The Production of Public Proof

The Production of Public Proof

Centre for Research Architecture, London

5 March 2012

“If nature is no longer a mere background for human acitvities, what change does this entail for art and the social sciences?”

Forensics is generally translated in French, in a very narrow sense, as police science, meaning scientific investigation. But if we were to translate, or transmigrate, the Latin word into French, it would be something approaching the production of public proof. These three elements, “production”, “public” and “proof”, are very much what we are interested in, in our programme of Political Art at Sciences Po. This old term les arts politiques existed in French and has been abandoned, but we are trying to bring it back, so it’s not “arts and politics” but “political art”.


  • Bruno Latour
  • John Palmesino
  • Paulo Tavares
  • Nabil Ahmed

Now reflecting on our theme, introduced by these beautiful presentations: if I morphed some of the questions we’ve heard today into our own vocabulary, I would say, how do we represent matters of concern, when we take seriously the agency of non-humans? But taking it seriously not because they are part of Nature, taking it seriously because they have agency, responsibility, beauty, and so forth… This multiplicity of objectivities, which we are witnessing in many fields, is something rare. Rare in sociology, which is still mainly anthropocentric; but also rare in architectural programmes, which in many cases simply adds to the central human dimension a certain materiality as a backdrop. So I was very struck, and I think its a very nice effort on the part of your programme to start here: to insist that when we talk about agency, we are not talking only about humans, but also about things. Things that can be represented publicly. Controversy then, is not an added, unspeakable effect of their being represented in the public, but as a general feature of their public existence. I think this is what the term matters of concern tries to capture. The linked term matters of fact encountered some disputes but they were only provisional.

What makes the three cases so interesting – in particular in the Arctic one, for me at least – is that in each of them, non-humans enter the stage with their own agency. They are not the decor, the backdrop against which humans act. Neither do they enter – and I think that’s also very rare in academic circles – as, lets say, the material part of something which has another part, which would be the symbolic. The great thing this morning is that we didn’t hear the word “symbolic”. That’s a great thing because architects tend to add a high dose of symbolic dimension to the material. Today we talked about the arctic, the earth, cyclones, and their different mediations. What we are trying to unfold through this strange term political art (but political art is as strange a word as forensic architecture, so I don’t think we can be criticised for that) – so two strange words for something [we are trying to unfold] that I would phrase in the following way: How can agency exist publicly without stabilising the discussion, but on the contrary, by enlarging the discussion? The word “multi-naturalism”, which was not pronounced but was in the background of Paulo’s talk, is perhaps best able to capture the break with, let’s say, the materialistic visions of the past – including much architectural theory, that is, a materialism which immediately generates the symbolic, as a sort of addition. Today we are talking about the production of public tools, and through one of them — political art — we recognise that there are a lot of agencies, and that they need to be redefined.

So of course, the three cases which deal with ecology – the Arctic, the cyclone in Bangladesh and then the whole earth – to me operate as critiques of ecology. The problem with ecologists is that they use nature as a unifying element. And not a single slide that we saw today — which was so nice — tried to unify what is assembled when we talk about natural or material elements. I think that’s what is new. The old story of being materialist missed the possibility of a much vaster objectivity. Objectivity was a sort of, or was supposed to be a background, a unifying element and then came the disputes about the symbolic, the cultural, the social, and the political… It was an unfair way of treating non-humans. Not only unfair to humans — the cyclone deserves better than to be treated as a unified set. Because if they are political, and I think that’s what Paulo wanted to say… I’m actually trying to develop this at Sciences Po, I have a program very modestly called politics of the earth, because “geopolitics” would already be that. But we have the worst possible geo-politicians in our school, which work with nations and territorial fights, etc… Of course that’s not geopolitic, in fact for the earth to be political it should not be unified. And I think that’s what was beautiful in the talks we heard. It is extraordinarily difficult to redefine the component with which we share our existence, and that’s the weakness of ecological thought — they think that once there are people interested and unified, this will produce a political agreement.

That’s why your entry through forensics is so interesting because, in court, we are always dealing with a dispute, with witnesses, with instruments… In the three presentations, we saw scientists working — which is very rare, another great advantage of not being symbolic — and we saw practices of science, which of course, goes straight to my heart, as this is what I’m trying to do. Because when you highlight and foreground the practice of science, you know that something is going to be debated.

Something that is probably captured by the word Forensic Architecture is that the assembly where these diverging, controversial data, or sublata, are gathered, is precisely the missing part of politics. I don’t know about your relation to the Political Science Department here, but in my case, it is exactly what is missing in our political scientists, or so-called political scientists. Because, first they think that the assembly is for humans, so the standing of trees in court are for them a sort of oddity. And also because they think that when they will allude to the fact or the matter, there will be agreement. And this blocks completely any political project, either because you deal with humans only, or because, when you deal with facts, people are supposed to agree. And what is extraordinary in today’s series of talks is that, they deal with objectivities, without adding to it, facts that are going to stop the discussion. This of course bears consequences, for us all and I think, here, we are all exploring the difficult question — what sort of assembly will be able to replace the closure, the premature closure, which was obtained by the political epistemology of the matters of fact? Matters of fact had a political epistemology, which was to say: “you guys can discuss but when the matters of fact enter, the discussion stops.” Now it would not be biology or geology but it would be political economy, or economy, or sometimes genetics or whatever… and it’s very difficult in the case of the court of course. And it is very interesting that your programme focuses on the court, which has itself a very specific way of approaching disputes. One sees it in the climate change case, for example, it is very difficult to have the court’s closure, the closing sphere, and scientific matter. So all of theses questions seem essential for anyone around this table today: about the proof proving nothing.

Paulo Tavares, “The Earth-Political”
The history of modernity could be narrated as a longue-durée process of environing the earth. What we call globalization – that moment in history when financial markets, communication networks, energetic technologies, and ecological accidents turned into ‘world-objects’- is the last snapshot of that movement by which the planet was surrounded, up to a point in which that process has practically reached the totality of life, at least in relation to what concerns the life of the human species and to that on which it depends: ‘global nature’. After the terrestrial globe initiated with early modernity/colonialism, the bio-spherical globe that emerges with late nineteenth century with bio-geography, and the eco-systemic turn of the 60s and 70s, we maybe experiencing the formation of new sensibility towards the planet, more geo-logical than territorial or biological, and therefore, a new reality in which the political terrain is no longer only the geo- or the bio-, but something I would tentatively call the earth-political. In the 70’s, when the ecological discourse was surfacing, geo-political power was disputed as a matter of reaching the outer space — escaping the Earth. Today’s crucial problem is that power will engage much more intimately and forcefully with the materiality of the planet, drilling deeper into the earth, scanning its hidden surfaces, trying to uncover sources of material wealth under melting glaciers and new discovered terrains — extracting, sectioning, dividing the materials that form our planet, re-articulating local and global ecologies. If ecology can be thought as political, its most urgent problem is not so much safeguarding nature, but challenging the hegemonic notions of nature itself and questioning the forms and means by which the earth is translated into the space of the political.

Nabil Ahmed, “Radical Meteorology”
The contemporary history of Bangladesh is one of the starkest examples of the politicization of natural disasters. The devastating 1970 Bhola cyclone, for example, had a direct impact on its war for independence from Pakistan. Coastal zones on the Bay of Bengal that form part of the Indian Ocean rupture nature and the political in a way where geologic, atmospheric and oceanologic forces resist and collide with human populations in dramatic fashion. At the same time recent discovery of oil and gas deposits is transforming the disaster zone into an area of renewed interest for global capital. Entangled within this calculus of risk, giant brown clouds, cyclones, the supreme terror from the sea and the dead buried there speak for a new political ecology in the age of man.

John Palmesino, “North – The architecture of a territory open on all sides”
Today a number of surveying practices are reshaping the relation between contemporary polities and their spaces of operation. At the higher latitudes remote sensing, satellite imagery, multispectrum scans, biological prospecting, seismic analysis are being combined to present a set of images of possible industrial, geopolitical, logistic, and military reorganization. The North presents architecture with an escalating demand to re-conceptualise change and transformation: to what degree of magnitude can architecture operate? Can architecture supplement the grid of rules, criteria, laws that characterise the showcasing of human intervention at the higher latitudes by integrating spatial analysis with image making, geographic knowledge, remote sensing? How to think new processes and processions where knowledge production is intertwined with the forming of inhabited territories? Can architecture rethink its agency?

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