Interviews

Forensic Architecture

Forensic Architecture, Triple-Chaser, 2019, video, color, sound, 10 minutes 24 seconds. 3-D models of the Triple-Chaser grenade and images of used canisters, distributed in digital space, help train a computer vision classifier.

The Triple-Chaser—a tear gas grenade banned in international warfare but routinely deployed by defense forces against civilians both stateside and abroad—is one of the many weapons manufactured by the Safariland Group, whose CEO, Warren B. Kanders, is the vice chair of the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Kanders’s ties to the New York institution have fueled heated protests in the run-up to this year’s Whitney Biennial, which opens May 17, 2019 (more than half of the exhibition’s artists have called for his removal from the board). Among the dissenters is Forensic Architecture, a London-based collective known for countering individual narratives of state violence through digital reenactments and the close reading of public information. Here, they discuss their Whitney Biennial commission, a video titled Triple-Chaser.  

PROTEST IS CENTRIPETAL: It draws crowds together, making us more than the sum of our parts. Tear gas is centrifugal: It scatters unified social movements into splintered, disorientated individuals and hands control of the streets back to the state. Unlike military equipment sold by the United States around the world, the sale of tear gas is not a matter of public record. We can only track the sale of Safariland munitions by finding visual evidence for it online.

What we discovered in working with human rights–monitoring groups like B’Tselem in Israel-Palestine and the UK-based Omega Research Foundation, and by talking to other activists around the world, is that the manual labor of open-source research could be greatly improved by automation. As a matter of analogy, there exist more hours of footage of the Syrian Civil War than the time it has taken the conflict to unfold; it is impossible for individual researchers to look through it. So, we endeavored to harness machine-learning so that we could more rapidly identify the objects that human-rights investigators look for, starting with a particular Safariland-produced tear gas grenade called the Triple-Chaser.

We want to create a tool so that when Triple-Chasers are used again, we know about it immediately. This code, which will be made open-source, is what we consider our work to be for the biennial, and it will be applicable to other instances too, including chemical warfare in Syria. Our project is directed not only toward monitoring what has happened, but toward violations that have not yet occurred. Our video at the Whitney, developed in collaboration with Laura Poitras’s Praxis Films, engages the relation between two kinds of vision: human and machinic. Of course the film is addressed to a human public, but it is built around the images that we use to train an algorithm to see. We also aim to demystify this process. The parts of the video that provide the machine-training set come with a seizure warning for people with “photosensitivity.” But this term conveys a double meaning, as all our work is based on our sensitivity to information in photographs, a sensitivity we try to share with the algorithm.

What we are reckoning with is the collusion of the art world and human-rights violations. At the heart of the Whitney-Kanders controversy is the fact that art, by lending cultural and symbolic capital, often supports human-rights violations, not only that it is supported by these abuses. The more we welcome the executives of arms and drugs manufacturers into our institutions, the more we encourage, normalize, justify, and accept the deep, systemic harm that their business models perpetuate.

What does Safariland gain through its sponsorship of and association with culture? Museums are many things. But most of all, they are a system of value exchange and symbolic capital. What is being traded in the Whitney Biennial is reputation. Our goal is to invert this economy. As participants in the biennial, the only response that felt responsible, and justifiable, was to turn the instruments of reputation-laundering, insofar as we had our hands on the controls, against those with the reputations to lose.

Within the US, Safariland munitions have been identified at the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2016, as well as in California, Minnesota, and the territory of Puerto Rico. Several dozen Safariland canisters were used in November against a caravan at the border in Tijuana. But overall, the project takes on a global perspective; we’ve found Safariland munitions in fourteen countries. This tells us something about the depth and breadth of Safariland’s business model. During our research, we realized that Kanders was the executive chair of the Clarus Corporation, the parent company of Sierra Bullets, which sells bullets to IMI, the largest Israeli weapons manufacturer. They in turn sell ammunition to the Israel Defense Forces, whose soldiers in turn have taken actions that, according to recent UN reports, could be considered war crimes. As we pulled this thread, we sensed that the questions we’d been asking of the Whitney—and of our relationship with the art world—were being seriously sharpened. We’re making some very extreme allegations, hopefully with legal implications.

In addition to Triple-Chaser, which will be available for free online, we plan to show six counter-investigations—one for each day the museum is open—of police brutality worldwide: in the US, Israel-Palestine, Turkey, Greece. The screening room will become a pedagogical space, one that we hope inspires others to act. After all, the complicity of the viewer is not a given.

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