No 38.

Susan Schuppli

in conversation with Ricky Ruihong Li

Susan Schuppli is an artist who writes extensively on and across subjects at the intersection of media theories, critical legal studies, and environmental humanities. Her multifaceted work also attends to environmental politics and the gaps and slippages of the Anthropocene. She currently directs the Centre of Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, and chairs the board of Forensic Architecture.

Schuppli’s recent book Material Witness (MIT Press, 2020) examines the evidential role of matter as non-human witnesses that testify to historical events, especially those dealing with ethical, juridical, and political implications. While the book, supplying many ecological openings for understanding the political work of media, is the focus of our conversation, Schuppli and I find space to discuss the untenable divide between theory and practice, the loopholes of environmental crime, and Learning from Ice (2019–), her current inquiry into ice and the politics of cold. The interview was conducted in February 2022.

RRL

Research seems to play a big role in your artistic practice.

SS

There’s been a considerable interest in artistic research, which works extremely well for me because I can bring my writing and my research practice together within the context of art.

RRL

How did it all begin?

SS

My parents are both Swiss, but I grew up largely in Canada. When I first went to school, I studied textile design at The School of Crafts and Design in Ontario. I really liked the hands-on experience of artisanal craft practices. But I remember I was very frustrated by the overemphasis on aesthetics. I never got critical feedback on my work. People would say: “Oh, that’s great, oh, that’s beautiful, or it’s not…” You'd get this superficial sort of response. And so eventually, I decided to go to university. I really wanted to be in a more intellectually rigorous kind of environment.

RRL

Where did you go for college?

SS

I spent a year at York University in Toronto in the photo department before I moved to the west coast of Canada—Vancouver. That was foundational for me because there was an amazing community of artists and writers. It was a very close-knit scene. After graduation, I became the director and curator of the Or Gallery, which is an artist-run centre in Vancouver. It was a really extraordinary experience. Vancouver was the place where my practice as an artist really came to fruition. The intellectual and even political coordinates of my life, I’d say, are from the West Coast.

RRL

You then moved to California for your graduate study, right?

SS

I did. It was an MFA at the University of California, San Diego, which I really enjoyed. I went from one border city to another—from the US-Canada border to the US-Mexico border. That was also another amazing period of my life. It was very different from the Canadian context I was familiar with, which in some ways seemed much more consensual around what matters socially and politically, whereas California was extremely fractious, a place of such radical extremes. San Diego is of course particularly politically charged, not only because of its proximity to Mexico but the intensive military culture that’s all-pervasive with the Air Force, Army, and naval bases there alongside radical activist histories. I had a great community of friends that I keep in touch with to this day.

RRL

What was next?

SS

I went to New York and did the Independent Study Program at Whitney. It was, in effect, a history lesson to be perfectly honest. The Whitney is well-known for its steadfast commitment to a certain roster of guests and ideas emerging from within a particular Marxist genealogy. It was still an enriching experience because it also really plugs you into New York City.

RRL

When did you start teaching?

SS

When I made my way back to Vancouver in Canada, I taught in a sessional capacity at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. I also began producing a lot of public artwork, which was my mode of practice at the time. After several years of working in different universities across Canada, I went to work at Western, a university back in Ontario, and after a few years decided to embark upon a PhD. I really felt like I needed to reconnect with the roots of my intellectual and political life.

RRL

London, no?

SS

Yes, I decided to move to London for the PhD in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths. It was a formative encounter. And I do remember it well, but Goldsmiths now is a very different place. We're in the midst of an ongoing labor dispute, struggling with the transformation of higher education in the UK, which is not uncommon within neoliberal contexts.

RRL

How was Goldsmiths before?

SS

It was extremely radical.

RRL

In what way?

SS

It was a very under-the-radar kind of place in many ways. By this, I also mean at the level of managerial oversight. Its faculty was made up of many of the key thinkers of the time. As a physical infrastructure, it was totally falling apart. When I arrived, it looked like some high school that you might encounter in 1950s North America. It was really underfunded and impoverished. For instance, there were no numbers on the door. The room numbers were all handwritten on the wall. If you wanted to take a class, there wasn't anything available online. You had to look at the bulletin boards outside of departments to see what classes were running.

When I arrived, I was like: “this place is about ideas.” It felt liberating. I had come from a Canadian university that was extremely affluent. Every building and lecture theater had the name of a donor or benefactor attached to it. It was super well-resourced at the level of infrastructure. But Goldsmiths had a sense of urgency, if you will, that pervaded the place, although it's changed somewhat over the years. At that time, if I was interested in a scholar, sure enough, there would be a lecture or a program by that person at Goldsmiths. It was really this extraordinary time around 2005 with so much happening there. It was an intellectual hub in a very activistic way. It still is to this day, but managerial forces have been relentless so lots of people have since left and gone elsewhere.

RRL

What about the Centre for Research Architecture?

SS

The Centre, where I still work, has been true to our origins. Because we’re very small—scale matters enormously, it’s very immanent. It still feels very grounded just by being there every day working together with a small group of staff and students. We have a horizontal, peer-to-peer structure, so we're able to do a lot in particular with the MAs. It's a supercharged environment that enables a certain collectivity. I think we've still managed to keep the Centre going largely in the same kind of spirit that was there when Eyal Weizman first started things. He is still obviously in the orbit because Forensic Architecture is based in the Centre.

RRL

Let's get back to this later. What were you doing in your early years at the Goldsmiths. How did you cross paths with Weizman and the Centre?

SS

I do not come from writing practice, but from an art-and-media sort of background. But writing has always been a really important process for figuring out my ideas. As I said, I started my PhD in Cultural Studies. I didn't want to do a PhD in fine art or in contemporary art. I'm still not fully on board with doing an artistic PhD in a studio context. What I did want was a deep engagement with the world of ideas. So, I joined Cultural Studies, working with Luciana Parisi, who was my supervisor back then and is at Duke now.

Just as I arrived at Goldsmiths, the Centre for Research Architecture started and so I reached out to Eyal to see if I could possibly join. With my background in public art projects, architectural criticism and theory had been central to my thinking so architecture was, in a sense, there from the beginning. Even when working in textiles I was producing large-scale environmental pieces. The Centre was really a fantastic context with this small group of people as peers. Ultimately, I was able to participate in both Cultural Studies and in Research Architecture, with the latter becoming much more central over time.

RRL

How is the Centre now?

SS

With the Centre, we've always said that we are interested in mobilizing spatial intelligence and spatial awareness for doing critical research and analytical work. All things happen in time and space.

There is a set of spatial strategies and skills that is the Centre’s toolkit, such as mapping, modeling, animating, filmmaking, etc. In Eyal’s first book Hollow Land he was really plotting this aspect out, applying architecture as a methodology for analyzing political problems—in his case the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

There are many architecture and urbanism programs globally that are organized around spatial practice and politics. I think the work that we’ve done definitely has had a ripple effect.

RRL

The Centre highlights its commitment to “practice-led research” in architecture. What does that mean?

SS

It is something that often gets misunderstood. When we talk about practice-led research, it's often confused with the kind of practice-led research you'd encounter, say, in the art department here at Goldsmiths, which tends to produce a clean divide between research as input and practice as output.

But when we’re talking about practice in the Centre, we’re really talking about the durational dimension of research, out of which certain problems and theories emerge. We’ve insisted that “performing” research inevitably involves certain embodied practices in the field.

The critical and theoretical frameworks for undertaking our practical encounters are not always ready-at-hand so we also have to invent them during practice-led research. We really do emphasize the invention of new concepts and new frameworks to account for the encounters in the field. When we speak of theory it is really the conceptual and critical insights that emerge directly out from the practice. It’s not something that runs alongside it.

I always try to characterize this difference for incoming students, because a lot of practice-based programs focus on making things or doing stuff. They say, that’s the practice. No, practice is much more. It is a process and out of which certain political and aesthetic insights emerge. It has to be intellectually generative. The division between theory and practice that one often encounters doesn't make a lot of sense.

RRL

In the Columbia program, Critical, Curatorial & Conceptual Practices, we wrestled with the dichotomic discourse about research and practice in Architecture as well. There is this transcript of a conversation between Deleuze and Foucault in 1972 that our colloquium, which is led by Felicity Scott, often invokes. In their exchange, Deleuze describes the interplay between theory and practice as a set of relays. There is always this multiplicity of theory and practice that is enmeshed and inseparable. It is neither that theory guides better practice, nor that practices exemplify certain theoretical frameworks. They cannot be taken apart, so to speak. A more recent formula for such multiplicity seems to come from Donna Haraway’s feminist, ecological work on situated knowledge.

It occurs to me that the divide between theory and practice can be traced back to when the laboratory was abstracted from the field as a space of controlled variables solely in charge of producing theories, which heralded Western scientific modernity. Hence, the epistemological separation between theory and practice mirrors the spatial separation between the lab and the field.

SS

Yes.

RRL

You were involved in Forensic Architecture in its formative years. How did it emerge as a project?

SS

Forensic Architecture emerged out of the Centre at a key moment in its history. Eyal mapped out the idea of a forensic aesthetics in the book that he and Thomas Keenan co-authored, called Mengele's Skull. It points towards a kind of materially encoded truth in the postwar era. We were having those kinds of discussions in the Centre. It’s interesting for me because I was the media person at the time when FA started, and Eyal was the architect.

RRL

In your writing, there is a combination of lyricism and rigor that seems to be characteristic of a breed of artists who produce complex, writerly reflections on their mediums. I think of Allan Sekula’s writing, too…

SS

I appreciate what you said about the writing because it was really important for me. With Material Witness, the sonic quality of the writing was integral to my method. I don't know if all writers do this, but I would speak the words out loud. If I was stumbling over them, I knew there was something wrong with my syntax. The sonic dimension of writing makes things perceptible—when you speak your words out loud, you have a much stronger sense of the ways that they are going to operate on the page. In some way, it was a technique of writing that by sonifying the sentences along the way I found my way through writing the book: to see whether it holds as a form of writing.

RRL

I first came across your writing in a class called “Archives of Toxicity,” a graduate seminar taught by Mark Wasiuta on media and the environment. It was “Radical Contact Print,” which is a fascinating essay delineating the aesthetic dimension of radioactivity. It led me to your recent book Material Witness. For you, what is the book about? And what kind of insights does material witness as a concept open up?

SS

Material Witness is a twofold concept that explores the ways in which matter archives or records evidence of external events—atmospheric radiation on film stock at Chernobyl or a layer of volcanic ash in the ice sheets. In doing so it also inquires into the various contexts, such as tribunals, conventions, institutions, etc, that adjudicate over the specific evidentiary relevance of materials. This is important because it is not the simple fact that materials harbor trace evidence of events that makes them meaningful, but rather it helps us understand that this condition is itself “conditional” to a whole set of practices and procedures that determine who or what has the authority to speak on behalf of the evidence encoded in matter; a highly partisan situation that also governs the forums that deliberate over such matters. With the case of environmental or what I call “Earth evidence” the forums that are receptive to considering the claims made on behalf of ecological matter are limited at best.

RRL

How was it first conceived as a book project?

SS

The initial idea of the Material Witness emerged out of my PhD but it was only a decade later that it coalesced into a book project, involving many new case studies and also a documentary film. I decided to organize the book as a trial beginning with “Opening Arguments,” followed by “Discovery,” “Hostile Witness,” “Hearsay,” etc., and concluding with “Convictions.” This was a bit of a breakthrough as I had been struggling to find a diagram for assembling the cases, which were all very divergent and the standard chronological approach made no sense. In structuring the book through legal concepts, I could stage a series of encounters between materials and events that aggregate over its narrative arc to make a series of conceptual and political claims.

RRL

Climate change discussions seem to take a prominent seat in architecture today. Can you reflect on this?

SS

It is a question of scale, which is central to anything that’s operating at a planetary scale. You can see why architecture has a potentially useful role to play, because of its obsession with scalar questions. When we try and think about what spatial intelligence might afford as analytical capacities, one of them would be the operations of scale, right? Even classical architectural training is very scalar in its site-based analysis, as you move from the fixed point of the building to the street to the neighborhood, etc. That approach, of course, doesn’t work when events are operating in very dynamic, nonlinear ways that are extremely distributed. That's where conventional architectural modes of analysis would be hampered if they're proceeding from that site-based analysis that thinks that one can just zoom out, rather than trying to understand how diffuse sets of relationships are organizing events at multiple interpenetrating scales.

RRL

The work of the scalar is very explicit in Material Witness. There is often a movement of scaling that is at work in every chapter. You like to start from the micro before enlarging the scope, say, from the irradiated tarnishes on filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko’s footage exposed in Chernobyl to the looming, radioactive paranoia of the postwar.

SS

I almost forgot about that. Almost every case study in the book actually proceeds from a very diminutive scalar event or entity. The micro interests me. I’ve always gravitated toward the micro, the missing, the modest…it’s Benjaminian in a way, no? In the Arcades Project, he’s trying to assemble a history of modernity out of fragments. I've always started with something extremely particular and small. Oftentimes, I start with certain artifacts, entities, or events. Then I unfold them to understand how that thing exists in a multifaceted world—how did it come about? I do not start at the level of the aerial as if I’m hovering over the planet or even at the level of the socio-cultural. I begin in the material itself. So, the movement has always been to aggregate and assemble rather than to simply zoom out. I really like vignettes. I like to tell a very particular story in order to bring the reader or the viewer into the context. In some ways, it’s a world-making process, whereby one needs to create a world in order to understand how certain materials come to exist or in what contexts materials become operative. Only then can I narrate a much more wide-ranging story, but it always needs an entry point.

As a teacher, it’s often a challenge, because students have large-scale concerns. MA and PhD projects tend to begin as a sprawling enterprise of connections and curiosities. They are always in movement. But you can’t stay there, because then it becomes ambient or very generalizing. From my perspective, research needs to somehow make contact with something we could call the ground. To be localized, say, is to avoid the pitfalls of making generic claims. In that sense, research has to be contextually situated even if pursued through remote sensing methods.

RRL

I can totally see how the fragmentary is at work as the breadth of Material Witness is pieced up together by micro, aesthetic specimens scattered across time, space, and scale. It seems that you are more interested in the “weak” signals—the grainy, modest surplus of mediatic fallout—than the acquired, constructed, and curated data that are often presented in hi-res, as in it is the unintended leaks from the supposedly sealed system that you search for and accumulate in Material Witness.

SS

Weak signals—that’s a really great description. It’s a good characterization of the case studies in Material Witness.

RRL

When writing about the work of Forensic Architecture, you argue that decoupling forensics from its familiar criminal justice context and the “forensic turn” of architectural imagination “is less a means of interrogation than a mode of assembly: not a claim for the irreducibility of the object, but an ecological proposition that brings media, science, and law into new political configurations.” Why ecological?

SS

The ecological is a sensibility. My thinking is very indebted to the thinking of people like Deleuze and Guattari. One could characterize their eco-philosophy in terms of the ways in which they're creating concepts and building worlds, if you will. The ecological should not be confined only to the biological or environmental. It is a mode of relation. There are many people who examine the genealogy of ecology in philosophy. For example, James Burton, a colleague and a friend, worked on a book, General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm, with Erich Hörl. I’m definitely indebted to the ecological mode of thought operating within continental philosophy in particular. For me, it is mapping out an expansive web of narratives rather than a single explanation that the ecological sensibility of Material Witness takes hold.

The operation of forensics isn't an arrow, as you said, pointing to some unequivocal truth. It attempts to expand the context. One thing that we always attempt to open up is the temporal frame of analysis—events are always durational. When one expands the temporality for events, one understands that the contemporary logistical imagination is deeply interconnected with the history of the transatlantic slave trade, for example. When one extends the durational field, one starts to draw connections over time and new histories start to emerge, new convergences. The particular object or event that one is studying is enriched as a consequence. That is what I meant in some way by the ecological.

The Italian theorist Sandro Mezzadra, who is not addressed explicitly in my book, is someone I always really appreciate. The central takeaway from his book Border as Method, for me, was that, methodologically, the subject of one’s research was not the thing examined by the research, but rather that which constitutes the vantage point; the epistemic window through which one looks at the rest of the world. So, the work of Material Witness is not about presenting these particular objects of research, or finding out everything I can about them, but rather constituting a perspective. Perspectives and histories shift or reorganize themselves when one understands the ways in which a certain entity is part of this expansive and interconnected world. In other words, to do research is to situate an event or an object within a constellation of nodes and to build a world of networked relations. Research reorganizes everything else around it and creates new legibilities. That's what the ecological operation of forensics is about for me.

RRL

Research’s potency as a perspectival turner is really the critical stake in a breed of curatorial and architectural practices emerging today. They deal with space politically but also self-reflexively. This reminds me of Forensic Architecture’s presence in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Triple-Chaser. It featured a film that investigates into a board member of the American art institution, who is also the CEO of the chemical corporation responsible for producing the so-called “less lethal” munitions employed at the San Diego-Tijuana border in 2018. The installation stirred up the museum in a spatial way. The piece gathered and represented the information behind the object of research, certainly, but it also reshaped the museum into a kind of juridical space, where the art-seeing and biennial-trotting spectators, perplexed, encountered the unsettling need to assess the work politically instead of aesthetically. What I want to get at is the power of investigation-based work, for the lack of a better term, in shaping the space around it, and in turn shaping subjects.

SS

It's interesting to see how certain projects can reorganize the cultural sphere. I think that's what Forensic Architecture has been really good at in some way. The insertion of investigative work into galleries and museums does not imply that they are reinvented as art projects—they still go in as cases. That's insisted upon.

RRL

What is the upcoming in your writing life?

SS

I used to think about myself as a writer. But I haven't really done much since I finished Material Witness. When you're writing a book, it takes a good year and a half before it finally makes its way into print. That's the last substantial thing I've written aside from writing a few grants here and there. I've just gone full tilt with my art practice and really focused on the filmmaking practice. I'm always writing narratives for my projects. So, the writing is always there. I haven't really had a specific chunk of time to really devote to writing. I never thought that this much time would pass before I would start to reformulate my ideas on paper again.

RRL

What’s common in writing and filmmaking?

SS

Editing. And I love editing. I think it's what I do well. I like to work with cinematographers, because my preference is not to figure out all of the technical aspects of the camera even though I can do it. In the last couple projects, I've really focused on sound work and done a lot of sound recording. Now I have quite a few different kinds of microphones that I work with. I've really enjoyed working on sound. Anyone who's familiar with my work will realize the importance that sound plays in my practice. So, I've taken on sound recording in the fields over cinematography.

Same for writing. A story only comes to life with the act of cutting and reassembling. That's when a narrative emerges. I'm still in that sense an artist who works with moving images. Because I'm not interested in developing a script before, say, setting up a scene and shooting. I don't have that kind of discipline, if you will. I'm much more interested in being immersed in an environment. I definitely have very specific ideas about what is going into the film but it's also about being in the field and noticing nuances while you’re in it. I constantly look for things and listen to little things that I know that I can use in the film projects. It’s a sensibility. It might sound a bit cliché, but I’ve always been trying to tune myself to the environment. There is a story in my head, but it's not in a script table. There's a story I know I want to tell even though things always change. That’s the way I work. It takes more time. I do spend a lot of solitary time being in environments, looking and waiting.

I remember talking to Kodwo Eshun in regard to radioactive contamination when I was shooting a film in Japan in the Fukushima Prefecture. Kodwo is part of The Otolith Group. They were doing a project on radiation, which also brought them to Japan. And we are both talking about the ways in which one could start to film guided by the Geiger counter itself, as if the radiological landscape would induce the film through the sensitivity of the Geiger counter that guides and moves us through the environment. That’s what I’ve tried to do with my film projects. To develop a method of sensing whereby the filmmaker is guided by certain environmental conditions, rather than solely via a practice of documentation and representation.

I had a Geiger counter in Japan. Radiation is an invisible agent but is always highly localized in terms of where it appears. It would be interesting to think about how one might be guided not by modes of human perception, but by some other, let's say, metabolic agent. Filming can enable that agency.

RRL

Let's talk about your current project Learning from Ice.

SS

Learning from Ice is a project I've been working on for several years. Ice is an extremely ordinary material—we have it in our kitchens. But it is also extraordinary—think about glacial landscapes. The project explores the different knowledge practices that are mediated by ice. How do different communities engage with it? These are the questions I work with.

This project has taken me to many different geographies around the world, most recently to the Zanskar region of Ladakh in the Himalayas. There we worked with scientists and local villagers who are experiencing water scarcity because of the recession of mountain glaciers. We used different acoustic sensing technologies to understand the mass balance changes of the glacier and its melting patterns.

We also talked to a song collector in Ladakh, an elderly man who has spent decades archiving folk songs about mountains, glaciers since the 1960s. He has a collection of songs jotted down on torn bits and pieces of paper. We wrote a small grant through the British Council to make a book project with him to archive and translate the songs. He also wants to run workshops with young people to help them retain knowledge of their vanishing cultural histories and languages. In India, water is at the center of all communities and thus knowledge of mountains, glaciers and ice is also embedded within cultural traditions such as music and song. It is often the connective tissue between different communities and practices.

RRL

What is your relationship with science? Ice, or the cryospheric environment in general, must be a subject so deeply invested by earth and climatic sciences today.

SS

I have learned so much as a consequence and have really had to familiarize myself with the science of ice. For the first time, I was on a panel in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was a scientific event assessing the latest IPCC report on the cryosphere. They wanted me to present some of the materials that we shot in Ladakh. It was amazing that an artist’s work was taken seriously in the panel. They were curious about what kind of results our acoustic methods could yield in terms of the study of climate change within the field of glaciology, a field that has taken me a long time to begin to understand.

RRL

You made this beautiful film, Ice Cores. What were you interested in exploring in it?

SS

It was the first film I made in this project cycle and it was also when I first started to research the invention of artificial cold.

When I was doing the ice core research, I didn't want to simply show these amazing volumetric objects even though they are incredibly beautiful to look at. But I can't tell the story of ice cores, without including some of the many other stories that are part of this work. These stories include, in the Canadian case, the permission that scientists need to secure from communities because they're extracting material from indigenous land. The aspiration of the film Ice Cores is not to stay in the moment of awe and wonder but to focus on the worlds in which ice cores are embedded and out of which they emerge. As scientific samples, ice cores have to be maintained in a state of deep freeze, consequently they require considerable energy infrastructures to keep them cold. In working in ice core archives and labs, I’ve also found myself thinking about the invention of cold and technologies of temperature. Today, our encounters with temperature are more often than not a consequence of artificial modulation and control.

RRL

Where is Learning from Ice moving toward?

SS

Even though this project has allowed me to go on many journeys, in and out of different kinds of worlds, the film works and workshops have been more reflective and experiential. With my current work I wanted to return to an explicitly political project and to think about the politics of cold.

It's not to say that water scarcity isn't a political topic, but it wasn't my central concern in Ladakh. A parallel strand of my work has been directed towards understanding the ways in which the modulation of temperature and the weaponization of cold violates human rights and is a form of violence—what I would call climate crimes, which in turn raise the demand for a climactic sense of justice. In her book, In the Wake, Christina Sharpe writes about racism and anti-blackness as weather, as an all-encompassing climatic condition. Likewise, I wonder what a climactic sense of justice would be in the Canadian context when it comes to violations brought about by climate change and the weaponization of temperature. The politics of cold have to include the horrific legacy of freezing deaths of indigenous people taken into custody by police; a practice known as “taking someone on a starlight tour” that saw First Nations people (mostly male) thrown into the backs of police cruisers, driven to the outskirts of town where they were forced to walk back in cold nighttime temperatures. Many, if not most, died from hypothermia. This practice was carried out across Canada from 1976 to 2015.

This is one of the three COLD CASES I just completed.

RRL

What are the other two cold cases?

SS

The second case focuses on one particular night in 2016 during the protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where over 300 protestors were afflicted with hypothermia due to the use of water hoses by Morton County Sheriff in sub-zero temperatures. The third case is the most recent. It deals with the temporary detention centers along the US-Mexico border, which are referred to as the hielera in Spanish or icebox.

RRL

Where are the COLD CASES going?

SS

I collaborated with Forensic Architecture on these cases. They’ll be in various exhibitions: the Toronto Biennial of Art, Berlin Biennale, and another show called Weather Engines at Onassis Stegi in Athens.

RRL

That’s exciting! But how does your research on the cold environment align with your ambition for a more critical and political project?

SS

Returning to an investigative kind of research was crucial for me. I've been working with climate scientists for the last four or five years. But with the COLD CASES, I return to the world of law.

The politics of cold is looking at the ways in which temperature has been not only weaponized and operationalized, but also constructed as an inculpable category of assault. In the United States and Canada, there aren't legal frameworks around temperature. Sure, there are regulations and guidelines, but temperature actually doesn't get addressed legally. One lawyer told me that the reason temperature is not accounted for in human rights legal discourse is that temperature is seen as an ambient condition beyond the purview of human control. We don't control the cold, so to speak. This seemingly out-of-control nature of temperature furnishes those charged with offenses with what is called plausible deniability. Authorities will say, “We didn't know it was going to get so cold. We don't control the weather.” The clandestine practice of cold policing with respect to freezing deaths relied on this thermal alibi.

RRL

Your work effectively denaturalizes temperature by foregrounding not only the technology of temperature but temperature as a technology. It’s interesting that amidst the noisy forum where the politics of warming dominates popular attention you turn to the politics of cold.

SS

That's a great observation on your part. In regard to discussions around climate change, for whatever reason, they have focused largely on the temperate climatic zones. I don't think one can dispute that even though the impacts of global warming are much more impactful in Polar environments albeit they are far less populated. When people talk about global warming, especially in the UK, their climatic imaginary is often captured by the image of the polar bears floating around on chunks of ice. They are not necessarily thinking about the demands for cold rights within a warming world.

It's not that I'm singularly trying to recalibrate the debates, but I do want to redirect our attention to the colder regions of our Planet, which are often not part of broader public discourse. We will hear about things like the breaking of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica. I'm not talking about this kind of hyperobject. With the COLD CASES, I want to account for the specific local situations in which temperature is politicized.

RRL

The weak signals in the politics of cold…

SS

Right.

RRL

You seem to be more interested in the weak signals of environmental politics, in looking at the stimuli so weak that they escape the popular sensors of climate change, rather than the images of the drifting polar bears and the melting ice sheets, which dazzle contemporary media. You seem to always be in search of the minor media of environmental politics.

Rob Nixon famously conceptualizes environmental crime as slow violence. According to him, violation in environmental terms takes place in a temporal register so gradual that it fails to be accounted for in the historically privileged media, such as literature and photography. In other words, the slow violence of environmental crime struggles to register in anthropocentric history and lacks momentum to mediate, let alone mobilize, mass political actions. But the nuanced attentiveness to the weak signals of your work seems to offer a path for artistic practices committing to an environmental sensibility of the slow, the inconspicuous, and the minor.

SS

I appreciate your conceptual insights and your reformulation of my work. It's a productive process of refraction for me coming back to my own work through someone else's reframing.

In climate science, if one studies the atmosphere, one tries to extract meaningful signals from the noise of, say, the behavior of clouds to model a climactic history. These scientists are always talking about data. Data isn't necessarily de facto media, but I think you'd find that the Excel spreadsheet is all pervasive, right? Everything produces data points.

Although one might be a geologist in the field, a geographer, or an earth scientist, the information that one is collecting immediately becomes data points within spreadsheets. That also holds true for ice. The world is always already completely mediatic. The expansion of technical systems has ushered in a world where ecological matter is itself sensing and constantly being sensed by different kinds of earth observation systems, be they satellites, sensors, monitors, etc. There's this kind of multiplication of sensing aggregates to produce a thick layer of data on the Planet.

RRL

Data form a new geological layer now.

SS

Totally.

RRL

How does your critical probe into data manifest visually in the COLD CASES?

SS

With Forensic Architecture, we developed the visualizations for the freezing death cases in Canada. The timeline is something Forensic Architecture does really well. A vertical axis of temperature and a horizontal one of time. The graphic is simply a journey, starting with the point of interception by police and ending with abandonment. The expansion and contraction of the timeline work well to tell the story of the lack of institutional response, accountability, and ultimately indifference that characterizes the cases.

Forensic Architecture has a complex understanding of the operative role of the timeline. The timeline is not this progressive march forward in time, but enables the capacity to move backward, to expand and contract time, to investigate the “long duration of the split second.” I used historic temperature data from Environment Canada to sync temperature along the timeline of the journey. The graphic language that we developed helps to strip back the trauma of representation to demonstrate the pattern of abuse over time. This was consequently an archival research project and not one where I was working with affected communities.

With each of the COLD CASES, I want to highlight the ways in which temperature has been weaponized in many different contexts. At the US-Mexico border detainees or migrants stand and wait for weeks in soaring temperatures and are then put into cold holding cells or detention. The violation or the weaponization of cold doesn't always take place in cold environments. In the case of freezing deaths, I was also investigating institutional responses to the crime. Sometimes there would be no investigation until, say, 14 years after the crime was committed. The temporal gap becomes a focus. You talked about leaks. I've given a lot of attention to gaps in my projects over the years because the politics of the event often resides in the gap.

Next from this Volume

40.

Dan Graham

in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa

"My work is about staging and confronting our reality with fiction."