The Forensics of Trauma
By Jeppe Ugelvig
In the Autumn of 2002, Peter Brandt was assaulted in the outskirts of Villa Borghese in Rome. Walking home from an exhibition opening late at night, an agitated man approached him as he was passing by Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Roma. A short confrontation ensued, after which Brandt temporarily lost his memory. After hospitalization due to persistent bleeding, and what would reveal itself to be brain damage, Brandt was interviewed by local police officers, asking him to recall the attacker to the best of his ability. A second questioning followed by the Chief Inspector, and a third at the police headquarters at the Procure Generali della Repubblica, near the Castel d’Angelo, by the city’s River Tiber. Here, a new set of officers began to interview Brandt, asking him to once again repeat the details of his aggressor. Over the course of three hours, the conversation regressed into painful cross-examination when he, in one instance, responded differently to one of their questions than in the first interview, thus questioning the truthfulness of his story. The police officers placed archival material of previously convicted individuals in front of him: boxes of simple mug shots of people’s faces, with no further information or description. The officers told Brandt how to look at the photos; ignoring hairstyle and instead noticing special features, like scars. He went over a 1000 images, while the two policemen sat and observed his behavior, taking notes. After this, Brandt returned home, the case still unresolved. He enrolled in an intense 12-month rehabilitation program for brain damage, as well as several years of psychological therapy. Years later, when he tried to obtain the police report of the crime, he was told that no such document existed: there were no documents containing his name.
Like so many others, in the case of the crime against Brandt, there remains no forensic trace; no recorded information, no surveillance footage, no DNA. His body now physically healed, the only physical remnant is the scars of his body, a corporeal biography that is interpretable, yet never fully legible. In all legal (that is to say empirical and scientific) senses of the word, there is no evidence of the crime beyond Brandt’s own testimony, expressed predominately through a series of tapestries, photographs, and assisted readymades produced over the course of nearly a decade—a series known as Post Trauma Documents (the artist began this series in 2011, after his first return to the crime scene during a residency in the city). Instead, what remains is an indiscriminate amount of psychological, physical, and psychosomatic trauma, which have manifested in various periods of the artist’s life, in various intensities, and in various ways. Some of these are directly inscribed in Brandt’s work: “I fell dead and recovered slowly, but was not the same, because in this death my soul was destroyed,” the hand-written scribbles on one textile reads (Post Trauma Documents: museo d’arte contemporana di roma, 2011-2015); “I will always miss myself as I was” reads another (Post Trauma Documents: it can happen to you, 2011-2015)—two statements that echo the common experiences of alienation, loss of self, and unreality in the wake of trauma. Like files in a police report, the artworks in the series Post Trauma Documents work to materially recover a lost or displaced event by repeatingly invoking its physical absence in the present—and does so, I want to argue, by forensic means.
The practice of forensics—the scientific tests or techniques used in connection with the detection of crime—have in recent years made a surprising appearance in the field of contemporary art. In this so-called “forensic turn,” artists are seen employing “forensic processes or inversely the aesthetic processing of evidence” within artworks, particular relating to instances of crime and other cases of social injustice.i Pioneered by artist-researchers such as Eyal Weizman and the London-based Forensic Architecture (FA), such practices approach forensics as an aesthetic practice “because the modes and means by which incidents are understood and evidence is presented involve aesthetic considerations.ii This is because the world of matter and materialities cannot speak for themselves “if they are to become witnesses;” “they need [aesthetic] interpretation, translation, and assistance.iii This aesthetic processing often involves the scientific analysis and presentation of material and media, and the presentation of these as an immersive archival experience, where viewers can visually consume forensic processes, thus producing a sense of participation in the evaluation of truth. But importantly, the very notion of forensis—Latin for “pertaining to the forum”—is less about the science of investigation and more about the presentation of its outcomes as truth to a given public, conducted with all sorts of scientific, rhetorical, theatrical, and visual mechanisms (as per the original definition in the ancient Roman jurisprudence). These may involve “gestures, techniques, and technologies of demonstration; methods of theatricality, narrative and dramatization; image enhancement and technologies of projection; the creation and demolition of reputation, credibility and competenceiv — in other words, the construction of an aesthetic argument. As artist and writer Charles Stankievech has summarized, forensic art is a kind of “counter-forensics” that incorporates both its scientific techniques and its rhetorical power: for example, “the use of ultraviolet photography to trace blood and the claims to legal efficacy as a result of its accepted conjecture.v Here, truth is the labored outcome of performing matter and media as evidence through aesthetic means.
Brandt’s work, too, is laden with the aesthetic of forensics: crime scene documentation, victim testimony, and the systematic ordering and presentation of a crime’s materialities, however absent or dematerialized it may be. His use of victim testimony, documentation, and found objects could indeed be understood as the “aesthetic processing of evidence” so as present them as a kind of truth. Yet, Brandt’s particular truth-claims fall outside the purview of forensics: it is not considered evidence as such. This is because forensis—even the aesthetic kind—are far from inclusive of all forms of knowing and all forms of evidence. Affixed to scientific materiality (i.e. recordable and measurable facts in time and space) and its rational presentation as data (legitimized by institutions of law), such forensics fundamentally omit events without material traces (because of the absence of material evidence or the failure to preserve such evidence), as well as those events whose traces do not immediately manifest—the traces, for example, of trauma.
Greek for “wound,” trauma originally referred to an injury inflicted on the body, but today tends to indicate “wounds of the mind” caused by either physical or psychological injury. Literary theorist Cathy Caruth, drawing on the writing on trauma by psychoanalysts Freud and Lacan, explains how trauma functions as a “breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world;” unlike the healable wound of a physical body, psychological trauma is an experience that resist simple comprehension, beyond common rationality. Rather, it’s an event that is “experienced too soon, too unexpectedly,” to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, as trauma, through a belated reaction, be it through nightmares, compulsive fears, or repetitive actions of the survivor.vi Trauma does not operate in empirical time or space: it exists only in the afterwardsness [Nachträglichkeit] of itself, in its delayed appearance in the world. Nor can the truthfulness of trauma, then, be empirically measured: “it cannot be linked to what is known,” but only to “what remains unknown in our actions and our language.vii
Similarly, Brandt activates a variety of delayed temporalities—forms of afterwardsness—in his work. The very name of the series, Post Trauma Documents, suggest a study from/of the posterior, an investigation that begins nine years after “the fact.” But because of its psychological belatedness, this event exists both then and now, there and here. Some language on the textiles speak in the past tense from a remembered then: I was murdered, I fell dead; while others speak from a traumatic present: I am running out of hope; I am not real myself anymore; I do not feel safe. These statements serve as a form of testimony, a form of expression in which the victim repeatedly narrates (quite literally, writes) a experience that happened long ago—a kind of compulsive repetition; an obsessive fixation with the object of trauma (which indeed has taken up most of Brandt’s output in the last half a decade) that is partially lost to amnesia, and materially erased. The artist’s own testimony, however, is immediately complicated by the interweaving of the testimonies of other victims of other crimes, sourced by the artist from YouTube. These testimonies of trauma—testimonies of other belated experiences—are themselves archival (temporally past), but circulate online as “flowing presents” as media across space and time. Variously operating with an I, a you, and a we, these works strive to produce a collective psychology of victimhood and pain outside any singular, knowable, documented event or experience. Rather, I want to argue, they work to investigate trauma in all its temporal and spatial abstraction.
Brandt weaves together these complicated and heterogenous temporalities, quite literally, in textile; a medium and mode of production that is often emphasized as temporally transient, a material carrier of memory. Through handmaking, textile is often credited as being able to convey intimate social histories of labor, making it an emotional and psychic medium. In relation to trauma, the crafting of textiles, too, has been understood as a tool for materializing painful psychic time: an example is the AIDS Quilt, which in its making over many years by many hands served as a communal “sacred space” for healing, hoping, and remembering in the wake of the AIDS crisis. In her writing on the quilt, art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson writes how it produces very “tangible evidence of those who have passed;” [my italics] an “indexical registration of the dead.viii It is interesting that Bryan-Wilson evokes the language of forensics and jurisprudence here, particularly seeing as the atrocities of AIDS crisis took ages—literally, decades—to be recognized on a governmental level. All the more recent for evidence, then: all the more urgent is testimony. Here, the crafting of textiles works as a registration—an inscription—of trauma in the only form trauma takes: diffuse, delayed, and heterogenous across space, time, and matter.
Freud’s notion of afterwardsness has not only been employed in much psychoanalytic theory, but in art history: in his 1996 book Return of the Real, Hal Foster writes a history of the Western avant-garde by considering the continued belated repetition of its tropes in late 20th century art. Drawing on the seminars of Jacques Lacan, Foster presents the traumatic as “a missed encounter with the real:” this is because “the real cannot be represented, it can only be repeated, indeed it must be repeated.ix The real is, rather, a lost object: the objet petit a. It’s worthwhile to recover this thoroughly post-structuralist understanding of “the real” and compare it to the model of “empirical reality” employed by the practitioners of forensic aesthetics, who despite an expanded field of knowledge production still exclusively consider reality as that which can be proved with sufficient scientific evidence for verification. Because if the real, as Foster posits, returns as traumatic, how can we begin to understand the traumatic as real—as a kind of reality, a kind of evidence? Caruth posits that the crisis of trauma cannot be marked by “simple knowledge” such as documentation of said crisis; to repeat, its truth cannot be linked to “what is known,” but “to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language.x The field of trauma, then, possesses an inherent challenge to the tradition of Western epistemology, a system of knowing grounded in cause/effect and mind-body dualisms, as well as the indisputability of science. With this, I do not wish to dismiss current practices of forensic aesthetics (who employ these techniques for social justice, as elements of a kind of radical institutional critique), as much as question its inherent valorization of the scientific and the rational altogether—which sidelines,—if not fully excludes—the bodily, the affective, and the psychic (and their interconnections) as expressions of reality, as expressions of truth.
On closer look, Brandt doesn’t assimilate the aesthetics of forensics to his subject matter as much as he derails them, leading them from the indexical (photography of crime scenes) into the unknowable (entropy, amnesia). Brandt’s medical records—a common type of documentation of post-traumatic suffering—are presented burned, dematerialized into ash and thus illegible, kept instead in a glass flask, like an emblem of survival. “Evidence,” as understood in forensics, is presented by Brandt as materially present but devoid of any information, beyond whatever is symbolically projected onto it: this is encapsulated in the presence of a stone, sourced from Brandt’s crime scene years later (The Order of EMPATHY, 2016-17, from the adjacent series, Mourning (2016-2019)). We do not know these crime; we never will. More thoroughly investigative, however, is his processing of testimony itself, which develops as the main purpose of the artist’s many textiles: to witness trauma in its confusing and belated manifestations, and to investigate these manifestations through language, form, image, and action. We may call this a kind of forensics of trauma. These range from evidence of individual suffering (“ANXIETY disorders I AM SCARED”) to evidence of collective mourning (“NO ONE SURVIVES VIOLENCE”) and evidence of healing (the artist sewing of 214 cotton at the site of his crime, presented in The Order of EMPATHY)—never presented in linear order or through causal relationships, which works to overturn the idea of “fully knowing something” and “being evidence” altogether.
How can we begin to understand “evidence” outside of traditional forensics? Foster writes that within the traumatic subject, the body—the damaged body in particular—is the “evidentiary basis of important witnessing to truth, of necessary testimonials against power.xi [my italics] But what exactly is testimony – and what is its relationship with truth? This fickle concept holds as long presence within Western jurisprudence, much longer, in fact, than scientifically proven evidence. Testimony is necessarily not proof or evidence, even when it is presented “under oath;” but nor is it necessarily fiction. Because of this paradox, Jacques Derrida argues that
“there is no testimony that does not at least structurally imply in itself the possibility of fiction, simulacra, dissimulation, lie and perjury — that is to say, the possibility of literature, of the innocent or perverse literature that innocently plays at perverting all of these distinctions. If this possibility that it seems to prohibit were effectively excluded, if testimony thereby became proof, information, certainty, or archive, it would lose its function as testimony.”xii
As a form, testimony, according to Derrida, suffers in being both haunted by fiction and never being able or obligated to become proof. It is neither nor, a perversion of forms, a liminal or in-between kind of knowledge. This is so because testimony fundamentally calls for the presence of the “live voice in the first person;” it is “the sharable and unsharable secret of what happened to me, to me to me alone, the absolute secret of what I was in a position to live, see, hear, touch, sense, and feel.” “Testimony is a question of autobiography.”xiii Through testimony, we access the operational logic of the I, of the mind. Technical reproducibility—the basis of empirical forensics, of proof—seems initially excluded from testimony, but only until it is forced to be able to be repeated, in the same way, such as in court cases (or in Brandt’s case, police interrogations). Here, techné is admitted by law exactly where it is conceptually excluded: there is no way to fully “know trauma,” yet its manifestation through testimony will be subjected to such inquiry when clashing with other systems of knowledge, other epistemological frameworks.
The forensic impulse in Brandt’s work thus manages to undo the very ways we deal with trauma, in and outside the purview of crime investigation. Trauma can never be made evidence, yet we must work to consider it as one kind of evidence; it lies outside scientific reality, yet is a manifestation of the real as such. Mediating this is the act of testimony, the medium of the unknowable I, which like all realities calls for forensic investigations—however, a forensics that embrace abstraction, aesthetics, even literature.
i) Charles Stankievech, “Exhibit A: Notes on a Forensic Turn in Contemporary Art,” in Afterall 47, 2019, 43.
ii) Eyal Weizman, “Forensic Aesthetics” via www.forensicarchitecture.com, n.d.
iii) Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, “Mengele’s Skull” in Cabinet, Fall 2011. http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/43/keenan_weizman.php
iv) Weizman, n.d.
v )Stankievech, 52.
vi) Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 4.
viii) Julia Bryan-Wilson, Fray: Art and Textile Politics (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 200.
ix) Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996), 132.
x) Caruth, 4.
xi) Foster, 1996, 166.
xii) Jacques Derrida, “Demeure” in Maurice Blanchot, Elizabeth Rottenberg, and Jacques Derrida, The Instant of My Death (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2000), 29.
xiii) Ibid, 43.