Terror Contagion by FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE with LAURA POITRAS
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December 2nd, 2021
FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE with LAURA POITRAS
With narration by Edward Snowden and a sonification by Brian Eno
Forensic Architecture courageously probes violence, injustice and corruption. The research group’s projects zoom both in and out from, for example, an explosion, a murder, an act of unlawful detention and torture, a chemical attack or a migrant shipwreck, focusing on the minutiae while also framing the events in a wider context. Its investigative aesthetic is akin to putting time under a magnifying glass, while space is reconstructed through multiple lenses and perspectives. An array of methods and technologies are deployed: opensource intelligence gathering, architectural software, volumetric studies, 3D renderings, recreations of crime scenes, spatial and temporal cartographies, satellite imagery, sound-mapping and machine learning data analysis, as well as witness testimonials. All these contribute to a growing catalogue of investigations of investigations, resulting in a form of citizens’ counter forensics. In an age of surveillance and right-wing “post-truth,” Forensic Architecture forges a new politics and poetics of evidence gathering and truth production, resulting in a significant contribution to legal and aesthetic discourse, while helping us to re-imagine what an engaged political art could look like.
In Terror Contagion, the research group has used the condition of global lockdown to turn its gaze to the digital violence of cyber-weapons. The investigation Digital Violence: How the NSO Group Enables State Terror, supported by Amnesty International and The Citizen Lab, examined dozens of targets of state surveillance – fellow investigators, journalists, opposition figures and activists, including close friends of the research group – to map the terrain of a new digital battlefield in which the state wages war against civil society worldwide. Contagion is the operative metaphor for this ongoing investigation of Israeli cyber-weapons manufacturer NSO Group and the much-discussed abuses enabled by its malware Pegasus, sold to governments across the world and used to target human rights defenders, activists and journalists. As an advanced state-level cyberespionage tool, Pegasus can be covertly installed on mobile phones and other devices, enabling operators of the tool to read text messages and emails, track calls and location, collect passwords, and activate microphones and cameras. The 2021 global Pegasus Project revelations rattled the world as a list containing thousands of potential “infections” of high-profile public figures was leaked.
Contagion and its corresponding terror are mapped in the immersive installation, entitled Digital Violence: The Spatial Database presented at the MAC. We are brought into the workings of an ever-expanding digital platform visualizing over a thousand data points documenting digital infections and physical attacks, as well as other related incidents. A sense of pervasive menace is heightened by an accompanying data sonification, a collaboration with renowned musician and producer Brian Eno.
Collectively titled “The Pegasus Stories,” the six videos in the platform, which give voice to activists who have been targeted with Pegasus, anchor the investigation in the lives of real people and their grounded struggles. Narrated by Edward Snowden, renowned whistleblower and President of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, these videos are the first of their kind to point to the human cost in the intersection between state and corporate surveillance.
Terror Contagion also includes Forensic Architecture’s investigation into NSO Group’s COVID-19 contact-tracing technology named “Fleming.” It examines a sample of a database left unprotected by NSO containing tens of thousands of entries of personal data in time and space belonging to unsuspecting civilians. Significantly, the exposed data included location information from countries in which NSO’s Pegasus spyware was reportedly used, the source of which remains unexplained.
The exhibition also features a new film by acclaimed documentary filmmaker and artist Laura Poitras, a long-time collaborator of Forensic Architecture, who accompanied the research agency throughout the investigative process. Poitras’s film is part of an anthology of short films, The Year of the Everlasting Storm, executive produced by renowned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Poitras won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on Snowden’s historic leaks of the US National Security Agency’s domestic and global mass surveillance program in 2013, documented in her chilling Academy-award winning film Citizenfour. Poitras has herself experienced invasive surveillance by different US agencies and, as recently revealed, high-level CIA officials had lobbied to designate Poitras as an “agent of foreign power” to pave the way for her prosecution.
Also included is a 2014 project by Forensic Architecture, The Enforced Disappearance of the Ayotzinapa Students, which investigated the horrific attack on a group of student teachers in the town of Iguala, Mexico. The assailants were local police, in collusion with criminal organizations, and other branches of the Mexican security forces, including state and federal police and the military. At the end of a night that has become an indelible and defining moment in the history of modern Mexico, six people were dead, forty wounded, and forty-three students were forcibly disappeared. The whereabouts of those students remains unknown. Reporting in 2017 by The Citizen Lab revealed that members of Centro Prodh – Forensic Architecture’s collaborators in investigating the disappearance of the Mexican students – had been hacked using Pegasus.
In the Ayotzinapa investigation, Forensic Architecture showed how the lead Federal investigator on this case – Tomás Zerón de Lucio – relied on confessions extracted under torture to manipulate the accounts of the disappearance of the students. It was Zerón’s office that had reportedly purchased a license of NSO’s Pegasus, likely to surveil Forensic Architecture’s Mexican partners.
Zerón was subsequently charged by the incoming Mexican administration with torture and enforced disappearance. He was issued an INTERPOL arrest warrant and fled Mexico, first entering Canada. His last recorded movement was in August 2019 in Israel, where he is believed to be currently hiding. Forensic Architecture is at present working with the parents of the disappeared students to call for Zerón’s extradition to Mexico.
Exhibition by Forensic Architecture, co-produced with the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
In Collaboration With
Laura Poitras/Praxis Films
The Citizen Lab
with Brian Eno
Sarah Su (Sound)
Bethany Edgoose (Video)
Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism,
CyberPeace Institute, Amnesty International
François Letourneux and Shourideh C. Molavi
About Forensic Architecture
Forensic Architecture (FA) is an interdisciplinary group of artists, architects, filmmakers, investigative journalists, scientists, software developers and lawyers operating as a research agency led by Israeli-British architect Eyal Weizman. Founded in 2010 as part of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, the agency investigates contemporary political conflicts, police violence and human rights violations with and on behalf of the communities affected, international prosecutors, environmental justice groups, and media organizations. The results of their work are presented in international courtrooms, citizens’ tribunals and parliamentary inquiries, as well as in exhibitions, publications, keynote lectures and seminars. All these forums are used to reflect on contemporary forms of violence in the political and cultural context of our times.
The work of these investigators has been presented at international art and architecture exhibitions. For their recent project, a video produced for the 2019 Whitney Biennal, FA developed a machine learning algorithm to automate the detection of Triple-Chaser tear gas grenade manufactured by Defense Technology, a subsidiary of the Safariland Group. By analyzing online photos and images from civilian cameras, the algorithm was able to detect and locate the use of this grenade in countries in North and South America, the Middle East and North Africa.
About Laura Poitras
Laura Poitras is an American filmmaker and journalist. Citizenfour (2014), the third part of her 9/11 trilogy, won an Oscar for best documentary. The first film in the series, My Country, My Country (2006), which documents the US occupation of Iraq, was nominated for an Academy Award. Part two, The Oath (2010), focuses on the Guantánamo Bay prison and Al Qaeda. Poitras’s reporting on NSA mass surveillance and Edward Snowden received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She is also the recipient of many other awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship.
Poitras has herself been a target of government surveillance. In 2015 she obtained over one thousand documents revealing that in 2006 the US government had placed her on a terrorist watchlist following the release of her documentary My Country, My Country. The heavily redacted FBI documents show that the government subpoenaed Poitras’s private information and communications from multiple companies, as well as subjecting her to physical surveillance.
It has recently been reported that in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, high-level CIA officials lobbied to designate Poitras as an “information broker” and an “agent of foreign power,” thereby paving the way to her prosecution. The CIA plot was ultimately not carried out.