A recent experience made me aware once more of all things concerning facts, truth, politics, democracy, public space and the role of artists in reveiling their unstable relations. This happened to me when I attended a presentation in Utrecht on Forensic Architecture, organized by BAK: Base for Art, Knowledge and the Political. Forensic Architecture is a research agency based at Goldsmiths University of London and is regularly commissioned to reconstruct forensics in cases concerning crimes purportedly committed by governments. Multidisciplinary teams process overwhelming amounts of audio and video data into detailed reconstructions, which often betray the fallaciousness of government accounts.
The reconstructions made by FA are presented to courts to be used in hearings and many of them can be viewed on their website. They are also shown in Documenta14, and research centers like BAK. Forensic Architecture received in 2018 the prestigious ECF Award and was nominated for the equally prestigious Turner Prize. The BBC commented about this: ‘The fact that they present it in art galleries – such as the ICA in London, where they currently have a show – is as subversive as much of their work. It changes its context, makes us look again and think again.’
An often heard question among visitors, BAK director Maria Hlavajova told me, is the following: ‘this is all very impressive, but is it art?’ For FA this question is not all that relevant. For them, art is a “forum”. They are happy to be associated with it ‘as long as it is not the only forum’, as FA team member Stevanos Levidis said in Utrecht. But let’s do an investigation of our own, on how the work of FA relates to the ‘forum’ of art.
Work by Forensic Architecture (2019)
Forensic Architecture dissects a concept fundamental to understanding our lives and societies: truth. By proving with meticulous forensic scrutiny that, for example, a sound spectrum analysis proves that the bullet was not rubber but metal, FA may be able to demonstrate that facts represented in an official account are not facts – not even the now famous alternative facts – simply because they find evidence to prove otherwise. This is what FA does. To me, the work poignantly reminds us of how we reduced ‘truth’ to ‘facts’, only to discover that ‘facts’ can no longer be trusted as references to ‘truth’: FA finds truth in the cracks between facts as they are presented, and finds that these cracks can be manupilated.
Government and legal institutions are getting increasingly nervous about how close FA gets to disclosing this. More than once, courts have not admitted the information generated by FA to court hearings, using the argument that, after all, it is just art.
There are many other examples of how an increasingly itchy relation between facts, truth, politics and art leads to institutional power play against art. A recent one is the decree 349 issued by the government of Cuba, which requires artists to be, says Reuters, ‘registered with the state to “provide services” in any open space to the public, including private ones […]’ and stipulating what artists are not allowed to do anymore in those public and private spaces. The most striking of these stipulations is ‘marketing books with content detrimental to ethical and cultural values’. Violations of the decree can be graded ‘severe or ‘very severe’. Of course there is no grading for the worst violation of all, that of the decree itself, which infringes several international covenants on freedom of cultural expression. After artists’ protests the Cuban government declared it would be lenient in its implementation. The very protests were, said Cuban artist Tania Bruguera to Reuters, “a democratic act like we have not seen for years in Cuba”
Both cases illustrate in their own ways that art and political power increasingly stand head to head in finding the parameters of an ‘agonistic’ public space. This may symbolise more than the failure to organise a constructive confrontation of art and politics, for me it points to the urgency to always investigate what truth, power, public space and ethical values actually mean to democracy. By speaking up Forensic Architecture and Cuban artists perform a public space where, to paraphrase Tania Brugueras remark, freedom of cultural expression is democracy. Because ‘a speaking being is a political being’, as Rancière wrote, quoting Aristotle.
Johan Kolsteeg is staff member of the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. His fields are cultural entrepreneurship, cultural leadership and communication about art.