Combining art, technology, and law to tackle the difficult history of the Western Balkans

Author: 
Dr Iva Glisic

17 February 2022

 

Over the past decade, forensic aesthetics has emerged as a new interdisciplinary field, designed as a bridge between artistic and legal practice. Most commonly associated with the work of London-based research agency Forensic Architecture—a cohort of artists, architects, software designers, investigative journalists, filmmakers, scientists and lawyers—forensic aesthetics is a practice by which evidentiary techniques are deployed for examining and documenting state and corporate violence, human rights violations and environmental destruction around the world. The material gathered and produced to reconstruct these violations—from photographs, audio files and film essays, to witness testimonies and architectural models—constitutes a form of creative practice that has gained significant currency within artistic, legal and advocacy contexts.

Throughout the 2010s, a series of collaborative endeavours between Forensic Architecture and artists from the countries of the former Yugoslavia have seen the techniques of forensic aesthetics used to gather and present evidence about war crimes that occurred in the Balkans during the 1990s. While attempts to examine and openly discuss these crimes have largely been undermined by the expansion of nationalist politics in Yugoslav successor states, the domain of art has emerged as a critical platform for disrupting the official erasure of these atrocities. By developing projects that draw on the theory and practice of forensic aesthetics, artistic groups in this region have helped to open new avenues for public debate about the history of socialist Yugoslavia and its violent dissolution in the early 1990s, and call for urgent scrutiny of how this recent past has impacted political, economic and cultural life in the region today.

Belgrade-based art collective Four Faces of Omarska stands as an exemplar of this creative practice. Established by artist Milica Tomić in 2010, Four Faces of Omarska brings together practitioners from the domain of art, architecture, political science, law and philosophy, and investigates the atrocities committed during the break-up of socialist Yugoslavia through a case study of the violent transformation of the Omarska site in north-western Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ‘four faces’ refer to four key points of transformation of this site, which served as a mining complex during the socialist era; a detention camp during the Yugoslav wars; once again a mining complex since 2004, albeit now owned and run by a multinational corporation; and a site for the filming of a 2009 historic drama. Four Faces of Omarska focuses on identifying relevant texts, photographs, video and audio materials, media and academic publications, and legal documents to offer a systematic re-reading of the history of the Omarska site. In this process, the group renders visible the complex set of political, economic and cultural interests that have shaped this location, provides a more detailed account of the site’s recent history, and offers a counterpoint to the fragmented and revisionist accounts endorsed by ruling elites in successor states.

In 2012, Forensic Architecture and Four Faces of Omarska came together to work on a project entitled Omarska: Memorial in Exile—a striking film essay based on a joint research trip to Bosnia. Centred around an investigation of the Omarska mining complex, the artists search for “residual clues that might disclose violence in this now prosaic place.” This work includes location analysis, mapping of the wider mining complex (where mass graves from the 1990s have been found), and the reconstruction of architecture on the site—including buildings that had originally been used for administration, equipment storage, and as an employee cafeteria, but which had been repurposed during the war to house prisoners. This process of forensic investigation is intersected with footage from trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia pertaining to wartime executions in Omarska—events that remain largely unknown to the wider public in the region. Focus then shifts to examine an ongoing dispute between the local community who wish to erect a memorial to victims in Omarska and the new corporate owners of the mine. Meanwhile, the location is used as the backdrop of a historic blockbuster film, which promotes the positive, patriotic reading of the past favoured by the local ruling elites.

In exposing Omarska as a site where nationalism, global capitalism and art combine to erase evidence of past crimes, Omarska: Memorial in Exile captures the core principles of forensic aesthetics. This is a type of creative practice that often starts from a specific point—a controversy, a local debate, an accident—and from there follows different investigative leads to reconstruct key events. Contributing artists will typically focus on identifying evidence about these events that are already in the public domain, potentially visible to all, and weave them together into “powerful statements of fact” (Fuller and Weizman, p. 19). The aesthetic aspect of these projects lies not in beautification or contemplation but in developing the capacity for careful attunement, noticing, and sense making of these disparate pieces of information, which otherwise might escape the attention of casual observers.

These creative undertakings seek not merely to question and dismantle official narratives about controversial events, but indeed to build new and alternative narratives. As Forensic Architecture members Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman observe, the main challenge that we face today is not a lack of evidence, but rather an abundance of it. As they note, those who deny war crimes do not “seek to remove information, say images, clearly showing their responsibility, but rather to drown these within a flood of other images and information” (Fuller and Weizman, p. 170). The crime thus continues through different means: “denial, the cover-up, the counter-accusations” (Fuller and Weizman, p. 239). Forensic aesthetics provides an avenue for truth building: as forensic methodology serves to uncover evidence, the application of an aesthetic sensibility brings the relationship between this evidence to the fore while simultaneously offering an ethical position, inviting observers to carefully explore difficult issues rather than permitting them to develop “an anaesthesia to political injustice” (Fuller and Weizman, p. 37).

Production by Four Faces of Omarska and the work of Forensic Architecture together points to a larger contemporary trend, which can be described as the emergency turn in art. The past decade has seen repeated calls for an artform that is able to recognise and face the state of emergency that now clearly defines our daily lives. In his 2014 manifesto, artist Krzysztof Wodiczko called for a “new, intelligent, proactive and complex civic art” that could cut across public, political and cultural domains, and bring together different forms of artistic production in order to articulate an “emergency response” to contemporary issues that would otherwise remain “ignored, neglected or suppressed.” Moreover, in his 2019 study on propaganda art for the 21st century, artist Jonas Staal challenges the stereotype of propaganda art as something belonging exclusively to a totalitarian past, and reminds us that this type of art has historically also been a force of democratisation, transformation and mobilisation, which we need today more than ever. Philosopher Santiago Zabala adds to this chorus, proposing a move towards emergency aesthetics as a type of artistic production that can counter the political neutralisation of urgent issues, from climate crisis to migration, and open new avenues for challenging the status quo.

Collective, participatory, research-based and politically engaged, the work of Four Faces of Omarska and Forensic Architecture has captured the call for us to recognise that today we are facing a state of emergency that is often produced through obfuscation or displacement of urgent issues. These artists draw attention to the fact that our current era makes the work of forensic aesthetics all the more urgent, and provides an important reference point for thinking about how to act against the politics of neutralisation through organisation, collaboration and coordinated action.

 

References

Fuller, Matthew and Eyal Weizman, Investigative Aesthetics: Conflict and Commons in the Politics of Truth (London: Verso, 2021). Here.

Schuppli, Susan, Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2020). Here.

Staal, Jonas, Propaganda Art in the 21st Century (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2019). Here.

Wodiczko, Krzysztof, “The Transformative Avant-Garde, A Manifest for the Present,” Third Text 28, No. 2 (2014): 111-122. Here.

Zabala, Santiago, Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). Here.

 

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Updated:  28 April 2022/Responsible Officer:  Freilich Project/Page Contact:  Herbert & Valmae Freilich Project