Since publishing Hollow Land in 2007, his groundbreaking book on the architecture of control in the Israeli-occupied territories, architect and writer Eyal Weizman has been a key international commentator on the political use of space. Not one to shy away from experimental new methodologies or strong critical arguments, Weizman advocates that taking a subjective and confrontational approach to architectural research and practice provides productive terrain to counter dominant ideologies and their spatial articulations. Working in this manner, Weizman spearheads successful collaborative research projects including Decolonizing Art Architecture Residency (DAAR) based in Beit Sahour, Palestine, and Forensic Architecture at the Center for Research Architecture (CRA) at Goldsmiths, University of London. In advance of his October 3 lecture at the Walker, visual arts curatorial fellow Yesomi Umolu caught up with Weizman via Skype to discuss his work to date, touching on his interest in expanding architectural discourse from its peripheries, and putting it in dialogue with divergent disciplines ranging from military strategy to forensics and international humanitarian law.
Yesomi Umolu: A key idea that remains with me from my past life as an architect is that architecture is inherently rhetorical–that is, it should be used to put forward a concrete and most importantly critical argument beyond its mere functionality. It’s clear that your work interrogates this facet of the built environment, focusing on the ways that architecture can be used to serve particular politics and social values. Why are you drawn to such contexts?
Eyal Weizman: Architecture and research architecture demand that one take a political position. There is no architectural proposition that can be outside of this. If we think the contrary, it loses its potency and meaning. So we need to comprehend the fact that architecture entails an active taking of sides within an existing force field that we call politics. Also, it is important to appreciate the pharmacological dimension of architecture–pharmacology being that which is both poison and cure. Like any technology, if we think of this in terms of the production of things, subjectivities and sociabilities in the world, architecture can be used to meet various ends. There’s nothing inherently repressive or liberating in an architectural formation. I am very concerned about positions that conceive of architecture as an instrument of freedom or repression. In fact, I think that the more you want to get into the act of freeing something, the more you need to look into the abyss of the worst architectural possibilities and into the most intense situations of injustice or the infliction of violence. This is where architecture’s pharmacological dimension becomes useful—the more you go into the depths of a poison, the more you can find the possibility of a cure.
For example, my work with Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti in our office in Beit Sahour called Decolonizing Architecture basically looks at the most repressive end condition of architecture. We consider how the built environment is used as a matrix of control, as the solidification or urbanization of vision, and as an infrastructure of unjust distribution. We are now in a position where we need to imagine the possible future of Palestine. Through our work, we found that rather than proceed down the path of looking for a rural utopia–the romantic imagining of Palestine that was lost in 1948, and to a certain degree also in 1967–we need to delve into the very core of the instrument of repression in order for a new reality to emerge. This is why we use the settlements themselves, these bedroom communities that are in fact colonies in the occupied territories, as the footprint of transformation. It is through the network of institutions, public services, and military bases that represent the matrix of control that we can find the new social and political commons in Palestine. It exactly through this wide-scale détournement that we are imagining a world in which nothing in it is used for the purpose that it was originally designed for. So our idea is really to subvert rather than erase and start again.
Umolu: How has this work has been received in the region and elsewhere?
Weizman: More than anyone else, Sandi Hilal worked very closely with refugee communities in different camps in Palestine, and also Alessandro Petti, who is now running a program called Campus in Camps. They both deal on a daily basis with the “arena of speculation,” which is so called because our thinking about the future is organized around material things. When we work together, we often understand that political discussion can be very loaded with protocol and occupied ideologies. And sometimes architecture can meld a very rigid conversation into one in which possible futures are imagined. With any discussion on Palestine, it is incredibly intense, and often we find people who want to regain a romantic history. But the reality is that this is long gone. The return needs to imagine a different future than simply reenacting the past. Here we should also think about return in relation to the desire of Palestinian refugees to one day live in Palestine. Their return will change to the core the entire relation of citizenship to space. If people were expelled from a predominantly rural setting, they will go back to the urban–to heterogeneity and complexity. Consequently, the return is not simply a turning of the wheel backward but the reimagining of new possibilities–it a condition for change.
Umolu: I was intrigued to discover that your current research project, Forensic Architecture, borrows its name from an existing professional category: the forensic architect. However, as with much of your other work, you overturn the meaning of the term. Can you speak about your interest in forensics and architecture as separate entities, and indeed why forensic architecture became a pertinent subject for you?
Weizman: Yes, the forensic architect is usually a structural engineer who gives advice in court on several issues related to building failure and defects, usually in insurance disputes. We reframed and retooled the meaning of the term because we found enormous potential in it to push architectural discourse forward. On one hand, our understanding of forensics is not immediately that which is in the service of the law. We actually unearthed its original meaning by reconstructing the genealogy of the term–returning to the notion of forensics as “the art of the forum.” Forums gather around the material facts of our lives and cities; they are the spaces around which political decisions and sometimes theoretical positions must be made or argued. In this sphere, there is always the possibility of equality between people and things. With the idea of forensic architecture we apply an understanding of politics as matter in movement, what I call the “political plastic,” or the way in which sociopolitical forces continuously fold into formal organization.
Architecture is political only by virtue of its dynamic nature. All buildings and cities are under constant transformation. The event of architecture is the way its materiality reorganizes itself in relation to shifting environmental conditions. Cities shift over long periods of time, but buildings always transform–ceilings sag, walls bend, paint cracks–and these register the environment, which is also political. Walls are rerouted, cities grow and contract. It is the act of change that could be read politically. I have no interest in analyzing architecture as a static thing, because it is not. This approach to both forensics and architecture brings us to what we think is the only way for architectural research to proceed in the present. I think that the end condition–the asymptotic condition of architecture–is forensics. A lot of architectural research is merely “spoken into the void” to quote the title of a book by Adolph Loos. But, with our work, through facing cross-investigation and the adversarial scrutiny of the legal framework, there exists a model in which the material facts of the world (architecture, urbanism, and cities) can be concretely discussed.
If the big debate within several strands of American academia is whether architecture develops from the center–from an endless discussion with its own protocols and heritage, from Vitruvius through Palladio to the present–for us, it is at the periphery that the work begins, from architecture’s edges and through its contact and friction with other disciplines. Consequently, forensic architecture needs to be viewed not only as an act of arbitrating around the past, but also as a call for constructing the very forums within which architectural research can resonate–where it can be debated and decisions can be made. These are political communities. Research has no meaning and affect without the forum in which it needs to be expressed, contested, debated, and articulated. So we absolutely need to understand that part of the the mission of forensic architecture is to constantly and simultaneously extend, invent, and construct new forums for the future. This is both a design task in that we imagine new physical forms, but these do not need to be like the Roman forums, but rather operating on a wider scale and spectrum of intervention, they can be networks of social and political positions. They expand, contract, and rework their connectivity.
Umolu: It’s striking to me that Forensic Architecture is not a speculative project but extends to the real ground of human rights and international humanitarian law. You and your team work directly with international advocacy groups and legal organizations. How is your research implemented on the ground, and how might “spatial evidence” be used to push forward concrete resolutions to unanswered questions in sites that have witnessed profound violence and trauma?
Weizman: Working with this research has been an incredible experience because we are challenging the existing forums of politics and law. We collaborate with the UN and a number of international organizations and NGOs. Increasingly, they come to us because so many human rights issues are spatial at their core—not only because war has moved into the city, so urban destruction or infrastructural damage are called in as evidence, but also because the mark of political, social, or ecological transformation often exists through spatial visualization.
We usually operate through the prosecution and construct reports that present the entire visual and spatial aspect of a legal case through mapping, modeling, or animation. Currently, we are working with a technique called “video-to-space analysis,” where we convert activist videos from all over the world and harvest space out of them. For example, when somebody holds their iPhone or a camera out to film an event, they gather a lot of spatial data that can be used to reconstruct the scene. We are also working with the human rights council in Geneva to provide analysis to the media in a case that attempts to ban white phosphorus weapons based on evidence from Fallujah and Gaza. We know that space is already a media product. We hardly go directly into the real sites to take measurements, so what we practice is an archeology of pixels, wavelengths, and images.
Umolu: How can you remove your own politics from the objectivity of this data and the fact that it will be presented in the neutral setting of a court, or are you constantly trying to insert a militant position in the process of generating it?
Weizman: Here we have a paradox that I think you identified very well. In order to provide expert opinion in court, you must feign objectivity. If they know that you hold a militant position, then the difficulty comes in convincing the court that you can deliver a removed opinion. In this area of our service, we try to be as professional as we can. Of course, the decision to enter a particular environment is based on our political commitment and motivation. So the choice to work in Guatemala on behalf of the Ixil communities of the department of El Quiché in the western highlands of the country, which underwent the most violent genocide by the Guatemalan military supported by their US and Israeli counterparts, is a political cause in itself.
Umolu: In recent years, you have presented your work in exhibitions at contemporary art spaces and international biennials. Does this give you more freedom than traditional platforms for showcasing architecture?
Weizman: Somehow because the work we are doing is pushing architecture from the periphery, this has garnered interest mainly from cultural and art institutions that consider our practice as a great platform for multidisciplinary crossovers. I wouldn’t say that this has given us more freedom. The idea that the art world is free from constraints or that art is a form of transgression is a rather old construction. This is a highly coded environment whose platforms can be used for knowledge production–through visual cultures. What has been incredibly useful for us is the fact that art has its own aesthetic and epistemic understanding of the relationship between objects and people. I think also that curatorial practice has been receptive to the concept of forensic architecture because it recognizes the relationship that exists in forensics between the object, the interpreter, and the forum that gathers around it. This is exactly what constitutes the relationship between people, art objects, or art spaces (objects that are not necessarily material) within or outside an art institution.
In my view, the practice of forensic architecture allows us to break the dichotomy, in both architecture and the art world, between pure form and social commentary. There is no social issue without an understanding of the articulation of materiality and form, and there is no form that does not have the imprint of sociopolitical forces. There is no digital without its analogical infrastructure in material storage and inscription. It is exactly between the model of relational aesthetics that has been very current in the art world and its antithesis, i.e. object-oriented art, which is seen as regressive and old-fashioned, that forensic architecture finds its place.
Umolu: Your upcoming lecture at the Walker is part of the interdisciplinary project Sacred Space, Contested Terrain, which pairs the architecture, art, and religious studies departments at the University of Minnesota with the Walker to discuss methodologies and approaches to ideas of the sacred and contestation. A key feature of the project has been finding the common ground for collaboration among the group members. Your own research relies heavily on collaborative work; is there strategy of collaboration that guides your projects?
Weizman: An understanding of collaboration can no longer exist in the traditional sense of people sitting together and thinking or discussing about collective action. The realities of participation emerge out of the radical and sometimes antagonistic interaction of actors rather than out of their mutual agreement within a constructed utopia of a smooth frictionless world. This is exactly why a partisan militant position must be the basis of collective work. You participate with your rival and not via consultation but operating sometimes on the same plan of action.
Umolu: One thing that I have been fascinated by as I watched your practice develop over the past few years is that you are interested in looking at architecture in an expanded field. What led to your coining of the term “research architecture” and the establishment of the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths?
Weizman: The Center for Research Architecture grew out of the attempt by several professors at Goldsmiths to bring architecture into the curriculum, albeit in a different way than taught in architectural schools, having realized that spatial and urban theory had become the common frame through which multidisciplinary research often took shape. For many of us at the center, architecture offered a critical and epistemic arena through which different kinds of knowledge could be generated and exchanged. Upon receiving the post, and together with a group of peers, I have tried to initiate an alternative to traditional architectural education that is not design-centered, but rather uses architectural intelligence in different ways.
Architecture allows us to intervene in and open up latent questions that linger across different disciplines. Our understanding of architecture or of research in architecture is therefore not connected to a design proposal in the way that conventional research in architecture is undertaken, where in order to facilitate better intervention on a site, architects study it, its context, and then establish the conditions for design to take place.
At CRA, we are cutting the single thread that leads from investigation to design and opening up all sorts of other paths for architectural knowledge and thinking to operate in the world. Our understanding of architecture is not that it is finished or solidified into a building but that the building reflects a much wider and multivalent field of interaction and forces.
Umolu: You have spoken about needing to take a militant position when advocating for a research-based practice. Why do you feel this is necessary?
Weizman: When we established CRA, the intake was not just composed of architects. In fact, the majority of practitioners at both the MA and PhD levels were artists, filmmakers, curators, and other people who were seeking to investigate the present through spatiality. We were brought together because we understood the political space that forms the epicenter of our research. In the way we work, we need to take a partisan or militant position in order to get to the facts of the matter about which we are politically passionate. If the general understanding is that a scientist or a researcher must develop a certain objective position in relation her or his research, the facts, and their meaning, then, paradoxically, I think today in order to establish those facts, they need to be argued from a position of discontent, need, desire, or critique vis-à-vis a particular situation. This is where the research emerges. And, if some think that research is a cerebral intellectual precedent in relation to the physicality of practice, then today we realize more than ever before that militant practice is the condition of knowledge production itself.
Sometimes in order to learn about a situation you have to intervene in it, you have to produce the very knowledge that you want to reflect upon. In this way, practice and knowledge production are necessarily intertwined in our work. We have very little patience for the idea of research as a disengaged and disinterested study.