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Forensic Architecture’s Project at Whitney Biennial Reveals Museum Vice Chair’s Company May Be Complicit in War Crimes

The research group looks into the potential use of Sierra Bullets-manufactured bullets in Gaza, which prompted a response from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

A still from “Triple-Chaser” showing various Safariland tear gas canisters (image courtesy Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films)

Forensic Architecture’s submission for the 2019 Whitney Biennial includes an extensive investigation into the use of tear gas and bullets manufactured by companies led by Warren Kanders, a Whitney Museum vice chair. The London-based group of researchers used machine learning technology to examine the prevalence of Triple-Chaser Grenades, a form of tear gas, around the world. The group also looked into the potential use of Sierra Bullets-manufactured MatchKing bullets in Gaza. (Sierra Bullets was acquired in 2017 by the Clarus Corporation — of which Kanders is the executive chairman — for $79 million.)

After sharing its findings with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the center has served legal notice to Sierra Bullets indicating that the export of its bullets to the Israeli army may be aiding and abetting war crimes. The video work by Forensic Architecture was created in collaboration with award-winning director Laura Poitras, and features narration by musician David Byrne. The 10-minute-long video is titled “Triple-Chaser,” after a grenade of the same name produced by Defense Technology (a subsidiary of the Safariland group, of which Kanders is the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer according to Bloomberg). It opens with a quotation by Kanders saying: “While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important contributors to our society.” The quotation was part of a letter leaked by ARTnews in December, which was written by Kanders and addressed to the “Whitney Community.”

The printed map provided to visitors to the Whitney Biennial (image Zachary H. Small/Hyperallergic)

“Triple-Chaser” continues with still images and video from late last year showing tear gas being deployed at the US-Mexico border, and other evidence of the use of the Triple-Chaser Grenade in numerous countries.

As part of its presentation at this year’s Whitney Biennial, curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, Forensic Architecture provided a printed map detailing Safariland’s presence around the world. On the guide, Forensic Architecture says that it has “found evidence of tear gas manufactured by Safariland being used against civilians in fourteen countries, including six states or territories of the United States.” These locations include Bahrain, Canada, Egypt, Guyana, Greece, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico (US), Tunisia, Turkey, United States, Venezuela, and Yemen.

Eyal Weizman, the director of Forensic Architecture, told Hyperallergic that: “The controversy surrounding the 2019 Whitney Biennial presented us with a challenge that unites two of the fields within which we operate: human rights and culture. When arms traders support culture, they end up being, in return, reputationally supported by cultural and symbolic capital. We decided to use the platform of the Whitney Biennial to invert this economy through these investigations.”

A ballistic test of one of the bullets produced by Sierra Bullets shooting through ballistic gelatin (image courtesy Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films)

The next segment of the video shows an open tip match bullet, manufactured by Sierra Bullets, shooting through ballistic gelatin. The narrator states that Sierra Bullets’s ammunition is used by the Israeli Military Industry (IMI), which the video identifies as “the preferred supplier of ammunition to the Israeli army.”

As seen in its commissioned video, Forensic Architecture gathered bullet cartridges with activists on the Israeli side of the Gaza border and found IMI ammunition fired into occupied Gaza. Video footage, captured by local filmmakers and a member of Forensic Architecture, demonstrated how such bullets are used in Gaza against civilians. After contacting Sierra Bullets to ask if its products were being sold to the Israeli army, Forensic Architecture was told this information was confidential. An audio clip of this conversation is featured in “Triple-Chaser.”

Forensic Architecture’s video project points to an escalation of activist efforts to hold Kanders accountable. The collective shared its findings with the ECCHR, who have submitted a letter to Sierra Bullets addressing the most serious charge to date against a company partially owned by Kanders.

An image of the letter from the “Triple-Chaser” video (image courtesy Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films)

The letter reads in part:

This letter is to inform you that we are considering legal steps against you.

In the context of the campaign by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR)1 to increase criminal accountability in the arms trade, we are investigating arms trade organisations such as Sierra Bullets, and leading managers within those organisations for possibly aiding and abetting war crimes through the sale of their products.

We understand that Sierra Bullets, US-based manufacturer of bullets and ammunition, is the producer of a line of open tip match bullets known as “MatchKing.” “MatchKing” is allegedly used by the arms manufacturer Israeli Military Industries (IMI) Systems in at least two of their commercial ammunition products. IMI Systems is the main supplier of small caliber ammunition to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

The letter addresses the most serious charge to date against a Kanders-owned company.

Hyperallergic confirmed with ECCHR that the letter has been sent to Sierra Bullets. The center elaborated that the notice pointed to the “potential liability of the company and its management under national and international law. The letter included a list of questions, which we now expect Sierra to answer.”

“The background of the letter to Sierra are ECCHR’s efforts to legally challenge the role of arms trade manufacturers in human rights violations committed by third parties using equipment manufactured and exported by transnational companies,” a spokesperson for Berlin-based ECCHR added.

The entrance to the Forensic Architecture presentation at the 2019 Whitney Biennial (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

In April 2018, ECCHR, along with the Yemen-based Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights and the Italian Rete Italiana per il Disarmo, launched legal action against Italian government officials and a European arms manufacturer over Saudi arms sales. The groups have asked prosecutors to investigate whether there is liability on the part of Italian foreign ministry officials over alleged arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The current action against Sierra Bullets represents a new tactic to hold weapons manufacturers accountable for the use of their devices.

Members of the press watching “Triple-Chaser” at the Whitney Biennial (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

“The IDF has employed snipers to shoot live ammunition at civilian protesters during numerous protests along the border fence surrounding Gaza between 30 March 2018 and 31 December 2018, and later,” the ECCHR letter to Sierra Bullets reads. The use of live ammunition against civilian protesters is forbidden by international human rights law. On February 28, 2019, the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2018 Gaza protests reported that “Israeli Security Forces injured 6,106 Palestinians with live ammunition at the protest sites.”

A reporter affiliated with Hyperallergic approached Whitney Museum Director Adam D. Weinberg after the Whitney Biennial remarks for comment, and Weinberg declined to provide on the record comment.

Editors note 5/13/19 5:56pm: Following a message from Praxis Films, this article has been updated to indicate that Sierra Bullets’s open tip match bullet was potentially used in Gaza, and that Sierra Bullets is partially owned by Kanders to clarify the relationship. This article has also been updated to specify that the film looks into Sierra Bullets’s sale of bullets, not ammunition.

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