WARSAW, Poland — At the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, the Forensic Architecture research group’s newest division—the Center for Contemporary Nature (CCN)—unpacks how forms of environmental violence are used concurrently within theatres of war and conflict.
Led by researchers Samaneh Moafi, Shourideh Molavi and Hannah Meszaros Martin, the exhibition, one part of the Ujazdowski Castle Centre’s Plasticity of the Planet show, examines how desertification and deforestation occur in Palestine and Columbia respectively, comparing and contrasting how geopolitical conflicts triangulate into forms of environmental violence too. Above all, the exhibition extracts a direct relationship between bullets and the particles of glyphosate that often follow through herbicidal sprayings.
As visitors enter the exhibition, a long table first provides a timeline showing the temporality of environmental destruction, a form of counter-forensics that details specific events and when and where they occurred. This technique uses evidence to reconstruct events having both spatial and temporal qualities. Counter-forensics, as such, becomes a tool of radical geopolitical and aesthetic praxis. Incorporating the Ujazdowski here as a node within an increasingly expansive network of investigative institutions, the exhibition becomes a form of applied cultural studies that gestures toward a civilly disobedient art form.
Meszaros Martin’s work shows how efforts to eradicate the coca plant in Columbia led to ecological destruction. After the 1961 United National Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs outlawed the plant, new research reveals how efforts to destroy it have exacerbated large-scale destruction and deforestation of Amazonian land.
The legislation gave “states the power to not only destroy coca when harvested illegally for drug production,” Meszaros Martin wrote in a 2018 paper, “but also to kill it in the world, suggesting the plant itself was ontologically guilty in the eyes of the law even before it had come into contact with human beings.” In her text “Defoliating the World” (2018), Meszaros Martin claims these weaponized herbicides are still used in Columbia at an alarming rate. After the 2012 peace agreement between FARC rebels and the Columbian government, Meszaros Martin further states in her text that over 20,000 hectares of Amazonian land have undergone deforestation as a result of the ongoing US-sponsored War on Drugs.
In the six seven years since the agreement with FARC, areas that were once under rebel control are experiencing deforestation. Aided by data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Forensic Architecture’s composite fumigation maps are displayed in the gallery with color-coded flight patterns as they occurred between 2003-2015.
“Dried earth with dried leaves — everything is dead or dying,” Meszaros Martin notes in her research. “ It looks as if the forest floor has been bleached out, and left in a twisted pattern of brown earth and pale yellow leaves.”
In Forensic Architecture’s materials on Gaza, we learn in the exhibition how aerial herbicides are weaponized against the Palestinians along buffer zones. According to the exhibition, patterns of ecocide are taking place there too.
“Environmental change is not abstract, it is entangled with colonial and military conflicts, with real war crimes and with forms of destruction,” says Samaneh Moafi, a senior research fellow of Forensic Architecture studying environmental crimes. Like many of Forensic Architecture’s other projects, the documentation of herbicidal warfare in the area is realized with an expansive team — in this case, the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, the Tel Aviv-based Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Haifa. Combined, the researchers display startling data that goes beyond the recent scandal involving Warren Kanders, the former Whitney Board Member who was forced to resign after reports in Hyperallergic first uncovered his ties to weapons manufacturing.
The exhibition documents how ongoing systems of ecocide are taking place in Gaza, which, according to data, are occurring along enforced and expanding military no-go areas — or so-called “buffer zones” — on the Palestinian side of the border.
“Since 2014, the clearing and bulldozing of agricultural and residential lands by the Israel military along the eastern border of Gaza has been complemented by the unannounced aerial spraying of crop-killing herbicides,” Forensic Architecture notes in the exhibition materials.
The exhibition compiles videos, satellite imagery, in-person testimonials from farmers, and freedom of information requests which researchers used to determine that toxic chemicals glyphosate (Roundup), oxyfluorfen (Oxygal) and diuron (Diurex) cross the border and harmful concentrations of herbicide drift reach in excess of hundreds of square meters into Gaza. This effectively harms the Palestinian crops and clears Palestinian land of any natural obstacles that would impede the view of Israeli snipers.
The exhibition recalls that during the Great March of Return protests between March and December 2018, the Israeli Defense Force used live ammunition to injure over six thousand civilians, resulting in more than 150 casualties, including 35 children. On the evening of June 1, 2018, a single bullet struck three people. Rouzan al-Najjar, 21, a volunteer medic, was killed, while two others were wounded. It sounds unbelievable; how could one bullet be fired with that much force?
To find out, the New York Times commissioned Forensic Architecture to uncover the events leading up to the march. First, the group gathered witness testimony of the two other medics, as well as video evidence from the protest area, which they then used to locate the sniper and examine the trajectory of the bullet, tracing what they called the “cone of fire” back to its origin: an Israeli sniper positioned at the border fence.
What does al-Najjar’s death have to do with environmental violence? Forensic Architecture determined that the bullet ricocheted off the rocky surface below the medic’s feet, which, had it not been cleared of vegetation, would have simply stayed where it had hit the ground.
“What we see in Gaza is how environmental violence occurs across manifold levels,” Moafi said. “It’s not only herbicides that destroy Palestinian lands and livelihoods, the violence that begets and accelerates it is being optimized by ongoing Israeli security operations.”
Curated by Jarosław Lubiak in collaboration with Michał Grzegorzek, the exhibition brings together research that surfaces difficult, challenging subjects, subjects that are often left out of contemporary art discourses, especially in Poland.
Reflecting on the exhibition, I wondered why Forensic Architecture hadn’t decided to include local environmental crimes in Warsaw’s own backyard. In 2016, for example, the Guardian reported an “environmental coup” by government and state timber interests in Poland’s Białowieża forest, one of Europe’s oldest and most ancient natural wonders. After loggers began clearing the forest, local protesters assembled in the forest to protect it. There, they were met with death threats and violence. When I visited the area in 2016, I experienced the violence hands on, after visiting the protest encampment with several friends, later that night a group of loggers smashed the windows of protesters and hurled rocks at those within.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Moafi said that the exhibition in Warsaw foregrounds how “slow violence often accelerates over time, but also how environmental crimes coincide with real war crimes and displacement.” Which, we despairingly learn, continues to occur across the world at a seemingly accelerating rate.
Forensic Architecture’s Center for Contemporary Nature, a part of Plasticity of the Planet, continues at the Ujazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw until September 22, 2019.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to correct references to pesticides and other details of Forensic Architecture’s findings. We regret the errors.