As on-going events in Syria remind us daily, on-the-ground access to spaces of conflict and violence, are often limited to a handful of selected journalists whose every move is monitored by state authorities. However these restrictions are being countered by new modes of media activism from blogging to mobile phone uploads and even occasionally trophy-videos, a perverse form of media capture produced by the perpetrators of violence itself. Such was the case in Sri Lanka with the release of the infamous execution video. Generating these digital materials on the part of activists confers grave risk onto those who record and share such data, the recent murder of a Syrian blogger, but one example of the military crackdown on citizen journalism. It does however provide an unprecedented repository of potential evidence for developing legal actions around questions of human rights violations and war crimes.
While the integrity of metadata and legal implications of splicing and editing can always be argued as compromising the evidentiary status of such uploaded media materials, at present they offer crucial insight into violent events unfolding around the world to which we have limited access. Even the UN Security Council debates around the US invasion of Iraq were to a large extent organised around visual imagery secured through remote sensing apparatuses rather than operatives on-the-ground, irrespective of the wilful misreading of the image data they gathered. In short, remote controlled vision machines (satellites and drones) and the handheld devices of citizen journalists working independently of news-desks marks a shift in the ways in which human rights violations will increasingly be charted and mapped and the ways in which the spaces of conflict themselves will increasingly become known or offer up information.
In recognising and working through this shift, Forensic Architecture, has developed a form of spatial analysis, which we term “video-to-space”, which refers generally to the use of moving image footage to synthesise a chain of events in relationship to a crime or legal debate. When cameras are directed towards an event they “hoover up” extraneous information (time of day, location, elevation, exit and entry points into a given space, repeat characters that appear across multiple media captures, trajectory of munitions etc.) that can prove useful for HR investigators and legal advocates who need to be able to unravel complex and perhaps chaotic events in order to reverse-engineer a timeline of actions. Within each video-frame an archive of supplementary information is encrypted that can be cross-referenced with other similar pieces of footage or other kinds of media such as stills to produce a comprehensive spatial model. This reconstruction technique (video analytics in combination with parametric modelling and graphic illustrations) can be used to shed light on situations in which there may be a high degree of ambiguity as to how a certain event unfolded or in which there is a high degree of spatial complexity as to what actually happened.
Our work in the area of video-to-space analysis is exemplified by the investigation in the death of Bassem Abu Rahma, a Palestinian protestor killed by a tear gas grenade shot by Israeli Defense Forces in 2009. Forensic Architecture’s report (produced in conjunction with Attorney Michael Sfard, the Israeli Human Rights organization B’Tselem, and SITU Studio, NY) was instrumental in re-opening a legal file that had been closed due to the alleged legality of the degree at which the munition was fired.