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Reimagining architecture: Cloud Studies by Forensic Architecture at VISUAL Carlow

Through the art of unconditioning, architecture repositions itself as a research instrument in the new world.

by Divya MenonPublished on : Mar 25, 2022

The world is at a very important juncture with the new normal set into motion by the pandemic. The art world, too, is transmuting through the evolution of practices shaped by this shift. As art, architecture and design migrate into interesting landscapes, their lines blur and the possibilities expand. 

Architecture is woven into life inseparably like the threads of a fabric. There is architecture to everything, from the most obvious concrete structures to the mind-boggling abstraction of clouds. That there is architecture to incidents in life as well; that the miasma of life and the nebulousness of clouds negotiate a deeper connection that is both literal and metaphorical are ideas that emerge as one talks to Professor Eyal Weizman and Dr. Samaneh Moafi of Forensic Architecture (FA), and Benjamin Stafford of VISUAL Carlow. The dialogues unfold interesting elements of the work of Forensic Architecture that researches into worldwide events that lead to disruption of peace, breakdown of law and order, human rights and environmental crisis

Forensic Architecture, formed in 2010 and led by Weizman, is both an agency and an emergent field of study at Goldsmiths, University of London that uses tools of architecture, investigative journalism, spatial aesthetics, fluid dynamics, software modelling, and a gamut of practices expressed on different platforms that come together to derive clarity on acts of violence. It is an interdisciplinary organisation comprising filmmakers, artists, journalists, photographers, software engineers, lawyers, architects and professionals from diverse disciplines. In collaboration with grassroots activists, legal teams, media outlets, NGOs and other organisations, they work to dissolve the ambiguity that habitually surrounds incidents of conflict.

Writing about the massive work of FA would be a study in itself, beyond the scope of this article, but what we would like to look at is a scenario where architecture functions as a collaborator in the agency’s search for clarity. At the crux of this story is how architecture blends into the methodology of the organisation as they delve into the deeper, unseen layers of encounters against man and environment.

Cloud Studies by Forensic Architecture, VISUAL Carlow| Ireland |  STIRworld
Collecting years of research, scientific findings, architectural mapping and on-the-ground reportage, Cloud Studies by Forensic Architecture is a vital part of a global investigation Image: Ros Kavanagh, Courtesy of VISUAL Carlow

There is mystique and an indefinite impermeability to clouds. Interestingly, in the 19th century, one of the last natural collaborations between scientists and artists in trying to describe and classify clouds involved art historians like John Ruskin, painters like Constable and Turner, and amateur scientists like Luke Howard.

FA's Cloud Studies leads to the stark truth that beyond their ephemeral reality, clouds are no longer a natural phenomenon but could very well be toxic bundles generated by acts of power wielding entities across the world. Eyal Weizman explains that the toxicity launched against life can exist on different operative scales, from tear gas sprayed in city corners to petrochemical emissions, chemical strikes, herbicide attacks, smoke clouds, bombs, all the way to continental scale clouds caused by the burning of forests like in the Amazon.

  • Tracking the motion of the sky | Forensic Architecture | Ireland | STIRworld
    By tracking the motion of the sky within the frame of the video, FA’s researchers are able to determine the movement of the videographer; From The Seizure of the Iuventa, 2018 (Cloud Studies, 2021) Image: Courtesy of Forensic Architecture
  • Still from Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza, 2019 | Forensic Architecture | Ireland | STIRworld
    Still from Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza, 2019 (Cloud Studies, 2021) Image: Courtesy of Forensic Architecture
  • Carbon cloud and sources of fire from Ecocide in Indonesia, 2017 | Forensic Architecture | Ireland | STIRworld
    Carbon cloud and sources of fire from Ecocide in Indonesia, 2017 (Cloud Studies, 2021) Image: Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor talks about the concept of violence that is not quite immediate but is a gradual process of destruction. Clouds manifested by explosions that turn human life into mere remains and structures into rubble, forest arsons and similar incidents across the world push mankind and nature into the common condition of suffocation. The clouds remain in a state of dispersion in shocking defiance of the dimensions of time and space. The quixotic notion of clouds ends here and the air we breathe turns into a lethal weapon, echoing philosopher Achille Mbembe’s The Universal Right to Breathe.

Much of the work of FA deals with understanding the mechanism of kinetic violence in relation to the position of bodies in space. Architecture is the backbone of FA and is also an entry point into understanding the way events unfold. When a structure collapses under a bomb, its architecture transforms into gaseous form, enveloping within its fog remnants of everything that was once intrinsic to it. However, the smog that rises has a structure in the sense that it has a physical presence in space. Eyal Weizman says, "We are interested in mapping this kind of temporary and horrendous piece of architecture that exists in the air for eight to 12 minutes, moving from column to mushroom, and necessitates the use of 3D modelling."

"Clouds dissipate into the atmosphere, so how can we define and bring accountability for them? We need to start developing new evidentiary techniques around the formation of toxic clouds,” adds Samaneh Moafi, Researcher at FA.

Fluid dynamic simulation of tear gas in the air of Plaza de la Dignidad in Santiago, Chile on December 20, 2019 | Forensic Architecture | Ireland |STIRworld
Fluid dynamic simulation of tear gas in the air of Plaza de la Dignidad in Santiago, Chile on December 20, 2019 (Cloud Studies, 2021) Image: Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

Working backwards from evidence, FA reconstructs entire situations using open-source investigation methods. Witnesses' videos of the same event from multiple perspectives are put together into an architectural model which is then simulated. Moving from one video to the next thus helps build relationships between the partial perspectives of each video leading to the evolution of the story. Traces on hard surfaces are sacrosanct to the work of forensics but traces within clouds exist differently. Clouds are in a constant state of transformation making it impossible to capture them like solid objects on land according to the rules of perspective and measurement. This poses a great challenge to FA as their mapping requires a different approach that involves simulation and imagination just like how painters worked through their imagination in trying to capture clouds that moved faster than the speed of their hand, explains Weizman.

FA have conducted 70 odd investigations and the Cloud Studies film that documents their work on different forms of airborne violence spanning a decade was originally made in 2020 for the Critical Zones Exhibition at ZKM Karlsruhe, curated by Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour. An updated edition of the film was developed in 2021 by FA and since then the work has toured different places like Sydney, Paris, Manchester, Austria, Ireland and Moscow

Benjamin Stafford of VISUAL Carlow, where the exhibition concluded on February 06, 2022, says, "Clouds in various forms are what links all these investigations, whether or not they are from bombs, explosions, chemical run off from factory chimneys, or clouds generated by tear gas canisters. They physically exist as a cloud but there is a suggestion that clouds act as a metaphor for how truth can be obscured for a variety of reasons." The videos compiled into Cloud Studies at VISUAL Carlow make use of a wide range of tools and resources, including 3D modelling software, cloud sourced photos, predictive pattern data drawn from history of weather patterns, geographical footages, historical maps, sound analysis, interviews with affected people and so on.

At VISUAL Carlow, the exhibition drew positive response from viewers and the large gallery space was divided into two main sections, one exclusively for the Cloud Studies works and another devoted to Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana referenced within the Cloud Studies film. Cloud Studies was shown on a large curved wall from two overlapping projectors and next to that were half a dozen TV monitors with sound wired to headphones for individual viewing of works referenced within Cloud Studies. The space dedicated to Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana comprised a main video presentation—with a film titled If toxic air is a monument to slavery, how do we take it down?— and the sculpture of a map of the Mississippi River onto which regressive cartography maps were projected and viewers could see the land changing over time. The space outside the main gallery was an educational area with lots of books, text and information pertaining to the film.

  • Cloud Studies by Forensic Architecture | Forensic Architecture | Ireland | STIRworld
    A view of the exhibition Cloud Studies by Forensic Architecture Image: Ros Kavanagh, Courtesy of VISUAL Carlow
  • Cloud Studies | Forensic Architecture | Ireland | STIRworld
    A video installation at the exhibition Image: Ros Kavanagh, Courtesy of VISUAL Carlow
  • FA’s Cloud Studies leads to the stark truth that beyond their ephemeral reality, clouds are no longer a natural phenomenon | Forensic Architecture | Ireland | STIRworld
    FA’s Cloud Studies leads to the stark truth that beyond their ephemeral reality, clouds are no longer a natural phenomenon Image: Ros Kavanagh, Courtesy of VISUAL Carlow
  • An expansive view of the showcase | Forensic Architecture | Ireland | STIRworld
    An expansive view of the showcase Image: Ros Kavanagh, Courtesy of VISUAL Carlow

Worldwide courtrooms and art galleries have been venues where FA's works have drawn attention and interest. In the art world, what makes their work particularly momentous is that their methods have chartered a different terrain of prospects and helped envision a newer outfit for art, architecture and aesthetics. Cloud Studies undoubtedly presents visuals of antagonism, but it has shrunk the chasm between art and reality and speaks to the quintessential question of what could be art. 

In response, Weizman says that art is a very big tent with multiple traditions within, some very political and some very activist. "We wanted to push art as an intervention realising its political potential in communicating and debating the most difficult questions of our times, as a method of exposing cases to the court of public opinion." He goes on to explain that when violence takes place in urban environments, architects become relevant to the study. Stills and videos necessitate the involvement of film makers. When clouds and cloud formations need to be studied, environmentalists and art historians play a role.

The Turner Prize nominated agency does not acknowledge a distinction between art and sciences given much of their work fuses artistic, legal, scientific sensibility, tools and techniques to meet the complexities of the present.

The Cloud Studies film has achieved several milestones beyond its original purpose. It may have triggered debates and controversies but it has also stirred the sleeping conscience of mankind. It has set the art world into momentum by bringing up the pertinent question of what is permissible within the space of a gallery. The gallery is a very important space, in that it is a venue of critical and cultural discussions and through visibility offered by the gallery, knowledge of what has transpired is brought to the masses. Viewers get to engage with real world issues and people feel a sense of urgency which is important to Cloud Studies. If art is also about inspiring people to look at things differently, then Cloud Studies does that, opines Ben.

Cloud Studies, exploding on the borders of technology, science and architecture, may be distressing to watch and perhaps breaks with the widespread concept of art and gallery content. However, given the criticality of the times we are lodged in when a nondescript corner of a street can simply mutate into a spot of conflict, the question becomes really about urgency. Evidently Cloud Studiesthat has liberated art from its conditioning as an object of sensory pleasure, reveals major roles for art and architecture that can be more intense and profound than what the world has imagined so far.

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