At the crossroads between art, poetry and international justice, Switch (on Paper) is publishing a text that takes the form of an investigation, in several instalments, of a project conducted since 2014 by Franck Leibovici and Julien Seroussi at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The project centred on the Katanga/Ngudjolo trial, named after the two militiamen accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed in 2003 in the village of Bogoro, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This fourth text clarifies the role of images and the gaze in the trial, through the study of two installations: muzungu (2016 – in progress) and vitraux et tampons — l’histoire du pixel (2018).
bogoro, op.cit. p. 247.
The text and its performance at Bunkier Sztuki (Krakow, 2016), Dreams&Dramas. Law as Literature at nGbK (Berlin, 2017), vitraux et tampons – l’histoire du pixel at La Chaufferie (Strasbourg, 2018) and Juger – Créer at la Cité internationale des arts (Paris, 2018).
Julien Seroussi and Franck Leibovici, bogoro, Questions Théoriques, 2016
During the Katanga/Ngudjolo trial, numerous images were submitted to the judges by the prosecutor’s team as evidence: photographs of the scene of attack, portraits of alleged protagonists, maps…. Yet very little of this evidence was deemed admissible. The witnesses’ accounts revealed differences in the interpretations and views of individuals, places and situations represented by the different parties. The nature of objective evidence commonly associated with photographic image capture broke down in the wake of hesitations and contradictions, making it more difficult to produce facts that were sufficiently stable to convince the judges “beyond reasonable doubt”. Here again, legal and vernacular practices conflict with one another. Beyond the interests of the prosecution and the defence, which obviously influence the interpretation of the images, the way you look at a photograph differs depending on whether you are a Belgian judge, a Congolese farmer, a French anthropologist or an artist.
According to Julien Seroussi, judges tend to be wary of pictures as evidence. Those of the Katanga/Ngudjolo trial were produced both during the events and during the preliminary investigation by various actors: militiamen, journalists, members of NGOs, members of the prosecutor’s team or forensic experts. In the unstable political and material context in which these pictures were created, it can be very difficult to trace their “chain of custody”, that is, their path from the time they were taken to their presentation in court. However, the source of these pictures and the route that led them to court through a series of mediators are key elements in ensuring their admissibility. From a legal point of view, they are documents, and any document must be certified. During the trial, a photograph depicting, according to the prosecution, a group of child soldiers led by a Lendu militiaman was described by a village chief as a group of schoolchildren accompanied by their teacher. Thus, Chief Manu, head of the village of Zumbe, suggested that it actually depicted Hema people of the rival ethnic group:
- when I say that, it’s because I can’t identify a single person. martin cobra is not there. cobra matata is not there. I don’t recognize anyone in this picture. that’s why I said maybe it’s the hema because they were our enemies, we were fighting against them. I didn’t confirm that it was the hema (…). I can’t identify this picture, and I think maybe it’s the hema.1
In the end, only one piece of visual evidence was admitted by the judges: a stratagem proposed by Seroussi by superimposing two maps, which confounded one of the witnesses. As stated in the judgment,
“during the judicial site visit to Ituri, the Chamber noted that this representation of the village of Zumbe was in fact more consonant with the topography of the village of Aveba. Confirmation of this view requires only a comparison of P-280’s sketch with EVD-D02-00153, drawn by Witness D02-258 to describe Aveba and to note that, as represented in the diagram, the locations of the market, the airport and the camp are one and the same.”
Click on image to enlarge:
muzungu: an interactive visual device
A former colleague of Seroussi’s at the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose anonymity he wishes to preserve, acknowledged that lawyers’ mistrust of images is also due to the lack of practice. But one can learn to look at an image: the “professional vision” of lawyers, which is based on the practice of law, encourages them to favour written evidence and to overlook the information contained in the images, because they are unable to recognize it (in every sense of the word). This observation prompted Leibovici and Seroussi to design muzungu, an interactive installation presented at several exhibitions since 20162. “Muzungu” is a Swahili term used in the Great Lakes region to refer to whites, literally translated as “those who go round in circles”, a term that was applied not without irony to ICC investigators when they came to Ituri to gather evidence and testimonies in preparation for the Katanga/Ngudjolo trial. This gives an idea of the perplexity and mixed esteem in which the local population held the work of the investigators, and more generally that of the ICC.
The installation muzungu presents all the documentary evidence of the trial. Administrative documents, photographs, maps, diagrams, transcripts, were printed in A4 format (the standard format used at the ICC) and fixed with magnets onto mobile magnetic panels. This first act of spatial organization, common among researchers, artists or exhibition curators, was unprecedented in the context of a trial, where documents are presented to the court in a successive, non-spatialized manner. This form of presentation provides a set of comparisons and visual connections, which emerge through a process of rapprochement or montage. Leibovici and Seroussi also applied to the documents a system of colour codes and keywords from the transcripts of the trial, parallel to that of the book bogoro3. This time, it was less about proposing an interpretation of the available documents than about highlighting a certain amount of existing information and making visible links that could not otherwise have been identified.
“one can immediately tell, explains Leibovici, whether a protagonist in the trial is at the centre of a network or on its periphery, whether he is isolated or very well connected. the role of certain figures, considered marginal in some accounts, can suddenly be reconsidered. in our case, the role played by medecine-men in the chains of command immediately came to the fore. katanga also appeared in a new position, that of a coordinator between different chains of command, at the intersection of militias and medecine-men, in a dual position of vassalage and power, which does not appear when one follows the testimony in a linear way”.
From artistic installation to legal tool?
With the help of a mediator, who is responsible for presenting the mechanism, visitors to the exhibition are invited to identify the links and manipulate the documents to propose their own combinations and assemblies. By “going round in circles” between the documents, each person, with their “professional vision” and their own conceptual tools, forms particular connections and composes an alternative reading of the facts, likely to modify the “weight” of evidence that might have been judged during the trial. Once again, Leibovici and Seroussi are not seeking to re-enact the Katanga/Ngudjolo trial in order to reach a different conclusion from that of the judges. But by inviting visitors to perform the work of linking the documents, establishing the facts, indexing them, analysing them and integrating them into a judgment, they make them perceptible and understandable. Tools are also proposed to broaden the possible interpretations and, perhaps, the criteria for the legal credibility of documents (see also their installation “a rashomon effect” (2018), which gathers, for each fact, the antagonistic versions of the different witnesses. The starting point is thus no longer the credibility of witnesses as a basis for assessing their statements, but conversely, the isolation or corroboration of their statements with other witnesses). The negative connotation of the term muzungu is thus reversed: roaming through the documents is no longer a sign of wandering and confusion, but a method of investigation which, through meanderings and detours, becomes productive via serendipity. The challenge is then to make this method acceptable to ICC lawyers, so that muzungu is not reduced to the production of alternative narratives, never to be taken any further.
How do we shift from an interactive experience within an art exhibition space to the legal context? This question disrupts the way both art centres and the court usually operate. While so-called participatory works have become increasingly familiar and popular in exhibition venues, fostering close relationships with “the public”, these works call attention to the conditions for exhibiting standard works. Because this type of installation is often time-consuming for the visitor: those who decide to immerse themselves in the mass of work presented would find it hard to spend less than 20 minutes doing so. For this reason, according to Leibovici, the presence of a mediator is essential in order to avoid the installation being perceived as an assemblage of visual artefacts to be contemplated rather than as a discursive tool. However, few institutions are willing to pay a full-time person to accompany a single work, let alone as part of a group exhibition. Leibovici has sometimes had to forgo his fees, or mediate the muzungu himself.
As far as the ICC is concerned, it is more a question of influencing the court’s legal standards, by inviting lawyers to integrate the methodological possibilities offered by muzungu. Before installing it directly in the Court’s own professional spaces, for the benefit of its employees, Leibovici and Seroussi took advantage of the various exhibitions to invite researchers, lawyers and ICC members to try out their system. Members of the team of judges of the Pre-trial Chamber, of the Trial Chamber and the defence team were thus able to experiment with new gestures and approaches in relation to documents with which they had already been confronted during the trial. Some of their compositions were presented at the nGbK exhibition in Berlin. David Hooper, Germain Katanga’s English lawyer, and Katanga himself, have expressed a desire to reprocess the documents using muzungu. The British director of a documentary on Hooper and the defence lawyers in international courts of justice has asked to use the installation as a visual support for their account of the trial.
Finally, muzungu was presented as part of the exhibition Juger – Créer, at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris in November 2018, to mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of the ICC. Organized by the French Ministry of Justice, the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, the Institut des Hautes Études sur la Justice, and the École nationale de la magistrature under the watchful eye of the ICC, and bringing together various artists and researchers, the exhibition allowed muzungu to circulate in academic and legal networks, including that of the court itself. The latter has recognized an added advantage in the context of its awareness-raising and public relations missions. In order to enhance awareness of its activities and functioning, the ICC makes public all transcripts and evidence of its trials, but this does not make them any more readable or understandable. The layperson is faced with a series of obstacles: the complexity of the legal language or the mass of documents to be apprehended. muzungu is therefore a valuable mediation tool in the eyes of the court and could provide another entry point into the world of international justice.
Publicize, protect: a history of pixels
The International Criminal Court’s outreach and mediation missions are not only hampered by the complexity of the practices and materials that must be made accessible to a wide range of communities: local populations, victims, NGOs, journalists, the general public… They also face witness protection requirements, which involve scrambling or expurgating certain information. This obviously has a significant impact on the images produced by the trials, which has certainly affected Seroussi and especially Leibovici. The latter was particularly interested in pixelization techniques to render the witnesses’ faces unrecognizable. The degree of image pixelation is determined according to legal standards to resolve the tension between the security of witnesses, the evaluation of testimony and the publicity of trials. These standards are therefore not neutral, they evolve and are negotiated by experts subject to legal, ethical and political imperatives.
How can the tensions inherent in the material of these images, and which condition their production, reception and circulation in the world of international justice be made palpable? Based on the idea of a visual rapprochement between pixels and stained glass windows (where light plays a central role), Franck Leibovici took advantage of an invitation to show his work in autumn 2018 at the art centre La Chaufferie in Strasbourg to work with a master glassmaker on three monumental stained glass windows, reproducing the blurred faces of three witnesses from the Katanga/Ngudjolo trial video recordings. More than forty different types of tinted glass were used for each stained glass window (whereas a standard stained glass window uses an average of 5 colours), with the aim of reproducing as accurately as possible the colour variations of digital pixels. The light filtered by the stained glass windows is reflected onto the floor of the exhibition space, the faces reappearing in a third form, blurred and evanescent, and splashes of colour are projected onto the visitors and the other works presented in the exhibition.
Looking at the photographs of the work, one may wonder whether, despite its beauty, it doesn’t reproduce a form of violence against the bodies – black bodies – represented in the images: the violence of war, but also the violence of the judicial institution which, even when its purpose is to make reparations, has people moved to a country with a system and procedures that are foreign to them and which can only recall the colonial legacy. The blurred faces say one thing: to testify is to expose oneself to danger, to risk one’s life and that of one’s loved ones. A few hundred pixels seem to offer very little protection against this danger. By exposing the images again and magnifying them, are we not symbolically prolonging the violence conducted on these bodies? For Franck Leibovici, symbolic violence is found elsewhere: “producing pixelated stained glass windows of witnesses raises the question of the visual identity of an institution such as the icc. they emphasize the contradictory mission of the court, without ever concealing the burden of violence that the court’s actions convey or entail”.
The monumentality of the stained glass windows, by accentuating the abstract nature of the reproduced images, invites us to move away from a representative or narrative approach and focus on the image-making process. For Franck Leibovici, it is indeed a question of revealing elements that are otherwise invisible, by visually and spatially materializing both technical and legal procedures. It is based on the notion of “rendering”, developed by the North American sociologist Michael Lynch. By studying scientists working at nanoscale, who developed the strange practice of nano-sculptures, Lynch realized that the manufacture of art objects allows scientists to raise questions in a situated manner, questions that they would not otherwise have asked themselves, and to generate new data. Rendering is therefore not only a representation, but also a reactive process that brings out questions or properties that are not visible before testing. For Leibovici, any work of art can function as a rendering: a way of asking (oneself) questions differently, and making them sensitive to different audiences. The stained glass windows presented in Strasbourg could thus make visible and readable the tensions between publicising and anonymising the work of international justice, and the technological, legal and cultural implications contained in each pixel, each glass tile. The work thus re-enacts the double function associated with stained glass art in the Middle Ages: narrative and sumptuary, and therefore legitimizing.
The work of art as an encoding system
The exhibition at La Chaufferie also allowed Franck Leibovici to experiment with producing another series of “renderings”, in a very different visual register. At first glance, we think we are dealing with an installation of current contemporary art, composed of a set of small wooden sculptures placed on the floor, decorated with strings, wires and bright colours – an aesthetic repertoire that can evoke that of Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Togo, for example. As we move closer, we notice facsimiles of what appear to be official letters, stamped with various acronyms and logos and covered with large engraved red wax seals. We now understand the function of the wooden sculptures: they are the stamps of a model that is larger than life but functional. An old stenotype machine, pieces of red wax and a stove on which is placed a small saucepan filled with a molten wax residue, complete the picture. On the wall, a coloured hand-drawn map. It attempts to represent the evolution of the various militias involved in the conflict in Ituri, whose names, acronyms, uniforms, alliances and oppositions have constantly fluctuated over the months, hindering the court’s work. The documents reproduced on the ground are letters exchanged by these militias that were part of the evidence. Instead of helping judges authenticate documents and obtain a stable representation of the power relationships and chains of command, the stamps affixed to these letters only added to the confusion: their official appearance sometimes poorly concealed their artisanal character and the very relative legitimacy of the people who used them.
By collecting, indexing and fixing the stamps, it is possible to study and compare these ephemeral yet essential objects. By giving shape, weight and purpose to these objects, Leibovici therefore allows otherwise opaque and elusive elements to be grasped and handled. The production process of the work has raised unexpected questions, which in turn have brought to light certain facts. Thus, some stamps are the mark of mergers or dissent between militias, which is not perceptible in their design. Leibovici therefore had the idea of using wooden handles to encode information that would otherwise be invisible. The handles that are sculpted or carved on a lathe are associated with official stamps, while the others, which are rougher in appearance and whittled with a knife, carry the stamps of more informal groups. Combining the halves of two different handles indicates a merger between two militias. The colour codes used are based on those of the evidence presented side by side in the muzungu installation. The work thus helps to create a system of tools that respond to and complement each other.
A case to follow…
In Leibovici’s work, art objects are never an end in themselves. They make it possible to temporarily stabilize the representation of a public problem and make it understandable. They are prototypes, tools, loaded with different layers of information and utility, that operate within an ecosystem of practices and representations to which they contribute by fostering the emergence of new audiences. In the case of law intensity conflict, the research he has been conducting since 2014 with Seroussi, each work develops an investigative mechanism to mediate or propose a possible resolution to a problem encountered during the Katanga/Ngudjolo trial. Their purpose is twofold: to enable various audiences to understand the work of an international justice system that is still in the making, and to transform the practices of its actors. To this end, Leibovici and Seroussi plan to make the exhibition scheduled in the ICC itself, in Spring 2020, a permanent “Medialab”, combining installations and workshops: a set of tools made available to or built with lawyers, which can also be used to raise awareness among the public and the various communities concerned by the ICC’s missions. That such a tool, both conceptual and pragmatic, can find its place within the ICC is evidence of the potential effects of art on institutions, and an inspiring model for acting, from the starting point of art, on society.
Translation by Angela Kent
Cover: franck leibovici, 11 stamps rebuilt, 2018. “vitraux & tampons – une histoire du pixel”, la chaufferie, strasbourg, 2018. bronze, wood, acrylic paint.