The Inhabitant and the Map: Forensic Architecture and Metahaven

Forensic Architecture and Metahaven in conversation with Richard Birkett


In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, seismic geopolitical shifts have occurred almost in lockstep with the advent of new technologies of image production and communication. In its ability to navigate and generate new forms of interface with the contemporary “image-data complex,” the practice of design has been integral to these developments and has provided a potential means of critical inquiry into them. Stemming from foundations in graphic and architectural design, respectively, since the early 2000s the groups Metahaven and Forensic Architecture have forged research-led practices that traverse the fields of design, art, filmmaking, and writing. While sharing much ground in addressing forms of state and extra-state power—particularly with regard to the narratives woven by and within such forces—the practices of the two groups also diverge in fundamental and insightful ways.

During the exhibition Counter Investigations: Forensic Architecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Director of the ICA Stefan Kalmár initiated a conversation between ICA Chief Curator Richard Birkett, Eyal Weizman and Christina Varvia from Forensic Architecture, and Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden from Metahaven, to discuss the intersections between the two groups’ work. Metahaven will have a solo exhibition at the ICA in October 2018, in conjunction with a simultaneous exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.


RICHARD BIRKETT: Let’s begin by considering how research connects the practices of Metahaven and Forensic Architecture, and how for each group the notion of design in relation to research has taken shape over the last years.

DANIEL VAN DER VELDEN & VINCA KRUK: When, in the mid-2000s, we started working on graphic design that focused on research, we wanted our work to engage with hypothesis. It was about giving responses to questions that we proactively sought out, rather than those that were being given. Graphic design generally hadn’t, and still hasn’t, considered the idea of the hypothetical to the extent that architecture has. At the same time our way of making things was, and is, intuitive and iterative rather than rational and planned. We do see a number of ways in which design itself can be considered a form of material evidence. Design is always, somehow, a kind of recording device of its own time, of even the moment in which it was made. Think about the medieval tapestry of Bayeux, which recorded the passing of Halley’s Comet without a scientific explanation for the phenomenon being available. This capacity of design to register and represent time may be a touchpoint with Forensic Architecture. We have always been interested in the stealthier ways that design operates, and how it, on a broader scale, embodies the explicit and implicit ideologies of its time. This has also brought us to subjects that have come to be known as “post-truth” and “fake news.” At the same time, and we will come back to this, the perspective of our work has a lot to do with embodiment inside digital media, and in particular the cinematic moving image that confronts digital platform culture. Perhaps we started, as designers, from an intuition, then moved into a more analytical phase, and are now back at the beginning of the cycle, in which we are interested in working through the circumstances of lives led in the thick of complex digital-physical layers and, in doing so, are identifying with the inhabitant rather than providing a map.

EYAL WEIZMAN: My research began with a very particular political and geographical issue, namely the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I was caught up in an enormous flaring of violence in the early 2000s with the beginning of the Intifada. More or less intuitively, maybe like Metahaven, I understood the place of the built environment within it, and plunged myself into a research that moved from the ground up, effectively starting from what we called a counter-cartography. In fact, there was no mapping of the military-civilian occupation that was available publicly. It took a year to draw the necessary map. The scale of space and time it captured was long because it covered the history of Israeli colonization, and I was writing and working as a historian, as a theorist of architecture, engaging the question of how politics congeals into form. A crisis in cartography followed two years after the map was finished—namely that cartography as we knew it ended in 2005 with the emergence of widely available satellite imagery. Then a few years later the practice morphed again with the advent of social media. All of a sudden our optics capturing the longue durée of political and social violence, of the slow transformation of the landscape as politics gradually becomes form, could accelerate into the eruptive force of kinetic incidents. The existing tools of the researcher were good for architectural history, architectural theory, cartography, but they were simply not good enough to deal with a cartography of micro-incidents. There was a need to start a speculative journey to see how we could reconfigure the cartography of old to engage new problems—the problem of the instant. With this came a host of technological, but also theoretical and political, questions. How is a micro-incident political? And how can the reconstruction of such an incident connect to the long duration of spatial violence? A lot of Israelis and Palestinians were thinking at the time that Israel-Palestine was a laboratory of a kind of securitization that became prevalent in the early years of what was called the War on Terror. But if this was the case, on the contrary it was also a lab for developing theoretical techniques and technologies of resistance that could be brought to bear on other situations worldwide.

RB: The movement described by Metahaven between the map and the inhabitant is useful when thinking about that moment of rupture in cartography where the extent of user-generated imagery and documentation exploded through the scope of digital technology and communication. Something that’s interesting for me in Forensic Architecture’s work is how it emphasizes the role of the citizen generating evidence within this complex of images and data. This ruptures a notion of the map as a distant overview, as the individual is both inhabitant and producer of the map.

DVDV & VK: It’s interesting that you mention, Eyal, that satellite imagery became ubiquitous around 2005, which was the same year that YouTube was founded. In 2006, it was bought by Google. These platform-based systems that are so influential as visual sources and methodological reference points had a kind of convergence around the mid-2000s. We also agree with you that the mix between, let’s say, kinetic events and psychological events has completely shifted. Brian Massumi asserts that the basic condition of information conflict is one of waiting, in which kinetic action is replaced by information that gets released so as to influence the conditions in which you wait. By all means, this is also a kind of occupation—not just of space, but of time. What designers or artists can contribute, among other things, is to introduce a certain literacy and awareness around these forms. When we began making music videos and documentary films, we were inspired by filmmakers like Harun Farocki and Adam Curtis. Their films were influential to The Sprawl (Propaganda about Propaganda) (2016). But during the making and editing of this film, we realized that to some extent, we weren’t talking anymore about propaganda as something that you can set apart from reality and discuss objectively. Propaganda and its effects expose the existence of multiple, parallel ideas on truth. And we don’t mean here that facts don’t exist, or that forensic evidence doesn’t exist—we mean that truth itself is a construction. And so is documentary. In filmmaking, and especially in documentary, objectivity is becoming more and more difficult because there’s just so much to react to. This tends to produce a type of work where abstract systems in the world, represented in concrete examples, become the subject of a complaint and an incentive to restore justice. We’re not saying that this is how Forensic Architecture operates. Quite the opposite. What fascinates us about Forensic Architecture is how the work has the capacity to restore this notion of what it means to have lived through something, and what it means when that event has been erased or was designed to not be visible in any type of narrative storytelling or truth seeking. There is an ethical component to that. There’s an aesthetic component as well.

EW: Wars are no longer about total annihilation; they are about submission. We’re using violent effects in order to terrorize, in order to force people to comply or sway political opinions. Within this field violence becomes effective as a form of a spectacle, as an act of representation. The reconstruction of a violent event is thus part of the conflict, not an external judgement over it. It is a confused, dynamic fog of images in which we are completely enmeshed. This is the first level of translation of a racist killing. In the instance of the murder of Halit Yozgat in Kassel in 2006, there is a state agent in the internet café where Halit is killed by a neo-Nazi group. Then the state agent makes the first translation step by lying, in front of a camera, about how the event unfolded. Now you have two events: the event that happened in the internet café, and the event that happened in front of the camera. You could say that the act of representation is a crime of its own. Violence against migrants is about killing them with a silenced Česká gun and wanting to scare away the others. Terror is created by the misrepresentation of the event. The communities themselves know that they have been killed by neo-Nazis, but the state tells them, “No, this is Turkish-on-Turkish violence.” And the judiciary says, “No, we’re not going to investigate the state for the killings.” In every act of denial the terror increases, because the uncertainty increases. The very possibility of speaking to the experience of those communities is completely distorted. I’m interested in Metahaven’s work on propaganda. It’s part of a set of some old and some new de-cohesive forces that are increasingly brought to bear on knowledge in the present moment. Besides propaganda, there is denial and there’s negation, and these strategies have taken on new forms. One of these forms, although it’s not actually that new, is “glomarization”—the official formulation used by the CIA since the 1970s that they will “neither confirm nor deny” an incident or active operation, meaning, they seek to add no new information whatsoever. In the field of mainstream politics now we encounter the accusation of fake news. But within the fields of journalism and activism around conflict, instances of powerful states accusing those holding them to account of “fake news” is as old as war itself. Almost anything you discover about state crimes will be counteracted by the state dismissing it as a manipulation of the truth, a politically motivated lie. Forensic Architecture has been called “Pallywood” by Israeli state agents—meaning some form of Palestinian Hollywood, I presume—as well as being denounced as a Qatari-funded group by Bashar al-Assad, “pro-al-Qaeda fools” by the Russia Today television network, and “popular lefties” by the Christian Democratic Union in Germany, all following instances in which we exposed something those powers wanted hidden. State violence and denial are never separate. The physical violence and the rhetoric saying it never happened are completely entangled. Propaganda includes many elements, as Metahaven highlighted in The Sprawl. It includes denial, but it may also include negation, which is harder to deal with than denial because it aims to take away your means of even articulating a statement: “you have no right or ability to speak to a matter.” Metahaven’s work, their book Black Transparency (2015) in particular, touches on the difference between the conception of the secret that is articulated by people leaking information versus that of those creating technologies of whistleblowing and open-source research. With the latter, the secret exists already in the world, and therefore it leaves many traces, many marks and shadows, and one can connect them into a story. It’s hiding in plain sight. This is a completely different diagram of open-source research from the leak as a puncturing of a hermetic enclosure of state secrets. I’m interested in Metahaven’s work on WikiLeaks, and about these two different conceptions of the state secret.

DVDV & VK: WikiLeaks is indeed based on the logic of the leak. But by releasing secret files or other things they think belong in the public domain, they do not want to trigger, as Forensic Architecture does, a process of deliberation and justice. They want to trigger, and sometimes succeed in creating, a series of more or less uncontrollable events. A geopolitical form of information cascade. The concept is very different from assembling a public record for an invisible event, from bringing material to a court of justice, whether it’s an actual court or a symbolic court or a public forum of reasoning. Our initial sympathy for WikiLeaks was based on their role in bringing out material from the extended War on Terror. But the way they wield power as an unaccountable geopolitical force has become increasingly problematic.

CHRISTINA VARVIA: There’s something interesting in the relationship between WikiLeaks and the whole idea of knowledge production for the sake of knowledge production, and how this relates to the tech companies. There’s this stereotype of technologists who develop a tool for the sake of pushing the boundary of knowledge, without having a critical approach to the effect it might have, or the impact of the information they are revealing, or how they might be compromising people’s privacy in unpredictable ways. Companies like Facebook engage in open-ended sociological research, but their data is also marketed and handled by companies such as Cambridge Analytica. So there is still an open question around transparency, about how much you reveal. Does one just release all the files, or do we carefully curate the information that we reveal? And at which point does that become propaganda or manipulative? Even Forensic Architecture needs to consider how to package our evidence files for different audiences. Twitter’s attention span is thirty seconds, whereas in a court we might have captive audiences listening for forty minutes. We adapt our work to these forums. Of course there is a big difference between packaging an evidence file and the kind of political polishing that Hillary Clinton’s campaign undertook, and, even worse, the role of Cambridge Analytica in the Trump and Brexit campaigns. The question is how to mediate between the two extremes. What’s the argument between the purity of un-chewed information and the overly selective and targeted campaign? What would a conscious, critical media approach be?

DVDV & VK: Hillary Clinton’s campaign looked savvy and sophisticated. Whereas the “Make America Great Again” cap, with the horrible typeface—is it Century, or some sort of spoof version? The spacing is completely off, and in a sense the very crudeness of the visual weaponry of the Trump campaign stood for the perceived realness of it. Absolutely crap design, to communicate a certain folkish fake realness about the political position.

EW: Often Forensic Architecture is accused of being conspiracy theorists, so conspiracy is another narrative form worth talking about. Whether we are researching the Mexican government and their involvement in and mishandling of the investigation into the disappearance of forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, or the German secret service’s obfuscation around a series of racist killings in Germany, our analysis is about confirming that there was collusion between the government agencies—the judiciary, different police forces, the secret service. So we are called conspiracy theorists. The conspiracies of old involved a banker, industrialists, politicians, secret service people, a postman, all maybe graduates of the same school or members of the same religion, all following a common interest, and some kind of secret order behind that. But of course, some conspiracies are real. The conspiracy genre is about discovering undisclosed relations between seemingly independent agents and creating possible narrative threads that connect agreed-upon evidence. What’s distinct about conspiracy is that the evidence is never enough; there needs to be another layer of imaginary work to sustain it. How do you bring about a level of conviction? How do you deal with drawing the relation between the hard evidence and a suspected relationship between people and events?

DVDV & VK: We don’t think we follow conspiracy theory in general. There’s a difference between trying to find out facts, and constructing a deep cosmology of power in which the blind spots begin to function as evidence that your hypothesis is true. We are interested in what the poet and writer Ariel Dorfman called “soft evidence,” and its relationship, as proof, with an observable reality in which seemingly nothing has changed.

CV: There’s a certain soft or hard gaze that we have to adopt, while we wear different hats as investigators, scientists, or artists. There’s something about adjusting our threshold of optics that allows us to be sensitive to thin, tenuous connections or hard facts. Somehow our role is more complex than just one of a single discipline, and requires us to use our imaginations to go further than what the facts tell us. From my perspective it’s important to be able to shift gears in investigations. Otherwise, we’re not calibrated to see things that might be very present for others. For instance, in the Nakba Day killings investigation, part of the initiative was to look into how the protestors reacted to the sounds of the gunshots using live bullets, versus all the other gunshots that were blanks, or rubber coated. They might not consciously or technically know about the different kinds of bullets, but they immediately reacted differently to the lethal gunshots, because they recognized that the sound was different than the blanks they were used to hearing. The imperative of the affected community trying to communicate something that they know is true, but do not have hard evidence for, is really precious. Listening to this situated knowledge is a wealth that we repeatedly encounter in our investigations, and that traditional state investigators ignore.

RB: I find the idea of negative evidence that Eyal mentioned earlier vital to this discussion. It’s not just the hiding or cloaking of something, but the active erasure of the trace that is left. The ability to establish patterns of behavior or activity—state activity or military police activity—through identifying a loss or rupture in reality is a complex idea. It suggests not just an analytic structure, but one that has to be considered as felt in multiple ways on the level of narrative, or propaganda if you like—on the level of the structuring of reality—and the ability to then consider that within the longue durée of politics, rather than solely within the micro-incident. That’s the challenging thing for me in thinking about Forensic Archiecture’s work, and in thinking about aspects of Metahaven’s work as well, especially with regard to the symbolic realm. It’s that leap from the micro incident to the wider political social fabric or fabric of reality.

EW: The difference between forensics and counter-forensics is that counter-forensics is essentially operating in an environment in which there is already a narrative. Forensic Architecture is not the police. We’re not coming in and saying what has happened. Rather, we attempt to dismantle an existing statement or narrative. Rather than bringing matters into a process or a forum in which they could be “settled,” we’re showing how the process itself or the law itself is an instrument of violence—for instance, how the court can become a means of dispossession. In Israel, Bedouin land rights cannot simply be fought for in court because the law was constructed in a way to dispossess Bedouin people, to make it as hard as possible for indigenous people to claim land ownership. For example, the kind of evidence that could sustain their ownership—oral testimonies, handwritten land transfer documents—is simply inadmissible to the court. So the struggle needs to be in court by the law and at the same time against the law. We need to turn the stage around, so to speak, so that the law is put on trial. Here’s another related example from the same region. Israeli police killed a Bedouin man in a village, in an area where we have worked for three years with people who are very familiar to us. Immediately after the killing, the police said the man was a terrorist, and that he tried to kill a policeman, and therefore they had to shoot him down. You see, if he’s classed as a terrorist, his family loses all its rights. The destruction of the village is then justified. Our work was simultaneously to deconstruct the state narrative, and then to construct something else in its stead.

These are the two parts of counter-forensics. The most important part is to dismantle a state’s statement in order to disrupt their propaganda, and the second part is to patiently build a counternarrative and then mobilize around it in order to make it politically effective. In this case we proved that the police actions led to the death of their own officer, rather than it being a terrorist attack, and that they killed the Bedouin man without due cause. We used this information to take to task the political structure behind both the killing and the state narrative constructed in its aftermath. It is about the connection between the kinetic violence of the instant, and the slow violence of displacement and environmental transformation. The slow violence of colonialism exists in the split-second kinetic event.

DVDV & VK: We are interested in Fernand Braudel’s notion of the longue durée as a way of thinking about moving image. “Okay, we are describing a day, but we cannot describe that day without describing the world of which that day was a part.” We’re interested in the longue durée as a de-compression of events that took only seconds.

EW: In one text in the Forensic Architecture exhibition at the ICA, we speak about the longue durée of the split second.

DVDV & VK: The unit of time itself may be quite short, but it can still be unfolded, and unfolded further. Unpacked, and unpacked further. Split seconds are a folded material structure that can be stretched out and multiplied. This in itself is an interesting and necessary manner of looking at facts at the crossing points between lives, and how these lives are interwoven with history on an intricate level. There is lived reality, and the ways in which its split seconds are reconstructed in Forensic Architecture’s work. And then there’s the way in which the European Commission is trying to fight fake news.

EW: How are they doing that?

DVDV & VK: By talking about “multi-stakeholder approaches,” “civil society initiatives,” “quality journalism”—words that only seem to have meaning in policy documents. It’s helpful that you say Forensic Architecture is not there to make a final judgment, but rather to dismantle lies, tropes of propaganda, obfuscations, and other techniques the state uses to obscure what happened. We’re interested in how criticality can be expressed when there is no language available to articulate it in, and lyricality becomes its expression. For example, in one of Anna Politkovskaya’s reports from Chechnya, she goes into a classroom in a refugee camp and reads compositions by children who were instructed to write about their homeland. The goal of the writing exercise was glorification, in a classical patriotic Soviet way. They write about Grozny, their city, which was completely destroyed. They describe how beautiful it was before that happened, and who destroyed it. The kids express this intense lyricality, and how they belong, nevertheless. And Politkovskaya reports on their writing to make a point about the war; she finds a language that is not exhausted. And there is a relationship to poetry. Politkovskaya studied Marina Tsvetaeva, one of the warmest of Russian poets in terms of the lyrical dimension of her work. The notion of longue durée is relevant again as a kind of unrecognized form of cinematic duration. The time that we on average spend with our smartphones, every day, is significantly longer than Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). We haven’t yet arrived at a cinematic understanding of that duration—which could also be called a form of software platform time. And it is interesting to consider not just how humans experience this, but also how the platform itself is a sort of tireless, inexhaustible moviegoer.

CV: It seems that, at the moment, we have a victory of myth. Right? Which is something that is composed of realities, small and big. And that provides a structure connecting singularities, but also longer-term “truth.” When myths are believed in, they become real in their own right. They become all you need to know, in a way.
The power of the narrative transgresses evidence. It’s an accumulative vortex. People collect singular facts that fit within their own myth structure and feed their cosmology. 

DVDV & VK: This patchwork of selective facts making up a myth structure can become an augmented reality of sorts. It’s quite scary to see which things YouTube begins to suggest after you’ve been watching videos on a certain topic for some time, and an entire media sphere seems to be revolving around a single issue. If an entire media landscape consists of these kinds of enhanced ideological recommendations, it’s easy for people to assume that this obsessive situation is a form of nature. You are right about narrative and how it transgresses evidence. And also the word “post-truth” is, in a way, a narrative. In some way post-truth as a term is itself the ultimate exponent of a myth structure, because it suggests that we are actually past or beyond this moment when there was a clear sense of an honestly reported truth.

CV: But is that what it means? Or is it that truth doesn’t matter?

DVDV & VK: Yes, that is what it also implies, that this situation is immediately normalized. The work of Forensic Architecture shows that truth matters, and that the journalistic, ethical, narrative, cartographic, and cinematic aspects of its expression are a fundamental design project.


Founded by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden, Metahaven works across art, filmmaking, and graphic design. Recent solo presentations include Information Skies, Auto Italia, London (2016), The Sprawl, YCBA, San Francisco (2015), Black Transparency, Future Gallery, Berlin (2014), and Islands in the Cloud, MoMA PS1, New York (2013). Recent group exhibitions include Fear & Love, Design Museum, London (2016),The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?), the 11th Gwangju Biennale (2016), Private Settings: Art After the Internet, Museum of Modern Art Warsaw (2014), and Frozen Lakes, Artists Space, New York (2013). Music videos by Metahaven include Home (2014), and Interference (2015), both for musician, composer and artist Holly Herndon. In 2015 and 2016, Metahaven created its first long documentary, The Sprawl (Propaganda about Propaganda). Its fictional sequel, a short film titled Information Skies, was shot and edited in 2016, and nominated for the European Film Awards in 2017.

Forensic Architecture are a London-based independent research agency comprised of architects, artists, filmmakers, journalists, scientists, and lawyers, and  established in 2010 by Eyal Weizman. Forensic Architecture’s work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2018); Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (2017); and Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City (2017), and in group exhibitions including documenta 14 (2017) and Venice Architecture Biennale (2016). Books written and edited by members of Forensic Architecture include Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (Zone Books, 2017) and Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Sternberg Press, 2014).

Richard Birkett is Chief Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, and has previously held curatorial positions at Yale Union, Portland and Artists Space, New York. He has curated exhibitions by artists including Forensic Architecture, Cameron Rowland, Hito Steyerl, Chto Delat?, and Bernadette Corporation (with Stefan Kalmár), and group exhibitions including and Materials and Money and Crisis (with Sam Lewitt at mumok, Vienna, 2013) and Supply Lines: Photography and Logistics (National Gallery of Kosovo, Pristina, 2015). He has edited publications including Cosey Complex (with Maria Fusco, Koenig Books, 2012) and Tell It To My Heart, Volume 2 (with Julie Ault and Martin Beck, 2016).


Originally published on Mousse 63

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