#1069: Forensic Architecture’s Spatial Storytelling Innovations Awarded with Peabody Institution Award

Forensic Architecture is an innovative interdisciplinary, non-profit research group that uses the tools & techniques of architecture to tell spatial stories of state-sponsored violence and human rights. Their 79 investigations since 2010 have be awarded with a Peabody Institution Award as a part of the new category of Digital & Immersive Storytelling. They use the spatial context to weave together many different types of data including “open-source data, satellite data, surveillance footage, citizen video, audio, mobile phone meta-data, witness testimony, and 3D representations of physical objects and people.” They have been pioneering the fusion of this media as they strive to produce a spatial context that is elevated to the rigor of evidence that could be admitted into a court of law. They’ve been using lots of techniques like photogrammetry and reconstruction of 3D models, and they hope one day to put a judge into a virtual reality headset to display some of their spatial stories & spatial contextualization of evidence. They lean heavily into concepts like “situated knowledges” & “situated testimony” to use these spatial contexts to evoke eye witness testimony for state-sponsored violence and human rights violations. I had a chance to talk with Forensic Architecture Research Coordinator Robert Trafford about the underlying design philosophies, and an overview of some of the spatial storytelling innovations that have earned them a Peabody Award.


The Killing of Mark Duggan [uses VR for embodied perspective]

Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers

The Beating of Faisal al-Natsheh, Occupied Hebron, Palestine [uses VR for situated testimony]

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So continuing on my little mini series, looking at some of the different XR related award winners of the Legacy Awards for a new category for the Peabody Awards. Just today, on March 24th, 2022, they're announcing a new category of the Digital Interactive Storytelling and the 16 Legacy winners. One of the Legacy winners, the Institutional Award, was given to Forensic Architecture. This is a nonprofit group that is a research organization that's actually been doing a lot of innovation of spatial storytelling. In other words, taking lots of different sources, like open-source intelligence and videos and other satellite photos, and being able to do reconstructions of the spatial context, but then to add into that different eyewitness testimony and videos, and to give a larger context to create this body of evidence. What's it mean to be able to potentially create something that is at the level of forensic evidence for a courtroom? or for just a journalistic story. Lots of really innovative pieces that I first saw at the IFADOC Lab of 2019. They've done 79 different investigations. You can go onto their YouTube channel and see a number of them. We'll be referencing a number of those different programs. If you want to, I'd maybe recommend checking out some of those different pieces before you really dive in. You can go back and listen to it afterwards. But I think you might get a little bit more out of it if you Check out some of the different experiences that give you a little taste and flavor of not only how they're using techniques like photogrammetry and spatial architecture for a special storytelling But also virtual reality technologies for doing things like situated testimony to have people Embedded within these special contexts to use the medium to be able to evoke these memories But also to leverage these aspects of situated knowledge to be able to not only create these spatial contexts but to to create a level of forensic evidence that is going to allow address these different human rights violations that are coming back to some level of state violence, whether it's from the police, from the state or from the military. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Waste is Severe podcast. So this interview with Robert happened on Friday, March 18th, 2022. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:16.684] Robert Trafford: So my name is Robert Trafford. I'm a research coordinator with Forensic Architecture, which is a research agency based at the University of London. We investigate examples of state violence, human rights violations by police or states or militaries. We consider that civil society in its positioned against the state with its advantages of resources and information and access and power, that civil society needs a greater investigative capacity. We also consider that in the first decade of the 21st century, a series of technological developments and changes took place, which have provided an opportunity for that investigative capacity to be developed for civil society. And so forensic architecture does that. We use advanced technical, spatial, experimental methodologies, invariably starting from digital modeling, 3D modeling, and the use of 3D digital environments as venues for different kinds of evidence and experiments and scenarios. And we look to put those technical methodologies, which also includes experimental uses of machine learning, virtual reality, as we're going to go on to talk about. We try and put those in the hands of communities that have been directly affected by state violence, individuals, and maybe families who have lost sons or fathers to police violence or military violence. So we look to complement what we understand as their situated knowledge of the violence that states perpetrate and how that can often be housed or understood rather through lenses of systemic and structural racism, for example. We look to enhance that situated knowledge with the technical expertise that we have. Great.

[00:03:59.345] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know that situated knowledge is actually a feminist theory that I came across a Catherine way wiener that she brought that to my attention. So that's just the idea that based upon our position in space, we can also see additional information. So what I find interesting about the different techniques that forensic architecture are doing is to take a lot of either eyewitness testimony or individual cameras and by using the larger spatial context to use the spatial orientation of that to provide a larger context for the larger story to unfold. And so it seems like that there's a number of different ways that you are trying to take this disparate information from different media and then maybe tie it together through the architectural spaces. And to bring it up to the level of forensic evidence in terms of what would be admissible in either a court of law or just have something that transcends what any individual one piece of video might show. But when you aggregate them all together, then you start to tell a larger picture. So I'd love to hear a little bit about the evolution of that idea of using architecture in this way, because it seems like a pretty unique way of taking the training of architecture, but doing in this kind of spatial storytelling way?

[00:05:12.681] Robert Trafford: Sure, sure. Gosh, it's quite a big question. It kind of takes us right back to the beginning. I should say, first of all, that my background is not in architecture, although I'm becoming increasingly familiar with it over the years that I've worked for our director and with our team. Our team is about half architects. Of course, that's the core of our team, methodologically speaking and historically speaking. But I trained as a journalist on our staff. We have software developers, filmmakers, artists, previously lawyers, psychologists. On a case-by-case basis, we will assemble project teams that can be any mixture of those disciplines that I've just mentioned. And we'll get four of them in a room and we'll say, look at this problem, look at this case, and what do you see here? And the conversations that you have when a journalist talks to a software developer, talks to an architect, talks to a psychologist, It's very interesting, you know, and it's that process of interdisciplinarity, that moving between perspectives. I think it actually kind of nicely mirrors the definition of situated knowledge that you gave, right, which is about positions in actual space or indeed in our work in digital space. So, sorry, to your question, the evolution of that idea. Well, I guess we could start in like, let's say 2008, 2009, we could crudely call it the social media revolution. It's just beginning. We've reached this tipping point of availability of smartphones, availability or sort of preference for social media, use of social media. And at the same time, we have certain geopolitical events from the Arab Spring through to the Syrian civil war, which are creating brand new environments for the use of those technologies, brand new conflict reporting environments. And we begin to see through these three components and others, a whole new information environment developing, a whole new sort of information landscape, a texture of communication for all of us, really, was being created. And it was largely mediated through images and videos, right, as much of our world continues to be. And perhaps it's easy to forget how dramatic that increase has been in the last 15 years. But we now live in, for better or worse, in this world which is mediated, in which conflict reporting, reporting on rights violations, is now very, very densely mediated by images and videos. Now, that has a seductive quality to it, right? Because we feel like an image can't lie. We feel like a video can't lie because what happened is what's there on the screen. And I think it's in problematizing that perspective and in developing the lines of thought that come out of problematizing that perspective, that's one of the ways of thinking about the roots of forensic architecture's work. You know, we have sadly in the last 15 years become familiar with a particular pattern of news reporting in which a bomb falls, let's say in Syria, and our understanding of that is mediated through four or five fragmentary videos. One happens to catch the bomb falling, it was filming something else. Another is the first responders arriving on the scene. Another maybe from a phone that was found there. And all of these different pieces of evidence tell the story in a different way. And we found that digital models are a particularly effective way of navigating through those pieces of media, demonstrating the relation between them. And that has both a research component and a storytelling component. I mean, Another way to think about the origins of forensic architecture is in the growth of an open source investigation culture, the OSINT culture. What the work of Bellingcat and Airwars and forensic architecture began, that organizations like the New York Times Visual Investigations have really taken to another plane altogether. That culture, the investigation is the story, right? The piecing together of the information is the story. And I think you really clearly see that when you arrange visual media within digital models, because When we come to produce our videos and to tell the story of what we found, we really are taking the viewer through exactly what we saw. That positioning of video material in space, the navigation between it within a digital model, we had to do that ourselves first, right? We had to walk that path before we went back to walk the audience through that same digital space.

[00:09:16.474] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a number of different inputs that I've seen through a number of the different reports and investigations that forensic architecture has been doing over the last number of years, I guess. Was it founded in 2010?

[00:09:28.888] Robert Trafford: Somewhere around there. It's kind of fuzzy.

[00:09:31.189] Kent Bye: I think it was 2010 is what I saw. So it's been around 12 years or so that you've been at this point on the website, there's at least like 79 different investigations and watching through some of the different videos. And. Well, I first encounter with forensic architecture is actually at the, if a doc lab in 2019, where it was taking satellite photos and trying to establish how some of these different schools were being used for torture and then taking leaked videos from AMC International, eyewitness testimony to show like here is the location, here's what we can extrapolate from satellite photos before and then satellite photos after and then create 3D models of all these different places based upon on social media posts and then create an overall story of like, okay, we know that here's where students are going to school and here's where the torture is happening in these buildings. And so it was almost like taking these reports either from first-person direct witnesses or social media and then reports from AMC International. And then somehow when you tie it all together, it feels like the level of evidence rises up to the point where it's much more compelling than just seeing all these things alone. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that level of evidence that makes it forensic and admissible into either a court of law to be able to settle a lawsuit or something that is going to be the basis of a story that could be published in the news that then brings awareness.

[00:10:51.740] Robert Trafford: Okay. Again, it's a big question. There's a lot packed in there. So this question of what constitutes evidence is, I think there's something which is kind of analogous to what I was talking about with the seductive nature of an image, right? We all think that we understand in principle what we mean by evidence for something, right? Well, evidence for something is you look at one object and that tells you that something happened, right? That tells you that this thing went down in one way or another. And You know, in the easy cases, I suppose that's how it goes, but evidence is often more marginal than that. And particularly when you're dealing with a case like the Cameroon investigation, which happened to be the first case that I worked on with forensic architecture when I joined them back in 2017. That case, so as you've described, what we were trying to do there was we were standing around the edges of a US special forces black site. It was rather, more specifically, a black site operated by the Cameroonian Special Forces, who were being trained in counter-terror practices at that site by Navy SEALs. We were trying to peer into that, right? And when you're trying to peer into that black site, when you're trying to see any little pieces of evidence that happen to kind of slip out from We have this idea of the cordon, we call it like a police cordon. The cordon is one of the fundamental architectures of the state. The state has the privilege to erect cordons around things, right, and to say, you can't come in. You can't come in, but I can. And we know, sadly, that behind the cover of those cordons, the state does all kinds of things. And we're lucky if we get to see them now. I think we can add one of these components that gave rise to the possibility of forensic architecture in its related fields was the sudden availability of satellite imagery. Google Earth Pro has done incredible things for the ability of civil society to understand what the US military, particularly its empire of bases, but also other militaries, have been doing and continue to do. Because you can't hide from a satellite image, right? And even in cases where we see that governments in Turkey, Russia, Israel, off the top of my head, have cut deals with satellite providers to obscure their bases on satellite imagery, obviously all that does is tell you where they are, right? But back to this idea of the cordon, we're standing there, we're just trying to look past this thing, right? We're trying to see in. And so it's there that you really need to become innovative about what would constitute evidence? What would it even look like for information to leak out of a black site like this? And as you accurately enumerated, there were a bunch of different pieces that went together there. Some of them are pretty compelling, pretty rock solid, what we might call these sort of seductively simple pieces of evidence. This was back in the heyday of Facebook as an investigative tool. So we went online, we looked and we looked and we looked and we found a US military contractor who was taking photographs inside this base, geotagging them to the base and not putting any privacy settings on them. it's not always quite so easy. So that gave us a certain set of information about what was going on in there. But we also have to think a little bit more sophisticatedly sometimes, try and be more innovative about what could even constitute evidence. If amnesty gives us a testimony that says that someone has been detained in a room, 30 people in this room, it was of this size, we have the opportunity to go back to those people and say, okay, do you think you could draw that room for me? Do you think you could tell me how wide the room was? If you were stood with your arms in it, would you touch both walls? What about the ceiling? Would you touch the ceiling? And these kind of spatial questions can seem kind of facile, maybe, or not what you might expect to be asked when you're trying to tell people that you've been tortured. But what those questions allow us to do then is to map what they've described, as you see in the video, right, the drawings that they've given, we map those precisely onto the architecture of this black site, of these small buildings. They tell us that they were kept in a row of four buildings, they draw those for us, they're like, I mean, almost like commodes, you know, these tiny brick buildings. They say that these were on the north side of the base. They say that they saw US special forces running in that area. All of these things, these are testimonial, right? But we can use the available satellite imagery to anchor them and to add a kind of layer of validity, I suppose, to your question, to kind of elevate those things into something evidential, right? But it always has to be a balancing act. It always has to be a kind of a dance between what's available, what access we have to the victims of violence, And so I suppose I'd finish that point by saying that there is something which is always aesthetic in the production of evidence, right? And the word forensics, after all, comes from the Latin forensis. Forensis means relating to the forum, pertaining to the forum, that is the Greek forum probably. which is connecting it to this ancient model of the presentation of argument and that forensics was initially the persuasion of audiences by your own presentation. And that's something which we're not afraid to grapple with. The pursuit of accountability is not something which is solely objective. It has to be a struggle. It has to be a fight where you get your hands dirty, you argue for things, you create storytelling and you persuade and you convince.

[00:15:53.672] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think one of the more interesting ways of taking a series of different, what I'd say like with the eyewitness testimony, and maybe one shot was the instance of the shooting of a man, I think in the United Kingdom, last name may have been like Duggan, where there was a gun that was found like eight or nine meters away, would have required him to throw it. And then so then they had all of these eyewitness testimonies that they got to say, well, if this did actually happen, then let's do like a photogrammetry of recreating the scene and then see where they're actually located. And then what would be the force required? And then what would the motion look like? And then here are the different moments that that could have happened. And then, then they actually recreated the scene in 3d based upon the firings of where he was positioning his body and where the bullets were going through and the rough timeline of that, but also the perspectives of each of the different officers were recreated and then put into virtual reality. So then you would see that scene in VR to be able to see if they would have been able to see him throwing the gun. And then the second part I think is saying, okay, well, how did the gun get there? And then basically the state was saying, well, based upon this 15 minute video being shot, then we can establish that there's no way that any of the officers went into this car to grab the gun and then to plant it. But they were showing how part of that was occluded and then tracing all the different movements. And then on top of that, having blind spots that weren't able to be seen. And then there was a gap in the footage by what they were able to calculate for seconds based upon the movement of somebody else that was in the video. So there's. a section of the video that was cut out and they sort of did a whole network diagram to say here of all the different possibilities of different officers that were in this blind spot that could have gotten the gun and then handed off and planted it at that location based upon all the movements. And so it was sort of like the end result of that wasn't proving that anything happened. It was more of like that the state couldn't use this evidence to disprove that it was possible because there were a certain number of possibilities. So it was almost like an argument to say, based upon this forensic and spatial reconstruction, there's sort of gaps in the story. So that was interesting to me just because you're taking eyewitness testimony with very little other empirical video or evidence, and then be able to create something that was maybe a little bit more convincing at the level of evidence, just based upon the eyewitness testimony and the spatial story that you're able to reconstruct.

[00:18:17.048] Robert Trafford: Right, right. So that was the case that I learned, actually. And I've got to say, all credit to you, that's the best one minute explanation of that video I've heard so far. You really got it all. And there's a bunch of interesting stuff in there, I think. So yeah, Mark Duggan's killing by London's police was a really seminal event in London's history. It happened in 2011. And it led to four days of civil unrest across the whole country. Five people lost their lives on the basis of the way that the police talked about how they killed this man. Thousands of years of prison sentences were handed out. You know, it was a kind of a moment in London's modern history. And why I think that case is a really interesting one to talk about. Well, there's a couple of reasons. One of them you're getting at the end there, right? What we did in the second half of that film is to look at the evidence that the police had for ruling out the possibility that they had moved the gun that they said that Mark had thrown. It gets a little bit niche, but what we mean to say is that this whole case was predicated on the idea that Mark Duggan had a gun. He pointed it at a police officer. They shot him. That made him throw the gun, right? That, as we said, was physically impossible. And that's what we were able to show. Additionally, what we wanted to interrogate was the fact that out there is a possibility, sadly, was that the police could have realized that they'd just shot an unarmed man, taken the gun that Mark did have in the car. Mark was connected to small time crime. He was moving this gun. It was a kind of a show pistol, like a starting pistol for athletics. And this gun was conceivably taken by the police and put somewhere in order to excuse what they'd done. And it would not be the first time in London's history that there have been very credible allegations of manufacturing of evidence. Of course, police forces around the world are afflicted by this. And I think this goes to the question of presentation, the question of aesthetics that I was talking about previously, because what we wanted to do in the second half of that film is to look at the evidence that the police have presented for why them planting the gun was impossible. And what this speaks to is information disparity and the power of an official document. right? Because they wrote, and then the police watchdog also wrote these reports which said, okay, there's a guy was filming from like 300 meters away from up in a tower block on a 2011 BlackBerry. You've seen how terrible the footage is. And they say, look, you can see in that footage that there's no evidence of the police planting the gun. right? Which is, you know, it's reductive, it's negative evidence, it's incoherent forensically. But if the police say, look, you can't see anyone planting a gun in this video, I mean, it's childish logic, right? You didn't see me do it, so it didn't happen. If they say, well, there's nothing in that evidence that suggests that there was a gun being planted, what we wanted to do was open that up and say, okay, that might be true, but there's also nothing to say that you didn't plant it, right? I mean, it's just an irrelevant piece of evidence, essentially, wouldn't have captured the evidence. We talk a lot in forensic architecture about something called material witnessing, which is the traces, the evidence, the facts that events leave on the things around them, the objects around them. And this is a good example because that video, that 2011 BlackBerry film video in like 640 or something, this terrible quality bunch of pixels, was being used by the state as evidence that its officers had done nothing wrong in extremely contentious circumstances. I mean, they could have used anything. They might as well have held up a blank piece of paper and said, look, this shows that the police didn't plant the gun, right? So we wanted to open that question back up. But I started there because I also want to talk about the first half of this investigation, which is probably to date the most successful use of VR in one of our investigations. So as you got out, what we did there was we recreated the perspectives of the officers at the moment that Mark Duggan was shot. Mark Duggan was shot twice. Without being gruesome, entry and exit wounds to a body give you a lot of information about the posture of that body at the time that he was shot, right? There were certain other clues about the way that his body had moved. We know the height of the officer who shot him, so we know what height his gun was. All of this information, the first bullet, remarkably, which hit Mark, went past through his arm and hit the officer who was stood behind him. Of course, the police passed this off as officer shot, but the victim is now dead. They tried to blame this shooting on Mark initially. So what I mean to say is that all of these physical facts give you an ability to kind of position the mannequin of Mark's body in digital space, in our reconstruction, very precisely. So we were able to create this two second period from when Mark hops out of the car, takes a couple of steps forward and is shot twice and falls to the ground. We could create that very, very precisely, sufficiently precisely, at least, that we were able to determine how far away from Mark these officers were. So we got to a point, and this is before the introduction of VR, we got to a point where we said, look, the case that we have here is that we're trying to address a claim by the police. The claim by the police is that he threw a gun seven meters. That takes a long, a long arm throw. Right. And that he did this while four trained armed officers were looking at him because they thought he had a gun and were paying attention to his hands, of course, because they thought he had a gun. But none of them saw this huge movement and definitely none of them saw the gun move. And similarly, we're kind of back to the cordon here, right? That's an example of a cordon, because how do we as civil society get through that? If four officers say, we didn't see the gun, we didn't see the throw, but we know he had a gun and we found it over there, so he must have thrown it. How on earth do we unpick that? And this is where Forensic Architecture, methodologically speaking, this is where we geek out a bit, right? This is where we think, okay, what on earth are the technologies that are available to try and dig into this question? We're a research organization in terms of our funding. We're funded as an academic research body. So what we want to do is find new ways to solve these kinds of problems, introduce new methodologies. Here we thought, okay, we had a digital model that showed the mannequins of these officers and Mark moving around in relation to one another. We thought, OK, what if we put cameras in the heads of these police mannequins? You know, we took the decision not to do the same for Mark. We think it's not really appropriate or ethical or indeed accurate to try and put yourself behind the eyes of the person being shot. We don't know where he was looking, but we do know where the officers were looking, because to a man, they said, I was looking at his hands. So we situate a camera in the heads of these mannequins, we move them on rails to follow the mannequins. And what this allows us to do is to try and unpick this complicated problem of this kind of invulnerable testimony that the police give, right? This testimony you just can't puncture. Because the word of a policeman in UK law, it's a legal object in itself, right? It's like a base layer of fact. So we took it upon ourselves to create this VR sort of setup. We put it in the Institute for Contemporary Arts in central London, which incidentally is on a street called the Mall, which leads down to Buckingham Palace, and directly opposite the ICA is the Memorial to Fallen Police Officers in London. And so it's kind of the heart of the establishment, this place. It's always had an interesting reputation, but it's the heart of the establishment. And so in there, we took it upon ourselves to try and convince Londoners one by one, say, come in here, sit down, we're going to put this on you and we're going to talk you through it, convince them one by one that this officer's testimony didn't add up. Because when you put this VR headset on and when you're in that world and when you're behind the police officer's eyes, you see that someone making this kind of motion, there was a forensic specialist who called it like throwing a Frisbee as far as you can, right? There's no small motion. Three meters away, someone does that for me. It's 6pm on an August evening. It's clear blue skies. It's sunny. You're a trained, armed officer. You're looking for a gun. And then we ask people, do you think they could have missed that? And so that presentation of situated knowledge, as we began this talking about, with a methodological, technological, let's say, experimentation, new novel application, really created the most robust counterpoint that we could possibly come up with, I think, to those statements that were made in this cordon, this cordon that's made out of policemen's words. And interestingly, we invited the head of the police watchdog or the general counsel, the lead lawyer for the police watchdog, the guy who had been involved in writing this report, which said, the quote was, we recognize that it is surprising that none of the officers noticed this threat. Where did this guy used to work? He worked for the police watchdog. He used to work for the police. You know, it's like, where do you start to unpick this stuff? So we brought him and we put him in the headset. which, you know, as close as we often get to, you know, we try and stay pretty hands off from the state. But in this case, we spoke to them, we invited them down, we tried to be nice about it and say, look, you can see that this doesn't add up, right? But what do you know, they didn't reopen the case, sadly.

[00:27:17.321] Kent Bye: So I guess this is a case where the forensic architecture piece that you produced didn't ultimately change the end results, but there has been a number of different pieces where you have been able to either change a legal perspective of law or lawsuits or human rights testimony. Maybe you could talk about. the successes in terms of what are the different types of things that you've been able to produce by putting things in these spatial forms with an architectural context that is able to tie together a lot of disparate evidence. And then how has that been able to shift things within the larger culture?

[00:27:49.620] Robert Trafford: Definitely, definitely. And I think this shift in the larger culture that you just mentioned at the end there is important. So just to wrap up, Duggan, we initially created this work to go to court. We wanted to be the first people in the UK to put a judge in a VR headset, but the case was settled out of court before we got there. We showed the Met Police what kind of evidence we were trying to develop, and they settled with the family quite soon after that. This was a civil case, which in the UK means like a compensation for damages case. They'd already lost the opportunity to have a criminal case. So we had a little success there, right? The next thing we wanted to do was try to change policy, do something more political, let's say, something more around regulations and the police watchdog. I mention that because the way that forensic architecture thinks about accountability is that we have to be kind of multi-platform about it. We have to operate in many different forums. which again speaks to, as I said, this idea of forensics, where the root of forensics comes from. It's about the forum. And the world that we live in now creates many different forums for civil society, for advocacy, for the pursuit of accountability. One of them is, of course, the law and legal process. And I suppose you'd say this is the high risk, high reward environment, of course, to have legal processes go in favour of our work and the claims made by our partners, those suffering state violence. This is what we aim for. But legal redress is not by any means the only opportunity for redress, right? Right now we're engaged in a parliamentary process in Germany, so a political inquiry, local state politicians in one of the largest states are coming together to understand what happened. the police failings around a terrorist attack, and we will be presenting there. We've submitted a range of evidence. So we try there to, you know, it's not to get a decision in favor of one thing or another, but to influence that process, right, to be in discourse with politics and to try and encourage changes at a political level. But I think what's maybe been one of forensic architecture's defining contributions so far to the concept of accountability, the pursuit of accountability, how civil society can try to bite back, let's say, in great ways or small, is actually through, as I got out with the Duggan case, through the use of cultural spaces and art exhibitions. As you said, you saw our work maybe first or sometime anyway at an art show, right?

[00:30:05.565] Kent Bye: The doc lab, it was a documentary film festival with the interactive pieces. So yeah, it was in the context of the doc lab there in Amsterdam.

[00:30:12.961] Robert Trafford: Okay, cool. So more like a documentary festival. I see. So we exhibit our work at everything from documentary festivals through to solo shows, group shows at straight up art institutions. Two years ago, three years ago, indeed, we were invited to the Whitney Biennial. And the work that we did there is a really good example of, I think, this idea of opening up a whole new forum for accountability. Or maybe we're talking about the art world, maybe helping the art world to rediscover that it can be a political force, right? It can be a force which changes things. And the example I want to quickly give is of a guy called Warren Kanders. He's a guy who was the vice chair of the Whitney Museum's Board of Trustees. He also owned a company called Safari Land, which owned a company called Defense Technology, which uses tear gas, probably the most popular provider of tear gas to the US police. Are you in Portland right now? Did I read that? Yeah. Yep. Okay, cool. So DevTech has been all over Portland in the last couple of years, if not more so. So Warren Canders lived this life where he was not only profiting from the sale of munitions, of chemical munitions that were being used against his fellow US citizens, but also was living a cultural high life in New York, right, and no doubt still is. But that kind of arrangement, that kind of living, which some of us might say is pretty unconscionable, is not something which is prosecutable. There's no way to... When a certain group of people make a tremendous amount of money from the sale of munitions that will be used against their fellow civilians, and then uses that money to launder their reputations, there isn't a great deal in our current structures that politics or the law can do about that. But we found that in art we could. We were invited to the Whitney Biennial in 2019. We decided that we would make a new piece of work about Warren Canders and about his tear gas company and about where that tear gas had been used. And we exhibited it there. And the curatorial team were very supportive. They had no objections to us doing this. And we entered into what was already a growing movement, a growing struggle to oblige Warren Candace to leave, to vacate his connection to the Whitney Museum. And six months or so later, we managed to do that. Now, it's kind of small. I mean, it just means this guy doesn't get to go to like one black tie dinner a year or something. I mean, there's other ways for that reputation to be laundered. But there's a guy that was untouchable from politics or by politics in the law. And we found that in cultural spaces, you can bite back. So that has been something which I think is really novel in forensic architectures practice. And maybe it's a path towards some kind of accountability that we don't often credit or that's, let's say, where there might be new gains to be made. There might be fresh advances to be found.

[00:32:55.982] Kent Bye: So just the use of spatial techniques like photogrammetry or reconstruction of scenes from multiple perspectives, like there was the Beirut explosion that comes to mind in terms of like reconstructing the whole scene, and then to be able to go back and say, okay, based upon the smoke colors and everything else, you're able to give a pretty compelling vision of what happened in that explosion and reconstructing a 3D model, which helps to orient all those different camera perspectives and give more context to that as you see all these disparate perspectives. But I think the other thing that I saw that I wanted to ask about was this use of either photogrammetry reconstruction or captures of a space to be able to either put eyewitness testimony into these places, like people who were there, but they were in VR headsets. And so I'm curious to hear a little bit more about that context of if there were like people who were more on the ground there and if it was like VR being used to sort of augment or have very specific eyewitness testimony to be able to help point out different spatial features within the context of a 3D model.

[00:33:58.915] Robert Trafford: Right, right. So yeah, there is a kind of methodology of interviewing that we've developed over seven or eight projects now over the decade or so that we've been around, which we call situated testimony. Situated testimony is a way of working with an interviewee, that interviewee, a witness to or a victim of violence or trauma to reconstruct the scene and the sequence of that traumatic or violent event. in a way which is novel, in a way which is collaborative and creative, and that we found accesses memory in a sort of unusual way. It kind of plays on the interaction between spatial memory and traumatic memory, which is something which is pretty well developed in the literature and something which is quite intuitive to us, I think, actually. You know, we're all familiar with this idea that if you see a car crash, it's quite common for people to forget how far away they were from it, right? Or maybe to forget which car hit which or whether they did something before or after that. Trauma creates lacuna, like gaps in our memory, and it also kind of reorganizes slightly or misfires slightly the sequence of things around that gap. And they can be spatial or they can be time-based or both, often both. So with situated testimony, what we try and do, the process of it is like this. One of our architects sits at a desk in front of the largest monitor that we can find. Next to them sits the witness. In front of them on the screen, we'll have a digital model of the environment, a very simple to begin with environment model of the scene. And this can be anywhere from, we've done this with victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, that was an appalling catastrophe in which a building burned down in 2017, through to riverbanks on the border between Turkey and Greece, where they're masked Greek secret police essentially push refugees back over the river and just dump them in Turkey in violation of all manner of conventions and laws. So you have a researcher, you have the witness sat with them. Often there will be some kind of support staff, whether that's lawyers, psychiatrists, and some more of our team. And we film this whole process from all around and we screen record. And then we ask them to build that environment again. And this goes back a little bit to what I was talking about with the Cameroon case. We might ask questions like, okay, was the room as wide as your hand span? How wide were the tiles? This was a question that came up in a case related to a Syrian prison back in 2016. We must've done this. You know, you say, OK, put your feet on the floor. Imagine your feet on the floor with the tiles bigger than your feet or smaller than your feet. These kind of questions, again, and actually in the case of the Syrian prison, Sidnaya, this project that we did with Amnesty, we actually experienced a bit of pushback initially from the witnesses because some of them had been subjected to some really extreme torture. And they had debriefed about this with Amnesty and had what you might call a more traditional sort of human rights access to memory. You know, what did they do to you? How many bodies did you see? What were the sort of peaks of experience, I suppose? And then they came to us and we asked them things like, how big were the tiles? Or could you fit your hand through the door? Or was it bigger than your head or smaller than your head? And you can see why there might be a bit of pushback there, right? But what that begins to do, not only does that help us to build a model which is accurate, or indeed it can be inaccurate, and that's interesting too, but it takes people back into that space which is obviously something you need to do extremely cautiously when you're talking about experience of trauma, because what we want to avoid is re-traumatization. But what we found is that that process of building models, the aesthetic nature of it, the fact that people who aren't familiar with building digital models, when they say, okay, no, the wall wasn't there. The wall was more like it was over there. And then that just happens on the screen in like two seconds. That's something that they really get into. That's a collaborative process. And suddenly they're re-experiencing this environment that was traumatic for them in a way in which they have a God's eye view. It can get bigger or smaller. It can move however they want. It dances to their tune. And that creates a different kind of access into the memory. And I mentioned inaccuracies as well, because those inaccuracies are super interesting. We interviewed a survivor of this prison in Syria, and he talked about a perfectly circular corridor that he'd been in, that he'd been beaten in. And he'd been beaten by multiple people. He was on the ground. They were beating him from all sides. Now, looking at the floor plan, the kind of footprint of this prison from the sky, it almost looks like a Mercedes logo. It's like three prongs like that. There is no space for such a corridor. It is physically impossible that it could have been in there. But that's super interesting, right, because that speaks to the nature of his experience in there and the inaccuracy becomes evidence of the violence and the trauma, right, because you can imagine if you are on the floor being beaten on by all sides that things begin to become kind of circular, right, you are looking around like this. So this is situated testimony, and it has a lot of interesting avenues and branches coming off it. And as you were getting at, what we've done recently is taken that into virtual reality. There was a case we did with a Palestinian man who'd been beaten in the street by an Israeli soldier in Hebron. And so we took him into a modeled environment of that neighborhood of Hebron in virtual reality. We gave him the option to move himself around and also to place individuals and vehicles, military vehicles and soldiers, because this was an area that was under military occupation. So very similar kind of interesting things began to happen there, right? Because he is suddenly in the space where he was beaten, where he was abused, but he literally has all the power, you know, he has these two things in his hands that he can go, okay, we'll create there, we'll destroy there, we'll put that up, we'll take it down, we'll move over here, we'll zoom out, we'll zoom in. And it's still a growing edge for us. It's still a very fresh methodology. It changes all the time. We have a couple more opportunities to do it in this coming year. And it really explores precisely this situated knowledge as something which is like your perspective in space and also your perspective as who you are, right? Your racial and ethnic positioning in the world, particularly for someone like him, a Palestinian man living in Hebron.

[00:39:54.200] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and these different types of spatial storytelling and immersive storytelling techniques might be and what they might be able to enable?

[00:40:10.000] Robert Trafford: We have quite a narrow worldview in some respects. So I don't feel like I could speak to the full potential of VR as it might be outside of the world of human rights. But within that world, yeah, I mentioned it earlier, our goal is to get a judge wearing VR. to see if you can bring into a legal process, which of course has like extremely difficult barriers to entry for new kinds of evidence. If you can bring that kind of radically personal perspective into a legal process, that will be a really interesting reorientation of parts of what evidence means, right? You know, we've been convincing judges with words this whole time. They're only just about looking at images on a TV screen. If we can put them in the world that they're trying to consider the sense of, that we put them inside the environment, inside the event that they're trying to understand and decipher, I think there's fantastic possibility there. You know, I think we've seen the beginning of VR as an advocacy tool. It's been around for a little while. I remember the Guardian here in the UK, maybe they did this in the US too. They did a kind of solitary confinement VR. It sounds kind of gruesome when you say it, but you know, they give you a Google Glass and you can look in this eight by six cell. That was a few years ago now. I think it feels like we might've plateaued a little bit technologically for now. I don't know if there are some breakthroughs coming. These are probably more your wheelhouse than mine. But we've seen the first opportunities for VR in advocacy. What happened to us around the darting case really convinced us, really. I was a skeptic until we put that in the gallery and saw how well it worked. precisely for rubbing up against this question of, and boy, do you guys have this problem in the US, of the wall of a policeman's words, right? And if there is a way that we can robustly reconstruct events to use situated perspectives in digital environments to break down that wall of words, that could be really exciting. That could lead to some interesting changes.

[00:42:18.345] Kent Bye: Yeah. And this interview is coming about because Forensic Architecture is receiving one of the legacy Peabody awards from a new category of this kind of interactive and immersive media. And so just wondering if you have any thoughts or reflections on the work that you've been doing over the last dozen years or so being recognized by someone like the Peabody's as a, these new forms of storytelling that you're helping to pioneer.

[00:42:42.490] Robert Trafford: Yeah, I mean, of course, we're super grateful for the recognition and we think it's fantastic that there is space to recognize innovation, right? That these new categories are emerging within such an esteemed body as Peabody to recognize innovation. The immersiveness, I think, as we've touched on through this interview, immersion is really at the heart of what Forensic Architecture is trying to do because it's precisely in that immersion that you get this kind of singularity of a lot of these things we've talked about, right? When does something rise to the level of evidence? What does it mean to situate your perspective in someone else's? How do we break this cord? And how do we put ourselves in situations and test situations, which are described by the state, which seem incongruous or incoherent and immersive technology is undoubtedly a brand new way for us to unlock that. So to have that recognized and to have the opportunity to talk about it too, is only going to help us to push that forward.

[00:43:35.379] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:43:41.808] Robert Trafford: We are a nonprofit research agency. We are collaborative to our bones, indeed. We are always in the market for new conversations and new collaborators and new partners. We have big ideas about new technologies, but we're not always the people with the expertise about those new technologies. We learn on the job a lot and we learn by collaborating. So if there are people listening, if there are people in your network who are skilled with immersive tech and like the sound of human rights work, then we should be easy to find and we'd love to hear from them.

[00:44:16.706] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Robert, thank you so much for joining me today to be able to unpack some of the stories and use of immersive technology and these spatial architectural techniques in the context of human rights and immersive storytelling. And yeah, congratulations once again, for one of the legacy awards for the new Peabody category. And yeah, enjoyed learning a lot more about where things have been and where they might be going in the future. So thank you.

[00:44:40.254] Robert Trafford: Thank you, Ken. Thanks very much.

[00:44:42.440] Kent Bye: So that was Robert Trafford. He's a research coordinator with Forensic Architecture. And Forensic Architecture is one of the 16 award winners of the Peabody Awards of this new category called the Digital and Interactive Storytelling. And Forensic Architecture itself was being awarded the Institutional Award for their body of work of innovations of spatial storytelling over the last dozen years. I remember a few takeaways about this interview. First of all, it's super fascinating to see how they bring evidence up to this level of forensic evidence. They want to put a judge into a VR headset and be able to have the rigor that they need to be able to have the evidence. They're not, you know, trying to manipulate or control the information, to sway information in any way, but to be able to take all the source material, whether some satellite photos or reconstructions or architecture, whatever ends up being in the specific case that we talked about here, the Duggan case in the United Kingdom, with the implausibility of the official story and starting to poke holes in it based on the different reconstructions that they were able to do on the eyewitness testimony. So, the official documents, the official eyewitness testimony from the police officers, taking it all together and creating these 3D models and trying to come up with the most plausible sequence of events, and then seeing whether or not he had a gun and whether or not he threw the gun, and from the various different perspectives and to embody that perspective within virtual reality to then see if it's even plausible to see if that did happen, then why didn't anybody see that happen? So really super interesting ways of using the virtual reality technologies and as well as this this idea of situated testimony, meaning that they reconstruct these different scenes and oftentimes have to get a lot of the laborious details of these spaces that they're in. But once they get that, then to be able to allow this type of situated testimony to have that space invoke the different memories and to be able to capture all those different testimonies. And then again, to use the spatial technologies in different ways to create this larger context and this relational dynamic that kind of ties everything together, and is a way of contextualizing each of the different pieces of information in each of the different bits of situated knowledge. So really quite fascinating. And congratulations again for forensic architecture. And if you haven't checked out the work, definitely check out some of the videos in the show notes. And yeah, congratulations again for winning one of the institutional awards of this new Peabody Award for digital and interactive storytelling. So that's all I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a, this is a broad podcast and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue bringing this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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