Turner Nominees Forensic Architecture build case for human rights

The group's work takes visual art into campaigning territory and shines light into dark corners of torture

Forensic Architecture is an interdisciplinary team made up of architects, filmmakers, software developers, investigative journalists, archaeologists, lawyers and scientists.
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For anyone visiting the annual Turner Prize exhibition in London this autumn, the inclusion of one of the nominees to the shortlist of the award for visual art might be surprising.

While the other finalists are artists, Forensic Architecture is a team made up of architects, filmmakers, software developers, investigative journalists, archaeologists, lawyers and scientists.

The independent research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, was founded by British-Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, and investigates cases of human rights violations and war crimes for organisations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

The collective used former inmates’ testimonies to create a digital model of Saydnaya prison Amnesty International; Forensic Architecture

Using a technique of "counter forensics", Forensic Architecture uses its team of experts to examine, or in some cases re-examine, abuses carried out by nation states or corporations. One of their most high-profile investigations is into Saydnaya military jail, the Syrian government's torture prison, which lies north of Damascus. In recent years, journalists and monitoring groups have not been allowed inside and very little was known about what went on behind its walls. 

Filmmaker Simone Rowat joined Forensic Architecture in 2016 to work on the Saydnaya project.

"Saydnaya was such an important case and it needed a voice so we wanted to help with that," she tells The National. "We were approached by Amnesty International to try to visualise, illustrate and explain what was happening. They already had many witness testimonies, which they had been collecting for a while. There was a certain amount of knowledge that was built up around it, but no way of seeing it."

With only satellite images of Saydnaya to work with, Forensic Architecture relied on testimonies of former inmates to create a digital model of the prison. Members of the team travelled to Istanbul, Turkey, to speak to torture victims about their experiences in the hope that their evidence could be used as proof of human rights offences by the Syrian government.

Creating a model of a prison with no up-to-date reference images to work with might seem like a huge challenge as it is, but Forensic Architecture had to contend with the fact that many of the former inmates had seen very little inside the prison. Saydnaya's prisoners are forced to keep their eyes covered at all times and would face extra punishments if they did not. Much of the evidence collected was based on "ear-witness" testimony and what inmates saw if their hand slipped.

While the former inmates interviewed had been held at different times, there was never a conflicting account of an experience at Saydnaya. “Although many of the witnesses were in different parts of the prison, you could see the structured violence in everyone’s testimony,” Rowat says.

“There was a lot of overlaps to the routine of entering the prison and the experience of solitary cells and the experience of group cells. There were also other lots of shared experiences like always having to cover your eyes when you’re not in your cell, the overcrowding, the routine of food delivery and the strategic routine of torture and prison. These were all repetitions.”

There was one case of a memory distortion in which a former inmate described a corridor as being circular, having caught a glimpse as he was being tortured. Forensic Architecture knew this was not possible based on satellite images and from other witness accounts.

“With traumatic memory, there’s a relationship between space and memory,” Rowat explains. “If you have a traumatic experience it can also distort the way you perceive or remember space. The project that we were doing wasn’t to prove how well the witnesses could remember the architecture of the building, it was to try and understand the experiences they had there.”

But for Forensic Architecture, the memory distortion provided evidence of the scale of brutality at Saydnaya. “Witnesses who have experienced really traumatic events are often discredited because of these kinds of distortions. But memory distortions are proof of trauma itself. We think it’s really important to confront that in the work that we do.”

Saydnaya is one of the projects that brought Forensic Architecture to the attention of the Turner Prize jury. Although their work is often exhibited in art galleries, the nomination came as a pleasant surprise for the team.

“The nomination is really an honour and it’s great, but we wish that we had that same recognition in courtrooms,” Rowat reflected. “The work is really being made for these other spaces.”

Forensic Architecture's shortlisting earlier this year was bittersweet because it came in the same week of a major setback in a courtroom, involving a case in which a Bedouin man in Israel was falsely accused of being an ISIS-inspired terrorist. Yaqub Musa Abu Al Qi'an was shot in the knee by Israeli police officers while driving a car and as a result lost control of the vehicle, killing one of the officers. He was left to bleed out and die. Despite the team proving his innocence through a remodelling of the incident, Israel closed the case on the officers involved in May.

“It’s incredibly frustrating, more so for the people that we’re working with and the communities that are affected by it. It’s a shame but it pushes you to keep going, keep showing the work to dig deeper,” Rowat said. “When you produce a case like Abu Al Qi’an’s or Saydnaya, you’re creating a political conversation. The community can rally around it. It doesn’t make up for not having the work heard in court but it is the silver lining.”

The Turner Prize 2018 exhibition opens at Tate Britain, London, on September 26


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