Visible Evidence 2021

New Media’s Critical Forensics

Kelly Gates
Patrick Brian Smith
Ryan Watson
Thu, Dec 16
90 Min
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Participant Media and the US Capitol Insurrection

The January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters generated a flood of visual evidence from “participant media.” The New York Times Visual Investigations team, and journalists at other news organizations like the Wall Street Journal, used the participants’ own cell phone video and other recordings to assemble a collection of documentary investigations that employed media forensic techniques to expose participants’ identities, tactics, and behavior. This paper analyzes a sample of these documentaries to better understand the ways that this new form of media production marries investigative journalism with media forensics.

I argue that the use of participant media to produce investigative documentaries of the January 6 US Capitol insurrection punctuates a key moment in the formation of this new form of forensic-documentary journalism. It also provides an opportunity to consider the tensions and shared concerns between this emerging form of forensic journalism, the uses of video forensics in the legal system, and the appropriation of forensic techniques and epistemology by human rights activists for investigating and exposing state violence. What similar and different legal, ethical, and professional issues are raised in the context of the news versus the law versus human rights? What are the lessons for what Eyal Weizman calls a critical forensic practice?

Kelly Gates

Kelly Gates is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Director of the Science Studies Program at UC San Diego. She specializes in the study of surveillance, digital media and visual culture, from an analytical perspective that bridges science and technology studies and cultural and media studies. Her first book, Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance (NYU Press, 2011) is a critical-cultural study of the automation of facial recognition and facial expression analysis, focusing on the applications of these experimental technologies in policing, security, social media, and the measurement of emotion. In her current research, Gates is investigating the emerging professional field of forensic video analysis, looking at the ways in which new visual imaging and archiving technologies are being incorporated into, and transforming, modern investigatory and evidentiary practices.

Critical Media Forensics and “Non-Self-Evidence”

Within a political and cultural epoch marked by “post-truth” and “post-representation” discourses, a range of artists, researchers and media collectives have developed new visual and technological practices that aim to reassert the role that non-fiction visual media forms can play in fighting against political, economic and humanitarian abuse. The aim of this paper is to examine how a range of these groups (Forensic Architecture, SITU Research, WITNESS, Mnemonic, Bellingcat, INDEX, Videre est Credere, VFRAME and the Digital Forensics Research Lab) have sought to embrace and exploit the apparent instability of nonfiction media’s evidentiary capacities. Working against “naive” conceptualisations of evidence as simply “self-evident” or “incontrovertible” forms of objective truth, the groups and collectives working in these new counter-forensic modes understand that the establishment of evidence is something that must be aesthetically and discursively produced (Weizman and Fuller, 2021).

Thus, this paper aims to examine how, through the utilisation of new technological and aesthetic tools (augmented reality, 3D modelling, photogrammetry, virtual reality simulations etc.), these groups are working to reassess and recalibrate staid conceptualisations of the forensic and evidentiary. Crucial to these new forensic media practices is an understanding of the role that the performative, ethico-aesthetic and technological play in the mediation and presentation of evidentiary forms, which are understood in relation to Thomas Keenan’s notion of “non-self-evidence,” where “evidence is what is presented and used to persuade… in other words… evidence is precisely that which is not self-evident” (2018, 113). At a broader level, the paper will also argue that the new technological and aesthetic strategies being developed and utilised by these groups are radically reshaping investigatory methodologies and collaborative practices across contemporary human rights, documentary, and new media practice. Thus, the paper will examine the radical convergence of different investigatory modes and aesthetic-political dispositions across these diverse fields of practice.

Patrick Brian Smith

Patrick Brian Smith is an incoming British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick, where he will be working on a project entitled “Mediated Forensics.” His research interests include documentary theory and practice, spatial and political theory, forensic media, and human rights media activism. He has taught courses on visual culture, film and media histories, documentary theory, and activist media cultures. His work has been published in journals such as Afterimage, NECSUS, and Mediapolis.

New Dimensions of Documentary Activism: Forensic Architecture and the Sound of Prison in Syria

This paper examines the critical spatial, audio, and expanded documentary-based practice of the group Forensic Architecture, specifically their recent work in using audio analysis and acoustic modelling in Syria. While documentary images are often conceived of as forms of visible evidence, Forensic Architecture expands the notions of visibility and representation by investigating, analyzing, and producing a vast array of forensic information beyond the frame and the image. They do so to re-inscribe context and truth to events and narratives of state violence, compositing varied forms of images, data, audio, and other forms of evidence into three-dimensional models and other digital re-constructions.

This paper analyzes the recent Forensic Architecture investigation “Torture in Saydnaya Prison” in Syria, with particular attention paid to the use of sonic evidence and acoustic modelling in a world of contested images, memories, and evidence. Forensic Architecture adds new dimensions to documentary activism and points to a way forward for an emerging, collaborative, and militant engagement with global crises and state violence via the critical civil practice of counter forensics.

Ryan Watson

Ryan Watson is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at Misericordia University in Dallas, PA. He is the author of Radical Documentary and Global Crises: Militant Evidence in the Digital Age which is forthcoming from Indiana University Press in October 2021. In 2019, he co-edited a special issue of Studies in Documentary Film on “Radical Documentary in the Globalized Age of New Media.” Watson’s writing has appeared in ​Afterimage, Animation Journal, Cinema Journal, Discourse, Feminist Media Studies, Journal of Film and Video, Review of Middle East Studies, and The Velvet Light Trap.