Death, destruction and endless streams of refugees have become a common theme in the documentation of war, to the point of becoming almost numbing in their repetitiveness.
However, another deadly killer dominates those areas of conflict; one which doesn’t immediately meet the eye.
Forensic Architecture’s Director, Professor Eyal Weizman, exposes in his latest exhibition at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery states and corporations weaponising the air, through chemical attacks and forms of environmental violence.
He explains how human exposure to neurotoxicants from the explosion of bombs, bullets and other ammunition inflicts long-term health hazards.
“The air we breathe is being weaponised,” says the British-Israeli architect. “It is something that we increasingly see being used in protests, such as the protest following the murder of George Floyd in the US, we see it in Chile, we saw it in Tahrir Square [in Egypt] and we still see the Israeli occupation forces using it against Palestinians.”
“The toxicity of clouds is the most indistinct kind of weapon that attacks environments and people on multiple scales – from a single tear gas grenade to repeated chemical air strikes in Syria and other places that intoxicate entire environments on a huge continental scale.”
Founded in 2010, Forensic Architecture (FA), a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, has been investigating human rights violations and has developed different tools and methodologies to study and visualise models of hazardous clouds in collaboration with scientists, mathematicians and activists.
Using collections of multimedia retrieved from mobile phone footage, social media, Google Maps and 3D reconstructions to acoustic models and testimony, the exhibition, titled Cloud Studies, delves deep into the details of chemical attacks in Syria, the impact of the 2020 Beirut Port explosion as well as the herbicidal warfare in Gaza, revealing the intentional destruction of Palestinian livelihoods by Israel.
Displayed on a wide-screen in large font at its Manchester exhibition are the words: “Bomb clouds contain everything that a building once was: cement, plaster, plastic, glass, timber, fabric, paperwork, medicines, sometimes even human remains. Bomb clouds are architecture in gaseous form…”
To assemble evidence is a complex construction, notes Weizman. “First and foremost, we use testimony of people exposed to violence and combine it with images that they either take themselves, or possible satellite images or material evidence that are available. And then we use that material to construct something architecturally to bring it all together because architecture is a very good medium to build cases.”
Weizman’s multinational, interdisciplinary team follows a set of broad principles that underpin all their work, acting as practical tools to achieve this ambition.
On 4 April 2017, the Syrian regime killed at least 100 civilians in a chemical weapons attack that carried the deadly nerve agent Sarin on Khan Sheikhoun. Harrowing images of dead children and writhing, asphyxiated victims prompted an immediate international outcry.
By creating accurate models of the debris and a model based on bomb diagrams for a report by the Human Rights Watch accusing the Syrian government of ‘widespread and systematic use’ of chemical weapons, FA found concrete proof of Syria’s direct hand in the attack.
The incriminating evidence, it says, was inadvertently provided by Syria’s ally, the Russian government.
“A lot of the violence takes place in urban areas amongst buildings, where neighbourhoods are targeted and civilians die in their homes. We need to understand that architecture is a good optic to understand the urban nature of conflict and colonial violence,” Weizman explains.
FA’s work has been presented as evidence in courts around the world, before United Nations’ panels, and in cooperation with nongovernmental organisations such as Amnesty International and rights group B’Tselem.
“Through our work, people are educated on the importance of solidarity between complexes and that is what is important for us. We are all under the same sky and we all breathe the same air,” Weizman says.
“We need solidarity across borders, between one struggle and the rest, between one settler colonial situation and others, between the black lives liberation struggle and the Palestinian liberation struggle.”