Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies, presented within the 12th Berlin Biennale, investigates the ways in which the toxic clouds mobilized by state and corporate powers colonize the air we breathe on a global scale. Samaneh Moafi is the researcher in charge of this work, where she and other collaborators analyze and study through different methodologies the imperceptibility of violence that is executed by forms of toxic or harmful clouds, including the usage of tear gas and white phosphorus, herbicide spraying, and forest arson.
We often think that the devastation brought about by violence on bodies, spaces, or environments leave tangible traces of perpetrated wrongdoings. In fact, we are used to thinking of evidence as material and tangible objects, such as bullets, skulls, or ruins. Clouds contrast that understanding, since they are characterized by impermanence and impalpability. Moved by the wind, their violently mutating forms need to be fixed by images in order to be studied. If clouds caused by bombing could be analyzed based on their shape and density, other clouds might occlude our field of vision, making things disappear. What are the challenges of using something as impermanent as a cloud as a form of evidence?
Every case presented in Cloud Studies is an opportunity to develop new methodologies and each case presents us with different challenges. When we studied the environmental role of tear gas in the Hong Kong protests two years ago, the challenge we faced is that tear gas is detectable at its source for only twenty seconds. After that time, it disappears. We can still smell and breathe it, but no one can see it anymore. In that case, we built a bridge between open source investigative techniques and the scientific world of mathematical simulation. By doing so, we were able to provide a reliable account of the toxicity in the air, as well as its deposit on the ground. Another example is the Beirut port explosion in 2020. The smoke plumes of the blast were captured in images and videos by the citizens of Beirut, and allowed us to study the progression of the fire in a high level of detail. We were able to reconstruct what happened in the minutes that led up to the catastrophe. In the case of forest fires in Indonesia, we have images and videos of the clouds of smoke, but there is only so much that they can show. To be able to measure and analyze them, we had to use the point of view of the satellite. There is a line in Cloud Studies where we say that clouds are always doubled: From the inside, they are experiential conditions or maybe even optical blurs, but from the outside, they are still considered measurable objects. To investigate clouds and bring accountability to their violence is to always move from the inside outwards and to constantly cross scales.
What are the other entities on the ground that could bear witness to the impermanence of toxic clouds? In the case of the Israeli herbicidal spray campaigns against crops in Gaza presented in Cloud Studies, vegetal and earthly entities represent what might at times be disappearing to the eye, but are metabolized by our ecosystems over a longer duration of time. Do these non-human temporalities become part of your work in assessing evidence?
Herbicide Warfare investigates how wind is weaponized by Israel in order to carry toxic particles of herbicide from the Israeli side of the border to the Palestinian one. Herbicide spraying is conducted in the early morning, when the breeze blows from the east to the west – from Israel to Gaza. When we conducted the Herbicide Warfare case, we realized that the surface of the leaves affected by the crop-killing substance sprayed by Israeli planes retain evidence in the form of spotted marks where they were hit by toxic particles. The testimony of the leaves is crucial not only when investigating environmental violence, but also other kinds of colonial and military violence that entail environmental destruction.
Thinking of this same case and of how wind is weaponized, there is a moment in Cloud Studies where young Palestinians set tires on fire. By harnessing the opacity of smoke to their benefit, the protesters redirect the means of violence towards the perpetrator. I was wondering, could it be that clouds offer different modalities of resistance, not despite, but because of their volatile matter?
What we learned in the 2014 case of Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza is also the way in which clouds are mobilized in acts of resistance. The footage that you are referring to was shot during the Great March of Return in 2018. We see a border area where Israeli snipers are positioned with a deep-cutting view that crosses the fence towards Gaza and the protesters. In order to block the viewing range of the sniper, protesters light fires in the afternoon, when the wind goes from the seaside to the landside. With the favor of the very same wind that is weaponized against them in herbicidal warfare, the dark smoke of the burnt tires blinds the soldiers on the other side of the border.
How can we connect forms of harm that are so volatile and dispersed across space to expose and resist the violence of toxic clouds?
How can we put a halt to toxic clouds if not by looking at them and comparing their effects from across the globe? In Cloud Studies, we are bringing together the work that we have conducted with activists in Hong Kong with communities in Santiago de Chile, in Palestine on the border with Israel, with civil rights groups in Taksim Square and across the globe. We were building on techniques as we were moving from one case to the other. What we realized while working together is that these groups are already connected with one another, and that there are collective strategies of combating tear gas clouds mobilized by police forces that are already shared outside of territorial borders.
Questions were formulated by Caterina Selva.
Samaneh Moafi is Forensic Architecture’s Senior Researcher, provides conceptual oversight across its projects, and oversees the Centre for Contemporary Nature. Her research is focused on developing new evidentiary techniques for environmental violence.
Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2022, Video still