Theater of Cruelty

Aesthetic studies of state violence

Investigative Aesthetics
Forfatter: Eyal Weizman & Matthew Fuller
Forlag: Verso (USA)
POWER / The investigative rather than critical practice, characterizes a new generation of journalists, artists and NGOs. They process large datasets in order to point out abuses. Like the poison gas attack in Syria, or American secret prisons.


That we live in a pictorial society is shown beyond discussion, that Guy Debord and Marshal McLuhan already established in the 1960s. Since then, the image character of society has simply become more and more pronounced. Debord analyzed the process by which images of modern capitalist society paradoxically hide the yawning emptiness of society itself and the dissolution of every tradition and community, as a further through all the new technical communication prostheses from televisions and telephones to cars.

When walking down the street and every other passerby not looking up, but enchanted staring down at the glowing screen in his hand, Debord's analysis seems to have more on it. We live in the «spectacular society», where most social conditions are mediated by images and everything tends to assume the character of an advertisement. This is a caricature of Walter Benjamin's utopian notion of the film medium as imparting a visual experience to humans. When Trumps Proud Boys and QAnon supporters storm Congress, they take selfies. This is where we have reached in human development.

Operational image sphere

However, the personalized visual representations of the visual community are not the whole story. Neither Debord nor McLuhan could have foreseen the extent to which the proliferation of electronic imaging technologies has led to the emergence of an operational imaging sphere that is entirely elusive to public discussion. This image sphere constitutes, as the German art historian OK Werckmeister has described, a database of information, image constructions, formulas and texts that are part of the programming of electronic devices that monitor the public. These images are secret in the sense that they never ever come to mind of a human being. They form a closed circuit of video-electronic reflections, unsolicited recordings of people, recorded without their knowledge and often against their will.

Forensic Architecture, Wikileaks and Bellingcat intervene in the operational imagery.

In the book Investigative Aesthetics describes the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman and the English media theorist Matthew Fuller based on the group Forensic Architecture, of which Weizman is the leader, how it is possible with aesthetic means to critically reveal cases of state violence. Forensic Architecture has for more than ten years used architectural and digital techniques to investigate specific cases in which states or groups commit abuses and crimes that have not been solved, ie cases that remain in the operational imagery.

Forensic Architecture

Weizman and Fuller's book is both a presentation of Forensic Architecture's work, but also an attempt to more broadly describe the investigative practice that characterizes a new generation of system-critical journalists, artists, and NGOs who process large datasets to challenge the system and point out abuse. Groups like Forensic Architecture and online media like Wikileaks and Bellingcat intervene in the operational imagery, digging up documents, files, and videos from the state's secret network.

As with Weizman's other books, hollowland (2017) on the Israeli Army's Operations in the Occupied Territories, and The Least of All Possible Evils (2017) on the complicity of the humanitarianism discourse in the emergence of a new violent economy, is Investigate Aesthetics a theory-easy presentation that works primarily through examples.

The poison gas attack in Syria

Forensic Architecture is a new transversal art science practice. The group exhibits at art museums and is part of contemporary art, but is also a department at Goldsmiths at the University of London, and the group collaborates with human rights organizations and lawyers with a view to mapping examples of state violence. Thus, they have on several occasions presented evidence in court cases and been involved in the detection of crimes, and victims of abuse can turn to the group for help in identifying and exposing state terrorism and human rights crimes.

From a Mi-8 helicopter that dropped a chlorine bomb, they were able to determine that it was undoubtedly the Syrian state.

A good example of the group's work is the detection of the poison gas attack in Douma in Syria, where Forensic Architecture in collaboration with Bellingcat and New York Times determined that on April 7, 2018, Assad's army threw poison gas over the city, killing between 40 and 50 people and injuring more than 100. Based on Bellingcat's analysis of video footage that concluded that a Mi-8 helicopter dropped a chlorine bomb, Forensic Architecture and New York Times jointly a three-dimensional model of the building that was attacked. Thus, they were able to establish that it was undoubtedly the Syrian state, which at the time had control of the airspace over the city, that was behind the attack and not insurgents, as the Assad regime otherwise claimed. In cooperation with Russia, the Assad regime tried to cover up the attack: they first prevented journalists from entering Douma, and later claimed that it was rebel groups that were behind it. To that end, they spread an abundance of images that were supposed to cast doubt on the event. Some sequences apparently showed that civilians were dead because they had inhaled dust from the building, which collapsed, while other photographs showed it was rebels who had thrown poison gas.

To think power molecularly

Weizman's Forensic Architecture is one of the best examples of how productive it can be to think of power molecularly, as an assembly or a diffuse environment of forces in extension of the philosophers Deleuze and Latour. How many multiplicity thinkers tend to end up with a watered-down and uncritical concept of power, Weizman unfolds a at once subtle and subversive critique of state and violence.

Forensic Architecture operates in the image community that Debord and McLuhan tried to analyze. Their approach is somewhat more concrete and tangible than both Debord and McLuhan, who in their own way were part of a Marxist modernism – where the project was about creating a new world. Forensic Architecture is, for better or worse, far less visionary. It's more about exposing and showing abuses in this world than about rejecting the whole world and creating a new one. Therefore, they can be part of many different contexts and move between the art institution, the auditorium and the courtroom. It is clearly one of the great strengths of the group. But of course also a recognized limitation. A more overarching critique of society and institutions is not the goal. These are needle stick surgeries.

Weizman and Fuller themselves describe this as a shift from criticism to examination. Criticism and critical theory – they mention Marxism, psychoanalysis and poststructuralism – were, according to them, characterized by subscribing to an "archaeological depth model", it was about undressing power and getting behind it, so to speak, showing its reason or foundation. The investigation is different. It does not operate with a notion of a hidden instance, something behind it. The study also uncovers secrets are, but does so without agreeing with an idea of ​​the truth with large s. Today, secrets are just as often public secrets or they are present if one manages to analyze large, publicly available datasets. Weizman and Fuller write that the study is a more contextual approach, where the excavator is also interested in the soil in which the "archaeological" object, the marble statue for example, is buried. The new type of critic, the aesthetic researcher, also takes a closer look the soil and dust layers in which the statue is located, they can also help to reconstruct the history of the excavation site and say something about, for example, nutritional and climatic conditions.

From object to environment

The shift from object to context or environment is illustrated by Weizman and Fuller in uncovering the existence of America's secret prisoner program. As part of the War on Terror, the CIA set up so-called black holes, secret prisons, where they interrogated and tortured prisoners suspected of terrorism. It was among other artists like Trevor Paglen who helped to reveal the existence of this program by cutting a lot of pieces together. By comparing locations on Google Earth, air routes, bills from private companies and cell phone data, it managed to locate an entire network of secret prisons around the world where the United States detained people who had not been charged or convicted of any crimes.

Every secret operation leaves behind a trace of one kind or another. Digital traces or "material" traces such as Forensic Architecture, Bellingcat and artists such as Paglen find and piece together into an image, whereby the state and its violence become visible. Small material clues such as the label on a water bottle with a Polish name are important: the water bottle helped to reveal a secret prison in Poland, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was interrogated, before he was placed in the Guantánamo camp, where he still sits. Forensic Architecture's aesthetic investigation works with such seemingly insignificant details. Even when the CIA tries to leave a false trail, they leave a trail. Perhaps those involved do not speak, but there are nonetheless imprints in the material world that can be read. The aesthetic examination notices all the small details, which make it possible to write a different story. A political micro-history of state violence.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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