Making alternative futures: Instituting in a ‘weird’ world, part three

Scripted Reality: The uses of knowing.

In part three, I want to discuss the practice of instituting new knowledge and new organisational forms and ask: How does scripted reality shift when moving from the instances of individual artists’ counter-scripting to intersecting with the communal dimensions and embedded processes of the organisation as it interfaces with others?

If communal affect can come to define the terms of participation within socially-constructed realities — where individuality is presented in anticipation of contact with others — its situatedness and collective construction also, like all communities, includes within its own partiality an implicit relation to otherness. In other words, that which it does not contain. However, when transposed onto the porous and blurry boundaries of contemporary networked organisations, the communal affect passing through and among them (amongst other things) disrupts the traditional inside/outside definition of institutions in which concepts or practices modelled within autonomous institutions are later deployed in the world at large. In this sense, it becomes difficult to precisely identify the points of tension, displacement or crystallization where social norms or realities might be located, critiqued or transformed — as one might have once been done with institutional critique, however expansive an understanding of the ecologies and interlocking of the institutions to be critiqued had become.

Instead, to connect individuals, environments, cultural artefacts and artifices towards some form of critical practice in this domain, it becomes necessary according to Eyal Weisman of the Forensic Architecture research agency to broaden the scope of both enquiry and possible actions. That is, to register causes across fields,1 and generate actions (in what architecture critic Keller Easterling has called the medium of interlocking ecologies of effects, affects, protocols, groups, individuals and so on), that come together to enable any instituted practice and idea to reproduce itself.2 Recognising the entanglement and ‘nestedness’ of any particular field of concern also acknowledges a certain and necessary acquiescence to its disposition, or way of doing, in order that we might follow its processes, and indeed intervene on their reproductions. As with the digital (where to think digitally, means to participate in its processes rather than stand back and look), to work on and within the field means to recognize that while no single intervention can change the whole, it is only by some degree of participation in the conditions that already exist that you can have an effect — even, and perhaps especially, if that is to change it. As Easterling writes, “rather than only declarations, objects and determinations, you can detect and manipulate the medium or matrix in which they are suspended and in which they change over time.” Scripting realities at the organisational level is a question of introducing variables that affect not simply what it does, but how it does.

In this sense, the Forensis project by the London-based Forensic Architecture research agency offers a useful methodological comparison to Harrison and Kosma. In some ways working towards what Balsom might recognise as a new political objectivity, Forensic Architecture makes use of the proliferation of digital images, videos and data produced by citizens, activist, government and non-government agencies and sensing apparatuses using equally ubiquitous and cheap digital devices. They redeploy techniques and methods from architecture and media research to compile this data in time and space-based models to provide evidence, augmented testimonies and contextual research for international prosecutors, human rights organizations and political and environmental justice groups.3 Their work might provide the intellectual clout supporting a court’s consideration of the ‘testimony’ of material evidence such as video; combine architectural modelling with unconnected fragments of available media imagery to retell the histories of urban or conflict landscapes; determine the specific techniques of state violence through acoustic visualisation and analysis (as in the work of artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan); or they might contribute towards the investigation of acts of genocide, developing evidential narratives around the kinds of environmental violence carried out against ethnic and indigenous groups’ ability to reproduce life (as in the case of their research with SITU Research into the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996)).4

However, for this description of scripted reality, Forensic Architecture’s foregrounding of their research as both collaborative and cultural is most helpful. According to the group, their work is collaborative in that it is formed through interdisciplinary coalitions of architects, scholars, artists, coders, investigative journalists, archaeologists, lawyers and scientists and other organizations; and cultural since its evidence is seen to be both culturally constructed (they make no bones about their political and critical partiality in their work) and, in parallel to being delivered in juridical contexts, articulated through narrative in exhibitions and publications. Drawing these dispositions together under the “two constitutive sites of forensics,” the shifting and elastic domain of investigation and activity or “fields,” and “forums… a shifting triangulation between three elements: a contested object or site, an interpreter tasked with translating ‘the language of things,’ and the assembly of a public gathering,” the Forensis project aims to establish a “relation between the animation of material objects and the gathering of political collectives.”5

A key case and indicative example of Forensic Architecture’s approach concerns the use of White Phosphorus munitions in the Israeli attack on Gaza (December 2008–January 2009), known as “Operation Cast Lead.”6 The use of the white phosphorus munitions in urban areas is highly controversial due to its hard-to-control, toxic, incendiary bomblets. As it explodes from above, its target felt wedges (in this case 116), soaked in a chemical which bursts into flames as soon as it comes into contact with the air, inundate a wide and unpredictable ellipsis. In 2011, Forensic Architecture were invited by the attorneys Michael Sfard and Emily Schaeffer to contribute as expert witnesses to a civil society action calling for a complete ban on the use of white phosphorus by the Israeli Military in built-up areas. Their work aimed to help confirm its use during “Cast Lead,” and to investigate the effects of its use on urban environments more broadly.

As with other work, Forensic Architecture consulted relevant expertise, but primarily incorporated visual material widely available in the public domain including mainstream news media footage and reporters’ photographs documenting the firing of the white phosphorus, and modelled spatial data extracted from those images and videos against three-dimensional urban reconstructions. In part, Forensic Architecture’s contribution was to visualize the effects of the weapon through a model that enabled a comparison of its effects with other cities (such as Paris). More important though was building this reconstruction though “weak sensors,” that is mediations and intermediary outputs from sensing and visualization devices that in evidentiary terms were only passively recording those events, proximately and remotely, including the short video clips from news media and bystanders. Compositing the fragmentary, overlooked outputs of weak sensors, Forensic Architecture were able to connect the fragments of evidence activists and NGOs had collected on the ground to the clearly visible public domain footage, not only allowing Forensic Architecture to pivot from a consideration of the focus on pre-sanctioned (in this case by the Israeli government) objects of evidence to the field of effects and its political impact, but assembles a construction of “truth” in an open, contestable forum by maintaining that this conversation remains immanent to the public domain that produced it.

While on the surface, the White Phosphorous case represents an intervention on what is ‘known,’ expanding the narrative of the events that took place during operation “Cast Lead” and making them more porous to scrutiny and interpretation, it also acts upon what is possible. As Michael Sfard describes the intention of bringing the case in a video interview for the Forensic Architecture website, “…we did not want the case to be a case in which the use in Gaza would be adjudicated, because this is a post-facto case and the court would never agree to adjudicate it,” but rather they had made their case with the hope of “getting a remedy that would prohibit the use of white phosphorus in the future.”7 Indeed, while the Israeli military sought to discredit the status of Forensic Architecture as expert witnesses, and the court was still debating the admissibility of their work as evidence, the Israeli Military announced in 2013, in “the shadow of the court” (not in respect of a ruling, but arguably as a consequence of the case happening), that they would cease the use of white phosphorus in built-up areas. As a senior military commander later explained: “As we learned during Cast Lead, [white phosphorus] doesn’t photograph well.”8

Working directly on the production of perceptual “reality” as itself articulated within the narrative space of public discourse, the approach of Forensic Architecture is able intersect and integrate with other fields — compositing different visual and spatial evidence by, for example, its historical synchronicity — and effect durable change. It is not simply the data, but the contextualization that gives their research political and cultural impact. Employing forensics as a critical practice enacts both an adoption and a rejection of ‘reality’ as scriptable and scripted, changeable and predetermined.

From Scripted Reality to a Reparative Reading?

Where does this leave scripted reality? The deliberately partial and interventionist mode of scripted reality certainly raises ethical questions, and arguably plays into the fragmentation of a once stable reality, about which Balsom is rightly concerned when she calls for a return to the reality-based community. So why not just contribute to Balsom’s community of realists? Why isn’t knowing the facts enough? Taken together, Harrison and Kosma and Forensic Architecture’s practices offer a provisional model for scripted reality as critical practice. In doing this, they also take to task a key aspect of what any conversation on reality is concerned with: the use of knowing – what can be known, what the privilege of that status confers, and what is possible because of it. Reflecting what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick had describes in her 2002 essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Harrison and Kosma and Forensic Architecture’s is a knowing that doesn’t simply get caught in needing to know all, but instead puts that knowledge to work.

Beginning with the conundrum: what does revealing what we already feel or know, to be true achieve (whether the debunking or proving hegemonies, falsifying conspiracies, or evidencing rumour), contemporary critical studies’ dominant method of exposing the reality beneath the surface of the given is for Sedgwick a primarily paranoid mode of thinking. Following the “forefathers” of the contemporary critical method, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx and their belief in the transformative, demystifying power of the hermeneutics of suspicion, or the grand reveal, the paranoid position always needs to know, and always ‘knows’ that all is not what it seems. And since the world is irrevocably complex and folded, one must be permanently suspicious. Permanently and anxiously in search of the next false answer to debunk: for the paranoid reader, “you can never be paranoid enough.9 Above all, as Olivia Laing writing in Frieze magazine last year clarifies, a paranoid reading is defensive, always “attempting to forestall the pain of being caught unawares: ‘There must be no bad surprises.’”10 The paranoid reader therefore also puts a naïvely large faith in of exposure and narrative of knowledge because, “paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known.”11

For Laing, Sedgwick’s essay has become especially prescient in a time of Twitter conspiracy theories, fakenews, deliberate mistruth and the various individual and institutional attempts to draw lines to malevolent state powers — or simply push back on this deluge. “We need know what’s going on,” Laing writes, “but how much detail is useful and what do you do once you’ve got it?”12 Pivoting on always needing to know and their faith in the work of exposure, the paranoid reader is in fact caught in an anticipatory cycle. For Sedgwick, despite the “future-oriented vigilance of paranoia, [it] generates, paradoxically, a complex relation to temporality that burrows both backward and forward.” The future must be made to conform to what we know now: bad news must already be already known. Quoting the work of affect theorist Silvan Tomkins, both a strong theory (able to encompass a large discursive space by avoiding particularity), and ultimately interested in the avoidance of the humiliation of not knowing in advance (despite actually effective or ineffective such paranoia is in avoiding the causes of humiliation), for a paranoid reader “as little as possible is left to chance”. Whereas change, alternative ways of knowing, and the possible pleasure deriving from this, become inadmissibly uncertain unless these alternatives can already be proven. This would also be the bind that perhaps traps Balsom; not only is it impossible to hold back the incoming tide of a post-truth reality, with working on that trap long shown to be inadequate to the change of cultural practice represented by scripted realities, whether critical or simply attention-hungry; but to do anything but shore up the dam of facts against the tide of falsehoods would, it seems, be nothing except a full-scale acquiescence to those alternative facts.

It would be to miss the point to detach Sedgwick’s text from its original context and motivation. Diagnosed with breast cancer and reflecting on the present intimacy of queer relationships and friendships, for whom the arc of generational relations are not to be taken as inevitable, for Sedgwick it was crucial to describe alternative ways of doing, reading and being with queer critical theory from the ever-receding horizons of a paranoid reading. (Not least since those still dominant strains of revelatory paranoid reading were, especially following Freud, and remain resolutely rooted in homophobic, queer-phobic and oedipal conceptual frameworks — i.e. in ‘unmasking’ repressed non-normative behaviours and ‘pathologies.’ Indeed, Sedgwick also takes to task Judith Butler in her attempts to describe the practice of camp as the “parody, denaturalization, demystification and mocking exposure” of gender norms, and which Sedgwick positions rather as lovingly additive and accretive.13) In response to the capricious, exclusive mode of paranoid reading and its rejection of the possibility of the local, contingent, inchoate realities expressed in the non-parallel temporalities of the queer experience, Sedgwick sketched the outline of an alternative — a reparative reading. Drawing on the work of child psychologist Melanie Klein, Sedgwick describes the paranoid position as always taken in oscillatory context to a very different one, the depressive position:

For Klein’s infant or adult the paranoid position… is a position of terrible alertness to the dangers posed by the hateful and envious part-objects that one defensively projects into, carves out of, and ingests from the world around one. By contrast the depressive position is an anxiety-mitigating achievement that the infant or adult only sometimes, and often only briefly, succeeds in inhabiting: this is the position from which it is possible in turn to use one’s own resources to assemble or “repair” the murderous part-objects into something like a whole — though I would emphasize, not necessarily like an pre-existing whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn. Among Klein’s names for the reparative process is love.

In contrast to the paranoid reading, the reparative reading is a position that seeks to centre its affect on the quality of others’ knowing and experiencing. Following Klein, the depressive position is in part reparative in its radical receptiveness. While for the anxiously paranoid reader no bad surprise must ever come to the reader as new, for the depressive position, it is both realistic and desirable to experience surprise. As the reparative reader attempts to organize the fragments and part-objects14 they encounter or create, hope remains possible “because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones.” The reparative position shares some of the features of scripted reality given here — its constructedness and an openness to the new. But to bring them into proximity is also to reflect on a central position of Sedgwick’s text: that to practice other forms of knowing to the paranoid position, “does not, in itself, entail a denial of reality or [the] gravity of enmity or oppression.” Rather, making for a more durable relation to reality, the reparative position expands the “gene pool” of available perspectives. And if paranoia requires a level of disavowal of other ways of knowing, then the reparative position fills this negation with the possibility for change and the re-known rejected by the paranoia of never not knowing. The reparatively positioned reader “has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profound relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.”

Here then, we can come back to the examples above in which the communal affect of Harrison and Kosma builds towards a way of knowing what it means to be together that cannot be fully known in advance — dependent as it is on the coalitions that build it. Centring its affect on the quality of others’ knowing and experiencing, and situating this work in the unknown of narrative, emotion and experience, it is at the very least open to Sedgwick’s reparative reading. And while the work of Forensic Architecture, with its development of novel forms of evidence and perception, might seem to be a paranoid practice par excellence, it too could be viewed reparative. What the paranoid reader in their need for exposure often forgets to ask is: what if visibility is as Sedgwick reminds, the terms of the violence? Tackling precisely this problem, Forensic Architecture’s work doesn’t offer a truth, but rather access to the a field of causes and effects which can be re-constructed as “a whole,” or the possibility that the given reality or past could have been otherwise.

Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick never got the chance to expand what she meant by a reparative reading. While a surface reading of these practices might locate the scripting that they perform on reality at the purely interventional; that they, in Bishop’s words, take the social as a medium to be worked on. With the reparative position, the scripting of a reparative, community-based reality in this way may be possible: that is, where the act of scripting both assembles those part-objects into a workable whole, and which engages with the possibility of institutional change as its reality.

However, to return to Balsom, this is not an argument for an absolute relativism of the truth, but for a re-engagement with the responsibility and politics of reality as something which is made rather than simply faithfully represented, or not. “Truth is” as Balsom describes, “not out there waiting to be captured—but reality is.” So while there is always a world that “really does exist,” it’s important to remember how it is made differently.




This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK.

  1.  Eyal Weizman in Forensic Architecture. Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Berlin: Sternberg-Press, 2014): 9
  2.  Keller Easterling, Medium Design (Moscow: Strelka Press, 2017): n.p.
  3.  See for more. The full version of Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth is available here: 
  4.  See: Susan Schuppli, “Entering Evidence: Cross-Examining the Court Records of the ICTY,” (Schuppli in Forensic Architecture, 2014, 279–316); “Ruins Under Construction,” (Cuéllar in Forensic Architecture, 2014, 264–275); for examples; (Forensic Architecture, 2014, 519–551) respectively.
  5.  See: Susan Schuppli, “Entering Evidence: Cross-Examining the Court Records of the ICTY,” (Schuppli in Forensic Architecture, 2014, 279–316); “Ruins Under Construction,” (Cuéllar in Forensic Architecture, 2014, 264–275); for examples; (Forensic Architecture, 2014, 519–551) respectively.
  6.  It is detailed in “Case: White Phosphorous,” in Forensic Architecture (eds.) Forensis (Berlin: Sternberg-Press, 2014) 335–347. Also available here: 
  7.  Michael Sfard in Forensic Archtiecture, White Phosphorus 2014-03-13, 2014.
  8.  See 
  9.  Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” In Touching Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003): 127
  10.  Olvia Laing, “Bad Surprises: Conspiracy Theorists and Reparative Reading.” Frieze (May 2017): 22
  11.  Sedgwick, Op Cit., 138
  12.  Laing, Op Cit.
  13.  Sedgwick, 2003: 149
  14.  Part objects are those objects on to which an infant first encounters the world through pragmatic and functional relations (a mother’s breast to the breast-feeding baby), later constructing these as part of the whole (the mother). This transformation later corresponds to the ability to tolerate ambiguity between part and whole objects.

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