Archiving Historical Violence Through Architectural Technologies and Situated Testimony in Forensic Architecture’s “Dispossession and The Memory of the Earth: Land Dispossession in Nueva Colonia”

Forensic Architecture is a research agency based out of London that combines architectural digital technologies with investigative techniques to piece together evidence and ultimately craft visual archives of state violence that otherwise would not exist. The term forensic architecture refers to the emerging academic field at Goldsmiths, University of London that “produces and presents architectural evidence within legal and political processes.” I first became aware of Forensic Architecture’s work at the Whitney Biennial in 2019, and they are ultimately the spark for my interest in digital humanities. While Forensic Architecture does not necessarily identify themselves as a digital humanities collective, I believe that the work they do constitutes digital humanities with an explicit basis in critical theory. That is to say, Forensic Architecture employs digitals tools with the purpose of documenting historical oppression that lacks other “traditional” forms of documentation (such as writing, images, news, videos, etc) in an effort to question what knowledge is by exposing the gaps in what we “know” about human rights violations, and repositioning power by focusing on and working with structurally oppressed communities to effectively document their history.

In the investigative project “Dispossession and The Memory of the Earth: Land Dispossession in Nueva Colonia” commissioned by The Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition of Colombia, Forensic Architecture collaborates with Instituto Popular de Capacitación  (a Colombian government organization that carries out research, training and education, and more with communities, social and political movements, media, as well as with the State in its different territorial scales) and Forjando Futuros (a Colombian non-profit that provides legal representation for victims of land dispossession due to armed conflict) to show the dispossession of campesino farmer land in the Urabá Antioqueño region of Nueva Colonia from the 1960s to present day through a web platform consisting of cluster visualizations and mapping technologies. According to their investigation site, methodologies include “3D modeling, data mining, fieldwork, photogrammetry, remote sensing, situated testimony, ground truth, [and] software development.”

In pursuing this project, the various teams of investigators ultimately expose the different actors involved in the land dispossession of Urubá for the purposes of “commercial monocrop banana cultivation,” and calls into focus the governmental forces that were meant to protect the campesinos from the brutal violence enacted both on the people and environment of Urabá. The web platform Despojo Urubá introduces historical context and identifies 12 different groups of actors. Clusters of circles representing land are color coded to reflect each of the 12 different groups and their respective land ownership. Starting in 1950 and depicted throughout time, these circles are shown to shift and move as land is dispossessed from the campesinos, and ownership transferred between different corporate entities. The platform also introduces an alternative view through the use of a map which shows in a more geographical context which parts of Urubá are being dispossessed, transferred, and bought over time, and by which actors. Beyond the web platform, Forensic Architecture created a video as an accompaniment to the web platform that delves into historical context, providing a situated testimony of massacres inflicted against the campesinos of Urubá through architectural modeling, aerial analysis, and testimony. The investigation is a powerful project that transforms the ways that users think about knowledge, history, and memory, revealing the ways we can practice, as Presner writes, “building a bridge… between the mapped and unmapped, the global and the local… reestablish[ing] contact with the non-philosophical” [Presner, 66].

Despojo Urubá allows users to understand the conflict, scale, and timeline of land dispossession in Urubá in a way that could easily get lost in translation in “traditional” written research projects. The investigative video component delivers extraordinary insights that are more accessible than papers typically are, and rooted in testimony that can be envisioned through the use of digital technologies. The use of clusters and maps were tools specifically chosen, and they serve distinct purposes in crafting the archive of land dispossession. There are immense strengths in this project in archiving and writing a history that oftentimes goes unwritten. The interactive nature of the web platform paired with the video allow for insights to be explored by users in meaningful ways.

While Forensic Architecture engaged with Colombians from a wide array of backgrounds in their investigation and practice critical theory intentionally, my biggest critique is their lack of job pipelines to support non-European scholars who are interested in working on and developing their own projects. How does Forensic Architecture ensure that their on-the-ground collaborators are being compensated for their labor on projects that deal with violence and trauma?

Overall, I highly recommend checking out Forensic Architecture’s “Dispossession and The Memory of the Earth: Land Dispossession in Nueva Colonia”, as well as their other 84 investigations. I believe that their investigative work reinvigorates us to think critically and creatively about how digital (and architectural) technologies can be used in exposing and archiving human rights violations.