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​How Forensic Architecture is uncovering the truth and challenging narratives

Architects reconstruct tragic events to expose crimes and human rights violations.

Photo: forensic-architecture.org

The topics of war crime investigation and criminal prosecution typically conjure up a number of images – a courtroom, a jury, and police gathering evidence. However, the emergent academic field of forensic architecture is now using time and space to bring a new level of investigation to the table. Designer, filmmaker, and visual storyteller Nathan Su, who works with the Forensic Architecture research agency at London's Goldsmiths University, spoke to Strelka Magazine about how architectural analyses can assist in human rights investigations.
Forensic architecture recognizes that modern-day conflicts typically take place within urban areas, with homes and neighborhoods becoming targets. However, accounts from the ground often differ between various sides and witnesses. To try to determine what really happened, forensic architects model dynamic events as they unfold in space and time, make 3D models of sites of conflict, and create animations and interactive cartographies on the urban or architectural scale.
"The tools that we use are very much both representational and analytical in the sense that when we are given a scenario, our first priority is to link it in terms of space and time so that we understand that any event, any sort of testimony, any image recording, has two locations – one physical and one temporal," said Su, who was in Moscow as part of a workshop on post-production tools and workflows for Strelka’s The New Normal think-tank.

Nathan Su / Photo by Slava Martyushov

"But I think what's more important than that, is that in having those two things locked down we can then understand how a singular piece of evidence relates to other pieces of evidence, so we can usually – through either time or space – identify how, say, two photographs, or a photograph and a video, or a photograph and the record memory of a witness, how these things lock together. It's a way of re-representing data in a way that allows us to make connections between things that we didn't previously make."
 

COUNTER-INVESTIGATING THE CASE OF NGO ACCUSED OF PEOPLE SMUGGLING

Su went on to speak about a particular case involving the Iuventa German NGO vessel, which is accused of aiding people smugglers off the coast of Libya by returning migrant vessels to them. Su noted that forensic architects launched their own investigation, despite being faced with information that was "very devoid of context."
That information included images in open seas, which showed "no landforms in the horizon." In addition, "everything in the frame is dynamic...we're in a moving ocean with a moving sky on boats that are moving, full of people that are moving."
"Basically what this method of 3D reconstruction allowed us to do is to situate photographs of the event. So we had some, I think, 200 photographs of the event, plus two GoPro videos, plus a bunch of geo-located AIS shipping data."

Su said that by using that information, he and his colleagues were able to use 3D models to situate all of these photos relative to each other in order to be able to position boats based on the direction that waves were traveling. "And we built this sort of visual radar of the sky based on a shot in one of the videos where a boat rotates and does a full 360-degree rotation, where we can then reconstruct a panorama of the sky."
From there, it was possible to "ascertain the movements of vessels throughout the scene." Although the Iuventa’s crew is accused of towing one of the boats for re-use after migrants had disembarked, Su and his colleagues have determined that "the photograph that is being used by the prosecution is actually showing that they're traveling away from the Libyan coast."
"By showing the relationship of the direction the boat is pointing to the direction the waves are traveling, and comparing that to weather data on the day, we're showing that it's much more likely, in fact, that the photograph represents the boat being towed away from the coast towards the Iuventa, where they were planning to destroy the boat," Su said.
Such an analysis is extremely important in the ongoing case, as the photograph has been widely used in police and media reports.
 

CHALLENGING MEXICAN GOVERNMENT’S NARRATIVE IN THE AYOTZINAPA CASE

Su also spoke about the high-profile case of 43 students who were kidnapped in Mexico in 2014. Their disappearance remains a mystery, although the country’s former attorney-general previously claimed that corrupt local police handed the students over to a drug cartel which killed them – a narrative which many are skeptical about.
Forensic Architecture created an interactive cartographic platform to map out and examine the different narratives of this event. The project reconstructed the entirety of the known events to provide a forensic tool for researchers.

“We’re looking at the role of police and the roles that federal, municipal, and state levels played in coordinating with the military and criminal organizations,” Su said. He went on to state that the aim is “to refute the state narrative and to offer a sort of counter narrative that points out where all the inconsistencies are between different testimonies and give validity to the testimonies of the families.”
 

THE CHANGING ROLE OF ARCHITECTS

One of the important roles that architects should focus on in the future is organizing the relationships between many other disciplines, Su believes. “In the built environment as architects, we’re coordinating between many different expertises to create a project, and that sort of orchestrational capability or that capacity to guide interactions is one very important toolkit, which I think will be really important as we start to question architects’ roles in technologies and narrative and storytelling.”
Spatially, architects should start considering other sites of operation, and shouldn’t necessarily be limited to tangible, physical territories. “Now the spaces of digital realities like augmented spaces and the economic and legal implications of those require architects’ input – at least at a design and conceptual level – as we start to think about who owns, say, augmented advertising space, who owns the rights over new sorts of economic infrastructures that are spanning across different continents that operate within different time zones,” Su said.
Designing through fiction and speculation allows us to preempt consequences of technologies, of policies, of economic and social decisions that we’re making, “before the stakes are too high,” according to Su.
Su also spoke about one of his films, ‘Through Leviathan’s Eyes,’ which addresses the fact that “we’re all receiving extremely personalized views of reality so that our own behaviors and our own preferences, in a way, become self-fulfilling prophecies. They drive the content we receive, they drive the networks that we’re exposed to and thrown into.” The film explores a “near-future condition of ‘cityness,’ imagining a rewrite of technological priorities; turning the blinding drive for personalized reality into a truly mixed reality.”

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