Upon entering the Forensic Justice exhibition at BAK (the base for contemporary art in Utrecht), visitors are met with large screens in otherwise empty spaces. In the dimmed lighting, headphoned silhouettes sit watching films that feature real and animated shootings, collapsing buildings, and seemingly abstract graphs and diagrams. On the mezzanine, more screens stand among several small tables on which books or small 3D-printed statuettes are on display.
The industrial space can’t be considered aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense. It is largely empty, there are no embellishments or decorations, and the cracks and exposed wires in the walls evoke the sense of arriving at a construction site, rather than at a conventional art gallery. It should be noted, however, that BAK aims and claims to be many things – none of which constitute a conventional art gallery. Referring to themselves as a base for art, knowledge, and the political, they continuously reach over and across these and other disciplines in an attempt to educate and enlighten their audiences.
The current exhibition, titled Forensic Justice, features representations of cases treated by the independent research agency Forensic Architecture. Based in London, the agency consists of about twenty specialists, such as artists, lawyers, scientists, researchers, filmmakers, and architects, working together to investigate violations of rights – both those of humans and the non-human. By building sensory spaces and thoroughly analysing reconstructions, recreations, and re-enactments of these events of violation, injustice, or deception, Forensic Architecture aims to provide critical evidence for international courts, activist groups, NGOs, Amnesty International, and the United Nations, amongst others.
In his introductory lecture, Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture, explained this ‘practice of truth’ through the opposition between veritas and ‘verification’. Whereas veritas allows for contemporary propaganda-fuelled attacks on investigative journalism and institutions such as NGOs and universities – thus feeding the notion that we are living in a post-truth era – the practice of verification aims to build evidence-based counter-narratives. By articulating counter-perspectives in reaction to the vehemently proclaimed or dominant perspectives on the events under investigation, Forensic Architecture aims to uncover and reveal what they refer to as ‘public truth’. In a time when the entire notion of truth can be questioned and subjectified, individual disciplines, or ‘diagrams’, as Weizman calls them, are no longer equipped to build or hold claims of truth. Rather than creating a different or new diagram, Forensic Architecture aspires to realign and rewire the existing diagrams in an attempt to motivate truth production. Thus, an intradisciplinary – as opposed to an interdisciplinary – practice is established, of which verification is the prospective result.
The exemplary cases presented in the exhibition roughly follow the distinct but intertwined narratives of genocide and ecocide. On the ground floor, genocide is represented through a selection of visual archival material that relates to the investigated cases. The diversity in cases that Forensic Architecture takes on can be illustrated by the divergence in scale on which these cases took place, ranging from: investigations situated in the vastness of the sea (The Iuventa, 2018) to an airstrike on a city (The Bombing of Rafah, Gaza, Palestine, 1 August 2014, 2015); and from the bombing of a building (M2 Hospital Bombing, 2017) to the murders of individuals (The Killing of Nadeem Nawara and Mohammed Abu Daher, 2014). Christina Varvia, deputy director of Forensic Architecture, drew attention to their most recent project on display, The Murder of Pavlos Fyssas (2018; featured in the cover image above). This extensive visual report demonstrates the investigation into the involvement of Greek law enforcement in the murder of the young Greek rapper Fyssas, who was murdered in 2013. This documentation, which was co-produced with BAK, served as crucial evidence in court in September 2018. Forensic Architecture revealed that Greek police forces were collaborating with the para-military movement Golden Dawn, of which a few members were ultimately found guilty of the murder.
On the mezzanine, Forensic Architecture has installed two installations in what they have termed the Centre for Contemporary Nature (CCN), consisting of photographs, three 3D-printed statuettes, and several screens. Questioning the rapidly changing role of ‘Contemporary Nature’, these narratives are told at the intersection of culture, politics, and the changing concept of nature. In the exhibition, the entanglements between developments in recent human history and the increasingly distressing consequences in nature, which seem to have moved far beyond our control, are represented through two recent cases. Ape Law (2016) investigates the violence that humans have inflicted on other species, through an exemplary case concerning the destruction of orang-utan habitats. The orang-utan has historically been placed on both sides of the human/non-human binary and now plays a significant role in debates surrounding the future rights of non-human species. The installation Ecocide in Indonesia (2017) engages with the destruction of forestation and habitat, resulting in insurmountable disasters for both nature and the human race.
This exhibition, like many of those presented by BAK, prompts its visitors to reconsider the concept and role of what we consider to be art. Although Forensic Architecture arguably practices intra-disciplinary methods, which also include artistic and architectural approaches, the gallery does not appear to be the ultimate destination for their work. Forensic Architecture’s recent nomination for this year’s Turner Prize has further complicated how these works can or should be positioned and interpreted. Weizman addresses this issue, stating that the art gallery offers spaces where one can grapple with questions and complexity, allowing for a distinctive approach to the binaries that exist in the courtroom. However, he also stresses the difficulties that these affiliations with the art world have caused. Questions have arisen in- and outside the courts about the validity and legitimacy of research that is also on display in an art gallery, thereby undermining and undoing the validation that Forensic Architecture attempts to move towards.
However, an extensive rethinking of the role of the contemporary art gallery as potential agent or site for social change might be necessary before exhibitions such as this one can reach their full potential. I have always defended my notions about what constitutes as art by claiming that it should conjure or convey some form of experience. As an alternative to the obvious aesthetically pleasing qualities that some artworks possess, an artwork could be or have ‘something’ that invokes a shift –however subtle – in one’s emotions, perspectives, perceptions, consciousness, opinions, or condition. The Forensic Justice exhibition inspires, again, a rethinking of what can be considered as contemporary art, and what this ‘art’ can do outside of the gallery. If the work of Forensic Architecture can be placed in a gallery, then art really can make a change in the world.
Image by Forensic Architecture, taken from the BAK website, which describes: “The project file for the investigation of the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a young Greek rapper who was killed by Golden Dawn (September 2013), consists of a synchronized mosaic of audio and video material that was included in the court files. The patterns emerging in the file structure mirror the movement of actors within the scene as well as the visual and aural clues for the synchronization.”