The algorithm is watching you
Eyal Weizman is the founding director of Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, that undertakes advanced spatial and media investigations into cases of human rights violations. What follows is an edited version of a statement presented on his behalf in Miami this evening.
Today I was meant to be at the Museum of Art and Design in Miami to open Forensic Architecture’s first major survey exhibition in the United States, True to Scale. But last Wednesday, 12 February, two days before my scheduled flight to the US, I was informed in an email from the US embassy that my visa waiver had been revoked and I was not authorised to travel to the United States. The revocation notice gave no reason and no opportunity to appeal.
It was also a family trip. My wife, Ines Weizman, was scheduled to give talks in the US herself. She and our two children travelled the day before I was supposed to go. On arrival at JFK, Ines was separated from the children and interrogated by immigration officials for two and a half hours before being allowed entry.
The following day I went to the US embassy in London to apply for a visa. In my interview the officer informed me that my authorisation to travel had been revoked because the ‘algorithm’ had identified a security threat. He said he did not know what had triggered the algorithm but suggested that it could be something I was involved in, people I am or was in contact with, places to which I had travelled (had I recently been in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia or met their nationals?), hotels at which I stayed, or a certain pattern of relations among these things. I was asked to supply the embassy with additional information, including 15 years of travel history, in particular where I had gone and who had paid for it. The officer said that Homeland Security investigators could assess my case more promptly if I supplied the names of anyone in my network whom I believed might have triggered the algorithm. I declined to provide this information.
This much we know: we are being electronically monitored for a set of connections – the network of associations, people, places, calls and transactions – that make up our lives. Such network analysis poses many problems, some of which are well known. Working in human rights means being in contact with vulnerable communities, activists and experts, and being entrusted with sensitive information. These networks are the lifeline of any investigative work. I am alarmed that relations among our colleagues, stakeholders and staff are being targeted by the US government as security threats.
This incident exemplifies – in a far less intense manner and at a much less drastic scale – critical aspects of the ‘arbitrary logic of the border’ that the Forensic Architecture exhibition in Miami seeks to expose. The racialised violations of the rights of migrants at the US southern border are of course much more serious and brutal than the procedural difficulties a UK national may experience, and these migrants have very limited avenues for accountability when contesting the violence of the US border.
As I would have announced in today’s lecture, the exhibition is an occasion for Forensic Architecture to launch a joint investigation with local groups into human rights violations at the Homestead detention centre in Florida, where migrant children have been held in what activists describe as ‘regimented, austere and inhumane conditions’.
In our practice, exhibitions are treated as alternative forums for accountability, ways of informing the public about serious human rights violations. They are also opportunities to share with local activists and community groups the methods and techniques we have assembled over years of work in the field.
True to Scale includes an investigation into a CIA drone strike in Pakistan that was presented by a UN Special Rapporteur in the General Assembly; an analysis of the Chicago police killing of a barber that lead to an investigation by the mayor and the city’s police department; and an inquiry into the Israeli bombing of Rafah in Gaza that informed the International Criminal Court’s recent decision to open an investigation into the possibility of Israeli war crimes in occupied Palestine. The exhibition presents other investigations with communities and human rights collaborators in Germany, Venezuela, the Mediterranean and Syria.
Our work seeks to demonstrate that we can invert the forensic gaze and turn it against the actors – police, military, secret service, border agencies – that aim to monopolise information. But in employing the counter-forensic gaze one is also exposed to higher level monitoring by the very state agencies investigated.