Mapping the Social in Theory and Practice

October 3, 2021   •   By Michael Eby

Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth

Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman

HALIT YOZGAT WAS murdered at the front desk of an internet café. The son of the Turkish immigrants who owned the place, 21-year-old Yozgat was one of 10 victims in a racially motivated series of killings committed by the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi group, across Germany throughout the early 2000s. Perhaps more so than any other NSU-related case, Yozgat’s drew particularly close attention due to the presence of a German state intelligence officer, Andreas Temme, in the café’s back room around the time of the shooting. Under police interrogation, and later under oath, Temme claimed to have neither seen nor heard the gunshots, even suggesting that he had perhaps exited the café prior to the murder, since he did not recall passing a dead body on his way to the door.


Nearly 10 years later, a plenitude of documents concerning Yozgat’s case were leaked to the public. Seizing upon the leak, which included witness testimonies, police reports, computer logs, and even Temme’s own video reenactment of his exit, a group of independent investigators reconstructed the crime scene at 1:1-scale physical model with the assistance of ballistics and acoustics experts. After painstakingly rehashing what was determined to have been a nine-and-a-half-minute episode, they found, contrary to sworn testimony, that Temme had almost certainly been present at the café at the time of the murders. While he had used a pseudonym, he had provided a traceable phone number to access the internet dating site iLove.de, logging out of a PC in the café’s back room 20 seconds after witness statements timestamped the two gunshots. Compounded by Temme’s membership to a regional state unit that covertly monitored local right-wing extremists, his perjury became implicative, betraying a possible collusion between the NSU and German security services.


The team of researchers that catalyzed this project is called Forensic Architecture. Operating out of Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture has made a reputation for itself in recent years through this type of elaborate investigative practice. Often showcasing their work within the context of art exhibitions (a three-dimensional digital model and three-screen video installation, together titled The Murder of Halit Yozgat, were subsequently displayed as art at Kassel’s 2017 Documenta exhibition), the team has also been known to make waves in legal settings (this piece was summoned before a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the NSU and Yozgat’s case).


In addition to this kind of scrupulous probing of alleged state violence — usually through physical or digital modeling and in collaboration with experts of various domains — Forensic Architecture’s most prominent spokesperson, Eyal Weizman, has also produced a significant body of critical writing, reflecting on the group’s historical, theoretical, and methodological underpinnings. His most recent volume, titled Investigative Aesthetics, aims to articulate the urgency of inhabiting the ambivalent space between counter-forensic investigation and interventionist art practice, or, as he and his co-author Matthew Fuller put it, this new conjunction of the “the lab and the studio.”


Fuller, an early exponent of the cultural — as opposed to strictly technical — study of software, brings to this effort an emphasis on the self-reflexive interrogation of computational media, exfoliating all the aesthetic and socio-cultural meaning caked within its use, in the work of Forensic Architecture and elsewhere. The book is imbued with his characteristically sharp writing style: porous and improvisation-like, his prose catalogs the associations and resonances between cultural artifacts within an eclectic archive. Together, Fuller and Weizman attempt to situate the political-aesthetic concerns of Forensic Architecture within a larger cultural scaffolding; in so doing, the two bounce back and forth between examples from within the realm of visual art and from outside of it, especially those that blur disciplinary boundaries.


Dividing the book into two main sections — one on aesthetics and the other on investigations, with an epilogue outlining future work — Fuller and Weizman argue that the production of knowledge in contemporary society increasingly intersects with problems of aesthetics. On that front, they take great pains to reclaim their mobilization of the word “aesthetics” from the term’s pejorative use, which, when the infinitive verb “to aestheticize” is used, tends to signify the surface ornamentation or apolitical beautification of the everyday. Their alternative, they insist, is a social and political aesthetics, a constructive activity that involves a careful attunement to visible aspects of the material world. “[W]eak signals and faint traces” are magnified and multiplied, revealing hidden-in-plain-sight truths that, when synchronized, yield collective positions of possible change. In this way, Fuller and Weizman’s aesthetics is partisan, political, and activist, and it consists of two co-constitutive dimensions: sensing, as the capacity to register or be affected by material, and sense-making, the synthesis of sense-perceptions into knowledge. It is through these two terms — sensing and sense-making — that aesthetics is bridged to investigation, as both become coordinated around the notion of evidence.


In a similar vein to what Fredric Jameson refers to as art’s capacity for the “cognitive mapping” of the otherwise unrepresentable world-system of postmodernity or late capitalism, investigative aesthetics is the construction of a common framework for knowing the world — a “common sense.” But, for Jameson as well as Fuller and Weizman, the potential for cognitive mapping afforded to aesthetics is always necessarily partial and fragmentary with respect to the social totality it seeks to navigate; thus, investigative aesthetics makes no claim to totalizing knowledge, acknowledging and even foregrounding the very limitations placed upon agents and the materials they employ to apprehend, amplify, and reconcile sense-data.


As an epistemological postulate, investigative aesthetics self-reflexively acknowledges its own local embeddedness in the world, which likewise renders it skeptical of claims to unconditional objectivity emanating from established authorities. Importantly, though, this skepticism of incumbent institutional hierarchies that seek monopolies on truth does not lapse into a fatalistic or relativistic viewpoint in which the pursuit of truth as such becomes futile: a caricature all-too-readily drawn by critics of disciplines such as cultural studies, postcolonial studies, literary studies, critical theory, and the like. The investigative practice of Forensic Architecture testifies to the inaccuracy of this image: while truth is never a settled or uncontestable given, it is an urgent and ongoing creation, or — the authors quote filmmaker Harun Farocki — a continuous process of “nest-building.”


¤


The book’s first section on aesthetics catalogs many non–Forensic Architecture artworks, framing each as symptomatic of a wider tendency toward an investigative aesthetics in the sphere of cultural production. Many of the works examined display deep affinities with what has come to be called in art-theoretical scholarship the “social turn,” often referred to synonymously as “socially engaged art” or “social practice art.” Rather than gesturing toward a position-taking political stance for the viewer’s contemplation, social practice art realizes some sort of durational political activity concretely. Emblematic here in Fuller and Weizman’s archive is the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a work co-created by the art groups Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 and b.a.n.g. lab. Fortuitously resonating with Jameson’s directive for the cognitive mapping of late capitalism’s unrepresentability by art, the work takes the form of an open-source GPS-based mapping app developed to assist undocumented migrants crossing the US–Mexico border northward. It strategically directs migrants toward the nearest water cache, whose locations are provided by nonprofit human rights organizations. Here, art does not simply make mimetic pronouncements for justice to spectators from within the antiseptic bounds of the gallery; it takes the form of functional infrastructure directed toward humanitarian ends.


Social practice art, then, implicitly challenges artistic modernism’s claim to autonomy from the utilitarian functions of social reproduction — by mobilizing art within the social sphere and thus dissolving within it. This is a challenge that echoes Fuller and Weizman’s repeated injunction for the transdisciplinary coordination of artists with scientists, programmers, and engineers. It is here that Investigative Aesthetics could perhaps benefit from more dialogue with the recent art-critical scholarship on socially engaged art, such as the work of Claire Bishop, Nato Thompson, and Gregory Sholette, who attend to interventionist art’s political reverberations, or Dave Beech, Kim Charnley, Leigh Claire La Berge, and John Roberts, who attempt to articulate a political-economic basis for art’s fractured autonomy with respect to structural developments in capitalist social relations. The apotheosis of this section is its chapter dedicated to “hyper-aesthetics” — a term they define as a dilation of perception or a heightening of sensitivity — which elegantly runs through an array of art and non-art projects dealing with ecological concerns, including artist Natalie Jeremijenko’s networked communities of mussels and architectural group Territorial Agency’s digital renderings of human-induced oceanographic transformation.


The book’s second section, on investigations, is peppered with analogies between evidence gathering and the close reading of a text. State secrets, intelligence reports, dossiers, deepfakes, ground truths, redactions, leaks, and cover-ups are examined with all the critical armature of literary and cultural theory. An exemplary chapter is titled “The Ear and the Eye,” which begins with a discussion of the identification by Bellingcat, an open-source investigative research group, of a suspected Russian military intelligence operative who, in his attempt to murder double agent Sergei Skripal, killed a British civilian and wounded several others with a Novichok nerve agent. Fuller and Weizman zero in on a comment made by Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, who, when asked about his breakthrough moment, stated that the matching shape of an earlobe across three separate photographs allowed him to confirm the suspect’s ID. The “evidentiary paradigm” that the authors discern in Higgins’s comment — wherein the obsessive focus on a single, relatively minor photographic detail carries with it the potential to blow a case wide open — becomes a window into their meditation on the dialectical relationship between the micro-scale and the macro-scale in investigative practice.


Here they sketch the role played by a variety of inadvertent minutiae, residue, and traces in several historical narratives and fictions, starting with art historian Giovanni Morelli’s use of depicted ears, fingers, and toes in the attribution of old master paintings. From Morelli, such compositional trivialities are liable to escape the attention of even the most skilled forger, who is likely to direct his artistic energies toward depicting the forged painting’s more prominent stylistic features such as subject matter, iconography, or the formal elements of color, tone, and texture. The chapter then moves to Freud, who located the explanatory power of the Morellian method in such artistic subtleties’ seizure of the expressive mechanisms of the unconscious, and then to prototypical detective Sherlock Holmes, who likewise used the miniature physiognomic features of crime victims to identify them. Through these anecdotes, Fuller and Weizman illustrate the surprising mediating role that evidence can play: the way in which incidental bits and scraps traverse levels and scales of knowledge, shifting investigators from the mundane to the monumental, the molecular to the molar, the detail to the historical arc.


It is difficult to succinctly state the stakes of a text that so actively resists distillation into a single argument. And it is likewise sometimes difficult to discern why these practices, as aesthetic practices, are particularly significant or urgent now. Though the authors make reference to a new regime of “aesthetic power” in the 21st century — one that must be confronted on its own terms through aesthetic techniques — their positioning of data and the database at the center of this new regime muddies such a periodization: in what way were 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’s elaborate biological classification tables less of an aesthetic creation than, say, today’s ImageNet database used for the training of image-classifying neural networks? Lucky for the reader, though, such questions are easily swept under the rug, as the pleasure of reading this text is to be found in its vast archive of recent transdisciplinary political-aesthetic practices. In this way, Fuller and Weizman’s book is invaluable as a hyper-aesthetic object itself.


¤


Michael Eby is writer and researcher in the areas of art theory, cultural philosophy, and media studies. His work has been published in Brooklyn RailHyperallergicJacobinMousse MagazineNew Left ReviewRhizomeScreen SlateTribune, and elsewhere.