The Desert Threshold




EYAL WEIZMAN is an Israeli-born, London-based architect, activist, and theorist. He is also a professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, where, in 2010, he established the field of “Forensic Architecture,” which uses sophisticated tools of contemporary architecture to gather evidence about armed conflict for international trials, human rights reports, advocacy groups, and truth commissions. The group’s report on drone warfare was presented to the UN General Assembly in 2013; other reports have been presented to courts in Guatemala, Israel, Italy, and France. Forensic Architecture’s practice is unique in its use of evidence as a starting point for raising a host of theoretical and historical questions about the intersection of contemporary violence and the built environment. This practice informed Weizman’s new book, The Conflict Shoreline (Steidl in association with Cabinet Books, 2015), a richly illustrated volume produced in collaboration with American photographer Fazal Sheikh about the displacement of the Bedouins in the Negev/Naqab desert. The book tells the story of the struggle for al-‘Araqīb, a Bedouin village that has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 80 times as part of the ongoing Israeli campaign to uproot the Bedouin from the northern threshold of the desert. Unlike other frontiers fought over during the Israel-Palestine conflict, this threshold is not demarcated by fences and walls, but advances and recedes in response to cultivation, colonization, and climate change.

I spoke with Weizman in New York this September about the issues he addresses in The Conflict Shoreline, as well as about the larger project of Forensic Architecture.

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GEORGE PROCHNIK: I’d like to begin by having you review the concept of the climactic threshold, which you discuss in your book, and why this marker became, in your phrase, “the conflict shoreline.”

EYAL WEIZMAN: There is a long history of debates about what defines the threshold of the desert. The designation was important because both for the Ottoman Empire and later for the British one it delineated a zone that, although nominally within the imperial “territories,” lay outside their full control and was partially autonomous. It’s obvious why: these empires didn’t always have the economic incentive to govern in the desert. It was more lightly populated and, except when minerals or oil were at stake, had little apparent value. I got interested in the relation between the production of a certain meteorological classification, its cartographic delineation, and a shift in techniques of governance and law. Anyone living near “the threshold of the desert” knows that it’s an ambiguously defined zone, which might shift over the years dozens of kilometers north or south of any mean line. Historically, all along the desert threshold as it extends for thousands of kilometers through the different political units that compose the “Orient” two processes can be identified. The first involves attempts to identify, delineate, and map this line, and the second entails the understanding of the environmental threshold line as a project — that is, something which can be influenced and shifted. Colonial governors attempted to push away that desert line, while extending the zone of agrarian lands by changing the local climate.

The designation of that threshold makes it a target for change: both in terms of arability, and in terms of the law.

Exactly. Shifting a climactic threshold is also shifting the “nomos of the earth” — its legal reality. This entangled colonial relationship to the climate demonstrates what I consider to be the most fundamental omission in the current debate around climate change. Even the most militant environmentalists still regard climate change as the “collateral of history” — the unintended byproduct of industrial development, trade, and transport; whereas I see it as the intention, the very telos, of the colonial project. On the subject of the collateral, human rights activists might have something to contribute to climate activists. When a military claims that such and such people were killed as a collateral effect of our attempt to hit this or that target, our warning lights start flashing — is it really so? Do civilian casualties not sometimes serve a military purpose, becoming, for instance, a component in a policy of deterrence?

How does this link back to the issue of climate change?

The logic of argumentation is similar: climate change is understood as the collateral damage of industrialization. We try to generate wealth — for the few or the many — and “shit happens … it was never our intention to change the climate of the earth.” But was it really never our intention? If we view the notion of climate change from the point of view of colonial history we can see countless examples of climate change engineered as a project. From Australian and American texts about the frontier, to more recent French colonial texts about Algeria, Italian Fascist writing about Libya and Zionist texts about the Negev, colonization is shown as a two-stage event: taking hold of land, and then making it productive. But the latter objective — advancing the frontier of cultivation — involves an explicit attempt to transform local weather. On a larger scale, in the colonial imagination, the planet is perceived as a design project and climate change is one important component of this process. Ideas about cooling hot areas, warming cold ones, making rain, etc., were popular from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. Afforestation, deforestation, and cultivation were observed by many influential figures, including Thomas Jefferson, to affect the general climate in a desirable way. Meteorologists like James Espy (“the Storm King”) proposed that the burning of forests could generate rain to irrigate drier plains, as the critic and philosopher Eduardo Cadava reminds us. This is not to say that the complex processes measured across the globe today are the singular result of colonialist endeavors, but to underscore that the term climate change was initially formulated to describe a project, not a byproduct.

As you eloquently depict in the book, this enhancement of productivity is associated with themes of renewal and fulfillment that carry positive resonances — the notion that a space which had been outside of civilization could be made fruitful.

Areas that were already productive for local peoples, who’d often lived in this environment for generations, had to be transformed and made productive in a different way for the colonists. From this perspective, the relation between capitalism and climate change is inverted: climatic transformation was the precondition for the expansion of capitalism.

This point seems relevant to the larger field of projects that you and your Forensic Architecture team are involved with. If a space is seen as virgin, or desolate — or whatever particular metaphor is invoked — the climate itself needs to be reconfigured to sustain civilization. The climate is constructed in an architectural sense to accommodate agriculture or industry even if there aren’t actually walls and a ceiling containing it. How does this general framework of ideas apply to the specific territory of the Negev and its Bedouin inhabitants?

The desert line was hugely influenced by its European colonizers along its entire length — from the westernmost edges of North Africa through Palestine to Syria, Iraq, and Iran, to the northern frontiers of the Raj, within the borders of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. In all these places, expanding the limits of arable lands put these territories in tension, and involved displacements and extensions of the law, economy, and realms of governance. While studying the long-term history and expanded geography of the “aridity line,” we have to look at local case studies, structures, and traces. The line of thinking we’ve developed was born out of the specific case study of the Bedouin village of al-‘Araqīb in the Negev. The project started when Fazal Sheikh showed me some of the aerial images of the Negev he’s been taking since 2011 and we began talking about what these photographs captured. They revealed traces of a slow-moving conflict, registered across the surface of the desert: displacement of Bedouins, construction of new Israeli towns and military bases, archaeological activity, and agricultural cultivation. The images also beautifully demonstrated the centrality of the desert threshold to this conflict since, as it happens, the village of al-‘Araqīb lies exactly on that line as it’s been established by Israeli meteorologists and lawmakers.

Desert Bloom

THE AL-TŪRI CEMETERY IN AL-ʻARAQĪB, 200mm RPA
(RAINFALL PER ANNUM), Fazal Sheikh, October 9, 2011

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The al-Tūri village in al-ʻAraqīb was first destroyed in July 2010. Those remaining on site moved their homes into the fenced-up area of their ancestral cemetery dating back to 1914. Outside the cemetery fence there are several protest tents, distinct for their blue cloth, marking the area of the destroyed village and the area claimed by the al-Tūris. On the left is one of the branches of the al-ʻAraqīb Stream (Naḥal Faḥar in Hebrew). Behind the cemetery is a small tributary dammed by the al-Tūris to create a number of small fields, seen here freshly plowed. Like all fields in the Negev they were harvested in September, a few weeks before the photograph was taken. The earthworks around the cemetery were undertaken by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in preparation for the extension of the Ambassador Forest. Planting is usually carried out before the rainy season begins in October/November. Since the image was taken the structures within the cemetery compound, including the fence around it, have been removed.

What precisely makes the legal definition of this line?

The state of Israel accepted the designation of the desert threshold developed by a German-Russian scientist named Wladimir Köppen in 1918 — the moment when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the “Orient” fell into European hands. Köppen’s classification established the “aridity line” at the 200 mm isohyet (isohyets are lines connecting all points that have the same amount of average rainfall per year). The rationale for this definition was simple: it’s impossible to cultivate cereals on a flat surface without 200 mm of annual rainfall. Or so it was argued. We know that this has never been true, since in fact the aridity line is not only a meteorological designation, but also one that depends on agricultural knowhow and seed types. That 200 mm threshold connects cereal cultivation with certain ideas of culture and permanent human habitation, with urbanization, economy, and the state. Between any two isohyets on meteorological maps there is a different translucent color band. In Palestine, these bands are darker blue in the north, where parts of the Galilee receive as much as 800 mm of rainfall per year. The gradient of blues thins towards the center of the country and flips over into a light spectrum of yellows over the 200 mm line, then thickens into a spectrum of oranges as one descends south. The line that crosses al-‘Araqīb is located on the same colonial meteorological shoreline that connects areas of South Waziristan to the lower Atlas Mountains in Algeria. There are different kinds of conflicts all along this line — most of them with colonial roots. More locally, Israeli land law does not acknowledge private land ownership of the people that lived and live beyond this line. They’ve developed an inescapable circular logic: it is impossible to cultivate south of this line, therefore the people living south of it must be nomads (which they’ve not been for generations), and nomads have no land rights. The Bedouins, of course, cultivated in the area for hundreds of years, but that agricultural activity was imperceptible by colonial scales of measurement.

Diagram

AGRARIAN SETTLEMENTS AND ANNUAL PRECIPITATION
MARKERS ON TOP OF AN NDVI MAP, Prepared by Jamon
Van Den Hoek, Francesco Sebregondi/Forensic

What are the Bedouins claiming about their legal relationship to this space?

Different Bedouin tribes and groups have been living in the Negev for hundreds of years. They know and document their own history very well. During the 1948 War, most displacements of Palestinians — 400 or more villages and metropolitan centers were cleansed — took place in the north and center of Palestine. The Bedouin displacement took place after the war up until 1953, by which time about 90 percent of the approximately 100,000 Bedouin living in the northern Negev before 1948 had been expelled. These displacements were brutal — communities were strafed from airplanes, massacres occurred, tents were burned, and the displaced Bedouin were made refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, and beyond. Those who survived were concentrated in a kind of native reservation called the Siyāj, which was established in the more salinated and drier part of the desert. The line of Israeli agricultural cultivation of irrigated mono-crops expanded into the areas from which the Bedouin had been displaced, in accord with Ben Gurion’s policy and slogan of “making the desert bloom.” If the desert bloomed, it did so over the ruins of another culture that was erased.

What was the story of the particular community living in al-‘Araqīb?

The people from the al-‘Uqbi family, whose case history the book focuses on, lived in the area of al-‘Araqīb [“the gentle hills”], and were displaced into the Siyāj. The al-Tūris, another family whose story we explored, were similarly forced into the reservation. But Bedouins are the only Palestinians who have effectively exercised the right of return. The al-‘Uqbis and al-Tūris, like other Bedouin families, came back to their ancestral lands many times over many years and put up their homes — people usually think of tents, but Bedouins have various structures of habitation, some hard some soft — over and over again.

After you saw Fazal Sheikh’s photographs and identified this one area in particular as a point of interest, how did the problem faced by the Bedouins there become a project for Forensic Architecture?

An NGO called Zochrot, a feminist, anti-colonialist group established to educate the Israeli public about Palestinian history, was instituting what they called the “Truth Commission on the Responsibility of Israeli Society for the Events of 1948-1960 in the South.” It was anything but state-sanctioned and involved a number of workshops and meetings in which various issues, various testimonies of displacement, were heard and recorded. Bedouin land sales contracts or deeds verifying traditional land ownership that families had kept, and which were ignored by the state, were also presented here. When Debby Farber from Zochrot saw the photographic analysis we were developing together with local Bedouin activists Nūri al-‘Uqbi and Sayāh al-Tūri, she wanted to center the closing event of Zochrot’s truth commission around this project. We are now planning to exhibit this material and conduct a workshop for that event in a series of structures built along the desert threshold where the story itself unfolds.

You write about how the double displacement, climatological and human, has been effected at other political flashpoints around the world as well.

The history of the threshold of climate zones/law cannot be confined within the borders of national states but cuts across them. So our story is at once both local and wraps around the earth like an equator, “the political equator” in the formulation of my friend Teddy Cruz. If we look along the political equator of the desert threshold we can notice an interesting process: while colonialists generally pushed the desert line south, recently another major force, desertification, which is a result of human-induced climate change at a global level, is pushing the threshold in the opposite direction, desertifying entire areas. From North Africa through to Syria we witness this counter force, which to a large extent is a consequence of the original force of colonization. The new desertification impoverishes the farmers, who in recent decades were encouraged by national regimes, from Libya to Syria, to expand cultivation beyond the desert threshold with promises of water where there was none. The progressive abandonment of these same areas today leads to urban migration, to the erection of slums, thereby contributing to urban strife. According to some recent research, the fluctuations of the aridity line — the long monster tail of colonialism — is one of the root causes for the havoc now being wreaked throughout the region. The southern Saharan Sahel — the word literally means shoreline — today represents another shifting line of conflict along its entire length.

It turns out there’s historical continuity to this phenomenon. We undertook our desert study shortly after Forensic Architecture studied drone warfare for the UN special commission Rapporteur, so we’d already gathered much of the relevant locational data about drone strikes. When I superimposed the locations of recent drone strikes in such places as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Gaza onto meteorological maps, the result was surprising: all these attacks took place roughly on or just beyond the 200 mm aridity line. But perhaps it needn’t be so surprising that today’s aerially enforced colonization via drones perpetuates the double-winged type that was pioneered in the 1920s in these very places.

I know that your fascination with Fazal’s contemporary photographs led you to explore archival aerial imagery of the Negev as well as other evidence. What did you find?

There was already a massive archival project under way in this area. It was initiated by Nūri al-‘Uqbi for use in the trial he initiated to defend his land rights against the state. Al-‘Uqbi runs his own “one man NGO” — the Association for the Defense of Bedouin Rights — out of his home. It contains an archive of documents testifying to his ownership of lands in al-‘Araqīb, as well as documents concerning the larger rights of Bedouins in the Negev. Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel, who was the main expert witness for the al-‘Uqbi family in this trial, launched another archival endeavor together with Palestinian academics and activists Ahmad Amara and Ismael Abu-Saad. Together, they collected a body of evidence that documented Bedouin land tenure and agricultural cultivation — wheat cultivation — going far back in time. Although they were ambiguous, to say the least, about engaging with the Israeli legal system since the law had served as a principal instrument of dispossession, the court cases were excellent catalysts for discovering and collecting further evidence in support of the historical record. Ultimately, in almost every one of these cases, the state has ruled against the Bedouin plaintiffs. Israel has recognized no Bedouin tenure south of the 200 mm line. The 200 mm line operates like a knife. Underneath it there is only state land that could be leased to the kibbutzim and moshavim, among other functions. Where there are no land rights the state can do as it pleases. For many years Israel has used the desert to absorb everything the state needs but people do not want to see: dumps, industrial zones, toxic hazards, Israel’s “secret” nuclear reactor, military bases, training sites, and an archipelago of prison camps for illegalized migrants and refugees coming to Israel from another desert threshold: that of the Sahel.

How could Bedouin rights be legally validated?

I must briefly outline the way Israel used the law as a mechanism of dispossession, which involved delegitimizing the Bedouin presence at three key historical junctures. In 1858, following the Crimean war and a cycle of droughts, the Ottoman Empire modernized its land tenure laws. Ownership was linked to cultivation. In order to increase cultivation, the Ottomans granted some form of private land ownerships to farmers who cultivated the land, and they took land away from those who neglected it. So the first important question for the Israeli courts was whether Bedouins were actively cultivating parts of the Negev around 1858. For this period there are no photographic records, and since the state didn’t admit Bedouin oral tradition as evidence, the analysis of this period revolved primarily around written accounts by Orientalist travelers — all sorts of religious scholars, cartographers, soldiers, and spies were roaming through Palestine at the time. The second time marker was the establishment of the British Mandate and the institution of its land tenure system in the early 1920s. Here the question became, were Bedouins occupying these areas before the British instituted their own land system, and did they register their lands? And for this period photography and aerial photography from both world wars were added into the dossier as important evidence. The last time marker for the court cases was the period around 1948. In this instance, it was necessary to establish whether the Bedouin were cultivating beyond the desert threshold before the establishment of the state, and also whether the state — implicitly or explicitly — recognized these settlements around the time of the 1948 War.

Desert Bloom 2

TREES PLANTED BY THE JEWISH NATIONAL FUND ON
SAND DUNES, SOUTH OF BEERSHEBA, >100 MM RPA,
Fazal Sheikh, November 14, 2011

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These trees were planted between 1950 and 1952 when the JNF resumed planting forests following the 1948 war. The area, between Wādi al-Naʽīm and Wādi al-Mshash, was part of the territory of the al-ʻAzāzme tribe. These years were particularly plentiful with rain allowing the otherwise difficult task of planting eucalyptus and tamarisk in arid areas. The afforestation was meant to create windbreaks and stabilize the dunes.

I found it remarkable in the trial transcripts cited in the book that 19th-century travelers accounts I knew from literary studies were being given credibility as legal testimony in contemporary court cases with such high stakes. The language in these accounts is just saturated with theological/biblical references that bespeak a wealth of biases. There was no pretense to accurate description since everything was being fit into the context of a particular theological vision.

These account were some of the only ones the court was willing to admit as evidence because they were written down. There are many Bedouin accounts that have been passed down orally. But this material the court conveniently dismissed as hearsay. While the accounts of people who were unfamiliar with the land, who were looking to have a biblical/religious experience and were literally traveling with a Bible in hand, were perceived by the state as legitimate testimony precisely because the travelers’ vision of the land was of its abandonment. They believed the land was awaiting a kind of resurrection.

Land abandoned by the Lord.

And also, of course, abandoned by the people who had not been its good custodians. This fit the Zionist narrative and in many ways created it. Hence the Christian return, and later the Jewish one, would be perceived as a climatic force with the power to revive the land. The Arabs in this scenario were not “the sons of the desert but rather the fathers of the desert,” as Edward Henry Palmer — one of these Orientalist travelers — nastily wrote, and generations of Zionists after Palmer repeated. Culture and climate coincided. The Arabs’ occupation of the land was understood as a process of desertification. Orientalist travelers “confirmed” this misconception when they saw the great abandoned ruins of Nabatean, Roman, and Byzantine towns deep in the desert. These places were, indeed, abandoned in the early Muslim period. Today we know that their abandonment was due to a series of drought years that caused the aridity line to shift north in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Italian colonial project in Libya, by the way, had a similar relation to archaeology. The Italian Fascists found abandoned Roman ruins in the desert and argued that these ruins justified their return as an act of revival. The Arabs caused desertification while the Europeans “made the desert bloom.” The exact same metaphor was used by Mussolini in the 1930s before it was invoked by Ben Gurion in the 1950s. Both leaders thought they brought the weather with them.

Their policies are framed as an act of restoration.

Yes, the restoration of climate and of culture had to go hand in hand.

Your book reveals how these projects that can appear so ecologically benign, including the introduction of new sorts of irrigation technologies, carry enormous environmental and human costs.

Novel irrigation techniques have been employed all along the aridity line from Algeria through the rest of North Africa to the Great Syrian Desert and beyond. But these techniques almost always involved tapping into deep aquifer water that had not been tapped before. Mining technology from the industrial revolution was appropriated for the mining of water. But there was also a notion of introducing the flora of more temperate climatic zones into Palestine. Otto Warburg, an agricultural specialist who was Theodor Herzl’s deputy, promised Herzl, who was worried about bringing European Jewry into land with such a hot, alien climate, that by planting certain species he was going to increase precipitation and reduce temperatures, thereby making the place acceptable to a European sensibility. Current studies about the fragile environment of the desert threshold show the massive damage to the ecosystem that was generated by planting trees that sapped away the little available water from the lower slopes of the hilly landscape and led to the destruction of much of the existing flora.

Let’s go back to the aerial imagery. What were you looking for specifically in these photographs?

Aerial images of the desert — both those of Fazal Sheikh as well as older archival ones — are rather unique. The desert preserves traces of human life for longer periods and in a clearer form than is the case with other types of environments. The air is also more conducive to photography because it is generally less filtered by moisture the further into the desert one flies. So from above this clarity makes the surface of the earth “legible” as a photograph-like surface of human inscription. Defending Palestine in World War I, it made sense for the Ottomans to fortify along the threshold of the desert — luring the British expeditionary forces into the desert the same way the Czar lured Napoleon into the frozen tundra, and encountering them when the land became more hospitable. When the expeditionary force moved into the Negev, the most basic elements in its logistical supply chain were fodder and water for 30,000 beasts! Warfare was also a biological problem — and landscape conditions were crucial to navigating this problem. The fiercest battle happened along the threshold of the desert and in consequence a large number of aerial photographs — a practice just then being systematized for the first time — were taken of this area. Several German Flucht battalions that arrived in Palestine shortly before these battles were in charge of this photography for the Ottoman military. Their images capture the state of the Naqab/Negev at that time.

Was it these World War I images that became crucial to the archival work you describe in your book that served to verify the presence of Bedouin settlements just before the British took over administration of Palestine from the Ottomans?

They were the first of several sources. One of the most famous winged battalions was a Bavarian squadron, the 304, which included some of the very best aerial photographers of the era. Incidentally, they also inaugurated the practice of aerial archaeology, when they took photographs of biblical sites and ruins to bring home with them. But it was mainly their images of trenches and fortification along the threshold of the desert that we could use to identify elements that were not the intended subject of the photographs, but which had relevance to our case. At the edges of these images we could make out traces of Bedouin cultivation: tents, wells, the residue of livestock pens — a range of markers signifying habitation that emerged close to the film’s “threshold of detectability.”

That idea of repurposing is a good segue to the larger practice of Forensic Architecture. You’ve spoken about how the history of aviation, photography, and the desert threshold got entangled early in the 20th century when Western powers began policing populations in sparsely inhabited areas from the air. Churchill referred to this process as “aerially enforced colonization.” The repurposing you’ve done to demonstrate habitation seems a form of aerial de-colonization, or at least of providing potential legal grounds for that endeavor. And this undertaking is very representative of the work Forensic Architecture is pioneering around the world.

When the Second Intifada began I read a piece by Edward Said that elaborated his idea of counter-cartographies. He was lamenting the absence of Palestinian cartography — deploring the way that the Palestinians and their friends had abandoned the field of geographical representation to the Israelis. I saw something very intriguing in this. On the one hand, Said was someone who wrote very critically about mapping as an imperial practice of domination and governance and now he was calling for the inversion of the cartographic gaze, the de-colonizing of cartography. Working with B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, we responded to this by drawing the first map of the West Bank that depicted the precise contours of the settlements. We were trying to show that crimes can be undertaken on the drawing boards, committed not by military people but by architects and planners. It took a year to complete, but we learned that maps can also be tools of resistance.

How did Said’s work on the idea of counter-cartography inspire your larger practice?

We understand Forensic Architecture to be a counter forensic agency along similar lines, though most of our work occurs on a smaller scale: analyses of specific incidents and cases through the study of their architectural traces — mainly those caught on media. This is necessary because state violence today is two things: both a violence against people and things, and a violence against the evidence that violence has taken place. Denial is the prerequisite for continuous perpetration. The map of the West Bank was completed in 2002. By 2005, mapping changed forever with the immediate availability of satellite imagery, and became an image-based practice. Contemporary mapping includes not only these media, but also what we call “image complexes” — the relation between multiple images from the ground that are generated around specific incidents. To view events within the image complex is not a passive act; it requires an architectural construction. 3-D models can enable one to configure the relation between a large multiplicity of images that might include CCTV footage, images shot from cellphones, etc. Architecture thus acts not as a primary evidence, but as an optical device.

Image Complex

The Image Complex’: The 2014 Gaza war, Forensic Architecture
for Amnesty International, 2015

Along with counter-cartography, this also entails a form of counter-surveillance. I was struck by a recent discussion in which you were asked to critique the rise of surveillance technology and you made the point that while in some ideal world perhaps there would be no CCTV footage or what have you, we live in a super-monitored world and we need to look at how these kinds of technology can be repurposed to serve political ends we want to advance rather than simply surrendering the capacities to their officially designated function.

Yes, we have recently used CCTV footage from a security camera on a Palestinian shopfront to build a model that confirmed the intentional killing of two Palestinian teenagers by an Israeli soldier. Every image is a site of conflict. The politics of images is not predetermined by the technology they were captured in — whether CCTV or satellite — but depends on its specific use and requires a careful reading, interpretative labor, and strong argumentation to be turned into useful evidence. We also need to understand what can never be gleaned from these images, to be attuned to what has not and can’t be captured, to what has been erased, and to what could never be represented.

You used the evocative phrase, “the threshold of detectability.”

It’s the moment just before a film becomes illegible when the nature of an object caught on film is ambiguous. Is it there, is it not? When the single silver salt grain on the molecular level of the film is as large as the object it represents — as was the case with the wells or gravesites we were looking for in huge magnifications of RAF photographs of the threshold of the desert taken in the 1940s — these questions become absolutely vital. Sometimes life at the threshold of the desert depends on what can be seen at the threshold of detectability within these images.

That’s beautifully put and leads me to one final point. Reading your work and seeing in many Forensic Architecture projects how you make use of hundreds, even thousands of images that are then dissected, taxonomized, and aggregated in all sorts of complex ways only made possible by recent technology, I was thinking how as a society we increasingly navigate space through screens and projected layers of image-based information — whether it’s through our smart devices or larger state and corporate platforms, or other interventions into hard space. It’s almost as though what Forensic Architecture has undertaken also involves the creation of an architecture of these images themselves, which we’re otherwise just buried in — collapsing beneath.

Yes, our practice deals with architecture on many levels. We look at structures like building surveyors, and we also look at the physical architecture of photographs — the topography of silver salts, and the spatial relations between multiple images. But there’s also another important architectural dimension for Forensic Architecture: it’s not only that we look at architecture as evidence, but, at its best and whenever possible, we seek to begin conceptualizing new kinds of forums. For evidence to become legally or politically legible it needs a forum. But forums are not necessarily courts. When such forums do not exist or are shown — as in the case of the trial of al-‘Araqīb — to be extremely biased, new forums have to be established. The Zochrot Truth Commission is one such alternative forum. We are assembling it at the threshold of the desert, on the 200 mm line, in collaboration with the people who are struggling to remain there. We will build the physical framework for the forum on one of the last weekends of the year, because this way we can guarantee ourselves a few days before the authorities come along to demolish it. It will be an activist forum, political, historical, and citizen-organized, involving the stakeholders, lawyers, and scientists among many others. We know that after the weekend the bulldozers will come.

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George Prochnik is the author most recently of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.


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