Spotlight on Charles Heller and Forensic Oceanography

‘The Centre for Research Architecture: A Crucial Juncture in my Bifurcated Paths of Practice.’

When I encountered the Centre for Research Architecture in 2009, my practice was in crisis. I had been producing films relating to migration and migration policies in and at the borders of Europe since several years. My first film NEM-NEE (2005), which uncovered the dire condition of illegalised asylum seekers in Switzerland, was produced as part of a wide civil society campaign to defend migrants rights. My second film, Crossroads at the Edge of Worlds (2006), attempted to produce alternative representations of transit migration at the borders of Europe, underlining migrants’ social networks and the many strategies they resort to evade state repression. But in 2007, I came across the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) “information campaigns”, in which they produced fictionalised representations of the conditions of precarity, exclusion and death that I had documented myself. Here, however, the aim was not to denounce the migration regime that led to these forms of violence, but to dissuade potential migrants from coming to Europe. Images of suffering had thus become tools in the government of migration, and this led me to question both the strategies and effects of my own practice. I needed to pause and ask myself: What did your films actually do? What political effects did they produce? Where they the ones you envisioned? I needed, for a time, to stop producing images of migration and enquire into the migration of images themselves.

It was during this period that I began my thesis at the Centre for Research Architecture, which provided an environment to make this crisis productive, and eventually lead out of it. I was drawn to the Centre for its unique research ethic: it brought together architects, artists, filmmakers and theorists who had in common simultaneously addressing political issues as well as the politics of their own practice. Politics then, was not something located “out there”, but rather within the practitioners own medium, working conditions and practice. The Centre was further ideal for me since it is dedicated to experimenting with blurring the boundaries between research, aesthetic practice, and political intervention. Rather than advocating distanced observation, the Centre emphasises participation with concrete actors and social realities as a form of intervention that can generate new knowledge and aesthetic practices. While critical distance is not evacuated here, it is a distance that must be created from within the intricacies and contradictions of practice – or from a position of critical proximity in Eyal Weizman’s words (Weizman 2013). In short, the aim was as much to “think what we are doing”, in the words of Hanna Arendt (1958), then to think through doing, and do through thinking. In the process, the binary categories of thought and practice are challenged.

The works developed within the Centre further had a unique emphasis on space and materiality, articulating, through case studies, the infinitely small – such as the technical characteristics of images – with the infinitely big – such as global political and economic transformations. Or more precisely, this lens allowed me to trace from within specific cases and materialities, an expansive web of philosophical questions and political conditions. Finally, the Centre was committed to collaborative research and practice: the collective and collaboratively organised seminars were a formidable processes of turning ideas around, and “individual” projects became infused with the ideas of many others. My individual trajectory has thus been deeply shaped not only my own encounter with exterior events and theories, but by the way this encounter has been mediated by a collective thought process.

During the years I spent at the CRA – I completed my thesis in 2015 – I never entirely knew where my thesis was “going”. As a practice based thesis, this probe did not seek to offer an answer to a single research question, nor is it the documentation of a single project, but rather an account of the successive stages and bifurcations in my experimentation with the possibilities of documenting and contesting the violence of the migration regime operating between Europe and Africa. If my practice-based thesis did not have either a single hypothesis that it aimed to prove or disprove, it was driven by a working hypothesis: that aesthetic practices and objects play a key role in shaping the politics of migration, either in reproducing the current migration regime or undermining it. The thesis unfolds as a “diary of practice” of sorts, in which I describe the successive shifts my research and aesthetic practice has undergone in relation to my encounter with the field of the politics of migration, as well as with new problems and potentialities that have emerged in theory and practice. The title of my thesis “liquid trajectories” refers then as much to the restive and bifurcated paths of migrants, the mobile bordering practices that seek to block or steer their course, my own trajectory of practice, and as we will see, that of the images I have produced.

The thesis retraces and reflects upon a succession of phases in my research and practice. In the first phases, which coincides with the start of my PhD in 2009 and the moment of crisis in my practice produced by the encounter with the re-appropriation of the images of migrants’ precarity by the IOM, I trace the “lives” of the images of migration I produced over 10 years, and seek to chart their variegated effects as they themselves “migrated” through different contexts and practices. In this strand of research, Image/Migration, I sought to challenge the way we conceive of the politics of the image, and shed light into the many ways in which image practices and objects have been put to use towards the government of migration or to contest it.

Looking at image practices, I attend for example to the production of Ridley Scott’s film Black Hawk Down (2001), which was shot in Rabat, Morocco, and through which illegalised sub-Saharan transit migrants hired to act as extras secured a temporary legal status as well as cash which some used to pay for their crossing to Europe. Through such examples, I show that an attention to images as practices allows us to see new and surprising ways in which image production becomes agentic in the conflictual field of the politics of migration, and that the effects of image practices may not always be those intended by their authors. Looking at the migration of images as objects, I attend to circulation of images depicting the suffering of migrants, from the hands of actors who seek to govern migration to those who contest it, and back. In Fractured Chains of Custody, I trace the stages of the circulation of a photograph of migrants’ boats set ablaze by the Moroccan military from their own documentation to my own video project Crossroads (2006) which used this image to denounce the violence perpetrated onto migrants, to an IOM newsletter concerning anti-trafficking and anti-illegal migration activities and finally its use in social media to contest the violence of borders once again. Rather than the “photographed event”, I attend to the “event of photography” in the terms of Ariella Azoulay (2008b), and to how the image operates within the successive institutional and technological assemblages it comes to be embedded in.

Looking at the role of image practices in the section Perception Management, I analyse the IOM’s media governmentality, in which images of suffering are used to deter potential migrants. In the process, I am able to address some recent shifts in the government of migration by the European Union, which no longer only seeks to control the movement of people, but also to shape the wider processes that condition migration itself – such as wars, economic development and perception. This shift entails an expansion of practices of migration management in space to encompass countries of ‘origin’ and ‘transit’, reaching a scale which is at least potentially global. In the process, non-governmental and intergovernmental actors – such as the IOM – become key partners in terms of enabling operations outside of national borders and in a wide range of fields (Kalm 2012). Crucially, these organisations adopt the language and visual repertoire of development, human rights and humanitarianism to forward the government of migration.)

A second moment of bifurcation in my research and practice (Chapter 3: Forensic Oceanography) coincides with the rupture in global geopolitics and in migratory patterns and bordering practices unleashed by the 2011 Arab uprisings, as well as with the beginning of the collaborative project Forensic Architecture initiated by the Centre for Research architecture in Autumn 2009. The project took its starting point from a recent shift in the field of human rights, from a practice based on gathering testimonies of violations to “mobilise shame” in the public sphere (Keenan 2004), to one relying on multiple forms of technical evidence – from videos to satellite imagery, the analysis of DNA to that of rubble – and geared towards the legal sphere. The collective research project was launched to simultaneously explore – through research and practice - the new possibilities that the “forensic turn” might offer, and on the other, reflect critically on its implications. This project opened a new political and theoretical horizon within which fellow researcher and architect Lorenzo Pezzani and I developed the “Forensic Oceanography” project, which sought to forge new tools to document the violations of migrants’ rights at sea and understand the conditions that shape them.

In the frame of the Forensic Oceanography project, with the assistance of technical experts and SITU Research, we seized remote sensing and mapping technologies usually used for surveillance to contest the impunity which prevails for the deaths of migrants at the EU’s maritime frontier. The cases we were able to document – in particular the “left-to-die boat” case, which led to several legal complaints against states for non-assistance – allowed to untangle the complex geography of the EU’s maritime frontier. Here, partial and overlapping jurisdictions, the patchy vision of surveillance, patterns of maritime traffic that connect the producers and consumers across the globe, mobile border patrols, and the splintering routes of illegalised migrants all converge to produce a regime of hierarchised and segmented mobility: speedy and secure for certain goods and privileged passengers, slow and deadly for the othered and dispossessed. This mobility regime is necessarily conflictual as it operates along one of the major geopolitical and geoeconomic fault lines of the postcolonial world – a division precisely contested by the unauthorised movement of illegalised migrants. The innovative methodology we developed for our investigation on the “left-to-die boat” case was the basis for WatchTheMed, an on-line mapping platform designed to enable civil society to exercise a critical “right to look” at the maritime frontier of the EU, in the aim of both documenting and preventing the violations of migrants’ rights. Here, even more crucial than the sensors of remote sensing technologies, are the eyes, bodies and networks of “citizen censors”, to use the tem forged by Michael Goodchild (2007). Together, they constitute a human-machine assemblage.

At present, while I begin a new postdoctoral project, I continue to be informed by the perspective and tools that the CRA allowed me to forge during my thesis. Within the frame of Forensic Oceanography, Lorenzo Pezzani and I have continued to forge new tools to document and contest the violence of borders, while always also seeking to reposition our selves in the ever changing aesthetic regime operating at the maritime borders of Europe. In retrospect, I can see how the CRA has allowed me to explore critically my own practice and its politics. It has allowed me to attend to the materiality and technologies involved in the aesthetic practices and objects I have attended to and produced, as well as to be attuned to deep global transformations. It has pushed me to engage with migrants and migrants’ rights organisations as part of my research, and thereby allowed me to simultaneously contribute to (modestly) transforming and understanding the world. By engaging with aesthetic practice and non-governmental politics, I have been able to shed new light on the ongoing transformations of the politics of migration, themselves a dimension of the shifting political geographies of our postcolonial world. I would strongly encourage curious, committed and daring students to embark on what has been for me a deeply transformative learning experience.

Watch Liquid Traces on Vimeo

Read more about the Forensic Oceanography project on Forensic Architecture

(This text is an edited excerpt of the introduction to Charles Heller’s PhD thesis “Liquid Trajectories: Documenting Illegalised Migration and the Violence of Borders.”)

The Free Seminar: A Student-led Initiative

The Free Seminar began in 2015 as an ad-hoc space for student-led symposia, discussions and workshops. We met weekly with the idea of creating an environment, outside of the timetabled curriculum, to talk freely and to self-organise.

Amongst other things, we ran a cryptography workshop; learnt live-coding for music; discussed neutrinos with artist Jol Thomson; hosted a performative meal with Esther Kokmeijer and met with our counterparts at the Royal College of Art. 

Irit Rogoff, a Visual Cultures Professor at Goldsmiths, gave us a class on her notion of ‘free knowledge’ (you can read her e-flux article here)

Free Seminar is a community of sorts – one that is always shifting in numbers and people. Essentially it gives us reason to spend time together and learn from each other. Participants have joined us from various programmes at Goldsmiths, including MAs from the Centre for Research Architecture and students from across the Visual Cultures and Cultural Studies BA, MA/MRes and PhD programmes.  

As the meetings were at the end of the day, we arranged that each one would be a Potluck – where everyone would bring food to share with the rest of the group.

The sessions would change in format and focus, but the basic idea is: each one, teach one. We had a mixture of reading groups, film screenings and Free Seminars, where different members of the group would arrange to invite speakers, hold workshops and have discussions that overflow and augment.

In other words, we all contribute something in whatever way we want.  

The Free Seminars were organised and run by the students from the 2015 and 2016 MA intakes, but as we’re all graduating this year, the group as it currently exists will cease to be. We didn’t create this idea; it exists in ever-changing forms all around the world. We’d love to see the Free Seminar continue, in whatever format makes sense for the new students, so please take the idea and turn it into something that makes sense for you.


Hania Halabi

My name is Hania Halabi, a graduate of the Research Architecture MA 2014-2015. I completed my BSc in Architectural Engineering at Birzeit University in the West Bank. In my third year, I attended an experimental design studio that looks into architecture beyond its conventional definition as the process of planning, designing and constructing buildings; transforming it into a medium for political criticism and change. The assigned project on “re-imagining the Palestinian Parliament” was inspired by the work of Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), and exposed me for the first time to different aspects of the intersection between architecture, conflict and power. My interest in the field continued to grow from there.

After graduating from Birzeit University I started working at Senan Abdelqader Architects while looking for relevant Masters degrees abroad. Senan invited Eyal Weizman to join the jury of a competition I was working on for the company, and it was this that led me to apply for the Research Architecture MA. I should also say that I couldn’t have considered the programme if it weren’t for Goldsmiths’ humanitarian scholarship, which I was awarded in 2014. As part of the scholarship scheme, I also finished a leadership course where I was assigned to be a student ambassador.

My year at the CRA was one of pure exploration, which has advanced my understanding of the world I engage with on so many levels; it was a journey into my own interests (which I lost and found several times throughout the year). The program is flexible rather than specific in many ways, but it teaches you how to plan a methodology, design a narrative, and construct an argument that responds to the most urgent and critical topics of our time. Architecture becomes a conceptual medium to approach, navigate and investigate the topic at hand. For my own thesis, I looked into the conflict of the Palestinian village Susya located in Area C, and unpacked the secrecy and agency of its architecture by analyzing the politics of its materiality.

During my time at CRA I had many opportunities to engage outside of the course itself, all of which have fed into my experience and understanding of the research process. Firstly, I helped with the Forensic Archiecture Black Friday on Gaza, which also led to further collaboration after my graduation. Secondly, I joined a research group called “Open Gaza” based at Westminster University to pursue individual research that inquires into the relationship between architecture, time and emotions - I later presented this research in a conference at Max Planck institute in Berlin. Finally, my enthusiasm towards exploring fabrication experiments and algorithmic design drove me to complete the Architectural Association’s MakeLab programme in April 2015.

After my graduation from Goldsmiths I decided to apply for research jobs in London, and against all odds I was offered a research position at Balmond Studio, leading the personal research of Cecil Balmond OBE on ‘form making in abstract environments’ towards publication. Though the topic was so different from anything I did at Goldsmiths, I learned that it is the process and lens through which I approach the research that matters. At Balmond Studio I led a think tank called “CrossOver” for eight months, and most recently started new research on emergence theory in urbanism and finding new ways of re-imagining the slums worldwide: research I would like to pursue in the future individually, in the context of Palestinian refugee camps.

Despite the degree being research-based and having theoretical focus, it didn’t limit my chances to take lead roles in other areas. The CRA helped me to cultivate a mindset that I didn’t know I had until I began to face various challenges at work, and I realised that the key to solving them was critical thinking. I am now working in architectural design, which I love, and I feel so privileged to be able to consider my work differently, and more critically. I still feel I am navigating my way along my career path, but I surely wouldn’t have been where I am today without my time in CRA.

Jacob Burns


My name is Jacob Burns, and I completed the MA in Research Architecture in 2013-14. I had my eye on the course even when I was choosing my undergraduate degree, which was History of Art at Goldsmiths. I knew that I wanted a study path that combined politics with exciting and new theoretical approaches to some of the most important topics and environments of our time. I actually studied a year of Philosophy at Glasgow University after leaving school, and I remember being so turned off when in the first week we were told: "the most important thing to remember is that you will do nothing new here." Goldsmiths, and particularly MARA, was the opposite of that. The teaching staff always supported students in their efforts to push boundaries and think about things in original ways; celebrating unforeseen intersections between the students' work, the academy and the world outside. 

What Research Architecture exactly is was always a bit of a tricky one to explain at family parties, but the way I like to think about it is this. The course teaches you about the architecture of research itself: what does it mean to build a question? What structural elements of the world do you need to be aware of to investigate pressing issues in late capitalism? That means the course throws its focus far and wide, and that can be daunting. At the end of the day, however, what I think MARA taught me was invaluable in my work after I left, allowing me to approach problems of research with an awareness of the detail and scope that is really necessary to do good work.

The course opened many doors for me. I was research assistant to Professor Eyal Weizman, the principal investigator for Forensic Architecture (FA), for two years, working with him on cases, books, essays and talks. I wrote my own essay as part of the Forensic Architecture edited volume on Sternberg. I also was a resident for three months at Decolonizing Art Architecture Residency (DAAR) in Palestine, and wrote a collaborative text with Nicola Perugini and DAAR from the research I did there.

I then worked for Amnesty International for two years, researching human rights violations in Israel-Palestine. We worked together with FA on a number of groundbreaking digital projects, like the Black Friday interactive report and the Gaza Platform cartography of the 2014 Gaza War.  

Since the beginning of 2017 I decided to pursue writing full time, and have been working as a freelance journalist, reporting on politics and human rights issues from Jordan, Egypt and Israel-Palestine. 

The path I've taken has perhaps not been a straight line, but I think my time at Goldsmiths was incredibly important. It gave me intellectual resources that I continue to draw on, it cultivated my curiosity in the world, and inculcated in me the confidence to get out there and get to the bottom of what I was interested in.

Nick Axel

My name is Nick Axel and I'm an architect, writer, critic and editor based in Rotterdam. I studied my MA at the Centre for Research Architecture, graduating in 2015. My research and dissertation investigated the deregulation of hydraulic fracturing in the United States through the media of federal history, property rights and land law.

I am currently Deputy Editor of e-flux architecture, which focuses on generating new audiences and experimenting with the temporal logics of the architectural project. Previously, I was the Managing Editor of Volume Magazine (#44–49), where I explored the implications of neoliberal subjectivity, planetary computation and anthropocenic thought on the discipline of architecture. I was also a Researcher at Forensic Architecture, where I coordinated investigations and developed techniques for the inquiry into human rights violations in Palestine and Syria, and I was resident at DAAR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency), where I designed the National Spatial Plan for stone extraction in Palestine.

I have taught architecture, design and theory at Strelka, Design Academy Eindhoven, KABK, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar and The Bartlett.