Making a mark: How Forensic Architecture is merging art and evidence

When you think of design, what do you think of? The functionality of an object; the print of a notebook or the layout of a magazine. There are many disciplines involved in design as a whole, but have you ever thought about the design that goes above and beyond to impact on the lives of others?

A look at the Tate Modern Turner Prize shortlist for 2018 highlights the growing number of agitators seeking to influence positive change by innovative design methods. The four shortlisted practitioners - Naeem Mohaiemen, Forensic Architecture, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson - are challenging some of the most pressing political and humanitarian issues of today. But can any of them demonstrate instrumental change?

Meet Forensic Architecture, the 15-strong collective, headed up by Haifa-born architect Eyal Weizman. The independent research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, consists of architects, artists and a variety of other disciplines, from filmmakers and software developers to archaeologists, lawyers and journalists. The agency uses the combined minds of these creative disruptors to develop counter forensic techniques on site, studying the architecture of buildings where human rights violations have occurred and recreating the conditions for analysis. Just as a criminal pathologist would determine the cause of death through the analysis of a body, Forensic Architecture helps to show other factors surrounding incidents, all while capturing on-the-ground footage for cultural heritage documentation and preservation.

Photogrammetry processing of a scanned deserted structure Istanbul

In a world where we are frustrated with the use personal data misuse, Forensic Architecture is continuing to highlight how this type of data can bring positive impact. In order to recreate scenes where injustice may have been present, the team will collect videos, social media posts, sounds picked up by microphones and cameras at the scene, and eye-witness accounts. When all of this data is entered into an architectural software, known as Blender for those intrigued, both the scene and the incident can be digitally rendered to help expose elements of the case. Previous case studies for the team include a digital reconstruction of the Saydnaya detention for Amnesty International and the counter-investigation of the events leading to the seizure of an NGO rescue vessel.

Read: How social media has changed art activism

So where does the ‘art’ come into all of this? While you’d imagine the cases to potentially be too sensitive to showcase to the outside world, Forensic Architecture continue to surprise with a number of exhibitions under their belt, to present their findings to a wider audience. Most recently the agency presented ‘Counter Investigations’, an extensive retrospective exhibition at the ICA, looking directly at a number of recent investigations which have directly contributed to charges being brought against police. This cross-pollination between working with parliamentary inquiries and filling some of the most renowned institutions in the world has seen them come under both fire and praise. The lines are still blurred between design and prosecuting evidence but Forensic Architecture are certain in their claims that such exhibitions are a “vital opportunity to disseminate not only their findings but their research techniques”.

Yazda Reseracher during Kite Photogrammetry training on the shores of the Black Sea. Camera rig attached to kite on the right.

Next month the practise will exhibit at the second edition of London Design Biennale at Somerset House, responding to a theme almost made for them - Emotional States. The installation will be based on the studio’s work in the Sinjar area of Iraq, where it is training Kurdish-speaking Yazidis to document and preserve evidence of crimes committed by terrorist group, the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Working with curators at the V&A, the pavilion will showcase the processes of collecting, curating and reconstructing images, three-dimensional models of areas destroyed, as well as the objects used during the training of the Yazidi people.

Read: How design influences politics

This extensive research will act as evidence at a later date, potentially bringing justice to those whom have lost lives. The projection of this exploration into wrong-doings ultimately allows the public to have their own take on the findings and further bring to light any injustice present. Responses will certainly be emotional and Forensic Architecture will cut to the chase when presenting their analysis, examining how design can directly inform new perspectives and lines of investigation. Take note that this is not a fancy way of presenting their work; the displays are designed for impact and to assert change. This is a chance for the public to interact with the work of these bright minds and recognise the union between art and human rights. If the team can sway a member of the public to be on their side, they are better equipped for the court of law which has previously seen ministers recant statements and policies changed. A clash of culture, community and change makers; this team of activists is redefining the way we look at the art world and demonstrating the future of design at its best.

Forensic Architecture, alongside V&A Co-Curators Natalie Kane and Brendan Cormier, will design the UK pavilion at the second edition of the London Design Biennale, taking place September 4th-23rd at Somerset House. The project will respond to the theme Emotional States and combine Forensic Architecture’s own mission to highlight the role that digital design can have in society today and will continue to present the V&A’s exploration of digital reconstruction and cultural heritage.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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