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Regards sur les archives mineures

Re/visiting Forensic Landscapes.

On black holes, spatial narratives and forensic imagination
Anne Huffschmid

Texte intégral

Introducing: from uncertain fields to open narrations

  • 1 It comes without saying that any research or creative process, independently of its signature, is a (...)

1After several years of conducting audiovisual field research on what I have described as "forensic resistance" by anthropologists and affected families to the ongoing catastrophe of enforced disappearance in Latin America, we faced the challenge of creating an audiovisual narration on our findings.1 By that we were seeking to provide some legibility in an obscure, opaque and apparently impenetrable topic, to enable some accessibility to a territory perceived as widely inaccessible, and to do so without reproducing the all too familiar aesthetics and framings of narco-spectacle, melodrama or victimization: a seemingly impossible mission. In this article I will get into how we confronted this impossibility.

  • 2 Without getting here into theoretical implications of narrative, I choose to speak of narration ins (...)

2Research experience, especially in fields of such uncertainty, may be understood in terms of journey, which usually have a defined departing point, and also a set of preselected tools as baggage, but then inevitably split up and diversify, leading to interruptions and unforeseen turns, frustrations as well as discoveries. At some point, another travelling logic begins to emerge, that of coming and bringing home, thinking of how to process, understand and narrate what we saw, found and experienced while exploring the spaces and terrains we traversed. How to convert diversified and often incoherent experience into some kind of meaningful narration?2

  • 3 The team was integrated by web-designer José-Luis Rangel, illustrator Santiago Moyao and programmer (...)

3This phase implies another kind of research, that of exploring and experimenting the field of narrative modes and modalities. In my case this second-order research resulted, besides a series of text-based outcomes, in two audiovisual formats, a linear one – the feature film Persistence (2019) and the short documentary Dato sensible (2020), both focusing on the self-organized search collectives in Mexico – and a non-linear format, the interactive web documentary Forensic Landscapes (2020), which also includes findings from Argentina and Guatemala. It was elaborated in collaboration with a Mexican transmedia team, directed by researcher and transmedia artist Pablo Martínez Zarate.3 These two formats were developed more or less simultaneously and implied dealing with a variety of aesthetical-ethical as well as methodological challenges.

  • 4 The web documentary is openly accessible, in original Spanish but also in an English version resp. (...)
  • 5 Just one brief note on the wide-spread but simplifying distinction between the notion of (transmedi (...)

4The following sections seek to provide some insight into the making of this specific interactive narrative – which mainly consists of a series of animated landscapes which ‘contain’ a certain number of short video-essays4 – and to discuss the use and implications of transmedia resources in relation to a complex issue such as ‘unimaginable’ violence. So rather than an expert account on transmedia storytelling or interactivity, this essay offers a play-by-play rumination of a creative journey, that of filmmaking, during which the webdoc format5 was being discovered and explored.

5One of the most important learnings along this second-order journey was that transiting from the linearity of a timeline, or storyline, towards the logic of a narrative space, allowed for a narration that echoed the profound non-linearity and fragmentary nature of the observed forensic processes, characterized by uncertainties of all kinds. At the same time, it corresponded to the range of spatial and temporal layers and scales of the field, which does never pre-exist but is constituted as such by the research procedures (Amit, 2000). From that experience, I wish to highlight the ability of digitally created territories, which may be freely traversed and experienced, to connect and associate supposedly far-away geographies and temporalities, and also to facilitate (multi)sensory accounts and understandings.

  • 6 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording availab (...)

6It is the seemingly limitless range of technological and design options in digital environments that forces to evaluate every step and decision – concerning not only audiovisual montage, but also graphic resources, chromatic scales, sonic environments, programming and navigation – in regard to its narrative or analytical qualities and implications. As Pablo Martínez Zarate emphasized in one of our public conversations on the creative process behind Forensic Landscapes6, it is never about transmedia handbook methodologies, but each project requires developing narrative strategies in accordance to the issues it is dealing with. "We have to really listen to our subjects" Pablo stated, and not fall into a "fetishization of the techniques that would focus on technical solutions."

7Renouncing predetermined methodological receipts and instead following the "things with which we study [that will] begin to tell us how to observe" (Ingold, 2019: 613) is precisely what I came to learn during the last 25 years, as a cultural scientist working on conflicted political fields, alongside a sequence of long-term research projects on topics such as social movements in terms of discourse insurgency, memory sites and in terms of place-making and visual cultures, or contemporary violence in terms of (counter)forensic agencies. In the development of hybrid research methodologies that would listen and adapt to the respective thematic fields, I came to integrate language and image-related practices such as discourse analysis and visual studies, as well as ethnographic modalities as space- and body-related procedures which enable accessing the material and sensitive world. Now, it was about exploring moving (and sounding) image and also interactivity as narrative modes.

From storyline to architecture: narrative space and multi-temporality

8In the Q&A of one of the larger screenings of our feature film Persistence in Mexico City, someone from the audience asked an unexpected question: If the film was all about searching, what was I searching for myself? I reacted somehow perplexed, then improvised some general remarks about looking for ways out of the dark gravity of the Holocaust. A more concise answer only occurred to me days later: that for a long time I have been searching for a form, an audiovisual language, in which the black hole of disappearance might be enunciated, not so much as terror technique but more as departing point for forensic action that had caught me right from the beginning, when I first witnessed, more than a decade ago, a forensic anthropologist testifying in a courtroom in Buenos Aires. She recalled on how her team succeeded to reconstruct some human bones and identify them as two persons who had been registered, for decades, as desaparecidos. This was my starting point and from there I travelled, literally and figuratively, to Mexico, to Guatemala, back to Argentina, to Spain and many more times to and within Mexican landscapes.

  • 7 I discuss aesthetical as well narrative implications in more detail in Huffschmid 2019 and 2022a.

9The films we had edited, or were editing at that time, represented a part of that search. As filmmakers we wanted to approach these landscapes of death and the involved human bodies, dead or alive, in ways that would enable viewers to watch and experience without paralysis and without artificial drama, by focusing on the inconspicuous, the physicality and vitality of things, of spaces, and of people. It was about letting the dark matter of disappearance become porous, by insisting on the materiality of the absent and by making it perceivable, or imaginable, beyond literal representation. I have framed such an aesthetical and narrative search and strategy7 as one of "breathing images" which allows these contested landscapes, in all their density, to get some air, some lightness, despite it all. In the scripting I decided to renounce to classical story-building, of one or two protagonists and a dramaturgical circle between a beginning and some sort of ending or closure. Instead, I constructed a sort or chorus, composed by a variety of voices and their correspondent bodies. Families wouldn't be reduced to the role of victims which only can offer testimony of atrocities, but became experts in their own right. Instead of following one specific agent or case, I chose a kind of analytical framing, in order to enable a better understanding of the involved agencies: each chapter is introduced by a verb, such as ‘reconstruct’ or ‘recover’, ‘exterminate’ or ‘evidence’. Working out that narrative structure was not at all straightforward, of course. But it was still following a timeline.

10At the same time, inspired by fellow film and media makers, an increasing interest in interactive formats emerged. Above all, I hoped it would provide some solution on how to integrate research and recordings from such diverse contexts as Argentine, Guatemala and Mexico, because such diversity implied dealing with a wide range of political, cultural and historical settings in relation to forced disappearance: in the context of military dictatorship as in Argentina, in counterinsurgency against primarily indigenous people, as in Guatemala, or in the context of organized crime and its entanglements with a formally democratic but corrupted state apparatus, as in contemporary Mexico. I wanted to overcome historical and geo-referential boundaries without sacrificing complexity, not forcing them into one storyline, but allowing for connections and associations to emerge in all directions. When researching on webdoc options, it became clear that this was going to be about giving up the linearity of a sequential script and diving into the universe of narrative architecture, the guiding metaphor for a construction of narrative spaces and the interrelation between them. Also, the fixed temporality of a linear narrative was to be suspended, viewers were to become visitors (a notion that I prefer to the usual one of 'users') which would decide for themselves in which direction, sequence and speed they move through and between the designed spatial levels.

  • 8 The elaboration of the web documentary was possible due to a grant by the VolkswagenFoundation for (...)

11When we started to work on the webdoc,8 the approach still seemed somehow alien to me at first. For I, as a researcher and author, had a vision of what to show and share, of the insights and experiences I wanted viewers to have and make, and I certainly did not like the idea that they might skip some of the things we were so meticulously constructing. Fortunately, in the process I learned about letting go and also came to remember, from the forensic processes itself, the power of the fragmentary.

12This learning was facilitated by working with Pablo Martínez Zarate with whom we initiated a most fruitful dialogue and began to sketch out, quite literally, how to structure a potential narrative. It may be interesting to note that this dialogical methodology we engaged in this initial stage did not involve sophisticated technologies, but consisted of extensive mail correspondence, analogue scribblings and mappings and by what Pablo designed as “design notes” (notas de diseño), which beautifully documented the gradual crystallization of our spatial narrative.

Figure 1 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 1 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 2 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 2 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 3 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 3 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 4 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 4 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 5 To illustrate the creative process

Figure 5 To illustrate the creative process
  • 9 For an introduction to the media structure, including interaction mechanisms and interface design, (...)

13In its final version, the narrative intertwines two sorts of visual spaces or spatial dimensions: A totality of eight digitally designed settings or landscapes, each one corresponding to a thematic field (from the initial limbo, the searching, the laboratory, historical geographical context, the question of personhood, of justice, of social indifference as well as the limits of forensics) which is also marked by a specific sonic collage which was distilled by Pablo from our video-footage. Taken together, these animated displays create a kind of sequential landscape – yet one space leads to another – into which the second spatial dimension is inserted, namely the 22 video clips (2 to 5 minutes each) which were distributed, in addition to other graphic devices such as portraits and animations, in their respective sceneries. In contrast to the linear films, the video-clips here were not conceived as chapters but as independent micro-narrations or “narrative units” (Martínez Zarate, 2021: 55) and at the same time inscribed as knots in a universe of potential narrative entanglements. 9

Figure 6 example to one of the finalized landscapes, without/with textlog

Figure 6 example to one of the finalized landscapes, without/with textlog

Figure 7 example to one of the finalized landscapes, without/with textlog

Figure 7 example to one of the finalized landscapes, without/with textlog
  • 10 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording availab (...)

14Straight temporality was suspended and replaced by a "multitemporal space which at the same time resembles an atemporal space," as transmedia director and producer Pedro Enrique Moya commented in the mentioned online-conversation.10 This atemporality is not to be misunderstood as the timelessness or immediacy that digital media are supposed to create, but more as a virtual real-time, a merging of different temporalities (including the room-time of the visitor), which Rebecca Coleman understands as the specific now, or 'range of nows', as produced by "the interplay between human and nonhuman" agencies (Coleman, 2020: 1681). Though her notion is primarily based on the assumption that temporal experience is produced by specific ways of dealing with media, modes of compressing or pacing (ibid. 1684), it might be extended regarding the variety of temporal and historical layers that a narrative as Forensic Landscapes contains and evokes.

  • 11 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording availab (...)

15Transmedia researcher Adriana Ruiz commented on that effect11: "Initially the story may be located within Mexico, but in the montage we can suddenly find a Guatemalan or Argentinean forensic anthropologist and the way he or she produces a match. All these voices are woven together, in the end what is transmitted is a shared feeling...". Even though historical temporalities "appear a little blurred" – and this may irritate traditional historians – "this is telling us something about connections and similarities between experiences", Ruiz affirmed.

  • 12 I had known the impressive poetic action of Jorge Velarde, which he has performed repeatedly in the (...)

16However, abandoning a predetermined route and inviting visitors to traverse the territory freely did not mean renouncing to any notion of dramaturgy. There was a defined departure point where visitors are meant to start their voyage: The first landscape that opens up after entering the platform contains only one clip to be detected (I will get into the matter of navigation in the next section) which is designed to introduce the black hole of disappearance, and also to set the basic tone of what to expect from this multi-sited and multitemporal narrative. It does so by combining a series of talking bodies (a searching sister from Guatemala, a mother from Juarez, a forensic anthropologist from Argentina as well as an Argentine artist and survivor) which merge into one shared 'affective body', that of disorientation, deterritorialization, and the limbo of uncertainty. And even though there was clearly no final destiny or conclusion to be offered, in the last scenery of the eight ‘landscape sequences’ I chose to broaden the horizon beyond my own guiding metaphor, that of forensic reconstruction, and decided to let artistic action or agency have the ‘final word’. For that, we edited a clip (for which a specific watery landscape was designed for) from video footage of the artistic intervention by an Argentinean artist in the Rio de la Plata, who by his performance marked eloquently the ambiguities of forensic materialization.12

Forensic navigation

17Even if the sceneries or landscapes are linked in a sequence through arrows, visitors are free to skip or return, without any other guidance than that of a horizontal string at the bottom of the page, and to get into whatever they feel attracted to, opening digital doors or windows, to a video-clip for instance. Unlike in the linear film, which can only be interrupted by actively switching off or by walking away, there is no automatism of continuing to watch and stay with it. It is not the interruption but the continuation which requires an active decision. Thus, watching must not only be made bearable, but also inviting enough for visitors to continue strolling through our imaginary territories. How do we generate a continuously seducing narrative when, at the same time, we pretend to subvert the all too familiar visual and rhetorical routines on the subject? One of the most illuminating moments of the process was when I, as a newcomer to interactive displays or devices, began to realize not only how research concepts, such as forensic landscapes, may well be translated into digital architecture, but also how web-design, especially navigation, may be converted into a narrative device.

  • 13 See, for instance, in Huffschmid 2015 and 2019. A key reference for understanding the political as (...)

18As argued elsewhere,13 forensic strategies, concerning investigation, reconstruction but also narration, rely on the agency of materiality, be it objects, spaces or material traces, which appear as "weak signals" in terms of Forensic Architecture (2014:30), often "at the threshold of detectability" (Weizman, 2017), and which contain an ability to somehow 'speak to us'. Thinking of how to translate this forensic concept of (making) things speaking Pablo and the transmedia team developed the idea that the most inconspicuous objects – such as a shirt, a pile of dirt, a cardboard box, a bone or a magnifier – would serve as entry points to the inserted video-clips. These objects would then indeed communicate by sending out their own discrete signals: The surfaces to be clicked on consist of animated contours, which may catch the eye through visual vibration, but may as well easily be overlooked. So only when visitors really move and carefully look around, and pay close visual attention – the cursor is accurately designed as an opening and closing eye icon – they will be able to detect these animated objects which open, when clicked, a text log that leads to another media dimension, a video-essay.

Figure 8 Initial landscapes without a text log

Figure 8 Initial landscapes without a text log

Figure 9 Initial landscapes with a text log

Figure 9 Initial landscapes with a text log

19So even if we there is an underlying dramaturgical intention, as pointed out in the previous section, there is no guarantee or need for following or completing a predefined pathway, everything depends on gaze and attention, curiosity, patience and persistence.

20And we may identify another 'forensic' element in the navigation design, that of conceiving investigation as a mode of intervention: when a video has been watched, the animated object changes its color. “Our gaze will make the difference as it transforms the landscape”, welcome text announces. So active looking actually visibly intervenes the object and by that also its spatial surroundings as a whole. Thus, the forensic attention to the microscopic and its connection to the larger whole works as the underlying logic for navigating the narrative.

  • 14 The screening took place in the Center for Digital Culture (Centro de Cultura Digital) in Mexico Ci (...)
  • 15 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording availab (...)

21It wasn't until after the web documentary was first released to the public in February 2020,14 when I came to fully understand the meaning of this, by what a colleague from Argentina wrote to me: That for her, it was precisely the disorientating structure that corresponded to the movements of the searchers in the field, be them families or forensic experts. After all, their search maneuver did never follow a predefined route; they too have branches, detours and interruptions, and only rarely do they lead to a pre-definable goal of finding something specific. I realized that our narrative not only constructed an imaginary territory which overcomes geo-referential boundaries, but in itself equals a searching movement along potential associations and discoveries. Also, for Ariadna Ruiz, this structure is directly connected to the thematic field: "I thought that all these pieces are like bones, we are collecting these pieces that we find throughout the spaces, and we are the ones that give it a certain order..."15 The decision to organize the narrative in a way that visitors would "obtain more control, in order to look around, to get thrilled, or touched, to interrupt and retake the next day, or to go through all of it at once", for Ruiz equals "a political gesture” in such a terrifying terrain. Handing over narrative control to receivers might be in fact interpreted as challenging the implicit authoritarian impetus of narrations of violence which tend to impose – even if well intended – a overwhelming or paralyzing logic. Very much opposed to that, the navigation here allows for a somehow playful way of traversing these spaces, and even may evoke the notion of gaming, as Ruiz states, "without the stigma we use to associate with the notion of playing: it is more about how do you relate to an object, physically, how do you move forward, or backward..." Pedro Enrique Moya, in the same conversation, adds to that idea: "We often think that interactivity diminishes the 'seriousness' of a narration or lessens its value", he says. "This project breaks with that convention".

Graphic (as) discourse

  • 16 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording availab (...)

22The limitless range of graphic options, codes and languages in the universe of transmedia architecture has been a widely unknown territory to me, as an author of text and image-based narratives where the editing of photo, audio or videographic footage is still bound to the visual and sonic materiality of what has been actually recorded in the field. Of course, any recorded material can be subjected to any technically producible manipulation. But in the universe of graphic imagination, the very notion of material texture and therefore also of manipulation becomes obsolete: anything goes, quite literally. For nothing in these artificial landscapes is predefined or depends from any material constitution, every choice must be made out of infinite possibilities, even apparently secondary aspects such as typography or chromatics. With regard to the latter, for instance, working on colors scales and grades implied learning to understand colors as a code. Approaching the given video footage by codifying its colors was a way for Pablo "to understand materiality through another logic", that of “chromatic texture”, different from the semantic layer content.16 When confronted with the color palette that he had elaborated by extracting the predominant color ranges in different sceneries of the video archive, I was not sure, at first, how to handle its surprising beauty.

Figure 10 process of chromatic coding

Figure 10 process of chromatic coding

Figure 11 process of chromatic coding

Figure 11 process of chromatic coding

Figure 12 process of chromatic coding

Figure 12 process of chromatic coding
  • 17 Online-Talk Historia Viva organized by Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, 10.11.2020. Recordi (...)

23But it was not about a formal extraction of aesthetical qualities, but the "codification" implied identifying "chromatic variations that correspond to our realities, namely to the regimes of terror in Latin America, but at a distinct level of discourse", as Pablo once affirmed.17 As such it enabled additional readings, for instance "the idea of the color of earth that appears everywhere, in the open landscape as well as on an excavated shirt or on a human bone...". The two chromatic poles of this palette were decided to shape the totality of digital scenarios: at one end, we had a range of beige or earthy tones that connected the desert, the bleached bones and also the human skin, and, at the other end, the blue tones which use to characterize forensic settings or police uniforms. Thus, chromatic codification turned out to be a tool for identifying "narrative units".

24For the design of the overarching graphic identity, a series of motifs and figures were extracted (quite literally: cut out) from film-stills of the video corpus and then constantly disassembled and reassembled into an increasingly hybrid scenario. My deeply rooted skepticism towards all too naturalistic or hyper-realistic graphic language and also regarding ideologically shaped visual discourse, gave way to a vivid creative exchange which ended in the minimalistic and somehow even playful final display. Be that, these landscapes of unspeakable violence and suffering were provided with an unexpected but most welcome lightness and (therefore) accessibility.

  • 18 The clip in available in the About-section of the web documentary, located in the menu section.

25My own memory of the initial spark of the project, the mentioned witnessing of the forensic anthropologist in an Argentinian courtroom, was also submitted to a striking graphic translation. Instead of a literal recreation of the scenario I was remembering, and that I had imagined as a kind of stage design, graphic artist Santiago Montayo opted for a much more subjective and cinematographic approach. The main protagonists of the animated clip he created18 were actually the talking hands of the forensic expert, the element I had repeatedly highlighted in my recalling of the episode.

26As stated above, since nothing is predetermined in the graphic construction of a digital architecture, everything needs to be decided. This necessity can even enable, I argue, specific analytical understandings. For example, it turned out to be significant to distinguish different spatial types. On the one hand, we had the exteriors of the open fields and landscapes, and on the other, the interiors of the laboratories, institutions and private spaces. Beyond that clear distinction a further range of hybrid spaces came into sight, where public and private dimensions merge: for instance, the socialized intimacy of a graveyard, or the everyday spaces in which day-to-day routines and states of exception, modes of affection and of indifference intertwine and coexist. Designing these scenarios and the corresponding visual codes required developing a conscience of that hybridity, between sociality, isolation and despair.

Figure 13 landscape ‘social indifference’

Figure 13 landscape ‘social indifference’

Figure 14 landscape ‘social indifference’

Figure 14 landscape ‘social indifference’

Research by the senses: perception, sensation, imme

  • 19 For an introduction to the broad field of sensory and artistic approaches see, for instance, our on (...)

27The porous borders of observational field research, or anthropology as a whole, are being increasingly expanded towards sensory modes19, often in the framework of what has been labeled as artistic research. In a much discussed paper, Tim Ingold postulates the need for anthropology to open up to the "speculative and experimental endeavor" (Ingold, 2019: 604) of contemporary art, in regard to its radical "open-endedness" (ibid. 606), its awareness of the own situatedness and the relational character of all agencies at stake. For Ingold it is not about observing from a distance but about "joining and flowing" (ibid. 608), cultivating curiosity and a research perspective from within that seeks to generate and not just translate experience. I find Ingold's pledge for incorporating sensory and affective attention as well as artistic practices in the field of knowledge production most inspiring. Nevertheless, I do not quite share his radical skepticism about ethnographic observation or historical contextualization, though I consider distancing or detachment as an inevitable phase of a research approach that indeed requires, as Ingold states, a "re-working" (ibid. 618) of field experiences.

28Ethnographic research has always been an embodied practice, the use of language, and that of the gaze, anchored in the researcher's body. But it was the so-called sensory turn in anthropology (see Ferrarini, 2017) that explicitly began to acknowledge “perceptual knowledge” (MacDougall, 2006: 5) and sense-based accounts for the understanding of social phenomena. In particular, the need for an "awareness of sound" (Sider, 2005: 11) is quite challenging for visual researchers like myself trained to reconstruct layers of (in)visibility and visual narratives, yet sound seems to have "no direct narrative purpose" (Sinclaire, 2003: 21). Thus, researchers must develop their capacity to listen and record sonic materialities first as "experience" and not as "representation", as sonic ethnographer Ernest Karel (2013) states. It is the apparently 'undetermined' character of sound which provides "a perceptual access to the world" (Sinclaire, 2003: ibid.) and therefore to the realm of the imaginary.

  • 20 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording availab (...)

29Incorporating sensory modes, such as the mentioned chromatic scaling or designing a specific soundscape for each scenery, may be interpreted as a way, as Pablo puts it, to facilitate access “to a thematic field that is dense, sordid, somehow silencing, and that is strongly felt by the body. Often because of its sordidness, narrations of violence tend to close the possibility of relating to them".20 So it is about valuating the body "as a place of knowledge production within the relationship between the inside and the outside" (Cortés Severino, 2017: 51). In contrast to the perhaps more accustomed uses of sensory resources in order to dramatize and increase levels of emotional engagement, in our narrative design it was more about enabling connections and affections that otherwise would have been overseen or blocked. In his review of emerging transmedia narratives in Latin America that confronts the social "paralysis" and "disorientation" caused by extreme violence, Christian Sperling (2022: 343) comments on Forensic Landscapes as an example of a narrative which enables sensory perception and "immersive experience" (ibid.), echoing my own premise that "the first cognitive step must be taken in the terrain of the sensible" (ibid.).

30Any kind of ethnographic research, when conceived of as an embodied experience, already seems to imply some kind of immersion. When combined with technological devices such as 360º camera or editing, it turns into a narrative mode which specific experiences as well as understandings. As a vivid illustration I would like to refer to an experimental collaboration between a visual anthropologist and an ethnographer as described by Westmoreland, Pauwelussen and van Diemen (2022).

31Pauwellussen had conducted maritime field research among seafarers, recalling this research as an experience of permanent disorientation and confusion, which therefore came out with a rather fragmented video footage. This material was than submitted to a visualization strategy which seeked to challenge some wide-spread assumptions about immersion, as supposed to provide hyper-realistic accounts to given realities and to work as an "empathy machine" (ibid. 52). In the experiment, the video footage was projected into a "virtual spherical space" (ibid. 58), by a procedure that Westmoreland interestingly coins as "spatial montage" (ibid. 61), not by creating a seamless visual flow but by evidencing the edits and cuts in perception and experience. This would generate, as the authors claim, a "productive kind of disorientation" (ibid. 59) and enable a more “kaleidoscopic perspective" (ibid. 53) consisting of "fragmented optics and multiple visual strategies [which] produce unique combinations of diverse, overlapping and constantly shifting patterns of life" (ibid.). As the authors point out, immersive narrations do not simply provide a radical account to being there but to perceiving its "inevitable partiality" (ibis. 56), enabling a reflexive attitude towards not only the unsteadiness of the research setting, but our ways to deal with it. This instability is not just a property of the watery universes researched by Pauwellssen, but characterizes most ethnographic settings, and especially the uncertain landscapes of disappearance in Latin America.

32In Forensic Landscapes we did not apply 360° editing, and worked with conventionally filmed video footage. What we did include is 360° programming, following a suggestion of the programmer Gerardo Vidal during the process. The transformation from 'flat' into 'spatial' displays provided the digital landscapes with a different kind of physicality; the possibility to 'unhinge' the image, as well as the gaze, facilitating a visual experience of diving in, where the graphically designed image was converted into a kind of spatial volume and therefore the cursor-gaze of the visitor acquired a somehow embodied dimension. Until then, I had naturally assumed that the designed settings would appear as two-dimensional stage sets or background tableaus in or in front of which the inserted video-essays would be displayed. In the immersive version, the digital settings break away from this attribution as a theatrical background and become a kind of agent to interact with.

33But the immersive comes with a price, or at least a downside, as I noticed when Gerardo transferred the tableau, that were so accurately elaborated by the web-designer José Luis Rangel, into the 360° perspective: it somehow disappeared as images. Visitors now have no choice than to immerse themselves, they ca not take a visual distance to look at the landscape but have to experience it as space.

Multimodality as entangled (hi)storytelling

34An approach that is based on a multiplicity of research modes (such as sensory perception, visual and sonic recordings, conversation as well as analytical readings) asks for a strategy able to re/connect these modalities, an ability which is often labeled as multimodality (see Collins/Durrington/Gill, 2017). The designation does not refer to a new way of researching or storytelling, for field research has been combining sonic, visual and language-based modes, media and modalities for quite some time. Rather than a multimodal turn it would be more about a "return", as Criado, Farias and Schröder (2022:95) rightfully state, since anthropology has never been monomodal.

35The notion of multimodal – as discussed and promoted, for instance, by the e-journal entanglements, founded in 2018 by Melissa Nolas and Christos Varvantakis – then might be interpreted as the need for re-entangling of what has been disentangled and fragmented through research, recordings and analytical procedures. As a crucial point here, I wish to highlight that re-entanglement also means not to separate the sensory from analysis or perception from reflection: "Multimodal ‘analysis’, we argue, is grounded in the senses: it requires attention to and curiosity for the unfamiliar and the strange. These senses need to be reflexively engaged with for the purpose of analysis in order to move from the researchers’ reflexes to their conscious awareness and from there, to be employed in the invention of knowledge" (Varvantakis/ Nolas, 2019: 368).

  • 21 Personal communication, June 4th, 2023.

36Multimodal narratives tend to be excessive. By that I mean that the amount of information they offer through a variety of media use to exceed what viewers or readers are able or willing to grasp at one time. This excess and also the non-hierarchic arrangement of content tends to turn these narratives into a kind of archive, which may be accessed over and over again. One may miss or skip some or most of the offered information in your first visit – in our case, the majority of the inserted video clips, for instance – but you may return to the platform at any time to continue your quest, as if one were returning to an archive. However, there is, of course, a crucial difference to the analogue archive, the fact that permanence cannot be taken for granted in the digital sphere, due to the lack of a materialized database and the need for constant and active renewal in preservation mechanisms. So we must state a certain vulnerability inherent in these kinds of web-based narratives, which needs to be solved in order to create a “modular system for cataloguing and preservation of media art“ (Martínez Zarate, 2021: 54). In the meantime, Pablo suggests21, we have to make sure to accurately document our fragile net-narratives by saving and storing maps, descriptions, screenshots and also offline-versions.

37This archive-likeness of web-narratives offers the possibility to reflect on the processual and relational work-in-progress-character of research itself (Collins/Durrington/Gill, 2017). They can do so by including some of the making of the narrative – for instance the animated clip mentioned above – or also by publishing in between materials which previously had "belonged exclusively to the stage of pre-production and weren't public" (Gifreu/Sánchez Castillo/Galán, 2019: 284).

38It seems natural to conceive Forensic Landscapes as multimodal in the sense of the horizontal arrangement of perceptive modes, such as looking and listening, reading and sensing, and of heterogenous resources and media such as video and soundscapes, graphic resources, text or animation. Moreover, I would like to think of multimodality also in terms of the forensic metaphor, in the sense that it not only connects a diversity of modes of perception and recording media, but it also brings together different scales, the micro fragments with macro perspectives, in order to materialize the immaterialized, which otherwise, through only one mode or media, could not be evoked, named or imagined.

  • 22 Available at: https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/
  • 23 Available at: https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/volumen-testimonial.
  • 24 Conversation with Castillejo in Berlin on the occasion of a "performance lecture" of the CEV report (...)

39Multimodal or transmedia narratives can play an important role in a media-based pedagogy of historical storytelling, due to its potential to organize huge amounts of diverse materials and information in ways that facilitate access and understandings, especially beyond academia. Gifreu-Castells describes that impetus for a series of documentary, journalistic, educational and curatorial transmedia practices related to the Colombian peace process, all driven by the purpose of "representing peace" (Gifreu-Castells, 2017: 69) or "show[ing] the reconciliation process" (ibid. 70). An impressive example is the enormous report elaborated by the Colombian Truth Commission CEV, presented in July 2022.22 In addition to a series of extensive volumes which circulate in printed as well as in digital formats, a huge amount of data and testimonies is contained in equally extensive transmedia chapters. Among them, the chapter containing the testimonies of victims23 points to the crucial agency of the senses, and especially sound, for the production of social knowledge on violence. The chapter was placed under the guiding metaphor of listening, which besides the semantic content of what is narrated by the survivors explicitly refers also to its phonetic and sonic materiality, from the corporeality of voices to the soundscapes and atmospheres of natural settings. According to CEV member Alejandro Castillejo, it was about expanding the radius of the "audible", and intertwining testimonies of "destruction" with those of "everyday life".24

  • 25 Online-Talk Historia Viva organized by Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, 10.11.2020. Recordi (...)
  • 26 It is important to note, that insights from constructing a multimodal or transmedia narration is no (...)

40It is because of this qualitative expansion that I consider the potential of non-linear and transmedia narratives beyond its undeniable capacity to process and communicate huge quantities of information. The crucial point, I argue, is that it enables a multi-perspective on history, an awareness of the simultaneity and coexistence of diverse experiences, approaches, layers and temporalities which constitute historical narrative, and also the inevitably fragmentary and contested nature of it. The non-linearity of interactive web-narrative matches the non-linearity of social memory processes and facilitates, as Pablo puts it in one of our conversations, “a more horizontal sense of history.”25 Even beyond the specific thematic field, I argue, multimodal narrations enable innovative ways of engaging with research findings, by activating and combining sensory as well as cognitive entry points, back and forward moves, re-reading and re-listening, through procedures of "knotting and twisting" (Nolas/Varvantakis, 2018: 2).26

On sense-making and for further discussion

  • 27 Email received by Pablo Zarate Martínez, the day after the public launch (14.02.2020).

41As suggested above, users experience of Forensic Landscapes often indicate initial disorientation caused by the immersive display. One of our early visitors commented on that experience27: "We are forced to keep going in and out. This makes us part of the whole - be it as witnesses, as accomplices or even as victims. In any case, we are no longer mere spectators. And we change a little bit after each time we go in." Thus, the initial disorientation gives way to an "active navigation", as Sperling (2023: 343) describes, the "fragmentary" and apparently disconnected is gradually integrated into a narrative structure and thereby acquires “new meaning(s)".

42It is this tricky question of meaning or sense that I would like to address in this last section. The contemporary violence crisis in Mexico, in contrast to military dictatorships or formally recognized armed conflicts lacks a signifying framing such as insurgency or political opposition versus counterinsurgency or repression. Therefore, it is characterized by what we may call a trauma of apparent senselessness, a terrifying opacity which obstructs any kind of sense-making by the affected communities, families or survivors. In such a context, media producers of all kinds have to confront "how to think about the problem of meaning" (Sperling, 2023: 345), without falling into the usual explanation patterns, or framings, which tend to simplify, to exoticize, to banalize or simply to ignore the extent of the catastrophe.

43The question might be even extended. Not just whether an interactive narrative on conflicted realities needs to make sense, but moreover, does it need to tell a story at all? Media scientist Adrian Miles – while reflecting on the presentation of the interactive web documentary Filming Revolution by Alice Lebow – denies such a necessity for non-linear formats (Miles 2016). The referred web doc presents a collection of filmic approaches to the Egyptian Revolution and invites visitors to "browse the archive", which appears as an unstructured visual field of colorful dot points, without any further guideline, suggested relations or hierarchy. This format responds, according to Lebow as quoted by Miles, to the "eventfulness" (Miles 2016: 7) of an ongoing social revolution and the impossibility of any narrative closure, the interviewed journalists and filmmakers, who had argued that a story was "not needed" in their context (ibid. 9).

  • 28 See footnote 2.
  • 29 Online-Talk Historia Viva organized by Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, 10.11.2020. Recordi (...)

44I am not too certain about a binary understanding of story, on the one hand, framed by the purpose of "description, explanation and even closure" (ibid. 7) that would reflect a merely "constructivist and linguistic approach to knowledge" (ibid. 8) and a focus on discourse, representation and meaning as opposed to, on the other, a focus on its material and sensory dimensions. In fact, and without denying the tension, I am quite convinced of the need and possibility to overcome this supposed dichotomy by combining semiotic with sensory approaches, for instance. In any case, as explained earlier,28 I do share the skepticism towards a notion of story/telling, that may be all digital and interactive, but still implies a clear-cut clarity or unambiguity of the messages to be communicated, in contrast to a notion of narration, especially but not exclusively non-linear, where meaning is not predetermined but to be constructed in unpredictable ways. Pablo Martínez Zarate29 describes the power of non-linear narrations, referring to our process, "as poetic resistance which resists the usual methods of representation, the commonplaces of how to represent such a thematic and even, as resistance to immobilization and to paralysis."

45And I definitely support the claim for paying attention to the materiality and agency (the "doing", ibid. 7) of things, for instance, the transmedia resources chosen for this kind of narrative. An example is the node-link structure of Filming Revolution which enables significant relations between every object (video, sound or text, graphics) that is there to be found and clicked. In these procedures "stories [do] emerge", as Miles admits (ibid.), but they do not organize the documentary display a priori, keeping it open towards the "unintended" (ibid.12), "allowing [the material] to resonate on multiple levels" (ibid. 19), as Miles quotes director Alice Lebow. While the author refers to the flatness of Lebow's web documentary, which is displayed as an archive without any hierarchization, I would like to highlight its spatial or architectural dimension and to remind that every non-linear arrangement, however flat or archive-like it may appear, implicates narrative choices and decisions. It is precisely the narrative architecture of interactive documentaries, be it the abstract display of colorful dots or a sequence of digitally created landscapes, whose relational structure allows (hi)stories to emerge the moment they are told and connected to each other.

46It goes without saying that a webdoc such as Forensic Landscapes could never even pretend to tell the whole story or to provide a coherent explanation to everything happening in these terrains. This may appear evident for these specific terrains of such opacity and difficult access, but also applies to historical narrations in general. Building on non-linear structure and interactive interfaces means to ascribe a fundamental role to the fragments and their relational qualities: not only as parts of a pre-determined picture to be completed, as a puzzle, but more of a collage, where every piece may add or suggest a new layer of meaning. As in forensic anthropology, where a human bone may indicate a potential 'person', without completing a whole skeleton, but also may have other things to say (on what has happened to the person, for instance), it is not about completeness or full circles in these narrations, but more about the power of association.

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Notes

1 It comes without saying that any research or creative process, independently of its signature, is a collective undertake and therefore requires switching from singular to plural: for the design and outcomes of the research process (2013-2020) you may consult, in English, Huffschmid 2020 and 2022b. An important creative counterpart of that process was filmmaker Jan-Holger Hennies, who joint me at some point of the journey, first as cinematographer, then also as editor, and finally as co-director of one of the films.

2 Without getting here into theoretical implications of narrative, I choose to speak of narration instead of story/telling. Though the latter is clearly (more) customary in the trans/media universe, it evokes a certain need for unambiguity, at least for me (with a background of having worked for more than a decade as a journalist in the media field) which I find opposed to the inevitable ambivalence and openness of qualitative research processes and outcomes; I will come back to this in the final chapter.

3 The team was integrated by web-designer José-Luis Rangel, illustrator Santiago Moyao and programmer Gerardo Vidal.

4 The web documentary is openly accessible, in original Spanish but also in an English version resp. with English subtitles in: www.forensiclandscapes.com.

5 Just one brief note on the wide-spread but simplifying distinction between the notion of (transmedia) format in relation to content, based on the supposed binary of a given research result and its communication or dissemination to the much quoted 'wider audience'. Instead, I argue in this contribution, that the potential of spatial and multidimensional narratives lies in the possibility to visibilize (and not just visualize) and re/construct (and not just communicate) relational qualities, layers and constellations in uncertain and multi-sited scenarios.

6 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording available: https://www.facebook.com/tallerdeinvestigacioncmm/videos/273866740711489/ 

7 I discuss aesthetical as well narrative implications in more detail in Huffschmid 2019 and 2022a.

8 The elaboration of the web documentary was possible due to a grant by the VolkswagenFoundation for my project "Black holes and forensic imagination: a non-image story" (11/2018-11/2019).

9 For an introduction to the media structure, including interaction mechanisms and interface design, you may consult the international trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVkFNtOrqNs.

10 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording available at: https://www.facebook.com/tallerdeinvestigacioncmm/videos/273866740711489/ 

11 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording available at: https://www.facebook.com/tallerdeinvestigacioncmm/videos/273866740711489/ 

12 I had known the impressive poetic action of Jorge Velarde, which he has performed repeatedly in the Rio de la Plata, in 2013. At the bottom of the Rio de la Plata there are supposed to be decomposing thousands of human bodies, the remains of the disappeared prisoners which were dropped from the so-called death planes, and which, of course, cannot be recovered by any forensic technique. Velarde, a boat-lover whose youth love is among these victims, calculated fictitious coordinates by nautical cartography, and by that determined some imaginary points where the bodies may have entered the waters. He then went to these spots by boat and threw flowers into the water; this intervention, which he also documented by video, thus invented an imaginary marker in an inaccessible terrain.

13 See, for instance, in Huffschmid 2015 and 2019. A key reference for understanding the political as well as conceptual potential of forensic procedures is the body of work of Forensic Architecture; for the conceptual grounding, you may consult Forensic Architecture (2014: 9-32) and Weizman (2017: 13-54); see also the inspiring volume edited by Dziuban (2017).

14 The screening took place in the Center for Digital Culture (Centro de Cultura Digital) in Mexico City, in February of 2020, a few weeks before the pandemic curtain fell and froze every offline cultural activity.

15 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording available at: https://www.facebook.com/tallerdeinvestigacioncmm/videos/273866740711489/ 

16 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording available at: https://www.facebook.com/tallerdeinvestigacioncmm/videos/273866740711489/ 

17 Online-Talk Historia Viva organized by Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, 10.11.2020. Recording available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyVbZXhxHzs&t=577s

18 The clip in available in the About-section of the web documentary, located in the menu section.

19 For an introduction to the broad field of sensory and artistic approaches see, for instance, our online video-series La Investigacion creadora (https://www.programa-trandes.net/portal-virtual/multimedia/formacion_metodologica/investigacion-creadora/index.html), which recollects the experience of more than 15 research and art practitioners from Latin America, the US, UK and Germany.

20 Online conversation organized by Centro multimedia/CENAR, Mexico City, 5.11.2020. Recording available at: https://www.facebook.com/tallerdeinvestigacioncmm/videos/273866740711489/ 

21 Personal communication, June 4th, 2023.

22 Available at: https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/

23 Available at: https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/volumen-testimonial.

24 Conversation with Castillejo in Berlin on the occasion of a "performance lecture" of the CEV report,together with sound artist Andrés Torres; July 14th, 2022,

25 Online-Talk Historia Viva organized by Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, 10.11.2020. Recording available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyVbZXhxHzs&t=577s.

26 It is important to note, that insights from constructing a multimodal or transmedia narration is not necessarily bound to a specific technology, but may well apply to other than web-based or digital formats, for instance to exhibitions. Non-linearity and interactivity are not primarily a question of software or mediality, but of how we conceive the ever-changing relation between our senses and sense-making, and how we confront simultaneity and fragmentation as matters of research and of narration.

27 Email received by Pablo Zarate Martínez, the day after the public launch (14.02.2020).

28 See footnote 2.

29 Online-Talk Historia Viva organized by Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, 10.11.2020. Recording available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyVbZXhxHzs&t=577s

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 To illustrate the creative process
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-1.jpg
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Titre Figure 2 To illustrate the creative process
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-2.jpg
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Titre Figure 3 To illustrate the creative process
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-3.jpg
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Titre Figure 4 To illustrate the creative process
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-4.jpg
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Titre Figure 5 To illustrate the creative process
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-5.jpg
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Titre Figure 6 example to one of the finalized landscapes, without/with textlog
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-6.jpg
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Titre Figure 7 example to one of the finalized landscapes, without/with textlog
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-7.jpg
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Titre Figure 8 Initial landscapes without a text log
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-8.jpg
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Titre Figure 9 Initial landscapes with a text log
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-9.jpg
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Titre Figure 10 process of chromatic coding
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-10.jpg
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Titre Figure 11 process of chromatic coding
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-11.jpg
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Titre Figure 12 process of chromatic coding
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-12.jpg
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Titre Figure 13 landscape ‘social indifference’
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-13.jpg
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Titre Figure 14 landscape ‘social indifference’
URL http://journals.openedition.org/cm/docannexe/image/5780/img-14.jpg
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Anne Huffschmid, « Re/visiting Forensic Landscapes. »Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #26 | 2024, mis en ligne le 08 mars 2024, consulté le 20 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cm/5780

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Auteur

Anne Huffschmid

Anne Huffschmid est une chercheuse en études culturelles basée à Berlin, autrice, documentaliste et commissaire d'exposition. En tant que chercheuse, affiliée à l'Institut d'études latino-américaines de la Freie Universität Berlin, elle se spécialise dans des sujets tels que l'espace urbain et les conflits, la recherche sur la mémoire et la violence, l'analyse du discours, les méthodologies de recherche visuelle et artistique, avec un accent particulier sur l'Amérique latine, notamment le Mexique. Anne mobilise une approche transdisciplinaire de la recherche, combinant des pratiques ethnographiques et analytiques, audiovisuelles et curatoriales. Son dernier projet à long terme portait sur ce qu'elle nomme la "résistance forensique" face aux disparitions forcées au Mexique et dans d'autres pays d'Amérique latine. Le long métrage Persistence (2019), le webdocumentaire Forensic Landscapes (2020) ainsi que le court métrage documentaire Sensitive Data (2020) ont participé à de nombreux festivals de films internationaux, dont l'IDFA Amsterdam, le RAI Festival à Bristol et le Jean Rouch à Paris, et ont remporté plusieurs prix. Pour plus d'informations, voir: www.annehuffschmid.de.

Anne Huffschmid est une chercheuse en études culturelles basée à Berlin, autrice, documentaliste et commissaire d'exposition. En tant que chercheuse, affiliée à l'Institut d'études latino-américaines de la Freie Universität Berlin, elle se spécialise dans des sujets tels que l'espace urbain et les conflits, la recherche sur la mémoire et la violence, l'analyse du discours, les méthodologies de recherche visuelle et artistique, avec un accent particulier sur l'Amérique latine, notamment le Mexique. Anne mobilise une approche transdisciplinaire de la recherche, combinant des pratiques ethnographiques et analytiques, audiovisuelles et curatoriales. Son dernier projet à long terme portait sur ce qu'elle nomme la "résistance forensique" face aux disparitions forcées au Mexique et dans d'autres pays d'Amérique latine. Le long métrage Persistence (2019), le webdocumentaire Forensic Landscapes (2020) ainsi que le court métrage documentaire Sensitive Data (2020) ont participé à de nombreux festivals de films internationaux, dont l'IDFA Amsterdam, le RAI Festival à Bristol et le Jean Rouch à Paris, et ont remporté plusieurs prix. Pour plus d'informations, voir: www.annehuffschmid.de.

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