Things that Talk: Forensic Aesthetics

Co-authored with Axel Wieder

The relationship between the world and its interpretation is a long-standing topic of discussions from philosophy to social sciences and culture. What do we trust – the thing itself or its analysis? What comes first: experience or knowledge? Do we read texts to enter a subject, or look and understand ourselves? It’s a seductive idea to imagine the world as an accumulation of signs, which we can read and understand, once we have learned the language. But the more complex the issues are that we are dealing with, the less we can rely on our intuition or evidence – we need background information to make judgements.

A recent model to think about interpretation is connected to the fascination with ‘forensics’ that is currently haunting popular imagination. Crime thrillers, like the long-running BBC television series Silent Witness, literally lay bare the physical ‘object’ of homicide – the victim’s naked body – stretched out dead on the pathologist’s slab. The central premise is that this abject, voiceless cadaver can somehow tell the story, if only the specialists are acute enough to read the evidence before them, embodied in the thing-itself. While legal and cultural scholars have labelled the latter part of the 20th century – with its particular attention to testimony – as the ‘era of the witness’, the prominence of forensics in legal forums and popular entertainment signifies a new attention to the communicative capacity, agency and power of things. Today’s legal and political decisions are often based upon the capacity to display and read DNA samples, 3D laser scans, nanotechnology and the enhanced vision of electromagnetic microscopes and satellite surveillance.

Within the field of contemporary art there has been a parallel shift, away from a focus on the discourse or conceptual framework that surrounds an artwork, back to the thing itself, allowing the material object, in all its complexity, to tell its own story. As inanimate objects, they still need translation and consideration, of course, which is where the metaphor of forensics comes into play. The Latin derivation of forensics refers to the ‘forum’, and to the practice and skill of making an argument. Forensics has always been part of Classical rhetoric, but its domain includes not only human speech but also that of objects. In forensic rhetoric, objects can address the forum, but that still requires a person or a set of technologies to mediate between the object and the assembly, to present the object, interpret it and place it within a larger net of relations. As a practice and a model, forensics has an aesthetic dimension, which includes its means of presentation, the theatrics of its delivery, and the forms of image and gesture. An exhibition can be considered such a forum, where we encounter an argument, presented in a specific way. Specialised in aesthetics, exhibitions – as well as live events, performance, film and music – have the potential, too, to reflect on the means of making the argument, the scripts, technologies and methods that structure the creation of knowledge.

What if the object is not a ‘witness’ but an entity constructed for the express purpose of creating, or activating, the forum? Such an object might map the diffused networks of informal or illegal labour, or be called upon to narrate historical events in the absence of evidentiary materials. In fact, the object may be the very thing that produces a forum where none previously existed. An artwork likewise produces its constituency; it gathers, rather than simply assumes an already extant audience. If the object, conceptualized as such, is not that which registers the events that came before it in the manner of the classical witness, then it might be said the object itself becomes the event to which the forum as witness will address itself.

== Text by Tom Trevor and Axel Wieder, first published by Arnolfini, Bristol, in February 2013, to accompany the exhibition, Version Control ==


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