CONTINUE in Speaking

Eyal Weizman on Dying to Speak: Forensic Spatiality

Fall 2010
SPOKEN at London for Log 20: Curating Architecture

THE Talk in Brief

Eyal Weizman was appointed the founding director of research architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2005. He coined this term to conflate research and architecture and to propose critical research as architecture and architecture as knowledge production, both of which can lead to interventions in the spatial environment that he calls “the political plastic.” He went on to found, together with Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal, the Decolonizing Architecture Institute near Bethlehem, on the West Bank, in 2007, and is currently pursuing a body of research called “forensic architecture,” which will result in his new book Dying to Speak. Weizman’s groundbreaking work on the expanded territorialization of Israel’s architecture of occupation was published in 2007 as Hollow Land.

Tina Di Carlo: In your forthcoming book Dying to Speak you theorize forensic spatiality, which stems from your long-standing interest in international law. Can forensic evidence as an object, say a destroyed building, a document, or a dead body – and here I am playing on the double entendre of the dead body and the dead object typically ascribed to the curatorial practice of collecting – actually speak? Or is mediation necessary?

Eyal Weizman: I am interested in forensics because it embodies a shift from the speech of humans to the communicative capacity and “agency” of things. Several legal and cultural scholars have labelled the third part of the 20th century, with its attention to testimonies, truth commissions, and interviews, as “the era of the witness.” It seems to me that in the field of international law, but also in general political culture, we might have entered a stage when we have become more attuned to the communicative capacity of things, of things speaking, if you like, between themselves and to us. This material approach is simultaneously evident in a number of areas and disciplines. Today’s legal and political decisions are based upon the capacity to read and present DNA samples, 3D scans, nanotechnology, and the “enhanced vision” of electromagnetic microscopes and satellite surveillance, which extends from the topography of the seabed to the remnants of destroyed or bombed out buildings. This is not just science, but its associated rhetoric. Just as the “era of the witness” had its aesthetics – testimony still occupies a central place in contemporary culture and art galleries – and its ethics of compassion, the forensic shift might bring about its own associated ethics and aesthetics. If popular entertainment is at all an indicator of cultural shifts, then it is interesting to note how today the forensic-detective has gradually replaced the physiologist-detective in TV dramas. Today’s narratives are told through things. In relation to this idea of speech, the origins of the term forensics might be revealing. The word derives from the Latin forensis, which means “forum” and refers to the practice of making an argument by using objects before a gathering such as a professional, political, or legal forum. Forensics was part of rhetoric. Rhetoric, of course, is about speech, but forensics does not refer to the speech of humans but to that of objects or things. In forensic rhetoric, objects address the forum. Things need, however, a “translator” to interpret and mediate their speech. Because the thing speaks through, or is “ventriloquized” by, its translator, the object and its translator make a necessary and interdependent duo. To refute a legal/rhetorical statement, it is enough to refute one of the two: to either show that the object is inauthentic or that its interpreter is biased.

TDC: Have you been literally experimenting with the inscription of the visible in the process of writing Dying to Speak?

EW: Yes. As Oscar Wilde once said, “The true mystery of the world is in the visible, not the invisible.” In relation to my book on forensics I have been experimenting with genres of writing beyond the spatial-documentary form of my earlier work and its hard sense of gathering/ organizing/analyzing. The genre of this book is closer to critical biography. But it’s the critical biography of structures and objects. It is similar to the method of my favorite forensic anthropologist, Clyde Snow, who pioneered the forensic presentation of mass graves and also investigated the skulls of people, from Tutankhamun to Josef Mengele to JFK. Snow liked to refer to his work as “osteo-biography.” He said, “There is a brief but very useful and informative biography of an individual contained within the skeleton, if you know how to read it.” He used one of the most important principals of forensic presentation, which the Romans called prosopropea. In classic rhetoric prosopropea referred to speech on behalf of things. This principal is employed, as Thomas Keenan showed, when bones are presented as “witnesses” in court.

TDC: In the way you theorize forensics, the forum begins to be an operative space. Would an analogous idea of the forum in art discourses be one way to reinstate the public, as opposed to the audience?

EW: Maybe, yes. The principle of forensics assumes two interrelated sets of spatial relations and both are relations between publics and things. The first is a relation between an event and the object in which it is registered. The second is a relation between the object and the construction or the assembly of the forum to which it is addressed, or within which it resonates. The forums to which contemporary forensics are addressed are not only the actual spaces of the court or parliaments; they are also diffused and networked, created through and by the media, and operate across a multiplicity of international institutions. Forensics is thus as concerned with the materialization of the event as with the construction of a forum and the performance of the object within it. So forensics is not only the writing of history; its other part is the constant construction of its forums – and here lies its propositional potential. (Excerpted)


Work: Speaking