ALUMNI PROFILE: Conflict as PracticeProfile

by Eyal Weizman, AADipl 1998

02 April 2019
London, United Kingdom

 

This Spring, the AA Gallery will host an exhibition by Amnesty International to showcase their investigation into the impact of conflict on civilians in Raqqa, Syria – the most destroyed city in the world. Related to the theme of this exhibition, AA Conversations is publishing a series of interviews with alumni who have challenged or dealt with the topics of urgency and conflict through their student work or in their current practice.

 

Eyal Weizman graduated from the AA in 1998. He is the founder of the research agency Forensic Architecture, and is Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also founding director of the Centre for Research Architecture. Forensic Architecture work with experts such as scientists, journalists, and graphic designers who together combine architecture, politics, media and human rights theory to develop methods of investigation, and to analyse destroyed buildings for evidence of human rights abuses.

 

Forensic Architecture located photographs and videos within a 3D model to tell the story of one of the heaviest days of bombardment in the 2014 Israel-Gaza war. The Image-Complex, Rafah: Black Friday, Forensic Architecture, 2015.

How do you think studying at the AA has influenced your work?

I guess I’m one of the rare individuals who has done all of their education at the AA. I’ve never studied anywhere else. I studied from first year to diploma at the AA, and then I did my PhD at the London Consortium supervised by Mark Cousins, so there are not many other places that shaped my thinking. The kind of chaotic way in which ideas and experiments can flow at you or are thrown at you is what I really learned at the AA. It is an incredibly unstructured form of education, extremely neurotic and full of ambition, fear and motivation. That is my experience of being there.

 

The absence of shrapnel marks on the walls of the room indicate the places where the four victims may have died. Image: Forensic Architecture, 2016

Are those qualities something you take with you into your practice?

Yes definitely. There is a way of always entering a problem from the middle, rather than structuring it in the way of a discipline or building from its foundation – entering it from a crack in the incident from the moment in which things happen and start building out. This is very much the kind of feature of the sort of like erratic impatient way of thinking that the AA has instilled in me.

 

Reconstructing the room destroyed in a drone strike on Miranshah, Pakistan in 1:1 scale, we were able to mark every trace that the blast left on the walls, thus establishing the location of the explosion and the places where people were killed. Image: Case of The Architecture of Hellfire Romeo (Reporting from the Front, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, 28 May ­ 27 November 2016), exhibition view © Forensic Architecture

Do you see any ways that the AA is changing?

I think it’s growing quite a lot at the moment but it has become very uneven in the sense of how far people are willing to go with their ideas. I see too much timidness and not enough risk-taking. Of course there are incredible opportunities still to escalate architecture thought, but for me the AA is about taking even a particularly small problem, and escalating the terms in which it is bearing on other issues in order to make a huge problem out of it. And often, there is very little distinction between whether they are epistemological or disciplinary boundaries in answering that question in order to immerse oneself fully within the issue. 

German Pavilion at Staro Sajmište (the former Semlin death camp) in Belgrade. Image: ScanLAB Projects/Caroline Sturdy Colls/Forensic Architecture, 2013

Do you think the purpose of the AA is, in some way, to be on the periphery?

No, it’s too big to be on the periphery – it is the biggest school of architecture in London or even the UK. I don’t know its purpose but I think that intellectual risk taking is the most important category that I would suggest the school actually maintains. Every category that you think is perhaps unproductive politically,  is probably very productive epistemologically. Be extreme, be intolerant, fight for your position! Trying to radicalise and escalate a particular point of view is what education needs right now and I feel things have become far too polite recently.

When I was there, basically I was in conflict with almost everyone: my tutors, my colleagues, the Head of the School. That was the essence of being at the AA: staking out your position sometimes even before you had the language to fight for what you believed in. You understood intuitively that it was not about what was on offer, but rather that you were really trying to push things as far as they went, almost until they broke. You need to go to that moment just before something breaks to understand how to intervene. To understand anything, you need to go to that point of pre-fracture.

 

A generic movement path through the building. Image: Forensic Architecture, 2018

How do you feel urgency or conflict play a role in shaping your practice?

Well my practice is conflict, not about conflict, it is conflict. It’s not only that I tell conflict – it is conflict. My ingredients are antagonism: political antagonisms, military antagonisms, physical antagonisms… to name a few. It’s about fracture, it’s about the moment of crack and collapse and how to weave them back together – to offer a reading that is transformative, because when something cracks, something else is created. When you tear something apart you create another form, and that is something that is very important. I think that architecture is not about conflict or about politics: it is politics and is conflict. Conflict is fossilised into every part of its making. It is about labour relations, and labour relations are always violent. It is about money relationships which is conflictual by nature. It is about the politics regarding the articulation and the resolution of conflicting interests. So those are the ingredients of our trade and our work in the same way that somebody makes a collage out of pieces of a magazine. Our collage is made out of pieces of politics and conflict that surround us. It is the ingredient not the subject.

 

Early stages of projecting and mapping videos onto the architectural model within the web platform. The toolbars on the bottom and right side of the image show possibilities for interactivity using a timeline and communications data. Image: Forensic Architecture, 2018

Since your work has to follow fast-developing situations, how do you use design when it can be seen as quite a slow craft?

Because time can be understood on an accelerating scale, when something happens really fast – for example, when we spend three years analysing 40 seconds of the killing on a street corner of an avenue in Turkey where state agents and PKK members exchanged 40 shots, we  need to look at every shot. There are several seconds where we need to slow down time but sometimes the implications of those incidents only reveal themselves over a period of three years. The landscape of the countryside has been massively transformed through the construction of refugee camps, and that killing caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands and to the destruction of cities and to the building of new state infrastructure there. As a result, when you look at the long duration of that conflict, you sometimes need to accelerate it in order to understand what really happened. Time is also designed; you also need to somehow zoom in and open up time as though you’re zooming into an image.

So maybe to have an almost spatial understanding of time?

Yes.

 

What role does the architect play in solving these urgent problems?

There is always a throwback to architecture as a discipline. Although it is my personal educational starting point, I’m not committed to it.  I go out of Architecture to other places and other disciplines. At Forensic Architecture, we have architects, but we also have scholars and archaeologists and coders and computer game designers and lawyers. Each one is accelerating the practice and aligning it in a different way while mixing these different disciplines together.  I don’t want to go back to this ontological issue of what is an architect or who is an architect and what is architecture. It interests me very little. 

 

Projecting photographs onto a 3D model in order to determine the distance between vessels observed and infer the position of the photographer. Image: Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, 2018

What topics do you believe to be of vital importance in contemporary architectural practice?

I went to study architecture because I believed it was a way of understanding the world around me and how it is built. I grew up in Israel where I realised that to really understand politics I had to see how it was specialised and articulated in space through point infrastructure and settlements. I just wanted to understand the world that I was living in, and architecture became a very good medium to understand that. On the other hand, I wanted to change things that I didn’t like about that world. Architecture seemed to me, perhaps naively, as a way of intervening in that world that I need to understand. What the hell is going on? What the hell are we going to do? I thought that architecture was a good means of intervention.  As I’ve grown older, if not wiser, I’ve begun to understand that we have to be much more modest in our capacity of what that intervention can be. Architecture is a way of understanding that mess of politics and biology and nature and contamination.

 

This mural plots the narrative trajectories of different participants, both victims and perpetrators, in the forced disappearance of the 43 students. The simplified narrative presented by the Federal Attorney General and announced as the “historical truth” (drawn in thick black line) is contrasted with the complex version derived from the testimonies of the surviving students and those provided by the Independent Group of Experts (GIEI). Image: Forensic Architecture, 2017

Is there any particular thing that people in the future should look into?

We’ve taken a kind of tangent, and opened a new possibility of what to do with architecture. We say architecture has incredible optics to do things like open source research,  to uncover state secrets, to interrogate murder, to analyse environmental transformation and change, and shed new light and in that way transform it. I wouldn’t say those aspects of architecture are what all people need to do.  But I would say you need to find ways to deal with the enormous latent potential within our conceptual vocabulary, within our technical vocabulary, in the software that we have, all of which are tools and skills embedded within architectural practice. So there’s this incredible energy that is locked, which needs to explode out from our computers outwards.

 

At the Palacio de Justicia, between twelve and fourteen students (red) were beaten up and loaded into the back of multiple police vehicles (turquoise). Image: Forensic Architecture, 2017

What advice would you give to current students?

Always escalate!

 

For more information:

Discover Forensic Architecture’s work

Read Diploma 3: The Architectural Media Complex unit brief

Find out more about the Evidentiary Aesthetics Open Seminar

Watch Eyal Weizman speak about Violence at the Threshold of Detectability at the AA

Read the full set of profiles by visiting our Alumni Portfolio