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Peeling Back the Layers

A new book, 'Investigate Aesthetics', argues that artists and architects can reveal aspects of politics that all too often stay hidden in the media and the courtroom.

Credit: Joos Mind / Getty Images

French director Jean Luc-Godard made a distinction between films which were about politics, and political approaches to filmmaking itself. The content on screen may have particular themes and aim to share certain messages, but the filmmaking process has its own considerations to be challenged and considered – aesthetic forms are not neutral, and information has a politics and aesthetics all of its own.

Investigative Aesthetics, a new book by Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman, founder of the research agency Forensic Architecture, raises these questions again, but also poses new ones. The argument represents a significant intervention, especially when we consider the source. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018, Forensic Architecture campaign for human rights across galleries and courtrooms, shining a spotlight on corruption, cover-ups, and abuse by state actors.

They have faced significant pressure for their political stances. Weizman is banned from entering the US; when invited to take part in the Whitney Biennial, they investigated vice chair of the board of trustees, Warren B. Kanders, for his links to weapons manufacturing; and when attempts were made to censor a recent exhibition at Manchester’s Whitworth gallery, addressing the use of tear gas in Palestine, they demanded it be shut until the full content was restored.

The notion of ‘post-truth’ is often framed as an institutional crisis. The liberal response has tended towards the defence of familiar authorities, from academia, to the mainstream media, the police, and even the FBI. Rather than reaffirming the ‘liberal epistemic order’, Fuller and Weizman look towards artists, lawyers, architects, and others not typically associated with activism who might show a way forward.

In particular, today a generation of artists are increasingly utilising their work to speak truth to power while more conventional actors within the political sphere make use of open-source videos and produce alternative imagery. Their attention is particularly drawn towards the aesthetics of the war on terror and the rise of social media as the terrain of contemporary politics.

The prevailing concept of aesthetics can be traced back to the eighteenth-century philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, which initiated the basis for art history as a specialist discipline and the related concepts of taste and beauty. The contemporary field is more concerned with what followed: the feminist and postcolonial projects to upend the canon, drawing attention to the forms of power and exclusion upon which their authority relies.

Investigative Aesthetics operates outside of that lineage, or at the least, represents a significant diversion from it. Instead, Fuller and Weizman are going back to the original Greek root of the word, which relates to perception. From this expansive starting point, they explore sense and sense-making in its fullest political terms: understanding the systemic forces of capitalism as well as an individual’s sense of morality.

Such a wide scope invites a reconsideration of who and what is given agency, particularly with an environmental consideration, which could reorient us towards more collaborative models of organisation. Yet, just as our senses can be attuned to injustice, we can be manipulated, distracted, and overwhelmed. Under the view of CCTV and algorithms, a push for recognition is not always an ideal strategy: means of evasion, escape, and camouflage are important too. To be politicised is to be alert to the conditions of the world.

But what is to be done? From the efforts by artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko to identify pollution by paying close attention to animals, to the tracking of unrecorded migrant deaths at sea by Forensic Oceanography, the examples in this book take a wide range of strategies that opens up a vital dialogue. But it is worth drawing out what is distinct about this framing of aesthetics within politics. The first phase of the Grenfell inquiry, for instance, involved collecting survivor testimony. Written sequentially in a standard report, the format meant key moments, such as two individuals passing each other on a stairwell, could be hundreds of pages apart. When Forensic Architecture developed a comprehensive 3D model, this offered a more complete picture of the building’s architecture and events. That they often share such work within museums and galleries, described as ‘forums’, demonstrates their distinct approach further.

While the term ‘investigation’ might prompt the image of a detective, investigative aesthetics as a practice shows closer affinities towards critical theory than the police. Citing attempts to ‘peel back the layers’ of reality to reveal the truth, investigative aesthetics contrasts with the formal processes of the law which accept only the most narrow concept of causality to establish responsibility. Considering the full scope of causality is central, for example, in understanding how inequality drives crime.

The idea of investigation is elaborated upon further. The book thrashes out a debate, told in the form of an allegory, which draws contrasts between the leaking of state secrets by figures like Julian Assange, which involved significant risk for those involved, and the investigations into already available open-source material taken by Bellingcat. As ‘every secret operation exists in the world’, they inevitably leave breadcrumbs attesting to their existence. Incidents such as when an infographic from the running app Strava accidentally revealed the location of military bases prove the point.

By unmooring aesthetics from questions of taste and judgement, the political
dimension of sensation comes to the fore. While the role of art is often argued on almost defensive terms, investigative aesthetics has a clear, urgent role in an age shaped by post-truth politics. The use of the term ‘aesthetics’, as well as Forensic Architecture’s ample presence within the art world, naturally invites such comparisons. Neither position is mutually exclusive, necessarily: but they are distinct. Fuller and Weizman are proposing a new set of relations between institutions, organisations, and practices, reimagining power to address complex shifts in knowledge.

It’s hard to disagree, exactly, but something vital would be lost if all artists could do was speak truth to power. Within the history of the Left’s political imaginary, it was often art’s lack of instrumentalisation that opened up fruitful questions around identity and labour. The worthiness of Investigative Aesthetics‘ concerns lends it serious weight, but their approach doesn’t solve contentious debates about the politics of culture.

Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman’s Investigative Aesthetics is available now from Verso.

About the Author

Chris Hayes is an Irish writer and editor based in London. He writes on contemporary art with reference to fringe internet culture, radical politics, grassroots practice, gentrification, masculinity, and the legacy of Irish art history. While running an independent art magazine, he published a special TORY HATE issue.