Forensic Architecture’s First Exhibition in Palestine: Problematic Language and Non-Daring Positions

What strikes me most in the first exhibition of Forensic Architecture in Palestine, is neither the cases investigated, nor the findings, but the sophisticated technology used in the work, its aesthetic, and above all the problematic use of language. Installed at Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, Violence, Fast and Slow occupied three halls on the ground floor of the old Palestinian mansion, presenting two cases of investigation into “environmental violence”. Based at Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture refers to itself as a research agency that investigates human rights violations related to buildings and urban environments using new techniques to reconstruct and present their findings.

In two statements displayed at the exhibition entrance, the Sakakini encouraged audiences to be critical of the work on display and to direct their attention to difficulties faced in translation into Arabic. The Center, which organized the exhibition to present an internationally celebrated project that discusses human right violations in Palestine, also criticized the “neutrality and unbiased language” used, describing it as “international law and human rights language”. Remaining faithful to the text in English provided by Forensic Architecture, the Center did not intervene in the language when translating.

The agency’s first case on display, “Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza”, examines Israeli spraying of glyphosate, which since 2014 has destroyed vegetation along the eastern border of the Gaza Strip, all with the aim of creating visible area for Israeli snipers to target Gazans. The process has caused vast damage to the environment and the crops of Palestinian farmers. To demonstrate this, the agency has displayed a couple of videos in addition to large-scale photographic cutouts of affected leaves from Gaza. A colorful timeline, which gradually turns from green to bright and dark reds as it stretches across the second hall, showcases the changes in vegetation health over the past three decades of Israeli occupation of the area. In the related videos, Forensic Architecture uses methods that connect technical analysis to actual conditions on the ground, joining together virtual and real worlds.

In the same room sits another related video investigating the killing of Razan Al Najjar, the Palestinian medic murdered by an Israeli sniper’s bullet on  June 1, 2018, as she was saving the lives of injured protesters in the March of Return in Gaza, a weekly demonstration to break the siege imposed by Israel since 2006. Najjar was targeted in an open arid area, created as a result of consistent herbicidal spraying by Israeli planes. In tracing the medic’s final movements, Forensic Architecture employed simulation techniques, allowing them to pinpoint the exact location of the sniper.

The second investigation challenges the Israeli narrative of the murder of Yaqub Abu Al-Qi’an in the Bedouin village of Umm Al-Hiran, which occurred in the aftermath of an Israeli night raid  to demolish Palestinian homes and drive inhabitants out of the area. These actions are part of an ongoing ethnic cleansing process in the Naqab area since 1948. Forensic Architecture focuses on inconsistencies in the official Israeli account of the event and the “manipulation of evidence after the fact.” Their reconstruction of the incident shows that Abu Al-Qi’an was driving by when he was shot, causing him to lose control of his car and unintentionally kill an Israeli policeman. Video footage from an activist on the ground enabled Forensic Architecture to compare before and after images from Umm al-Hiran, revealing new facts and illuminating Israeli distortions of the event.

These two thorough investigations into “environment violence” – which Israeli policy uses to create natural borders – are topics deeply familiar to Palestinian audiences, given the ongoing Nakba, the forced dispossession of Palestinians by Israel since 1948.

While Forensic Architecture Founder and Director Eyal Weizman asserts that “architects can be complicit” and “they should take positions, whatever they do,” one wonder what are the positions that Forensic Architecture is taking in this exhibition. Although, there is a real commitment of documenting details of the Palestinian reality, the language used in the narration throughout the exhibition remains decidedly neutral. Talking about “civilians,” for example, rather than Palestinians, Forensic Architecture emphasizes the “peaceful” or “helpless” nature of those “civilians” instead of asserting the agency of Palestinians. Furthermore, they label murders committed by Israeli snipers as “deaths,” using a colorless language which made their position ambiguous and inexplicit, rather than highlighting facts and taking bold positions from what is happening on the ground. One of their investigations, focuses on the “inconsistency” of language by Israeli officials in one case, they reflect unfamiliarity with the history, through which the colonial power maintained consistent processes of history alteration. One would expect the legal language used by this widely celebrated agency (which has in the past presented its projects to law enforcement and in court) to be tweaked when presented in an art space so it becomes daring and critical of a colonial situation and the laws that maintain this situation. After all, what is the difference between the language Forensic Architecture is using here and that being used by many UN agencies in their exhibitions in Palestine!

Yet, the most troubling inconsistencies in their  language are those found on the group’s website, which  states that they undertake investigations into human rights violations “on behalf of communities affected by political violence…” The statement implies that these communities  have firstly assigned them to do so, and secondly, suggests that these communities are powerless.

It is important to note that the research agency is not exactly a human rights organization. By exhibiting their work in internationally renowned art venues, they propose their investigations as a form of art making. After all, they were nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018 for work they presented at Documenta 14, the ICA London, MUAC in Mexico, and MACBA/Barcelona. As a medium of social critique, art is expected to question establishments rather than “decorate external powers – whether these are powers of oppression or liberation” as Boris Groys puts it. Yet in their exhibition, Forensic Architecture fully endorses the UN’s vision of international human rights law with little questioning, if any. (These very same laws do not consider the use of white phosphorous in non-densely populated areas to be a war crime, creating a legal gray area for the deadly  substance, which Forensic Architecture has itself proved  Israel used in Gaza in 2014 to disastrous effects.) While it is important to acknowledge the vital work undertaken by investigating and documenting Israeli violations in this exhibition, it is also imperative to critique the law where applicable.

In Ramallah, the work of Forensic Architecture was perceived as important yet problematic. Criticized by Rami Salameh, a lecturer of philosophy and cultural studies at Birzeit University,

the discourse of human rights has contributed significantly into transforming the political cause of liberation and freedom into individual legal cases. Since Oslo Accords of 1993, the number of human rights organizations surged noticeably in Palestine, consequently, feeding extensively the discourse related to the Palestinian struggle with legal terms. Salameh, who was participating in a program of critical debates organized by Sakakini in parallel with the exhibition, asserts that this has created a state of “waiting” among Palestinians for international saviors to act on their behalf, in order to rid them from occupation, which deprived them from their agency and faith in collective power.After all, how useful is documentation when there is a lack of international political will to enact consequences.

Perhaps this is the paradox that Forensic Architecture has fallen into, facing tougher critiques of their investigations when they are exhibited in the very sites where their investigations are focused, rather than the celebratory reception they often receive abroad.

Violence, Fast and Slow was presented at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah (Khalil Sakakini Str. Al Masyoon Ramallah 0970, Ramallah) from July 21 through November 2, 2019. The exhibition was organized by Forensic Architecture.

Rana Anani is a freelance writer and researcher of visual arts and culture. Her articles are published on several platforms in Palestine and the region. She co-authored the book “Throne villages Architecture”, published by Riwaq Center for Conservation. She was an Associate Curator of Sharjah Biennale 13 off-site project “Shifting Grounds” in Ramallah (2017) and the Head of Communication of the Palestinian Museum, Birzeit (2013-2016, the Project Manager of Qalandiya International art biennale organized across Palestine and abroad in 2018, and the coordinator of the Palestinian Pavilion at Cannes Film Festival, (May 2018 & May 2019).