The Speech of Things

Assistant state attorneys John Guy, left, and Bernie de la Rionda, right, display the hooded sweatshirt worn by Trayvon Martin the night he was shot by George Zimmerman. (Credit: AP)

When objects are called on to give legal testimony, it forces lawyers, architects and designers to rethink their practices.

René Magritte’s painting of a pipe was not a pipe; similarly, the documents and objects used as court exhibits are not proofs as such, they necessitate taking part within an organized, consistent narrative in order to legally acquire the status of proof. The excellent book/exhibition Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth proposes this double-step process: determine and examine court exhibits, and construct a detailed narrative that can turn them into proofs.

Started in 2011, the research council Forensic Architecture, which finds its name and predicates in previous research by its director, Eyal Weizman, has been operating from the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University in London. Forensis constitutes the first major report of the council’s work through the means of an exhibition at HKW Berlin (March 15 – May 5, 2014), and of a book simultaneously published by Sternberg Press. The cases presented within it are broad; the examination of the use of white phosphorus during the so-called “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israeli army in Gaza (2008-2009), the maritime path of a Libyan migrant boat drifting helplessly in the Mediterranean Sea (2011), different cases of Israeli and U.S. drones’ so-called “targeted assassinations,” in Gaza and in Pakistan (2009-2012), and the represented spatial organization of two concentrations camps in ex-Yugoslavia (1941-1945) are only some of them.

In the introduction Weizman articulates the idea of an architectural prosopopeia (i.e. the speech of things) in the judicial context. He uses the example of Roman mythology in which a statue is “put on trial for murder, convicted, and punished by being cast into the sea” for having killed a man by falling. Non-human entities can also be the plaintiff in a court, as the Ecuadorian and Bolivian legislation entails nature itself to be. The prosopopeia implies an intercessor, someone able to speak for the non-human. Speaking for does not mean in favor of the non-human, but rather, as an interpreter and a representative of it. The brilliant researchers who populate this book are thus the intercessors of non-human entities (an architecture, a boat, a photograph, etc.) called as a privileged witness in the context of a trial.

Forensis doesn’t address the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013) for the murder of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Nevertheless, the non-human’s prosopopeia also intervened in it, since the hoodie worn by Martin when he was shot had been produced as exhibit by the prosecutors. The forum proposed by this exhibit determined the legitimacy of Zimmerman’s interpretation of Martin’s intentions based on the way he was dressed. The political debate is evident here, since it involves a normative interpretation based on race and clothing, as well as a specific conception of legitimate defense. The problem in this case is that the very intervention of the non-human’s prosopopeia is contradictory to the legislative framework. In other words, there is something fundamentally problematic in the debate that determines whether or not a piece of cloth can indicate an intention to begin with. The idea that a hoodie could communicate a future criminal behavior by the one wearing it does not correspond to any component of the legislation itself.

Other cases of clothes introduced as exhibits have been presented in trials for sexual offenses, in a disturbing attempt to prove that the clothing worn by the victims amounted to an implicit consent to any sexual intercourse. The authors of the 1993 report “Is Clothing Probative of Attitude or Intent? Implications for Rape and Sexual Harassment Cases,” evoke judicial cases where clothes were introduced in court to decriminalize or present attenuating circumstances to the rapes committed. The fact that such exhibits were received in the first place, whether they were indeed judged as attenuating the circumstances of the crime or not, already implies that there could be attenuating circumstances to rape. However, the very definition of sexual assault prevents the intervention of attenuating circumstances, since this crime enacts a despotic power of one body over another. Receiving clothing worn by the victims of these assaults as exhibits introduced by the defendants is therefore recognizing the degree of culpability for the bodies who committed them, which is in contradiction with a crime that can only be absolute. Legislation is however not always immune of this kind of contradiction; in this regard, the U.S. states of Georgia and Alabama do include “mode of dress” in their understanding of “past sexual conduct.” Forcing such a discourse from an object has less to do with prosopopeia and more with biased ventriloquism.

A proof is only a proof when it intervenes as a component of an organized and consistent narrative. Everything can be the proof of the conditions that brought it to be what it is and to occupy the space it occupies; it’s only what is said about the objects that turn it into evidence. The case of the ruin, to which an entire section of the book is dedicated, is particularly probing in this matter.

Weizman uses the example of Richard Goldstone, giving a speech in view of his eponymous report in Gaza in front of a building partially destroyed by the bombs of the Israeli army during the so-called “Operation Cast Lead” (June 4, 2009). The ruin can recount the story of the way it has been brought to this state of decay. In some cases, this decay can be due to erosion; in some others, it can be accelerated by various means, "the bomb" remaining the most efficient one. Because a ruin is able to recount its own (hi)story that, sometimes, architecture is annihilated to the very last stone, as it has been the case with the pre-1948 Palestinian villages on Israeli territory. Leaving no ruin is an attempt to destroy the narrative of their very existence, which thus exercises an additional violence.

A ruin is not, however, a proof as such. Only a narrative that would integrate the ruin as the object of its plot could transform it into one. The degree of consistency of this narrative is consequently proportional to the degree of truth that it will reach. In other words, we should avoid thinking of justice as the place where "true truth" is established, but rather as the forum—the same etymology as forensic—where “public truth” is debated. Similarly, the law should be less seen as the embodiment of a perfectly ethical set of rules but, rather, as the product of historical dominations crystalized into legislative norms. The public truth is therefore public insofar that it represents the ideological domination at work at the time this truth is constructed. In this way Forensis newly orients the designer’s expertise.

Part of this expertise is built on the ability to use specific tools that inform the discipline. In this regard, many instances of the book introduce a reconstruction of the witness architecture/object as a digital model. This constitutes a chronological inversion to the traditional architectural method, which initially foresees a given building or object through this technique of modeling, then organizes its construction or production. Two particularly probing instances of such an inversion can be found in the book.

The first one is the investigation of a drone strike in Mir Ali (North Waziristan, Pakistan), during which a visual witness describes the house she was leaving when it was hit by a missile on October 4, 2010. The quasi-simultaneity between her words and the designer’s modification of the digital model based on them is remarkable for its direct translation from language to architecture.

At the end of this session, the legal team owns an architectural version of the human witness’s testimony. We could see in it a sort of inverted prosopopeia; no longer a things speech but, rather, a speech through the thing.

The second example of the use of this technique in the book is a sensibly different one. Investigating the past of the former Nazi concentration camp Staro Sajmište in Belgrade (1941-1944), Forensis uses a “non-invasive archeology” in order to visualize the geological palimpsest of its ground. The digital model of the former camp includes both the geological survey that reveals potential forgotten archeological features, and a series of 3-D scans of the area that places this survey in their spatial context. Beyond the beauty of this digital model, we are able to appreciate the transformation of the site through time and its gradual appropriation by a population that now paradoxically faces eviction to let room for a museum commemorating the participation of this site in the Holocaust.

Forensis invites the designer’s expertise to play a role within the judiciary context but, beyond its own discourse, we can also imagine a consequence on the very act of designing. How does the idea that a design—whatever its scale—might be required to formulate a legal prosopopeia influence they way it’s designed?

Weizman writes, “a building is not a static thing.” This observation is rarely fathomed by architects, who usually conceive buildings for a suspended time. Understanding the micro-movement of the matter that composes a given building is a first step towards an understanding of the macro-movement that the forensic practice examines. This is particularly true in the investigations of architecture that collapsed onto itself, as with Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport’s Terminal 2E in 2004. The process that leads a building to collapse is a gradual one, even in the case of an explosion. It consists in the gradual weakening of the structure’s integrity at a microscopic level that ultimately leads to a threshold beyond which the structure is no longer able to bear the stress that is forced upon it. Of course, this process is faster in the case of an explosion than in the case of erosion, but the speed of a process is relative and appreciated through an anthropocentric understanding of things. In this regard, architecture’s intercessors should be less focused on the speed of the process they examines through forensic practice, and more on its operative mechanisms. Similarly, designers should anticipate the gradual transformation of their product, and embrace the idea of change—at whatever speed—within the creative process.

We can think of other influences we might receive from a work like Forensis. For example, if we can make buildings speak, we can also build them so they say what we want. It is how I imagined Palestinian architecture built in the West Bank’s Area C, where Palestinian buildings are prohibited by the Israeli army. The building's geometry would have prevented the totality of its potential demolition by the Israeli army. Through its architecture, this project could have then become a ruin able to recount the story of its own existence and disobedience to the occupation’s legislation.

Forensis is a tremendously important work for designers and lawyers but also for all of its other readers. It actively attempts to change the perception of the court from the site of the sovereign truth, to one of political debate informed by investigative research. It also gives a chance to the non-human to formulate the prosopopeia of its testimony, and thus contributes to a paradigm shift in our relation to the world. What is fundamental in this intervention of the non-human is that it allies with the silenced victims of state and corporate violence.

The appearance of new means of judicial description of this criminal violence therefore constitutes a challenge to this impunity. Forensis is not a manual but, through its examples, offers a vision of how to spread the practice it models. We can and should follow its example.