Eleni Maragkou
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March 15, 2021

Subverting the Surveilling Gaze

Counter-Forensics as Social Justice

As the lights dimmed in the Pallas Cinema during the third day of the 2019 Syros International Film Festival, I grew uneasy. The film about to be shown was not a cinematic work per se, at least not the kind you would expect to find at a film festival; The Murder of Pavlos Fyssas by Forensic Architecture is not a work of fiction or even a documentary in the conventional sense, but the exhaustive testament of a crime that pulled the rug out from under the Greek middle class, confronting it with the zombie of Nazism that had already begun gnawing at the political fringes. At the time of writing this, in September of 2020, like many other Greeks, I was awaiting the verdict of the Golden Dawn trial [1] a landmark case which had stretched out over five years and was essentially spurred into motion after Fyssas’ murder. The Murder of Pavlos Fyssas explores an investigation carried out by London-based research collective Forensic Architecture. The film documents the moments leading up to the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, a rapper, and anti-fascist activist, by a member of the Greek neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn. Since its creation in 2010 by Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture have conducted a plethora of investigations into human rights abuses, instances of state-sanctioned violence and environmental destruction, and presented them in international law and human rights cases, on citizen-led commissions, and to environmental protection agencies.

While forensics is usually a normative tool of the state, Forensic Architecture subvert the visual economies of state power and render legible the invisible. Therefore, what appears to be the impartial application of neutral expertise (forensics) is in fact an engaged civil practice. With the understanding that evidence is not neutral and that truth claims need to be produced, staged, and imbued with a sense of solidarity with the victims of state violence and environmental destruction, the collective reframes conventional understandings of expertise and distances itself from cold objectivity (Weizman, Violence at the Threshold of Detectability).

Forensic Architecture subvert the visual economies of state power and render legible the invisible.

I argue that by redeploying the state’s surveillance techniques for the purposes of uncovering injustice and by documenting human rights abuses from the perspective of the victims, Forensic Architecture engage in a form of détournement and resist a media culture that spectacularizes and commodifies suffering. Détournement is a technique developed by the Letterist International —a radical collective of artists and theorists, founded in the 1950s by Guy Debord and which later became the Situationist International— and it refers to the reuse of pre-existing elements in a new ensemble and the redeployment of specific concepts against the specialists. With roots in the post-war avant-garde, the more artistically oriented Situationist project developed into a radical critique of politics.

While Forensic Architecture do not operate within what its members call the “art-financial” complex (Pes), the group’s work often transcends the boundaries between scientific research, activism, and art as they draw attention to the role of aesthetics in the production, representation, and interpretation of a truth claim (Weizman, “Forensic Architecture: Political Practice, Activism, Aesthetics”). This concept of “Forensic aesthetics” appears paradoxical at first; the term “forensic”, with ties to judicial and scientific discourses, implies a certain distance and neutrality (although this line of thinking is itself flawed), while that of “aesthetics” is associated with art, beauty, and subjectivity. Forensic Architecture, however, apply an aesthetic sensibility to the investigation process and devise novel modes for the articulation of truth claims, combining scientific and political aesthetics (“Forensic Architecture: Political Practice, Activism, Aesthetics”), which hold the potential to seize the “means of evidence production” (Weizman, Violence at the Threshold of Detectability 64).

Counter-cartography and the producing material witnesses

Cartography is historically inscribed with political meaning and the use of maps in art has been extensively documented during the 20th century. For example, the Surrealists, Situationists, and Fluxus artists, among others, all experimented with cartographic form (Crampton 840). Moreover, mapping practices have often been used in the context of protest or political commentary: The New York City-based Institute for Applied Autonomy, for example, draws on histories of anti-surveillance map production to “reveal the implicit relationships between power, control, and spatial practice” (Institute for Applied Autonomy 29). Although mapping practices are tied to issues of power, their subversive potential is not lost. Forensic Architecture enacts what literary theorist and critic Edward Said proposed as “counter-cartography”,[2] a practice responding to the imperial uses of traditional cartography, which Said saw as a critical strategy in the face of the epistemic violence of official mapping practices. [3] Much like any other representational form, mapmaking is not objective but is rather embedded in the production and reproduction of social life and of a world that can be measured and governed.

Another way that Forensic Architecture defy imaginaries of objectivity is through the critical deployment of material witnesses. In the human rights movement of the 20th century, the figure of the witness was infused with tremendous significance and ethical authority (Givoni 123). More recently, an epistemological shift toward the so-called “speech of things” has blurred the boundaries between material evidence and traditional testimony, producing “material witnesses”. These nonhuman witnesses, much like any other human witness, can be interrogated and cross-examined but, crucially, also “lie” in the sense that they can offer multiple, contradictory “truths” (Weizman et al. 62). This harkens back to what Bruno Latour calls “cosmopolitics”, a framework that embraces a variety of human and nonhuman entities, the latter of whom can be given a voice by artists and designers (Latour 453). The work of Forensic Architecture can be viewed in the context of this lineage as it uses contemporary networked and mediated space, a site of struggle and injustice in itself, as their terrain. [4]    

One example of a networked space is the city, which itself functions as media (Mattern) or, as Weizman says, as a media assemblage, “saturated by optical and other sensors, photographs, noise, meteorology and pollution detectors, security cameras, fixed-orbit and image satellites, and smartphones” (Weizman, Violence at the Threshold of Detectability 57). Similarly, for Fredric Jameson the materiality of “the networked terrain of late capitalism” includes smartphones, CCTV cameras, and location-based media, as well as user-generated content, all of which become potential material witnesses. Latour’s cosmopolitics seriously attends to these witnesses; however, it neglects to account for the marginalization of various subject positions by the scientific and political structures of representation. The work of Forensic Architecture is centered on those at the margins, those who are excluded from official representational regimes. By redeploying forensis, an art belonging to the police and of the state, Forensic Architecture uncover stories of human rights abuses in the terms of their victims.

The questions of representation that emerge from mapping practices lie at the heart of postmodern social and cultural theory and are reconceptualized in the wake of the social, cultural, and technological transformations wrought by networked capitalism.

Mapmaking is not objective but is rather embedded in the production and reproduction of social life and of a world that can be measured and governed.

Drawing from Kevin Lynch’s experiential analysis of the ways individuals in urban environments imagine their surroundings and on Althusser’s conceptualization of ideology as “the representation of the subject’s imaginary relationship to his or her real conditions of existence” (qtd. in Tally 403), in his Postmodernism essay Jameson sets out to diagnose the problem of representation and subjective (dis)orientation in an epoch marked by globalization and automation. In these senses, cognitive mapping is not necessarily cartographic, but rather an aesthetic of representation which traces the relations between individuals and the overarching capitalist structure.

Both Jameson and the Situationists understood alienation as a symptom of production and social relations under late capitalism, wherein the networks of power and control become increasingly difficult to grasp. Subjects require representational shorthands to make sense of their environments, which can be found in contemporary technologies. Despite their complexity, the networked environments surveyed by Forensic Architecture can potentially provide such shorthands, since they act as mnemonic devices, establish “relations between memory, narrative, and destruction”, and help victims “recall incidents obscured by the experience of extreme violence and trauma” (Weizman, Violence at the Threshold of Detectability 46, 58).

Fig. 1. Man in Yellow. The man in the yellow t-shirt can be seen in proximity to Zak Kostopoulos from the very beginning of the incident until the end
(Forensic Architecture, ‘The Killing of Zak Kostopoulos’)

Other times, these surveillance devices enable victims to recount their stories, even when they are physically unable to do so. In 2018, LGBTQ and HIV activist Zak Kostopoulos, also known by the drag name Zackie O, was brutally killed by a lynch mob on Gladstonos Street, in the bustling center of Athens. Initial news reports by the mainstream media mentioned an attempted robbery, variously claiming the victim was not only its perpetrator but also a likely homeless addict who committed a crime under the influence of substances. This was a seemingly closed case, until footage emerged which showed the shop’s owner and another man repeatedly kicking Zak; more footage revealed that Zak’s abuse continued even when the police arrived (see Fig. 1.). Forensic Architecture’s thorough investigation identified a key figure in the crowd and brought the case into national and international spotlights (Forensic Architecture, ‘The Killing of Zak Kostopoulos’). For marginalized subjects, the city can be a minefield of what Edward Soja terms “unjust geographies” (Soja 31). Zak’s attack occurred minutes away from the famed progressive neighborhood of Exarcheia, a purported haven for all kinds of misfits, beyond its borders his humanity was no longer a given. Yet, concurrently, the technologies of surveillance, which are often used against LGBTQ and marginalized people more broadly, were redeployed to uncover an act of violence that would otherwise be concealed and forgotten.

The recuperation of surveillance technologies’ images is undesirable to both the creators of these technologies and to the state. Consider, for example, instances where the police selectively activate their body cameras or obscure their badge numbers, as has been observed in the US, particularly in the context of the protests for George Floyd’s murder (Fussel; Pinto). This practice also makes Forensic Architecture a target of ad-hominem attacks on the grounds that architecture cannot provide an adequate scientific framework, despite the group’s academic backing. Such practices of appropriation are often subject to a crackdown in the struggle “over the authority and regulation of ways of looking and knowing” (Wall and Linnemann 134).

Fig. 2. Video still with wounded & trajectories. Identification and tracking of casualties based on clothing, injuries, and blankets (Forensic Architecture, ‘The Killing of Muhammad Gulzar’).

When one moves beyond the highly networked media assemblage of the city, in spaces that are contested and loaded with historical and political ambivalence, such as the border, things grow even more complex. In an attempt to exert political pressure on European leaders to act against Bashar al-Assad, The Turkish government opened its borders with Greece on the 27th of February 2020, encouraging migrants and refugees to cross into the European Union. In response, the Greek side deployed its police and military to the border and suspended its asylum system, warning those who would attempt to cross the border not to do so. Six days later, tensions escalated at the Kastanies-Pazarkule border crossing (Waters). Hakan Çavuşoğlu, member of the conservative AK Parti and Chairman of the Turkish Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights Inquiry, tweeted that the Greek police targeted asylum seekers with live rounds and wounded five of them, while the Greek government dismissed this as fake news (@Hakan_cavusoglu; @govgr).

By combing through a substantial collection of multimedia evidence (see Fig. 2), including social media data, image and video footage, as well as witness testimonies, investigators managed to identify an alleged victim, Muhammad Gulzar, from his clothing. Video footage was geolocated and analyzed, proving Gulzar’s presence at the border that morning, adding to the evidence confirming that he was shot. Additionally, video footage did not establish the presence of Turkish forces but identified Greek military and police armed with weapons that fire rounds identical to those that caused Gulzar’s fatal injuries. Overall, the investigation identified seven people who had been wounded.

In recent years, the refugee crisis has become a point of discord between Turkey and the European Union, and the events at the Greek-Turkish border have been highly politicized by both sides. The border is a highly disputed space, precariously separating two countries with conflictual histories, as well as separating the EU from an oriental “other”. The plasticity of the border and the ease with which it can apparently be transgressed lays bare the contingency upon which national imaginaries are built. The difficulty to digitally map and configure this thin patch of land and the disagreements regarding its geopolitical status only underscore this ambiguity. The documentation of state-sanctioned violence against asylum seekers becomes politically inconvenient. For one, it challenges dominant discourses about Europe as a democratic ideal. Furthermore, it challenges the nationalist imaginaries constructed by the Greek far right, who frame the refugee crisis as an existential threat to the very fabric of Greek (and European) civilization. By framing Greek border control as an agent responsible for human rights abuses rather than a force bravely and selflessly protecting its citizens, Forensic Architecture contradicted national narratives, which may explain why this very important investigative work was quickly buried by mainstream Greek media.

Counter-forensics as social justice in an era of (interactive) spectacle

Forensic Architecture’s subversive work occupies a peculiar place within a visual culture in which violence against marginalized populations is simultaneously obscured and spectacularized. According to Fuyuki Kurasawa, the portrayal of divine suffering in European art has produced visual conventions that continue to impact the ways such imagery is produced, circulated, and consumed in the present. Visuals of pain and suffering are often commodified for mass consumption―consider the photographs depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel in Abu Ghraib or the videos documenting the murder of unarmed Black people by the police, which exhaust their serviceability as testaments of horror and veer into the territory of what we may call ‘trauma porn’.

Steven Best and Douglas Kellner write that contemporary society is permeated by an interactive spectacle that is administered through new technologies (129). The affordances of social media and the emotional and social rewards that normative behavior incurs encourage the circulation of such imagery in a “visual economy of distant suffering” (dos Santos et al.; Literat and Kligler-Vilenchi; Kurasawa 24). Through its repurposing of digital objects, the work of Forensic Architecture can be understood as a successor to what Best and Kellner have called a “cybersituation”, a practice involving the subversive “appropriation, use, and reconstruction of technologies against the spectacle and other forms of domination, alienation, and oppression” (149).

Seeing as they are so susceptible to hegemonic appropriation and repurposing, are cartographic practices inherently liberatory or repressive?

According to Marc Tuters, the concept of cognitive mapping describes critical art practices that “attempt to map the topological dynamics of late capitalism” (8). [5] While allowing the user to position herself within networks of social relations, the ubiquity of technologies makes them susceptible to neoliberal appropriation. Media theorist Wendy Chun writes that, “we are locked in a situation in which […] the founding gesture of ideology critique is simulated by something that also pleasurably mimics ideology” (71). Here Chun points out the limits of the above-mentioned progressive interpretation of cognitive mapping, suspecting that it has been effectively transformed into an instrument of neoliberal self-governance and imbricates the possibility of politically charged ideology critique (92). Therefore, the question of whether cartographic practices are inherently liberatory or repressive becomes moot. In a different set of hands, such practices could easily foment the reproduction of existing power relations. Eyal Weizman and his collaborators have succeeded in harnessing the technologies favored by hegemonic surveillance logics and the neoliberal interactive spectacle for a critically and socially engaged purpose. They do so in order to provide a paradigm for a critical media practice that repurposes established tools and technologies and unmoors them from contexts of commodification, oppression, and nationalism to then redeploy them to serve groups traditionally excluded from their use.

Works cited

  • Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and ideological state apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy, pp. 127–186. New Left Books, 1971.
  • Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. “Debord, Cybersituations, and the Interactive Spectacle.” SubStance, vol. 28, no. 3, 1999, pp. 129–156.
  • Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Programmed Visions: Software and Memory. The MIT Press, 2011.
  • Crampton, Jeremy W. “Cartography: performative, participatory, political.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 33, no. 6, 2009, pp. 840–848, doi:10.1177/0309132508105000.
  • Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Zone Books, 1995.
  • dos Santos, Marcelo Alves, Diógenes Lycarião, and Jackson Alves de Aquino. “The Virtuous Cycle of News Sharing on Facebook: Effects of Platform Affordances and Journalistic Routines on News Sharing.” New Media & Society, vol. 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 398–418, doi:10.1177/1461444818797610.
  • Forensic Architecture. “Investigation of the audiovisual material included in the case file of the murder of Pavlos Fyssas on the 18th of September 2013.” Goldsmiths, University of London, 10 Jul. 2018, www.content.forensic-architecture.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/GOLDEN-DAWN-REPORT_2018.10.19_forprint.pdf. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
  • ——. “The Killing of Muhammad Gulzar.” Goldsmiths, University of London, 8 May 2020, www.forensic-architecture.org/investigation/the-killing-of-muhammad-gulzar. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
  • ——. “The Killing of Zak Kostopoulos.” Goldsmiths, University of London, 9 Apr. 2019, www.forensic-architecture.org/investigation/the-killing-of-zak-kostopoulos. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
  • ——. “The Murder of Pavlos Fyssas.” Goldsmiths, University of London, 21 Sep. 2018, www.forensic-architecture.org/investigation/the-murder-of-pavlos-fyssas. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
  • Fussel, Sidney. “The Always-On Police Camera.” The Atlantic, 26 Sep. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/09/body-camera-police-future/57140. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
  • Galván-Álvarez, Enrique. “Epistemic Violence and Retaliation: The Issue of Knowledges in ‘Mother India’ / Violencia y Venganza Epistemológica: La Cuestión De Las Formas De Conocimiento En Mother India.” Atlantis, vol. 32, no. 2, 2010, pp. 11–26. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41055396. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
  • Garbe, Sebastian. “Deskolonisierung des Wissens: Zur Kritik der epistemischen Gewalt in der Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie.” ASSA Journal, January 2013, www.univie.ac.at/alumni.ksa/assa/ausgaben/assa-journale/journal-2013/deskolonisierung-des-wissens/. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
  • Givoni, Michal. “The Ethics of Witnessing and the Politics of the Governed.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 31, no. 1, 2014, pp. 123–142, doi:10.1177/0263276413488633.
  • @govgr. “Greek Government Spokesperson @SteliosPetsas: The Turkish side creates and disperses fake news targeted against Greece. Today they created yet another such falsehood, with injured migrants and one dead supposedly by Greek fire. I categorically deny it.” Twitter, 4 Mar. 2020, 1:07, p.m., www.twitter.com/govgr/status/1235159908653445120. Accessed 19 Dec. 2020.
  • @Hakan_cavusoglu (Hakan Çavuşoğlu). “İnsan Hakları İnceleme Komisyonu olarak Pazarkule sınırında yaptığımız incelemeler sırasında ne yazık ki Yunan polisinin gerçek mermilerle sığınmacıları hedef aldığını ve 5 sığınmacının vurulduğunu yaşayarak gördük. [Translation: Unfortunately, during the investigations we carried out as the Human Rights Investigation Commission at the Pazarkule border, we have witnessed the Greek police targeting asylum-seekers with real bullets, and 5 asylum-seekers were shot.]” Twitter, 4 Mar. 2020, 11:20 a.m., www.twitter.com/Hakan_cavusoglu/status/1235132941480624128. Accessed 19 Dec. 2020.
  • Institute for Applied Autonomy. “Tactical cartographies.” An atlas of radical cartography, edited by Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat. Journal of Aesthetics Protest Press, p. 29.
  • Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review, vol. 146 (July), pp. 53-92.
  • ——. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.
  • Kurasawa, Fuyuki. “In Praise of Ambiguity: On the Visual Economy of Distant Suffering.” Suffering, Art, and Aesthetics, edited by Ratiba Hadj-Moussa and Michael Nijhawan. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 23–50.
  • Latour, Bruno.  “Whose cosmos, which cosmopolitics? Comments on the peace terms of Ulrich Beck.” Common Knowledge, vol. 10, no. 3, 2004, pp. 450–462.
  • Literat, Ioana and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik. “Youth Collective Political Expression on Social Media: The Role of Affordances and Memetic Dimensions for Voicing Political Views.” New Media & Society, vol. 21, no. 9, 2019, pp. 1988–2009, doi:10.1177/1461444819837571.
  • Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. The MIT Press, 1960.
  • Mattern, Shannon. Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Pes, Javier. “‘We Don’t Consider Ourselves to Be Artists’: A Team That Uses Images to Solve Crimes Reacts to Their Surprise Turner Prize Nod.” Artnet News, 26 Apr. 2018, www.news.artnet.com/exhibitions/turner-prize-nomination-forensic-architecture-1273889. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
  • Pinto, Nick. “NYPD Officers at George Floyd Protests Are Covering Their Badge Numbers In Violation of Own Policy.” The Intercept, 4 Jun. 2020, www.theintercept.com/2020/06/03/nypd-badge-black-band/. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
  • Said, Edward. The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994. Vintage Books, 1995.
  • Soja, Edward W. Seeking spatial justice. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Strickland, Patrick and Nick Paleologos. “Tapped phone calls further reveal Golden Dawn’s police ties.” Al Jazeera, 24 Apr. 2018, www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/tapped-phone-calls-reveal-golden-dawns-police-ties-180419212215599.html. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
  • Tally, Robert. “Jameson’s Cognitive Mapping Project: a Critical Engagement.” Social Cartography: Mapping Ways of Seeing Social and Educational Changes, edited by Rolland G. Paulson, Garland, 1996, pp. 399–416.
  • Tuters, Marc. “The Situational Sublime: Positionality as Critical Media Practice.” Sociologica, Italian journal of sociology on line, vol. 3 2015, pp. 1–16, doi:10.2383/82478.
  • Wall, Tyler and Travis Linnemann. “Staring Down the State: Police Power, Visual Economies, and the ‘War on Cameras’.” Crime Media Culture, vol. 10, no. 2, 2014, pp. 133–149, doi:10.1177/1741659014531424.
  • Waters, Nick. “The Killing of Muhammad Gulzar.” Bellingcat, 8 May 2020, www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/05/08/the-killing-of-muhammad-gulzar/. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.
  • Weizman, Eyal. “Forensic Architecture: Political Practice, Activism, Aesthetics.” The SAGE Handbook of the 21st Century City, edited by Suzanne Hall and Ricky Burdett. Sage, 2017, pp. 630-652.
  • ——. Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability. Zone Books, 2017.
  • Willis , Katharine. Netspaces: Space and Place in a Networked World. Routledge, 2017.

  1. On October 7, the leadership of neo-Nazi group and political party Golden Dawn was convicted of running a criminal organisation.
  2. Counter-cartography or counter-mapping refers to the application of mapping “against dominant power structures” and for counter-hegemonic purposes. See: Peluso, Nancy. “Whose Woods are These? Counter-Mapping Forest Territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia”. Antipode, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 383–406, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.1995.tb00286.x.
  3. Epistemic violence can be defined as the “violence exerted against or through knowledge” (Galván-Álvarez 12), as well as the “forced delegitimation, sanctioning and repression […] of certain possibilities of knowing, going hand in hand with an attempted enforcement […] of other possibilities of knowing” (Garbe 3).
  4. New technologies, such as mobile phones and wifi nodes, and infrastructures like data centres transform the nature of (urban) space, hence the term: networked spaces. See Willis Katharine. Netspaces: Space and Place in a Networked World. Routledge, 2017.
  5. Cognitive mapping has been adopted by a branch of contemporary leftist media theory working at the intersections of artistic and political practice. Moreover, this concept also draws on Jameson’s initial description of cognitive mapping as “a whole new technology, which is itself a reflection, or way to deal with a whole new economic world” (Jameson 58).

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