Three hours, three Turner Prize nominees; three more hours to see

Forensic architecture
© Forensic Architecture, video still from Killing in Umm al–Hiran 18 January 2017 (2018)

The Turner Prize is the contemporary art world’s annual opportunity to widen its customer base. However asking the punters to devote six hours to take in the artworks of all four nominees is not going to help popularise contemporary art. I managed three nominees in three hours so Naeem Mohaimen’s intriguing sounding films will have to wait for another time.  Last year I was bemoaning the total lack of MI art among the nominees. This year I should be celebrating, given all four are using this form. I was delighted that Forensic Architecture had been nominated as their campaigning work is admirable. They are giving renewed hope to what art can achieve and they deserve to win although they have said they would prefer to win a case than a prize. Unfortunately Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thomson’s films look passé in comparison suggesting the judges’ ignorance of current trends in MI art.

In court, forensic scientists are routinely called as expert witnesses.  Can artworks also take on this role? This is one of the many questions that have been asked of Forensic Architecture. The group’s purpose is tell the stories of the unheard voices in the unbalanced media war against state and military oppression. Their clinical investigations which have included a drone strike in Afghanistan and a possible racist murder in Germany, uncover the obfuscation that often clouds the “official” accounts.  They have then actively sought to present their findings in a wide range of forums including courts, tribunals and art galleries.  So does this mean that they are a political rather than an artistic organisation? It can be argued that as their case studies are communicated with such stunning visual clarity and persuasiveness, they can be appreciated both as aesthetic works as well as political advocacy.

At the Tate they have chosen to focus on two ongoing investigations from the Middle East conflict that relate to the appropriation of traditional Bedouin settlements in the Negev Desert by the Israeli government. In the first we are introduced to the drama of an Israeli dawn raid on a Bedouin village intended to drive out the inhabitants through  footage shot by a campaigning video journalist. This is totally gripping. The erratically filmed sequences are then analysed through synchronising them with thermal imaging police helicopter footage of the same events. A realistic reenactment of the events neatly demonstrates how the physical laws of motion undermine the security forces version of their shooting of one of the villagers in his car.

Inevitably Forensic Architecture will face the charge of fetishising suffering for artistic ends. The group’s founder, Eyal Weizman, has explored this issue in his treatise The Least of all Possible Evils. There he examines the long history of fetishising objects, in the sense of granting them agency, as in the common phrase: “the evidence will speak for itself”. In reality, the interpretation of what the evidence is saying comes down to those like himself who act as rhetoricians, using theatricality, narrative and the technologies of demonstration in a practice he describes as “forensic aesthetics”. If they were just artworks it would be worrying but as they also have a political function they exist in a different moral universe. The audience are not required to sit in judgement, we can simply admire the clarity of the analysis. It is up to those in power to absorb the detail and arrive at just decisions concerning the protagonists.

Watching the famous three channel video work 77sqm_9:26min when I first saw this group’s work at the ICA in March 2018, I was struck by the compassion and empathy they display while still remaining detached. The work presents a detailed analysis of the events surrounding the murder of a young Muslim in a German internet cafe including the tracking of the movements of all those present. Listening to the Turkish narrator on headphones, I was immediately struck by the dignity that this confers on the community. They are no longer victims. We the audience are outside their grief. In the closing minutes of the video the English translation came on through a loudspeaker but if this was a technical glitch it only reinforced the sense that the work was tied in intimately to those directed affected. The Forensic Architecture team act as scientists but allow the evidence to move us. So in this work, the movements of the protagonists in the internet cafe are tracked and displayed as timelines of different colours. In the final frame of the video we are jolted as the red timeline of the murdered man comes to an abrupt halt while the onlookers’ timelines continue.

The New Zealand artist, Luke Willis Thompson has also been accused of fetishising suffering for artistic gain. His work shown here includes two short black and white silent 16mm minimalist films, autoportrait and Cemetery for Uniforms and Liveries identical in format to the Andy Warhol Screen Tests from the early 1960s. Because they are portraits of the relatives of black victims of police killings, he has inspired protests that he (and the complicit galleries) are part of the white media establishment exploiting black pain for personal gain. Some of the debate has focused on the whether he can claim black heritage being descended from an indigenous Fijian. I am left pondering what would be gained from stopping white artists like David Blandy from exposing the destructive legacy of colonialism as in the brilliant Finding Fanon trilogy?

Charlotte Prodger’s selected work, BRIDGIT, inhabits the densely populated genre of moving image art that I tend to dub “Who am I?”  a question commonly used as an induction assignment for A level Art students. This can get dangerously close to self-indulgence if we cannot discern the wider implications of the autobiographical incidents recorded. I came away with no new insights into the gender/queer identity issues she explores. Although she does not feature on-screen (apart from her feet!) her narration puts us inside her head, looking out for much of the time at some admittedly beautiful, but in MI art terms, commonplace landscapes.

Seeing this exhibition I am of course reminded of all the brilliant MI work I have seen recently and wonder why my judgement seems so out of kilter with the judges of the Turner Prize. However if Forensic Architecture win I will be happy: the most impressive work I have seen all year.