Decolonising Technology: Does It Use Us Or the Other Way Around?

Eyal Weizman urges us to resist state control with its own tools of oppression.

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Mar 1 2017, 11:04am

Derek Man

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For Eyal Weizman, architecture is how politics takes form. A professor and activist, his 2007 book, Hollow Land, described the architecture of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank – the settlements, highways and walls designed to lacerate Palestinian land and identity. But architectural meaning is not fixed. Buildings can be decolonised, he argues; new maps can be drawn.

Since 2011 Weizman has directed the Forensic Architecture project at Goldsmiths, University of London, which deconstructs the locales of urban conflict – a drone-struck home in Kabul, a political prison in Syria – to make architecture a living witness to violations of international law.

VICE: You have an expansive conception of architecture. It includes space in general, which you think of a "political plastic". Why?
Eyal Weizman: The idea of political plastic is central to the conceptualisation of forensic architecture. It undoes an understanding of architecture as merely an "authored" thing, which is the way historians of architecture understand it. I don't believe there has ever been a "history of architecture": we have only got the "history of architects". To write the history of architecture as a physical, material reality you need to understand the performance of matter over time, and architecture as the index of the sum total of forces – social, political, environmental, seismographic – that operate around it.

Architecture can be seen a political sensor – political forces slowing into form. Sometimes in Forensic Architecture we read environmental changes in the first few millimetres of a building – even the soot of a façade contains an archaeology of urban air regulation. But buildings are not only the passive substances on which political violence is imprinted, but also tools of conflict, as I have showed with the political and tactical deployment of buildings, roads and barriers in the West Bank and elsewhere. On the other hand, violence is not only enacted by architecture, it takes place within it. Most contemporary conflict is urban and buildings bear the marks: they're both the targets and means by which conflicts are fought.

The map and the territory has been a recurring problematic in your professional life. As a student you smuggled maps to Palestinian engineers so they could develop their land.
My involvement in cartography was motivated by Edward Said's call, at the start of the Second Intifada in the fall of 2000, for the "counter-cartography" of Palestine. He wrote that the Israelis controlled cartography, as any colonial power would do, but Palestinians needed a counter-cartography.

In 2001/2, I rented a light plane, flew and drove through the Intifada-torn terrain in the West Bank and assembled the first map of settlements that showed the settlements as architectural reality in the occupied territory; previously they were dots on a map. But around 2005 the very practice of cartography changed with the emergence of Google Earth. It was no longer about triangulation and lines, and so on, but about categories that one associates with images: iteration – sequences of before and after images, resolution and so on. We realised that satellite images of Israeli-controlled areas were much more pixelated than anywhere else in the world and that this was intentionally done to hide violations. With pixel size that was several metres in size, counter cartography needed to peer into it.

What happens within a grey, green or beige pixel? There are people, buildings, events and crimes. A few years later another social-technological revolution took place. Cameras and social media started to fill in the gaps between the before and after satellite images. The counter-cartography that we inherited from Said had to become counter-forensics, and Forensic Architecture was born. So our ability to analyse social media's sources, place and cross-reference them in architectural models of buildings and cities allowed us to bring mapping to bear upon much faster, more instantaneous manifestation of violence, such as the shooting of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. But now we work on homicide cases in many other places: Mexico, Germany and Turkey.

You've written about decolonising architecture but can you decolonise technology?
Post-colonialism is all about wrestling from the bulldog's bite things that are precious. The idea of decolonisation is almost by definition the subversion and transformation of that which exists. It is not about erasing every trace of colonial culture: people often inhabit the language of those that colonised them. We do this also with architecture and technology. To decolonise architecture, for example, in the West Bank we proposed turning suburban settlements into open public institutions; this is about living in the house of your enemy and liberating the tools of oppression.

That's a view of the future in which technological development only means progress if there's collective control over it. But is this possible? Doesn't technology use us, rather than the other way round?
This depends: nobody possesses technology fully. We should see every bit of new technology as a site of struggle: it can be used to either oppress or liberate, sometimes both. But we should not concede anything. Most of what we use to monitor state crimes is the very technology – satellite imagery, the internet, videos and motion trackers – conceived as weapons or as means of control

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