What Can Art Do?

Forensic Architecture sets a high bar at the Whitney Biennial

Triple-Chaser, Forensic Architecture, 2019. High-definition video, color, sound; 10:43 min. (Courtesy Forensic Architecture and Praxis Films.)

“While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important contributors to our society,” said Whitney Museum of American Art vice chairman Warren B. Kanders.

This statement, salvaged from a letter leaked by ARTnews in December, sets the tone as the opening visual for Forensic Architecture’s installation at the Whitney Biennial—a 15-minute video delivering the collective’s most recent foray into artificial intelligence, titled Triple Chaser. The London-based architecture and science research group chose to respond to the Kanders tear gas and munitions scandal not with a withdrawal from the biennial, but with the creation of a work of art-as-social justice tool, a submission that infiltrates the subject of derision’s own institution.

Their video, created in collaboration with director Laura Poitras and Praxis Films, is narrated by David Byrne cooly explaining how FA approached the training of a computer program to track and recognize images of “Triple Chaser” tear gas canisters and subsequently reduce the amount of human labor needed to do so. The program is trained to recognize the canisters, so named for the way they break into three distinct pieces after being fired, and not become used to identifying just the degraded landscapes they usually occur in. Forensic Architecture’s website, as well as the video, comments that “Whereas the export of military equipment from the US is a matter of public record, the sale and export of tear gas is not.” The analyzed images act as proof of their use, and therefore sale, to over 14 countries including US border states — and these canisters are just one of the many munitions manufactured by Defense Technology, a subsidiary of the Safariland Group — Kanders is the founder, chairman, and chief executive.

A list of the countries that Safariland supplies tear gas to around the world, as seen at the Whitney Biennial

Handout included with Forensic Architecture’s installation at the 2019 Whitney Biennial (Emily Conklin/AN)

Byrne’s narration clearly and objectively describes the group’s methods in creating a piece of artificial intelligence, accompanied by visuals and music that are at once pragmatic as well as sensually arresting. Viewers are prompted before one section of the video with a seizure warning, as a series of bold geometric backgrounds used to train the program appear, the compositions flashing at rapid speed on screen, a kaleidoscope of color and stimulation. The tear gas cans are highlighted and boxed in bright pinks, yellows and blues that act as sharp contrasts against the dusty, barren landscapes of the war zones they are scattered in. Whole sections of the video are also set to the symphonic music of Richard Strauss, Kander’s personal choice for the Aspen Music Festival section named for him after a multi-million dollar donation. The haunting strings and dramatic woodwind crescendos are fitting for the eerie images they amplify.

This video is an overtly collaborative work, and FA reached out to other artists and activists working in zones of political unrest, where the canisters are common, to fill out their image banks. The video shows one video submission of a rusted canister from an artists colony in Israel, one that Byrne introduces as “one of the most heavily gassed artist’s colonies in the world.” In FA’s data-driven way, their video encompasses why a cultural institution like the Whitney cannot have, in the opinion of many, a man like Kanders on a board that should be protecting, not attacking, artists and their voices.

Forensic Architecture as a firm, a lab, a collective, is inherently interdisciplinary, regularly overstepping traditional boundaries between professions and genres. Their “artwork” is serving a similar focus as well. Is this video just as much “art” as the Arroyo paintings in the same gallery?

Politics have always been a subject of art, artists and creative output, but the contemporary climate seems to be showing artists as not only creating political works, but exposing politics and its maneuvering as art inherent in its existence — politics create culture, and other elements of culture are responding to what politicians and votes are “creating.” But is “Triple Chaser” a work of art, or a work of journalism, or of anthropological research? A reorganization and alt-method of displaying data, the inclusion of Forensic Architecture at the Whitney Biennial sets a possible precedent for contemporary art, one that may be hyper-specific to current events, relevant due to an Internet-age concept of timeliness.

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