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Digital Witnessing – Forensic Architecture @ Tate Britain

This year’s Turner art prize was unique as each finalist was a film. The entries were Naeem Mohaiemen: Tripoli Cancelled, BRIDGIT by Charlotte Prodger, Autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson and Killing in Umm al-Hiran by Forensic Architecture.

I was aware of Forensic Architecture’s work from our lecture where we discussed their work relating to the “Left to Die Boat” but this was my first time experiencing their work in a “white cube” gallery context.

From the outset the work has a cold intensity to it, to match the seriousness of the subject matter. The centrepiece of their exhibition is a seven and a half minute film with a timeline displayed down the bottom. The film places all the evidence they’ve gathered into a spatial and temporal context. Clips are overlaid and designed into tracks as though you were with them lining them up in the edit suite.

There is a photogrammetric spatial framework built from satellite data, plus commercial VFX software that can take in disparate photos and build 3d scenes out of their triangulated pixels. This resulting 3D map of the area allows them to create virtual camera moves, from one patchy bit of news or phone footage to the next.

In a second room there are architectural style topographical 3D models showing lines of sight, lines of fire and events from the timeline.

Finally, along the far wall, there are numerous TV screens breaking down the context that the FA investigation was taking place within. News reports from the time discuss the dominant narratives being put forward by the government, and then second and third screens highlight the effects the FA evidence had on the government story and media depiction of events.

In a way, they document their own presence as an actor in the story as clearly as they reconstruct the events that transpired.

It’s interesting, it’s only as I write this blog that I can answer a question that’s been rolling around in my head since I saw the exhibition – is this art?

I was definitely affected by the work, it was powerful and serious and deals with real world topics. It seems to maintain a scientific distance to the topic, but this coolness reminds me more of a coroner who’s seen it before and just wants to get to the bottom of the story. The real fire and passion of the work is shown with the screens on the final wall, showing how the work functions as an intervention in real world events.

In my opinion, good art makes a statement, causes an effect, creates a response. What could be a better successful intervention in to the real world than having a government change their story about a murder? That’s amazing.

To understand what makes FA’s approach to the topic unique it’s helpful to contrast it to the website Bellingcat.

Bellingcat is the website of an investigative journalist who famously utilised publicly available data-forensics techniques to expose Russian involvement in the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

What’s the difference between these two investigative collectives? I would say their function is basically the same, but the form is what takes FA’s work more towards the art world rather than journalism or activism exclusively.

Bellingcat are an investigative journalism collective who use publicly
available tools and data to piece together online investigations.

Forensic Architecture do have an aesthetic, and use the visual language of infographics, data and science, in the same way as James Turrell’s assistants on Light Reignfall wear lab coats. I don’t think it’s being done to subvert or comment on dominant power structures, rather I think they are attempting to speak to people in power through a visual language they already understand. Expensive building projects, oil mining data visualisations, schematics for the next stealth bomber, Forensic Architecture’s latest investigation. I think it’s a deliberate use of style to speak to those in power, to give them one less reason to immediately discount the evidence due to the form in which it’s shown.

Also, it’s important to contextualise the “white cube” and understand the power of putting this content into a gallery. There’s definitely an argument that it could be problematic to use the gallery and slick presentation methodology. It adds a comforting degree of distance to make this story easier to take and appreciate on a surface level. However I’d argue that the presentation style is deceptive – the “white cube” gallery is already a safe space for the elite. The way this story is packaged functions as a trojan horse, ostensibly safe and designed well enough that it fits in with the work around it, but only when you unpack the truth it details does the meaning really detonate.

Ultimately, FA’s work did not win the Turner Prize. Whether that means anything, I’m not sure, but I found it the most compelling from the exhibition.

In 2016 the word of the year was “post-truth.” It’s often said that art is a search for meaning or truth – and in the case of Forensic Architecture they elevate the search for a literal truth into an art form.