I have always perceived clouds as beautiful things. A good cloudscape can turn a wonderful view over a landscape into something stunning that elevates your mind to thinking about higher things and etches itself into your memory. Even menacing dark storm clouds bristling with lacerating lightning and bellowing booms have their own exhilarating power of nature appeal.
Cloud Studies at the Whitworth Gallery has broadened my perception of clouds to include those made by man, which can be portents of doom and death. These ominous clouds, such as the plumes caused by exploding bombs, proclaim man-made power with their violent explosions that can be seen, heard and felt for miles around, creating terror and ongoing traumatisation for the people these weapons are used against.
The exhibit is the work of Forensic Architecture (FA), a research agency investigating human rights violations across the globe, who are based at Goldsmiths, University of London. In partnerships with institutions across civil society they use pioneering investigative techniques in spatial and architectural analysis, digital modelling and open-source investigation alongside documentary research to produce reports that have been presented in international court rooms, parliamentary inquiries and now art galleries.
Their Cloud Studies exhibit, part of the Manchester International Festival is primarily presented at the Whitworth on a range of screens, some widescreen in large rooms with surround sound that a large group can watch and listen to together. The FA studies shown in short form magazine format on a large screen are then presented in a longer format on individual screens equipped with headphones in another room.
The studies are beautifully produced and presented in video format, with calm and matter of fact narration providing further detail to the exceptionally well produced animated infographics, using photos, satellite images and maps which are smoothly overlaid with digital 3D models and animations, with strong bright colours at times to help focus attention on specific information in the frame.
The videos give a good sense of the large amount of research that has gone into producing these models without overloading you with information, and they crack on at a pace that keeps things interesting. The regular movement and morphing between one visualisation and the next has a mesmerising appeal that makes you want to see more
Getting pride of place, with its own large screen and dedicated room, is one of FA’s latest studies: Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana. The 35-minute film documents environmental racism suffered by the majority black communities along the banks of the Mississippi River. These people, primarily the descendants of slaves that were forced to work on cotton farms and mills in the region, now breathe the most toxic air in the US, due to the high proportion of petro-chemical plants and other polluting industry in the region. The region has some of the highest cancer death rates in the US and it’s residents call it “Death Alley”.
Another study focussed on an investigation into the 2020 Beirut Port explosion caused by the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, improperly stored, creating one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. The ubiquitous use of tear gas by security forces across the world, was also presented, with a deeper dive into its prolific use against protestors in Chile, where over 500 canisters were fired against peaceful protestors in the space of three hours.
Although investigations into human rights abuses in Gaza made up a minority (three of eight films) of the investigations presented in Cloud Studies, they were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ones that have stoked most controversy.
Oppressive clouds over Gaza
Three of the Cloud Studies presented in longer form on the dedicated screens concerned oppressive and often lethal clouds created in Gaza by the actions of the Israeli state.
The Israeli military assault on Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza strip, on 1 August 2014, was the deadliest and most destructive day for Palestinians in the Israeli armed forces campaign against Gaza that year. The information plaque associated with the screen showing this investigation said the attack was precipitated by an Israeli soldier being captured by pro-Palestinian forces and taken into the underground tunnel network beneath Gaza.
Forensic Architecture and other NGO’s were refused access to the strip during the military campaign, so to collect evidence they relied on photos, video and messages posted on social media by the people of Rafah and journalists, documenting the deadly attack. The images on social media have meta-data such as GPS co-ordinates and time stripped from them, so the FA team reconstructed this from information in the image itself such as the shape signature over time of the bomb cloud, the field of view visible in the image located the camera’s position, and the length and direction of shadows from pillars and posts estimated the time of day. From these investigations, and interviews with the people who lived through the attack, they produced a detailed narrative of the day documenting the location and time of each bomb strike on Rafah.
During the day of the attack, ambulances in Gaza would often navigate towards the bomb clouds, filming on their phones as they went. In one of the deadliest strikes that day, FA identified two US made MK 84 bombs, each containing 1 ton of high explosive, which were dropped side by side flattening a residential area in Rafah. An MK 84 bomb can create a crater 15 m wide and 11 m deep and has a lethal fragmentation radius of 370m.
Another FA investigation documented earlier attacks over Gaza in 2008-2009 where the Israeli military used white phosphorus munitions. White phosphorus (WP) is a chemical which burns fiercely at a temperature of 2,760 degrees Celsius on contact with air and which is banned from military use in incendiary bombs, particularly against civilian targets due to the horrific nature of the wounds it causes, by a 1983 Geneva Convention protocol. Israeli military attacks on Gaza in 2008-9, when it is estimated that 1,100 people were killed, used fragmenting white phosphorus aerial munitions over Gaza. Exploding around 80
The Israeli military initially denied using WP over Gaza, but changed their story when confronted with undisputable evidence of its use, to saying they used it in compliance with international law. A civil action by human rights group Yesh Gval, represented by attorney Michael Sfard, presented a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding the Israeli military cease using WP over urban areas. Forensic Architecture produced a report on WP’s use in Gaza which was presented at the Israeli court and at a UN hearing on conventional weapons in 2012. Sfard says in the Cloud Studies film: “I think the use of white phosphorus was to intimidate, to scare and to burn down”
Due to this concerted action the Israeli military agreed in 2013 to stop using WP munitions in populated areas.
Media and activist criticism of Cloud Studies
An article critical of the exhibition, with one (anonymous) commenter describing the exhibit as “hate-filled”, was published in the Jewish Chronicle. The commenter was quoted as saying “The information is totally decontextualised and there is no mention of Hamas or the reasons for the conflicts.”
This appears to suggest that art should conform to some sort of BBC balance standards. But this is an exhibit in an art gallery, art does not need to be balanced, and the BBC balance standards for years allowed equal footing to climate deniers, often financially backed by powerful fossil fuel interests, in debates against those fighting against climate change who had the backing of 99% of the scientific community.
For me the concept of balance has to be weighed against the evidence available and the power invested in both sides of an argument. And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is no doubt that the power lies with Israel and the weight of evidence shows that Palestinians overwhelmingly suffer the most human rights abuses in this conflict.
The Jewish Chronicle article also takes issue with the phrases of the “struggle against apartheid” and “settler colonial violence” used in the exhibit, as if this were unacceptable language. But when you look at the evidence of oppression and violence against the Palestinians by the Israeli state since “the Catastrophe” in 1947, the only rational conclusion is that Israel and the occupied territories are an apartheid state, with different rights for Arab and Israeli citizens, in which Palestinians are regularly subject to discrimination and violence.
Activists at UK Lawyers for Israel have written to the University of Manchester saying that they are concerned about “the impact of the inflammatory language and representations contained in the exhibition on the Jewish people in Manchester”.
The director of Forensic Architecture, Israeli-born Eyal Weizman, replied to the allegation that the exhibit could inflame discrimination by saying, “I disagree with those that say so: like anti-Palestinian racism, we oppose and condemn antisemitism, and wrote it in our statement.”
It would be a backwards step for the fight for human rights across the globe, if Whitworth Art Gallery and the University of Manchester succumbed to the pressure being exerted against this exhibition, by curtailing its run or refusing to host similar exhibits in the future.
Meta-data used progressively
My overall feeling after interacting with the investigations presented at the exhibition, most not concerning the human rights abuses of Palestinians, was one of hope.
For a long time I have felt a growing unease about where the silicon revolution is taking us, as individuals and as societies. Alongside many I once thought social media could be a platform for progressive change, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings. But now that flowering of freedom has come to an end in the country it started in, Tunisia, where democracy has been suspended under emergency powers in what many are calling a coup.
My suspicions about social media’s ability to be a negative influence on society were confirmed by the outcomes of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Trump in the US. Legislation to prevent unfair spreading of political messages prior to elections has yet to catch up with the silicon revolution.
Increasingly we see corporate internet titans such as Facebook and Google selling off our data and meta-data to the highest bidders to allow more efficient marketing of products that are ultimately costing us the Earth. And the spying capabilities of states that allow them to dig into this wealth of data, are now well known due to the Edward Snowden revelations, the development of an Orwellian surveillance state in China, and most recently the investigation into the Israeli based cyberarms firm NSO Group selling its Pegasus smart phone spyware to organisations controlled by states with horrific human rights records.
The use of an Israeli drone over Gaza to drop multiple canisters of teargas over Palestinian protestors, depicted briefly in the Cloud Studies film, brought to mind that Oldham is home to an Israeli owned Elbit arms factory. While the drone in the film was not an Elbit drone, the company is a primary supplier of Hermes drones to the Israeli military, and components manufactured in Elbit factories in England are used in Hermes drones. These drones have taken part in the attacks on Gaza in 2009, work carried out by Elbit factories across the UK contribute to the oppressive clouds over Gaza.
Meta-data and drones in Cloud Studies also took me back to the UK’s involvement in the US drone strike assassination programme, where suspected terrorists are identified not by evidence, but by meta-data, which is acted on to execute them by lethal attacks from military drones.
What Cloud Studies showed me, with the wide-ranging studies presented at this exhibition, was that meta-data and the wealth of digital information out there can be used progressively. It has restored my faith in the potential of the silicon revolution to steer humanity in the right direction, and away from the path dictated by state and corporations, which leads to an Orwellian future.
Big Brother is getting bigger, and increasingly connected.
With this exhibit Forensic Architecture have provided a growth spurt for the little brother, the one who believes in human rights and creating a fair society where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential, and not be surveilled and stamped on by those that abuse power.
Cloud Studies shows that you can find beauty and hope in man-made clouds, including the rapidly expanding digital cloud created by human actions and utilised by Forensic Architecture to such strong effect in this exhibition.
Cloud Studies continues at the Whitworth till 17 October 2021. For more information from the Whitworth on Cloud Studies, including a video discussion with some of the creators – click here
To book free tickets to see Cloud Studies – click here
To watch the films presented on the bigger screens at Cloud Studies, on the MIF website – click here
Sign up to The Meteor mailing list – click here.
Featured image and all in article images (unless otherwise stated): Forensic Architecture (Cloud Studies)