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George Prochnik interviews Eyal Weizman


For the LARB, George Prochnik interviews Eyal Weizman. The interview in partial below.

EYAL WEIZMAN is an Israeli-born, London-based architect, activist, and theorist. He is also a professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, where, in 2010, he established the field of “Forensic Architecture,” which uses sophisticated tools of contemporary architecture to gather evidence about armed conflict for international trials, human rights reports, advocacy groups, and truth commissions. The group’s report on drone warfare was presented to the UN General Assembly in 2013; other reports have been presented to courts in Guatemala, Israel, Italy, and France. Forensic Architecture’s practice is unique in its use of evidence as a starting point for raising a host of theoretical and historical questions about the intersection of contemporary violence and the built environment. This practice informed Weizman’s new book, The Conflict Shoreline (Steidl in association with Cabinet Books, 2015), a richly illustrated volume produced in collaboration with American photographer Fazal Sheikh about the displacement of the Bedouins in the Negev/Naqab desert. The book tells the story of the struggle for al-‘Araqīb, a Bedouin village that has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 80 times as part of the ongoing Israeli campaign to uproot the Bedouin from the northern threshold of the desert. Unlike other frontiers fought over during the Israel-Palestine conflict, this threshold is not demarcated by fences and walls, but advances and recedes in response to cultivation, colonization, and climate change.

I spoke with Weizman in New York this September about the issues he addresses in The Conflict Shoreline, as well as about the larger project of Forensic Architecture.

GEORGE PROCHNIK: I’d like to begin by having you review the concept of the climactic threshold, which you discuss in your book, and why this marker became, in your phrase, “the conflict shoreline."

EYAL WEIZMAN: There is a long history of debates about what defines the threshold of the desert. The designation was important because both for the Ottoman Empire and later for the British one it delineated a zone that, although nominally within the imperial “territories,” lay outside their full control and was partially autonomous. It’s obvious why: these empires didn’t always have the economic incentive to govern in the desert. It was more lightly populated and, except when minerals or oil were at stake, had little apparent value. I got interested in the relation between the production of a certain meteorological classification, its cartographic delineation, and a shift in techniques of governance and law. Anyone living near “the threshold of the desert” knows that it’s an ambiguously defined zone, which might shift over the years dozens of kilometers north or south of any mean line. Historically, all along the desert threshold as it extends for thousands of kilometers through the different political units that compose the “Orient” two processes can be identified. The first involves attempts to identify, delineate, and map this line, and the second entails the understanding of the environmental threshold line as a project — that is, something which can be influenced and shifted. Colonial governors attempted to push away that desert line, while extending the zone of agrarian lands by changing the local climate.

The designation of that threshold makes it a target for change: both in terms of arability, and in terms of the law.

Exactly. Shifting a climactic threshold is also shifting the “nomos of the earth” — its legal reality. This entangled colonial relationship to the climate demonstrates what I consider to be the most fundamental omission in the current debate around climate change. Even the most militant environmentalists still regard climate change as the “collateral of history” — the unintended byproduct of industrial development, trade, and transport; whereas I see it as the intention, the very telos, of the colonial project. On the subject of the collateral, human rights activists might have something to contribute to climate activists. When a military claims that such and such people were killed as a collateral effect of our attempt to hit this or that target, our warning lights start flashing — is it really so? Do civilian casualties not sometimes serve a military purpose, becoming, for instance, a component in a policy of deterrence?

How does this link back to the issue of climate change?

The logic of argumentation is similar: climate change is understood as the collateral damage of industrialization. We try to generate wealth — for the few or the many — and “shit happens … it was never our intention to change the climate of the earth.” But was it really never our intention? If we view the notion of climate change from the point of view of colonial history we can see countless examples of climate change engineered as a project. From Australian and American texts about the frontier, to more recent French colonial texts about Algeria, Italian Fascist writing about Libya and Zionist texts about the Negev, colonization is shown as a two-stage event: taking hold of land, and then making it productive. But the latter objective — advancing the frontier of cultivation — involves an explicit attempt to transform local weather. On a larger scale, in the colonial imagination, the planet is perceived as a design project and climate change is one important component of this process. Ideas about cooling hot areas, warming cold ones, making rain, etc., were popular from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. Afforestation, deforestation, and cultivation were observed by many influential figures, including Thomas Jefferson, to affect the general climate in a desirable way. Meteorologists like James Espy (“the Storm King”) proposed that the burning of forests could generate rain to irrigate drier plains, as the critic and philosopher Eduardo Cadava reminds us. This is not to say that the complex processes measured across the globe today are the singular result of colonialist endeavors, but to underscore that the term climate change was initially formulated to describe a project, not a byproduct.

As you eloquently depict in the book, this enhancement of productivity is associated with themes of renewal and fulfillment that carry positive resonances — the notion that a space which had been outside of civilization could be made fruitful.

Areas that were already productive for local peoples, who’d often lived in this environment for generations, had to be transformed and made productive in a different way for the colonists. From this perspective, the relation between capitalism and climate change is inverted: climatic transformation was the precondition for the expansion of capitalism.

This point seems relevant to the larger field of projects that you and your Forensic Architecture team are involved with. If a space is seen as virgin, or desolate — or whatever particular metaphor is invoked — the climate itself needs to be reconfigured to sustain civilization. The climate is constructed in an architectural sense to accommodate agriculture or industry even if there aren’t actually walls and a ceiling containing it. How does this general framework of ideas apply to the specific territory of the Negev and its Bedouin inhabitants?

The desert line was hugely influenced by its European colonizers along its entire length — from the westernmost edges of North Africa through Palestine to Syria, Iraq, and Iran, to the northern frontiers of the Raj, within the borders of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. In all these places, expanding the limits of arable lands put these territories in tension, and involved displacements and extensions of the law, economy, and realms of governance. While studying the long-term history and expanded geography of the “aridity line,” we have to look at local case studies, structures, and traces. The line of thinking we’ve developed was born out of the specific case study of the Bedouin village of al-‘Araqīb in the Negev. The project started when Fazal Sheikh showed me some of the aerial images of the Negev he’s been taking since 2011 and we began talking about what these photographs captured. They revealed traces of a slow-moving conflict, registered across the surface of the desert: displacement of Bedouins, construction of new Israeli towns and military bases, archaeological activity, and agricultural cultivation. The images also beautifully demonstrated the centrality of the desert threshold to this conflict since, as it happens, the village of al-‘Araqīb lies exactly on that line as it’s been established by Israeli meteorologists and lawmakers.

The al-Tūri village in al-ʻAraqīb was first destroyed in July 2010. Those remaining on site moved their homes into the fenced-up area of their ancestral cemetery dating back to 1914. Outside the cemetery fence there are several protest tents, distinct for their blue cloth, marking the area of the destroyed village and the area claimed by the al-Tūris. On the left is one of the branches of the al-ʻAraqīb Stream (Naḥal Faḥar in Hebrew). Behind the cemetery is a small tributary dammed by the al-Tūris to create a number of small fields, seen here freshly plowed. Like all fields in the Negev they were harvested in September, a few weeks before the photograph was taken. The earthworks around the cemetery were undertaken by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in preparation for the extension of the Ambassador Forest. Planting is usually carried out before the rainy season begins in October/November. Since the image was taken the structures within the cemetery compound, including the fence around it, have been removed.

What precisely makes the legal definition of this line?

The state of Israel accepted the designation of the desert threshold developed by a German-Russian scientist named Wladimir Köppen in 1918 — the moment when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the “Orient” fell into European hands. Köppen’s classification established the “aridity line” at the 200 mm isohyet (isohyets are lines connecting all points that have the same amount of average rainfall per year). The rationale for this definition was simple: it’s impossible to cultivate cereals on a flat surface without 200 mm of annual rainfall. Or so it was argued. We know that this has never been true, since in fact the aridity line is not only a meteorological designation, but also one that depends on agricultural knowhow and seed types. That 200 mm threshold connects cereal cultivation with certain ideas of culture and permanent human habitation, with urbanization, economy, and the state. Between any two isohyets on meteorological maps there is a different translucent color band. In Palestine, these bands are darker blue in the north, where parts of the Galilee receive as much as 800 mm of rainfall per year. The gradient of blues thins towards the center of the country and flips over into a light spectrum of yellows over the 200 mm line, then thickens into a spectrum of oranges as one descends south. The line that crosses al-‘Araqīb is located on the same colonial meteorological shoreline that connects areas of South Waziristan to the lower Atlas Mountains in Algeria. There are different kinds of conflicts all along this line — most of them with colonial roots. More locally, Israeli land law does not acknowledge private land ownership of the people that lived and live beyond this line. They’ve developed an inescapable circular logic: it is impossible to cultivate south of this line, therefore the people living south of it must be nomads (which they’ve not been for generations), and nomads have no land rights. The Bedouins, of course, cultivated in the area for hundreds of years, but that agricultural activity was imperceptible by colonial scales of measurement.