept it? LvdV This leads us back to the transition from the individual, ‘the expert’, who has the truth at his of her disposal, to a collaborative and community-driven approach. EW Expertise is always network-based, it is always situated and ad-hoc. It’s not something stable. Its network of relations is different for each situation. You can look at big wars and conflicts, such as the horrors of the First and Second World War, the Vietnam War, and, more recently, the Syrian Civil War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as moments in which the world learns something, as a new toolbox, a new sensibility. A new invention comes with it; humanity is not the same before and after. The Syrian Civil War, the Palestine conflict, and some of the conflicts in the South American forests can be regarded as historical hinges, where the particularities and the singularity of the situation requires a singular, very specific response. The Syrian Civil War is identified with social media, open source investigations, massive collaborations between people on the ground and people working remotely, and media allowing a new mode of engagement. It shows a new kind of solidarity. Of course, when you are on the inside, you are exposed to bullets, and when you are on the outside, you are not. But, workwise, it becomes much more topological. The division of work that people do inside and outside is not that clear anymore. It’s almost like little tests for humanity, moments in which we need to invent our professional and intellectual positions and tactical toolboxes. How do we operate? How do we engage with a reality that poses itself to us in this particular way? LvdV How do you see this development unfolding for Forensic Architecture in the near future? EW Our mandate states that we never do the same thing twice. We develop a technique to deal with a particular situation, and then we move on. If we make tools, we make them open source. We inform people about how we worked on an investigation and then move on. We try to engage a situation by addressing the kind of problem it poses to us. We don’t accept commissions that would simply require an ongoing application of our ‘methodology’ because we don’t have a methodology. We have our skills, time, and commitment.

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