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This year, Document International Human Rights Film Festival presents two intimate and urgent personal accounts: Purple Sea by Syrian filmmakers Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, and letter to a friend by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir. Both films also inhabit another space where their time-lines, fragments, space and dimensions are analysed in two investigations by Forensic Architecture.

The Arabic word Tahqiq has two main meanings:

- To achieve / to make true

- To investigate / to verify a truth

A couple of weeks before the email inviting me to write this essay, my friend Zainab republished an article in Arabic by her late father Ali Alshouk, an Iraqi mathematician, essayist and cultural critic. Alshouk muses upon the imaginary of spatial dimensions in folklore, myth, literature and art; taking a short journey through ancient Arabic tales, Edwin Abbot’s Flatland and Salvador Dali’s three-dimensional cross in Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus).

In wishing to achieve (Tahqiq) the unachievable ––in wishing that the body of a certain being (e.g. a human) disappear or be disappeared while remaining present at the scene (i.e. it becomes invisible), its three dimensions are voided to zero. In other cases, the dimensions of such a being are shrunk from three to two; the being becomes flat and can navigate narrower breadths. When the dimensions are reduced to just one dimension, the being can move lengthwise, in a linear fashion. The pre-Islamic Arabic imagination concocted two semi-mythological creatures, one with one dimension and the other with two, Shaq and Sutaih. We regret that later Arabic works do not dwell on these two beings to the extent that satisfies our curiosity. [1]

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Shaq wa Sutaih, The Dictionary of Mythological Beings by Shawki Abdel-Hakim and Mohieddine El-Labbad (illustrator) published Beirut and Cairo. The caption reads: “Shaq and Sutaih are said to have one hand and one eye each, and no bones save the skull. Therefore, they can both fold themselves like a cloth. It is also told that they were famous priests (seers), once invited by Khosrow (the Persian King) to interpret a disturbing dream.”
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These slights of dimension and space are tasked with making the visible disappear. Forensic Architecture is tasked with making the invisible visible. To reveal an obscured or erased truth, perspective and view are turned into diagrams. The two dimensions of film, photography and maps, the one dimension of a ship’s path, a tear-gas canister’s trajectory, and the line of vision are overlapped and unfolded into three dimensional models; with synchronisation accounting for a fourth dimension of time.

Forensic Architecture describe their work as verification (Tahqiq). The research and experimental unit based in Goldsmiths, London investigates events and spaces around human rights and environmental concerns. Teams of architects, scientists, artists and journalists construct architectural models and programs based on recordings and evidence provided by witnesses or extracted from available archives. Eyal Weizman, the founder and director of Forensic Architecture describes their work as ‘counter-forensic.’ It aims to challenge hegemonic narratives provided by ‘states, police forces, militaries, and corporations.’ [2]

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Left: Still from Emily Jacir’s ‘letter to a friend’. Top and Right: Stills from Forensic Architecture’s ‘Triple-Chaser’.
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A Chronicle of a Crime Foretold

Emily Jacir’s film presents a state of suspension, and a relation to an encroaching concrete fortress, a very visible border. ‘letter to a friend’ is a chronicle of living precariously under occupation and incessant bombardment in one’s own ancestral home. Jacir’s dwelling in Bethlehem is an act of defiance. As the Israeli border expands, enveloping her neighbourhood, the crime is embodied in part through tear-gas canisters, shot by the occupying military forces and accumulating in Jacir’s own backyard.

Jacir opens her film with documentation of Triple-Chasers, so called as these canisters collapse into three parts upon detonation, preventing civilians from throwing them back. Jacir’s letter-film, addressed to Eyal Weizman, is an invitation to unlock maps, footage and accounts, both by Jacir and in various archives. Jacir requests an investigation while acknowledging that “there are so many maps… somehow they can never capture the situation on the ground.” What amount of material gathered and reconstructed can replace a people and their homeland?

Tear-gas aims at the very organ of sight slicing the line of vision.

‘Triple-Chaser’ is the name that Forensic Architecture and Praxis Film chose for their independent response to an invitation to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. The tear-gas canisters are manufactured by Safariland, whose owner Warren B. Kanders was Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors at the Whitney Museum, until quitting in mid 2019 following boycott by some artists and subsequent mass condemnation. ‘Triple-Chaser’ is a computer program that chases canisters found in photographs and footage, including Jacir’s opening scene. Hundreds of visual scenarios and pattern overlaps were digitally generated to help the programme read (through machine learning and noise elimination) canisters in multiple documents both submitted and found online.

‘Triple-Chaser’ is available as an open source programme that allows other researchers, artists and journalists to form their own investigations. As Forensic Architecture pursues alternative and personal narratives, a legacy lies in the creation of open source tool-kits and methodologies freely available for further independent investigation.

Personal documents and stories become collective political narratives.

I believe that we think through images and shapes (e.g. maps, architectural drawings and clock faces)….. While photography has expanded our visual world, unveiled wonders, and afforded us vision of details invisible to the naked eye; perception and understanding rely on a gist that is thought through drawings and diagrams.[3]

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Top: Mitsumasa Anno, from ‘The Tale of Heike Picture Book'. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum, Tsuwano, Japan. Bottom: A reconstruction of the altercation of search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean on 6 November 2017. Courtesy of Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture.
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There is a War between the Perspective and Diagram

‘Purple Sea’ plunges you at once and without warning, into a sea of denim-clad legs, gurgles and gasps, an undulating horizon that separates the living and the dead, and a beautiful autumn sun that shines on life vests either inhabited or vacated by humans. 28 October 2015. Shipwrecked at the Aegean Sea. Praying to be rescued. Another state of suspension, this time at the European side of an invisible nautical border.

Five hours is not so long that it can constitute a real habitation, not so short that it can be bearable. So unbearable is this suspended moment, that the filmmaker spares us the full weight of dwelling, by sandwiching it between a narrated account of recent memories of Istanbul and a possible but unguaranteed future in Berlin.

Alzakout’s unedited original footage, shot with a waterproof wrist camera, has a wider time-frame than the duration of ‘Purple Sea’. Her ominous journey began at the Western Turkish Coast, followed by boarding a triple-crowded crew-less boat headed to the Greek Island of Lesvos. The ship capsizes hurling 300 migrants and debris into the sea. After a disastrous ‘rescue effort’ in European waters, Alzakout survived. Safe in Berlin, she sent her footage to Forensic Architecture requesting an investigation.

The investigation used 3D modelling and synchronization to overlap maps, navigation data, footage from viewers, coastguard and NGOs to reconstruct the long ‘moment’ of shipwreck. After the boat collapsed, the rescue was left largely to Greek and Turkish fishermen, one volunteer boat and the untrained and unequipped Greek coastguard. At least 43 people died. ‘Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea’ is an indictment of governments and rescue teams hostile to the plight and lives of migrants, and the work of NGOs and volunteers.

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Still from Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdel Wahed’s ‘Purple Sea'.
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Architecture is often a silent profession. Architects are taught and trained to be beholden to clients not to a code of ethics. Illegal border walls, prisons, barracks, tear-gas canisters—the structures and objects of exclusion, confinement, conformity and torture—are products of architecture, design and engineering.

Like Eyal Weizman, Robert Jan Van Pelt, whose research and exhibitions investigate and expose evidence of the mechanics and architecture of concentration camps (Auschwitz in particular), calls for centring ethics in the education and practice of architects and engineers. One of his collaborations, the Evidence Room, launched at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, used architectural and archival tools such as casting and drawings to construct models and architectural elements of the Auschwitz camp, ‘the most evil crime committed by an architect’.

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The Evidence Room is part of a larger research project and a publication by Anne Bordeleau, Donald McKay, Robert Jan van Pelt and Sascha Hastings, together with a team of students and researchers from The University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Cambridge, Canada. www.evidenceroomfoundation.com

Forensic Architecture’s project navigates several spaces and disciplines. By providing the space and resources for counter-narratives, it puts into question the authority, authenticity and autonomy of power structures and institutions. By working across media and through multiple methodologies and perspectives, their project challenges the dominant role of disciplinarity and professionalism over the means of representation, story-telling, and the pursuit of truth and poetics. The project for syndicalism, collaboration and accountability urgently calls to be repeated and expanded.

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[1] Ali Alshouk: The Adventures of Mr. ‘Square’ In a Space of Three Dimensions. Published in www.blog.aliraq.ca by Zainab Alshouk (excerpt translated by me from Arabic).

[2] See https://forensic-architecture….

[3] From a lecture by Anno Mitsumasa, published in by Mohieddine El-Labbad, in Nazzar, 1985 (translated by me from Arabic).

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Sukaina Kubba is an Iraqi-born artist living in Toronto. She has exhibited at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto; CCA, Glasgow; Glasgow International; Hilary Crisp, London; and Kendall Koppe, Glasgow. Upcoming residencies include the International Studio and Curatorial Program, NY. Kubba was lecturer and curator at the Glasgow School of Art (2013-2018), and a practicing architect before that.

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This commission is presented in partnership with Document. Founded in 2003, Document is an independent Glasgow-based film festival that programmes at the intersections of politics, cinema and human rights. The festival’s 18th edition is taking place 25-31 January 2021, at www.documentfilmfestival.org.

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TENANCY is a MAP project in twelve parts, presenting new work considering what it means to occupy somewhere–or something–temporarily. The project is curated by Helen Charman, MAP Commissioning Editor.