I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture yesterday night by the architectural theorist Eyal Weizman, Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. I have been familiar with Eyal’s work for a couple of years now. I make use of his spatial analyses of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in my lectures and have read several of his works on what is now so famously known as “forensic architecture”. The purpose of his forensic project is explained on the website made by his team of forensic analysts (which includes architects, scholars, filmmakers, designers, lawyers and scientists):
We provide evidence for international prosecution teams, political organisations, NGOs, and the United Nations in various processes worldwide. Additionally, the agency undertakes historical and theoretical examinations of the history and present status of forensic practices in articulating notions of public truth.
Yesterday’s talk was part of the “planned violence” series of the University of Oxford’s Leverhulme project. The presentation centred on a single event during the Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip. On August 1, 2014 dust clouds erupted as targeted bombs from the sky hit specific locations on the ground. The objective of the bombing was not only meant to target the last remaining Palestinian tunnel underneath the ground but also to eliminate an allegedly kidnapped Israeli soldier (see the infamous Hannibal Directive for information on the military purpose of taking-out your own soldiers). Eyal’s talk reconstructed the event in minute details as to when, where and how the lethal bombs exploded. I am not sure yesterday’s presentation has been recorded on video or will be uploaded online, but I found a recent videocast of a similar talk he presented in Vancouver last year.
Eyal is a great speaker and a creative mind. There were two things in his talk that stood out for me. The first relates to the ability of forensic architecture in recreating tragic events as evidence in court cases. The detailed restructuring of events provide a near to perfect representation of reality, forcing the familiar legal language and logic of denial and verbal rhetoric to confront the facts and effects of violence. These facts call for accountability. They also throw into question of what counts as “evidence”. The use of technology, artistry and science helps evidence to become highly empirical rather than purely ideological. The assemblage technique of forensic architecture permits a recreation of reality in courts by making crimes sensory visible. Convincing is no longer merely mental but becomes a sensory exercise.
The second thing, and for me most interesting, was his focus on clouds as “metadata of time and space.” Clouds, themselves the gaseous product of material dust particles from concrete buildings and bodily atoms, harbour the puzzle pieces necessary for the reconstruction of political events. Interests in clouds is admittedly age-old but understandings of clouds as data has helped revive popular and academic interest. Eyal mentioned the “clouds appreciation society“, of which I am a proud member, as an example but there is in fact a long cultural history of fascination with clouds. The studying of clouds, as a practise of especially realist painters (Ruskin and Constable are the obvious examples), “represented both the most important and the most difficult of subjects for the student of drawing because of the transience of cloud forms… (Denis Cosgrove). Clouds also feature prominently in poetry (from Dante to Schiller) and have fascinated geographers from the start. From its origins, geographical education at the School of Geography required students to undertake a period of daily weather observation and recording.” (Denis Cosgrove).
(Cloud Study, 1821, by John Constable – via Independent)
Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud, arguably one of the most important geography books of 2015, offers a fascinating study into this history.
We may imagine the digital cloud as placeless, mute, ethereal, and unmediated. Yet the reality of the cloud is embodied in thousands of massive data centers, any one of which can use as much electricity as a midsized town. Even all these data centers are only one small part of the cloud. Behind that cloud-shaped icon on our screens is a whole universe of technologies and cultural norms, all working to keep us from noticing their existence. In this book, Tung-Hui Hu examines the gap between the real and the virtual in our understanding of the cloud.
Hu shows that the cloud grew out of such older networks as railroad tracks, sewer lines, and television circuits. He describes key moments in the prehistory of the cloud, from the game “Spacewar” as exemplar of time-sharing computers to Cold War bunkers that were later reused as data centers. Countering the popular perception of a new “cloudlike” political power that is dispersed and immaterial, Hu argues that the cloud grafts digital technologies onto older ways of exerting power over a population. But because we invest the cloud with cultural fantasies about security and participation, we fail to recognize its militarized origins and ideology. Moving between the materiality of the technology itself and its cultural rhetoric, Hu’s account offers a set of new tools for rethinking the contemporary digital environment.