New Onsite Essay: Is a Building a Witness?

I have an essay in the new issue of Onsite Review. It is about witnessing, forensics, and the status of speech today. You can read it in Onsite, get an online subscription to the magazine, or read a version of the essay below the fold. 


In the spring of 1960, Mossad was in Buenos Aires planning the abduction of Adolf Eichmann, when it heard that Josef Mengele was in town. The agents running the operation didn’t want to jeopardise it by taking on another target: Eichmann was captured and Mengele slipped away; his remains were exhumed in 1985. In Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics, Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan claim that Eichmann’s capture and subsequent trial inaugurates the ‘era of the witness’, in which giving testimony against the excesses of state power becomes a central feature of political life. In contrast, the analysis of Mengele’s skull, carried out in the 1980s, heralds the rise of a political emphasis on material objects and their forenisc analysis. As the figure of the witness loses authority in the 21st century, it is forensics—in architecture as much as in archaeology—that will increasingly take centre stage, legally and politically. It is not man that will testify, but his ruins.


At Eichmann’s trial, the testimony of survivors was valourised not just as evidence, but for its own sake. In the aftermath of a Nazi regime that didn’t just attempt to destroy the Jewish people, but also to destroy any evidence of the destruction, the very existence of survivor’s testimonies was itself politically important.

With the beginning of the 1990s, however, human rights organisations began gaining visibility, as ‘the international community’—that motley crew—began to search for new justifications in which to house post cold war foreign policy. Witnesses began to testify at ad hoc international tribunals—for former Yugoslavia from 1993, for Rwanda from 1994—and their testimonies were recruited as justifications for military and humanitarian interventions. Witnessing was no longer an ethical end, but increasingly the prelude to political action.


These days I spend hours going through the material coming out of Syria. Competing claims and endless YouTube videos. Everyone is a (potential) witness, even if what is witnessed is unclear. The witness of the second half of the 20th century was marked by a distance: someone survived, and brought back testimony. This distance is gone; the witness doesn’t live to tell the tale—he tweets it immediately.

The figure of the witness is now pluralised and immediate; its sanctity is eroded. The era in which the witness was valourised as a subject (for taking the risk; for surviving) has turned into an age in which the witness is nothing more than his subject position. The line between propaganda and witnessing is today incredibly hard to draw.


From December 2008 to January 2009, Operation Cast Lead destroyed around 15,000 buildings in Gaza, and killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians. The UN report on the Israeli assault, known as the Goldstone Report, is indicative of the decline of the witness. While the UN team carried out 188 interviews, much of the report is spent analysing the material traces of the war: the answer to the question of whether Israel’s attacks were proportional was sought in white phosphorous patches left on skin, and in the rubble of ruined buildings.

The speech of both Palestinians and Israelis was assumed—in the media if not in the report—to be biased and unreliable. Geospatial images of destroyed homes replaced Palestinian voices.

It’s not that people have somehow got less trustworthy over the last two decades; it is the political fora that have changed. In American politics, just as in polarised discussions over the occupied territories, speech is assumed to be a question of opinion and personal interest, and its reception is to be determined not by its content, but simply by where you stand when you speak: not so much the personal is political, as the reduction of politics to the personal. We each produce our own truth, and rest adrift in our weary solipsism.


As the figure of the witness loses its power, new ways of capturing the earth become possible. Satellite images and computer models are called to the stand. In the border areas of Sudan where I work, George Clooney’s satellites keep dubious watch, witnessing from afar. The images will be sent back to forensic analysts in America, who will spend their nights searching for the tell-tale shape of a tank, or a group of tents that they will conclude is probably a military encampment.

In early 2013, I was in Washington DC, speaking at the State Department about the situation on the border. During a break, standing around clustered suits pumped with the latest developments from Mali, I spoke to a weapons expert, his PowerPoint slides crammed with photographs of small arms. He could read a bullet like a hieroglyph: the year it was made, the country of origin; then he would offer his interpretation — he told the history of the Sudanese border conflict as a history of guns and shrapnel, the details lodged in the surface of the earth.

Why, I asked him, is there such an interest in material history at the moment? They love this stuff, he told me, his arm encompassing the canteen of the State Department. It’s objective. What someone says. Ok. People say all sorts of things. You can’t argue with a bullet.


Linguistically, Weizman tells us, forensics derives from a technique of Roman rhetoric. The form consists in using objects to make an argument before a forum: prosopopoeia. Quintilian, in his Institutes of Oratory, clearly has high hopes, claiming that the form could “bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give rise to cities and states.”

Who speaks for the gods today? If the Chinese bullets presented to the state department are signs, they index an arcane world inaccessible to all but a select few. All too often, the expert interpreting the object replaces an audience’s understanding of it. The rise in forensics seems part of Weber’s sad modern world, full of specialists and knowledge we can’t grasp, and a public willing to entrust questions of political and moral judgement to the happy hands of waiting technocrats, who will make neutral decisions based on the available evidence.


Figure I

Figure I

Figure I is a diagram of witnessing. The success of the witness is contingent upon his speech establishing a link between his presence and the event in question, to be evaluated by a forum (a courtroom, the fourth estate), in the face of an interrogation. Forensics (Figure II) works differently.

Figure II

Figure II

The object of forensics doesn’t exist outside of a particular forum: dust is just dust until it is evidence of the blast pattern of an Israeli missile. The interpreter’s aim is to establish a link between the object and the event, and deliver a compelling interpretation, again to be evaluated by a forum, in the face of an interrogation. One can, in this diagram, either conclude that the object is fake, or the interpretation erroneous. Unlike the witness taking the stand, the object’s significance is already largely determined: the object-interpreter couplet can speak within a framework, but cannot challenge the very framework that creates the existence of the object.


Forensics comes to prominence in international law and politics during investigations of the Argentinian dictatorship in the 1980s. Clyde Snow, who trained many of the people involved in these investigations, became a celebrity, identifying remains from Josef Mengele to Tutankhamen. He said: “bones make good witnesses…they never lie and they never forget.”


The rise of forensics is not limited to bone science. Forensic architecture, as Eyal Weizman defines it, “refers to the presentation of spatial analysis within contemporary legal and political forums.” Its capacity, as he sees it, is not to fetishise the object, but to demystify it.

Any building, Weizman says, “is an archive of power relations. In a sense the path of the [Israeli] wall is like a film strip exposed to politics…its message is its path, its materiality.” One of the stories he tells in his most recent book, The Least of All Possible Evils, is of the pyramids in Gaza. No, not those left by the ancient Egyptians, but those created through the encounter of a three-storey residential building and a D9 armoured bulldozer, which cannot reach the central pillars of the buildings, creating ruins that resemble pyramids. Weizman tracks, through the shapes made by the wreckage, the particular types of military decisions that leave such forms in the landscape. Forensic architecture, for Weizman, is a critical practice that exposes the constellation of political forces that construct (and destruct) the landscape.


Weizman writes that much of the Goldstone Report was indebted to precise forensic work done by a Human Rights Watch analyst, Marc Garlasco. In one Human Rights Watch report, Precisely Wrong: Gaza Civilians Killed by Israeli Drone-Launched Missiles, the language is militaristic:

“The drone-launched missiles detonate above the ground, which creates a narrow, relatively shallow crater from missile parts not involved in fragmentation hitting the ground.”

This technical analysis is accompanied by an assessment of whether—given the precision of Israeli weapons systems—a forensic architectural analysis of the ruins of Gaza is commensurate with a proportional use of force by the Israeli armed forces.

While Garlasco was eventually forced to resign from Human Rights Watch following a furore over his collections of Nazi memorabilia, another aspect of Garlasco’s history drew less controversy.

Prior to joining Human Rights Watch he worked for the Defence Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon, and was in charge of High-Value targeting during the second Iraq war. The American military wanted to ensure that its airstrikes would be judged proportional. Because proportionality in international law is contextual, the magic number arrived at by the Pentagon was 30. If it were probable that more than 29 civilians would be killed by an airstrike, the final decision over the attack would have to be made by Rumsfeld or Bush.

Little comfort for the civilians.

Garlasco’s job was to ensure that the strikes killed less than that. Using software similar to that used by architects, he analysed the probable effects of bombs on concrete and steel, and estimated population densities in the areas about to be struck. By altering the angle a bomb would hit a building, the time of day the strike occurred, and hundreds of other variables, he attempted to ensure that the strikes were ‘proportional’. Bombing becomes, in Weizman’s words, ‘the design of ruins.’

Increasingly unhappy with the way the war was being run, and facing controversy after a strike intended for ‘Chemical Ali’ — Saddam Hussein’s cousin — didn’t hit its target and left 17 people dead, Garlasco resigned, and soon after joined Human Rights Watch. His first assignment?

An analysis of the conduct of the Iraq war.

The report that came out was generally critical of the American campaign, though it did note that attempts to reduce civilian casualties in air strikes had generally been successful.


Garlasco’s story indicates some of the limits of forensics, architectural and otherwise. He employed the same forensic methods to assess American proportionality at the Pentagon (before the strikes) and with Human Rights Watch (after the strikes), and could see his mission equally fulfilled: both organisations wanted to ensure that American military strikes killed no more than 29 people. In an interview with Weizman, Garlasco says: “I can no longer say if this destruction was wrong or right. I can only say whether it was legal or illegal.” A question for the expert.

The legal and the technical supplant the ethical and the political. The risk for a critical forensic architecture is that just as the forensic analysis of Human Rights Watch is the post-facto double of the Pentagon’s analysis (checking results, improving design), so Weizman’s analysis of forensics threatens to enshrine the importance of the technocrats, even as it unveils the power structures sedimented in buildings.

A building is not a witness. A building allows for an analysis within a framework. The freedom of the witness is not just to call into question the very framework in which he speaks, but to speak of two things little mentioned in contemporary forensics. He can speak of truth, and he can speak of justice.