Forensic architecture is a research team of architects and professionals of other disciplines who investigate violations of human rights, war crimes, or unsolved cases (disappearances, ongoing court cases etc.). They often investigate the remains of buildings and then build virtual models or even 1:1 physical replicas of spaces in order to shed light into cases that governments or the police chose to ignore.
The cases presented are about people who are either related to some case of political controversy or were victims of racism or other hate crimes that have been covered up by international agents of power. As a result of these investigations, it is rather obvious that many of the Forensic Architecture researchers have put themselves at risk or are already in blacklists, unwelcome to the countries where the crimes happened.
This is an exhibition that presents through diverse visualisations the ongoing research on cases like the disappearance of the 43 Mexican students in 2015, Gaza bombings and Palestinian youth shot in cold blood and even the drowning of African and Middle Eastern refugees in the Mediterranean sea (the latter as part of Forensic Oceanography research). The representations include text, images, diagrams, videos and virtual and physical models. The facts are presented in a scientific and seemingly emotionally-detached way, even though the intense violence presented to the viewer, makes one often uncomfortable, to say the least.
The large-scale diagrams have very beautiful aesthetics and regardless of what they represent have some artistic value in themselves. One can detect the architectural integrity in the means of representation. However, this fact already presents some problematic aspects. Namely, there is a strange dynamic between the tragicness of the stories and their aesthetically pleasing representations.
Naturally the Forensic Architecture team has already thought of this paradox and presented it in one of the exhibits, on the panel of “Forensic Aesthetics” where they explain the original definition of the Greek word Aesthetic (Αισθητική-αίσθηση). As a Greek myself I can confirm it means “that which refers to, or is perceived by the senses”. Their argument is that the evidence has to be reviewed by the senses and therefore there is always some degree of aesthetics involved. By doing so they acknowledge the potentially problematic contradiction of the tragic topics of investigation and the beautified means of presenting them to the public. It looks as if they are trying to protect themselves against the critics who might say that it is rather unethical to insert an artistic dimension to tragic death, political unfairness and war destruction.
I am not really trying to undermine the validity of their research or the importance of politics in the arts. However, evidence that this has happened already is part of this exhibition. In the Yagzel exhibit that takes up most of the first room upon entrance, is mentioned that German authorities dismissed the results of this investigation because it was presented in Documenta 14 (one of the leading contemporary art exhibitions in the world). And exactly there is where the contradiction is: if the purpose is to shed light on these cases why are they presented as art exhibits. What happens to the team’s credibility in providing evidence especially now that they are nominated for this year´s Turner Prize?
Regardless of how interesting and important this work is, it is nonetheless riding the fashionable train of compassion for the those in trouble. Architects like Rem Koolhaas have romanticized or tragically even fetishised the slums of Lagos and Rio De Janeiro and there is something deeply unethical in observing people’s harsh lives as a universal phenomenon. Especially when one is part of the elite.
Ai Wei Wei has been even more tasteless when he wrapped celebrities in shiny emergency blankets for refugees in Berlin a year and a half ago. Maybe it is rather unfair to compare these mega-stars with Forensic Architecture who obviously do not have Ai Wei Wei’s fame and fortune and also are a collective, not an individual. Still, artwork that revolves around the suffering of others always makes me rather sceptical
The exhibition will be on until the 13th of May at the ICA