Investigating toxic clouds and environmental racism with Forensic Architecture

On Juneteenth last year, a day commemorating the emancipation of African American people from slavery, members of St James Parish gathered at the Buena Vista burial site in Louisiana. A video posted to YouTube shows mourners clutching bouquets of flowers whilst others hold black umbrellas to protect them from the hot sun. The group had gathered to honour their enslaved ancestors buried there. A placard resting on the ground reads: “Formosa: You are NOT welcome here”.

Formosa Plastics Group plan to build a factory on the banks of the Mississippi which would include the burial ground. RISE St James, a local community group, have organised against the development. 

“We’re going to stand up for St James Parish; this is our home and we’re not going anywhere”, founding director Sharon Lavigne says defiantly in the YouTube video. RISE say the factory will contribute to the poisoning of the air and water supply with toxic chemicals. Formosa disputes the accusations about health issues.

An extract from the video is featured in Cloud Studies, a new exhibition being shown at the Whitworth as part of Manchester International Festival. The exhibition situates the struggle for clean air in Louisiana within a wider investigation into how toxic clouds are weaponised by states, corporations, militaries and police forces around the world. 

Samaneh Moafi is a senior researcher at Forensic Architecture (FA) – the organisation behind the exhibition – and has oversight over the Cloud Studies project. FA is a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, known for its use of architectural techniques to expose human rights violations. 

‘Cloud Studies’, 2008-2021| Photo: Michael Pollard
Courtesy of Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

She tells me that ‘toxic clouds’ was a common theme across multiple investigations they had previously carried out, such as the use of tear gas in Hong Kong, herbicidal warfare in Gaza and chlorine dumping in Syria. “We realised that we had been able to develop new investigative techniques in order to map these clouds [and] bring liability around them”, she says.

The exhibition’s central film is shown on a huge curved screen which cuts across the gallery space. It demonstrates the techniques and technologies FA uses to investigate toxic clouds and draws comparisons between these human rights violations through narration voiced by Moafi. 

The section on Louisiana charts the connection between air pollution caused by petrochemical companies and high cancer rates in the area. It also highlights the fact that the area, known as the petrochemical corridor or ‘cancer alley’, was once known as ‘plantation country’ because of the large number of fallow sugarcane plantations that stood there.

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“The petrochemical industry has inherited the spatial logics of settler colonialism and slavery […] it is the latest phase of a continuum of environmental racism spanning 300 years”, Moafi says in the narration.

Olukoye Akinkugbe, an assistant researcher at FA, explains how the team built on existing research and technology to chart the spread of emissions. “We have been working with a scientist [who] has simulated particles in the air which represent particle emissions from sources that we map, and we’ve been able to build a 3D model”, he says. 

“You see the extent and volume of something you can never really see with your own eyes; you get a very spatial understanding of the extent”, he says. This research is then combined with interviews with local people to create a more detailed picture.

‘If toxic air is a monument to slavery, how can we take it down?’, 2021 | Photo: Michael Pollard
Courtesy of Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

A room in the exhibition explores the ‘cancer alley’ investigation in more detail with videos and models visitors can engage with. A sign at the entrance reads: “If toxic air is a monument to slavery, how do we take it down?” 

Imani Jacqueline Brown, an artist, activist and researcher from New Orleans who worked on the project, explained the meaning behind this statement at a panel talk prior to the exhibition.

“If we remove all the monuments to slavery, to slave masters and to colonists, what then? What else is actually a monument to slavery?” she says. “[This region is called] ‘cancer alley’ because people living there have one of the highest EPA determined risks and rates of cancer in the US because they’re breathing some of the most toxic air produced by over 200 petrochemical plants […] that occupy the footprints of fallow sugarcane plantations”.

‘Tear Gas in Plaza de la Dignidad’, 2020 | Photo: Michael Pollard
Courtesy of Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The exhibition is one platform FA are using to share their investigation, or one “forum” as they put it. It will also exist as an advocacy tool in court cases, a lobbying tool for changes in laws and regulations and as evidence in claims for reparations.

FA’s recognition by the art world is not something that has always sat comfortably with founding director Eyal Weizman. After FA was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018, Weizman told artnet that “it’s very unexpected: we don’t consider ourselves to be artists”. It was telling that one of the first questions he considered at the panel talk was “why are we doing exhibitions at all?”.

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It’s something I also talk about with Moafi when I ask why they chose to showcase their findings at an art gallery. “I think the question that had come up at the time of the Turner was a question of discipline – whether our practices were in the discipline of art or something else”, she says.

“To ask this question of discipline is a bit archaic because if anything the work that we’re doing is precisely on the intersections of different disciplines. A third of us come from the discipline of architecture, but we also have journalists, artists, software developers, legal activists and so on”.  

Another researcher I spoke to, Omar Ferwati, hopes the field of architecture more broadly can learn from FA’s activism. “I think there is great potential and desire amongst individual practitioners to be engaged in politically aware and sensitive work that is responsive and be agents of change, rather than agents of normalcy”, he says.

‘The Bombing of Rafah’, 2015 | Photo: Michael Pollard
Courtesy of Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

Moafi hopes that people come away from the exhibition with an understanding that the struggles for air across the world are all connected. “How can we protect this universal right to breathe if not by locking arms?”, she asks.

It takes time to fully appreciate Cloud Studies. This is not an exhibition where you can flit from room to room because you will miss Forensic Architecture’s key message: struggles against toxic air around the world are interconnected. Whether you can call it art or not is beside the point; it’s challenging, purposeful and deserves to be seen.

Cloud Studies was commissioned by RISE St James with support from the Whitworth, The University of Manchester and Manchester International Festival.

The exhibition will be shown at the Whitworth until 17 October 2021. Tickets are free and can be purchased from the Whitworth’s website.