The CRASSH Research Group Power and Vision: The Camera as Political Technology reports on their third session.
Insights from ‘Forensic Architecture’ on evidence, testimony and the reconstruction of the effects of drone strikes and other acts of violence
On 22 November 2017, the Power and Vision group convened its last seminar of Lent Term. This seminar welcomed Christina Varvia from Forensic Architecture (FA) to talk about FA’s investigating video-testimonies and platforms to visualise the effects of acts of violence. We began the session by screening A drone strike in Miranshah – Investigating video-testimony 2013, after which Varvia commented on the work of FA and responded to questions from the audience.
The first part of the seminar focused on the reconstruction of the effects of drone strikes. Combat drones are high-resolution video cameras, armed with missiles, and characterized by distance, as pointed out by Grégoire Chamayou in his book A Theory of the Drone (1). Instead of having an onboard human pilot, what drones can ‘see’ is transported hundreds of miles from the filming location. Based on this ‘vision’, the person commanding the drones decides on missile launching. The increasing use of armed drones is attributed to the American armed forces, particularly the Obama presidency, however the exact numbers of casualties from attacks are difficult to establish. In Pakistan alone, the number of deaths estimated between 2004–12 varies from 1,640 to 3,474. (2)
In this respect, it is extremely valuable to gain insights from independent research agencies like FA on the operation and effects of these violent acts. In our conversation with Christina Varvia, she said that FA works in the interest of victims, their families, and local communities affected by drone attacks and other acts of violence. Her work at FA involves (re)constructing plots and creating platforms for visualizing acts of violence. This visualization has been done for issues as varied as the reconstruction of the effects of drone strikes and the plotting of the contradictory testimonies around the case of the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. In order to do this, FA draws mainly on three types of evidence. Evidence can be material, that is, when it is taken from the ground. Some examples are rubble, fragments of drones, and traces of bodies. They also draw on media evidence, for example, recordings, and human evidence, in particular testimonies. Testimonies are often seen as inaccurate, incomplete and distorted due to the effects that violence, trauma and stress can have on the narratives of those involved (witnesses), including victims and perpetrators. Thus, testimonies are not considered a reliable source on themselves, and ought to be complemented with other types of evidence.
The potential distortion of the witnesses’ memory does not mean that their accounts would not contain valuable information about the events. FA seeks to collaborate with witnesses to reconstruct the events in a way that helps them to remember the details of the attacks, and to communicate the chain of events to a wider audience. Although the experience of being in the site of violence can impose limitations on the way witnesses see and speak of the event, this limitation facilitates another mode of inscription of memory. This mode is based on a different visual and aural relationship. In this sense, people involved in acts of violence and trauma can recollect the textures, quality of sounds, and sensations of their experiences.
Varvia also mentioned that, as a research group, FA aims to constantly improve their methods of visualization, that is, the ways in which they plot or analyse available data and evidence so that we are able to see how things happened. Hence they try to overcome single testimonies’ disadvantages by bringing more voices. Additionally, they can plot testimonies and other available evidence simultaneously so that they can follow and assess convergent or divergent trajectories of narratives. The work they put together can then be mobilized in different spaces, from courts to art exhibitions. This underscores the political, legal and aesthetic value of their investigative activities, as well as the power of their work to effect change. Their video testimonies have become both evidence and aesthetic creations in their own right. What acts as evidence in international courts also touches people visiting gallery spaces and museums which are located near the places investigated.
In the second part of the seminar, the audience raised questions concerning trust, reliability and evidence. In this context, Christina Varvia discussed FA’s work concerning the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa, in Mexico. She told us that in this case FA had to deal with active obstruction of evidence, including the disappearance of documents and testimonies. The Ayotzinapa case has drawn unremitting international interest. There were multiple witnesses to the students’ disappearances and a ‘historic narrative’ presented by the government which did not fit the descriptions of the survivors. For this investigation, FA drew on independent reports, did a data analysis, and created a platform to visualize the different actors’ narratives. By plotting the testimonies of government officials, students, journalists, the police and the cartels simultaneously, in both time and space, they were able to trace continuities and contrasts. This was aimed at elucidating the truth and coherence, or lack thereof, of the events. FA then held an exhibition in Mexico City where a mural with the reconstruction of the event was presented to the families of the disappeared students, judges and the public. This work acts as platform, a research tool, for other people to keep elucidating these events.
In order to convey what happens in zones of conflict, FA brings together a range of different practitioners, artists and experts. Their video testimonies are a result of architects, filmmakers, lawyers, and academics working together. The audience of our event took this as one of the strongest assets in their work. However, Christina Varvia mentioned that bringing together practitioners from different fields also reveals how a larger audience and media has varying trust on the reliability of different kinds experts. Recently FA has been covering a series of murders in Germany, and the German press questioned the reliability of their work on the grounds that their video testimonies are exhibited at galleries and museums. What helps to communicate FA’s research was thus taken to imply that they are not as authoritative as a group of lawyers or researchers.
Varvia also pointed out to other limitations that FA faces. For example, most of the times FA cannot travel to some of the places investigated. Some of these places do not allow obtaining images from inside. There is usually no information available from government or from invested parties (i.e. weapon industries – although ballistic experts can be approached). These human limitations are compounded by technological ones. Pixels sometimes erase or do not allow to capture humans. Despite this, the type of work widely explored in this seminar offers alternative visions and opportunities to claim legal, aesthetic and political justice to acts of violence. These claims can be made effective before International Human Right bodies (UN), non-governmental organisations (Amnesty International), and to a wider audience through public protests, campaigns and public exhibitions.
(1) Chamayou, G. 2013. A Theory of the Drone. (Paris, New Press)
(2) (Chamayou 2013, 13)
• Contributors: Jessica Fernández de Lara Harada and Karoliina Pulkkinen