Category Archives: drones

Book review: Forensic Architecture. Violence at the Threshold of Detectability

Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, by Eyal Weizman, founder of Forensic Architecture, founding member of the architectural collective DAAR in Beit Sahour/Palestine, Professor at Goldsmiths College, University of London and a Global Scholar at Princeton University.

It’s on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Zone Books and distributor by The MIT Press say: In recent years, the group Forensic Architecture began using novel research methods to undertake a series of investigations into human rights abuses. Today, the group provides crucial evidence for international courts and works with a wide range of activist groups, NGOs, Amnesty International, and the UN. Forensic Architecture has not only shed new light on human rights violations and state crimes across the globe, but has also created a new form of investigative practice that bears its name.

The group uses architecture as an optical device to investigate armed conflicts and environmental destruction, as well as to cross-reference a variety of evidence sources, such as new media, remote sensing, material analysis, witness testimony, and crowd-sourcing.

In Forensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman, the group’s founder, provides, for the first time, an in-depth introduction to the history, practice, assumptions, potentials, and double binds of this practice.

Forensic Architecture, Guatemala: Operación Sofia (The DNA identification room at Laboratorio Clyde Snow, Guatemala City, November 2011. Photo: Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman)

Forensic Architecture, White Phosphorus

Forensic Architecture is a multidisciplinary research agency composed of artists, filmmakers, writers and architectural researchers who use architectural methods and repurpose new sensing technologies to investigate and expose state or corporate violence, especially when it bears upon the territory.

The group analyzes WW1 aerial photographs, inspects satellite images, deploys kites for land surveys, investigates material traces left on the ground, builds 3D models to re-create atrocities, creates interactive cartography and countercartography, collects testimonies of survivors, scrutinizes user-generated media made by citizens on the ground and uploaded on the internet, etc. Forensic Architecture uses any mean and media necessary to reconstruct evidences of violence that are inscribed onto the land and built environment. Their meticulous work is then turned into evidence that can be used in legal settings to challenge the official narrative of critical events. Sometimes, some form of justice is eventually reached. Other times, miscarriages of justice or even complete absence of justice prevail.

The case studies detailed in the book involve the reconstruction of a contested shooting in the West Bank, the architectural recreation of a secret Syrian detention center from the memory of its survivors, an investigation into the environmental violence and climate change in Guatemala, the 3D modelling of bomb clouds that are then used as fingerprints for locating Israeli strikes on the Gaza dense urban environment, patterns of Western drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc.

Along the pages, you get to learn a lot about the challenges that the members of Forensic Architecture encounter in their work: satellite imagery is more affordable than ever but its photographic resolution is degraded for privacy and secrecy reasons, at least when it comes to the ones available to the public (as Weizman notes, high resolution is used for killing and low resolution for investigating the killing); a commitment to helping the victims leaves the group exposed to criticisms, even though their method is rigorously scientific; legal system itself can be part of a state’s mechanism of domination and denial; evidence from sources derived from new media video analysis, interactive cartography, or animation almost always encounter objection in court because they are too new, etc.

Saydnaya: inside a Syrian torture prison, a commission by Amnesty International

Rafah: Black Friday. Report on the war operations of 1-4 August 2014, in Rafah, Gaza. Image complex: Forensic Architecture

Forensic Architecture, Drone Strikes (Digital reconstruction of the scene of a drone strike in a 3D-mode. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013)

The book is fascinating. It is dense in information, images, maps and documentation that record the way the organization is re-appropriating and re-purposing a broad number of skills and technologies in the context of activism and justice. Their method is characterized by a remarkable amount of scientific accuracy, but also by a surprisingly high percentage of flexibility, empathy and creativity.

The book is often disheartening too. State-sponsored violence makes for very uncomfortable read: tales of ruthless dispossession, of Bedouin villages bulldozed time and time again, brutal colonization of landscape, destruction of life-sustaining resources, arbitrary killings made acceptable by the cultural and legal system, erasure of culture, etc.

Forensic Architecture. Violence at the Threshold of Detectability is a publication i’d recommend to anyone interested in human rights, activism, geopolitics, urban planning, architecture, and in the creative and social-engaged uses of technologies.

Book review: Drone. Remote Control Warfare

Drone. Remote Control Warfare, by anthropologist Hugh Gusterson.

It’s on amazon USA and UK.


Publisher MIT Press writes: Advocates say that drones are more precise than conventional bombers, allowing warfare with minimal civilian deaths while keeping American pilots out of harm’s way. Critics say that drones are cowardly and that they often kill innocent civilians while terrorizing entire villages on the ground. In this book, Hugh Gusterson explores the significance of drone warfare from multiple perspectives, drawing on accounts by drone operators, victims of drone attacks, anti-drone activists, human rights activists, international lawyers, journalists, military thinkers, and academic experts.

Gusterson examines the way drone warfare has created commuter warriors and redefined the space of the battlefield. He looks at the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance involved in remote killing: is it easier than killing someone on the physical battlefield if you have to watch onscreen? He suggests a new way of understanding the debate over civilian casualties of drone attacks. He maps “ethical slippage” over time in the Obama administration’s targeting practices. And he contrasts Obama administration officials’ legal justification of drone attacks with arguments by international lawyers and NGOs.

U.S. soldiers fly an RQ-7B Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle at Hurlburt Field, Fla., from inside their ground control station, 2011. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin/Released

The aftermath of a drone strike in Yemen (photo)

Drone. Remote Control Warfare is a compact book that efficiently wraps up and reviews the most urgent topics explored in other books about drones (for example, A Theory of the Drone and Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars.) In particular: the condition of a warfare that is so asymmetric it almost becomes unilateral; the psychological suffering of people who live under the constant threat of a drone attack but also the new forms of PTSD developed by drone operators who find it difficult to compartmentalize battlefield and domestic life; the strategies insurgents adopt to fight back (using couriers to communicate, taking advantage of urban topography to make it harder to be tracked, hacking drones); the globalization of the battlefield and the break from international rules that govern war zones and treatment of the people suspected of terrorism; the undermining of local cultural and religious practices; the many civilian casualties and the myth of the ‘surgically precise’ strike; the loosening of the interpretation of what constitutes a terrorist threat; the moral framing of the strikes (or rather the lack thereof); the crashes, lethal errors and other glitches associated with operating drones; the slow chain of command and diffused responsibility behind a drone strike, etc.

A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa November 13, 2014. Yemeni authorities have paid out tens of thousands of dollars to victims of drone strikes using U.S.-supplied funds, a source close to Yemen's presidency said, echoing accounts by legal sources and a family that lost two members in a 2012 raid. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST MILITARY POLITICS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR4E1VF
A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa November 13, 2014. Photo: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

The book also brings new perspective on drone warfare.

Gusterson believes that the danger of drones doesn’t lie in the technology itself but in the way it is currently used. As he writes:

A drone is a socio-technical ensemble, not just a machine, and the same drone will be deployed to different effects in different cultural and organizational contexts.

In his view, the United States have little chance to achieve their national security objectives if they keep on using drones as neo-colonial weapons (i.e. similarly to how British and French colonial soldiers used powerful fire arms against spear-carrying Africans) that anger local populations, demonstrate no trace of moral superiority and further militarizes relationship between ‘us’ and the Muslim world.

U.S. airmen prepare an RQ-4A Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle aircraft for takeoff, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris/Released

The author believes than it would make far more sense to police the use of drones than to attempt to ban the technology altogether. Such carefully controlled deployment of drones won’t be implemented without a strong pressure from the public and that’s where there is still a lot of work to do.

Drones have been deployed in the ‘war on terror’ for 15 years already. Yet, the American public knows relatively little about the violence spread in their name in faraway countries.

What makes drones so attractive to the US government is that they don’t involve the return of American body bags from the battlefront. The public doesn’t see casualties and therefore doesn’t question the legitimacy of drone warfare. Few congressmen will then challenge the use of drones and the threshold for military action can be lowered.

The author suggests that what is needed is some kind of new Guantanamo to rally against. If the American public realizes that drones are blackening the international reputation of the U.S. and actually make little contribution to the safety of the country, they might ask their representatives to surround the use of these new weapons with strict ethical regulations and greater transparency.

Red White and Blue Drone woven in Pakistan featuring Reaper drones, 2014. Photo: War Rug

As usual, the book focuses on drone warfare from the USA. I would be interested to read a similar book that also explores into more details the way Israel (a pioneering exporter, developer and proponent of drone violence) uses drones on its own and on neighbouring territories.

More drone books: Book review: A Theory of the Drone, Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars.
And even more drone stories: Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones, A screaming comes across the sky. Drones, mass surveillance and invisible wars, A dystopian performance for drones, The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, Tracking Drones, Reporting Lives, KGB, CIA black sites and drone performance. This must be an exhibition by Suzanne Treister, Under the Shadow of the Drone, etc.

VOLVO 240 Transformed into 4 Drones

Zuzanna Janin, VOLVO240 Transformed into 4 Drones, 2014. Photo: lokal_30 Gallery Warsaw

Zuzanna Janin, VOLVO240 Transformed into 4 Drones, 2014. Photo: lokal_30 Gallery Warsaw

Just what the title says, really. Here’s what the official description of this work by Polish artist Zuzanna Janin says:

This sculptural installation VOLVO240 Transformed Into 4 Drones comprising four elements is the artist’s latest work, in which the old family Volvo 240 is changed into four smaller vehicles of various types: drones recalling military equipment used for killing, but also for observation, navigation and surveillance, vehicles used to save lives. The artist once again sensitises us to the “in-between” zone – on the boundary of the era described by technological achievements and accelerated cultural changes, in the era of control and of uncontrolled observation of the world around us.

Janin is represented by the lokal_30 Gallery in Warsaw. I visited the gallery a few weeks ago when they had a solo show of video art pioneer Józef Robakowski. Part of the exhibition showed 1980s recordings of rather vigorous music concerts, especially of the punk group Moskwa. Robakowski got to know the members of the group, made promotional photos for them that were quite edgy and radical at the time but still look like the kind of images that fashion photographers attempt to shoot nowadays. He also did music videos for the band. These videos are raw and fascinating. Because it might have been tricky to shoot a punk video in the streets of Poland at the time, the artist shot them directly from TV footage by placing his camera right in front of the screen.

Józef Robakowski, Moskwa, 1986

Józef Robakowski, Moskwa performing

I was planning to write about Robakowski’s show and Polish punk from the ’80s but then i spotted the car turned drones in the catalogue from the gallery and there was no turning back: i had to publish the photos of Janin’s sculpture on the blog.