Investigative Aesthetics: An argument for active art

Published by Verso in August, Investigative Aesthetics is a book about the theory and practices of investigation, art and politics.

The book’s authors, Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman, argue for forms of investigating and presenting information aimed not just at reading but working the conjunction. This idea of a ‘conjunction’ is something that comes out of cultural studies. It roughly means the confluence of specific cultural, political and social forces that make a particular moment distinct and contain within them various different future possibilities.  

Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth

I spoke to Fuller over video call. He’s Professor of Cultural Studies in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths. Talking to highly qualified academics can be intimidating, but Fuller is funny, passionate and easy to talk to.  

“Me and Eyal work in different areas related to the question of investigation,” he tells me. For them, investigation is not something neutral. It is not an academic exercise in describing the world – it is about being active and involved: working the present rather than reading the runes.

Fuller specialises in software: “Using programmatic modes of enquiry, so using computers to analyse other computers, other computer programs,” in his own words. After teaching from his kitchen for the last 18 months, we joke that he’s also become something of an expert in navigating video calls and chat rooms.

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Eyal Weizman, on the other hand, is the founder of Forensic Architecture, an investigative research agency based at Goldsmiths, who “tend to work on spatial analysis, so using tools of architecture to understand specific events: particular killings, environmental disasters, ongoing forms of spatial violence.”

A Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures, his 2007 book Hollow Land is about architecture, urbanism and oppression in Israel. And this multi-disciplinarity is a key part of Investigative Aesthetics and the broader project of aesthetic investigation as practiced by groups like Forensic Architecture.

Forensic Architecture’s exhibition ‘Cloud Studies’ is being shown at the Whitworth until 17 October. In it, they utilise data mapping systems and artificial intelligence – alongside video footage, history, and geography – to investigate the environmental racism involved in the use of toxic clouds like tear gas, white phosphorous, and biochemical pollution.   

Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, 2008-2021.
Courtesy of FA and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

With the proliferation of digital technologies like smartphones, the capacity to record state violence is increasingly diffused throughout society. People capture images and videos every minute of every day, allowing investigative groups like Forensic Architecture to piece together alternative histories from the fragments.

State violence might not be televised as such, but – chances are – it will end up on someone’s Instagram story or Twitter feed. Investigative Aesthetics is about making use of this development to construct counter-narratives that expose things that otherwise might have been suppressed or erased.

“We’re trying to say why it actually makes you scientific, more rigorous, more provable if you take more factors into account,” Fuller says. “And that means allying the humanities, with the arts, with the sciences, with the political – that actually makes you sharper.” And so being multidisciplinary means using the insights of architecture and software studies alike.

It is about being active and involved: working the present rather than reading the runes

Doing this type of multidisciplinary work also means working in groups, where different people bring different expertise to the table. “Everyone has a situated perspective, in a sense that they’ve got a specific set of capacities,” Fuller tells me. “If you work with others, you’ve got a chance to go beyond your limits.”

As such, and influenced by ecology, there is a real emphasis on collectivity and interdependence in Investigative Aesthetics. As Fuller puts it: “Any form of being is involved in an ecology, which means it’s involved with numerous other processes, other organisms, other ways of experiencing and acting in the world.” 

“For instance, when Forensic Architecture are looking at police killings, often they’re looking at a specific moment when a particular officer enacts a killing. And that is the act of an individual, but it’s also the act of an individual that is deeply implicated in a society, and has been trained to respond in a manner in which they experience as a reflex but is actually socially conditioned.”

Forensic Architecture with Forensic Oceanography, The Seizure of the luventa (2017)
Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

I suggest to Fuller that there seems in the book to be a desire and a need to operate on a level of understanding outside of the individual.  

“I think that’s right,” he says. “But I think also individuals are important. It’s possible for individual people, one person or many people together, to make significant changes happen. They [the individual] have to be one scale at which you understand things.”

In the case of the police officer, while guilty of an act of brutal violence, “that individual is not simply a neutral organism; the individual is an effect of accumulated histories.” To change things, it is necessary to connect with the longer-term scale histories of racism or sexism and understand how these condition personal reflex and instinct.

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Here, there is a need to be able to move between different scales or frames of viewing the world. Investigative Aesthetics makes complex theoretical arguments about the fundamental interconnectedness of ecological systems. And yet there is also a moving sensitivity to the personal and the human – those suffering from violence and poverty, for instance. This comes through from Fuller himself too, he speaks with care.

Indeed, sensitivity plays an important role throughout the book. ‘Aesthetics’ has its root in the ancient Greek word aisthesis – which was used to denote that which relates to the senses.

The word is used by the book’s authors in this broad way: as concerning both sensing and sense-making. To ‘sense’ can mean the ability to feel and experience, but also the ability to ‘make sense’ – to produce means of knowing the world.  A phone camera records an event, but it also produces a video and is therefore engaged in both sensing and sense-making simultaneously. 

Investigative aesthetics seeks to challenge established formations of power over the always complicated questions of truth

From Investigative Aesthetics, by Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman

“There is no unmediated access,” Fuller says. By this, he means that there is no direct relationship to truth or knowledge. “All access is mediated, but it’s a question of becoming aware of the form of mediation that you’re engaging in.”

We only know things through other things: paintings, language, lectures, a video that we might see online. All knowledge comes from somewhere and in a certain form. Thinking critically about how we collect and present this knowledge, where it comes from and what it is for, is important. 

“In a sense, our book is a book about methods,” Fuller says. It is about methods of knowing, and acting, and intervening. Methods that are designed for, and aimed at, the 21st century. It is about political aesthetics for the present. Aesthetics that gets involved, that works the conjuncture.

Investigative Aesthetics by Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman is published by Verso Books. Consider buying a copy from one of Greater Manchester’s independent book shops.