Mapping Forensic Temporalities

Cate Morley

Figure 1: Here is a link to the interactive platform.

For my critique I’ve chosen to engage with an interactive, web-based map of humanitarian forensic intervention in the Balkans after the genocide of Bosniak Muslims by Serbian military forces in the 1990s. Created by Open Society Archive (OSA)—an archival research laboratory centered on documenting international human rights violation, and committed to experimenting with new ways of presenting and contextualizing documents (fig. 1)—it provides geolocation markers for each of the mass graves that have been exhumed. Photographs and hand-drawn or computer-generated site maps help visualize various aspects of the exhumation process in the left-hand window, alongside summary information and dates of deposition and discovery. This map makes an important intervention, transforming over 130 of the official reports produced by the various forensic teams operating in the region in the wake of the genocide into an easily navigable and public map. Such cartography is particularly important within the context of the Bosnian genocide, where the perpetrators exhumed and re-buried bodies in secondary and even tertiary mass graves in an act of postmortem violence intended to conceal their original crimes.

In turning a critical eye toward the temporal dimensions of this map, Rasheeda Phillips provides us with a guide. Particularly apropos to this cartographic representation of clandestine burial, she asks: “what temporal landscape does the map embody?”[1] Constructed within the limitations of Google’s “My Maps”, the platform reproduces rigid geopolitical boundaries, while its factual presentation of coordinates and dates as markers of exhumation relies on an understanding of time and space as abstract and uncontestable scales. As such, it risks reproducing common forensic archaeological tropes of buried pasts, which might reinforce the idea that atrocity is spatially bounded, and that  concrete truth can be excavated, and that the genocide was already a part of history. I am not alone in advancing such a critique. Grupa Spomenik[2]—a local collective of theorists and artists who use performative strategies to critique what they perceive as the ideological dimensions of the forensic response and reconciliation following the genocide—has argued that, by concentrating on identification, reburial and reconciliation, forensic accounts depoliticized the genocide. Conversely, they have spoken of bone fragments unyielding to DNA identification, and, therefore, sacralization and burial, as an “excessive and stubborn remainder” that materializes the very condition of possibility for a new memory politics and a true memorial of the genocide, one that resists closure.[3] Their own methods for enacting this politics have incorporate workshops and exhibits, but their predominate approach has been one of “forensic theatre,” which, quite literally, stages a “presence without representation” through an acoustic performance enacted upon a darkened and empty stage.[4] We might wonder how such an approach could could be cartographically rendered. In answering Phillip’s question, then, I posed one of my own: How might we decompose and recompose this chronology?[5]

Figure 2: A Prototype of my intervention. Here is a link to the photo that serves as the basemap.

My tentative, cartographic answer takes the form of a diagram that traces the history of the discovery and exhumation of one grave in Bosnia, discovered in the early Summer of 1996, when forensic anthropologist Margaret Cox noticed unusual clusters of Polyommatus Icarus, a native butterfly, gathered around abundant patches of Artemisia Vulgaris, or common mugwort, an early colonizer of disturbed earth, which is also a distinctive feature of recently dug graves.[6] In seeking to capture this narrative, my map superimposes vellum-traced life-cycles of the butterfly and plant, revealing their coordination in the exposure of this mass grave. 

A photograph taken by Gilles Peress of the humanitarian forensic efforts in Bosnia serves as the basemap, which not only positions us on the ground, but embeds us in the particularities of one excavation. Sarah Wagner has observed that the co-mingling of remains, as happens in mass graves, is both a violent act of disregard and poses profound practical problems for forensic efforts, complicating boundaries between what can and cannot be known and underscoring the “insufficient nature of repair”.[7] Peress’ photography renders this reality with painful clarity. But, it also captures the movement of forensic action, and, when viewed in conjunction with the other temporalities (of butterflies and mugwort) that compose this postmortem landscape, perhaps gestures towards the alternative memory politics Grupa Spomenik describes.The field, here, ceases to appear as an isolatable object or a neutral background against which human action takes place. What I hope to have captured instead, is a multi-scalar, “network of lateral relations”[8] between organic and inorganic entities. “Exploring what constitutes the background for marking and experiencing time,” as Rifkin has eloquently argued, “draws attention not only to the milieu, at whatever scale, that serves as the context for thinking and feeling time’s un-folding, but also to the taken-for-granted processes through which temporal dynamics are figured.”[9] Multiple temporalities—biological, affective, physical and geological—accrue in forensic practice. As I work toward completion of this map, I hope to bring this complexity into sharper relief: if time is experienced as labor and care for forensic scientists, it is patterned by painful and anxious waiting for the 7,000 kin of the disappeared yet-exhumed. This map will form a part of my final atlas, and contributes to my ongoing effort to cultivate a cartographic sensibility that might inform my dissertation fieldwork, helping me to remain attuned to just such temporal imbrications and political, social, and ecological complexities.

[1] Phillips, Rasheedah. “Placing Time, Timing Space: Dismantling The Master’s Map and Clock”. The Funambulist, 18: 44-45, 2018.

[2] Some of the individuals who comprise Grupa Spomenik formerly served on the International Commision on Missing Persons (ICMP), the forensic team that pioneered the use of DNA identifications in Bosnia—the state-appointed forensic team initially responsible for intervention—and resigned in protest of the ethnicization that accompanied efforts to aggregate and identify the remains.

[3] Sheikh, Sheila. “Forensic Theater: Grupa Spomenik’s Pythagorean Lecture: Mathemes of Re-Association”. In Forensis. Eyal Weizman, ed. 166-187, 2013: 179.

[4]  Sheikh, 177.

[5] My thanks to Angelica for helping me to arrive at this formulation in post-seminar discussion last week.

[6] For the backstory on Cox’s discovery see: “The Butterfly Hunter,” Independent, 18 July 2004, 19. For further elaboration on ecological indicators of clandestine burial, or “eco-witnesses” see Caccianiga, Marco, Stefania Bottacin and Cristina Cattaneo, “Vegetation Dynamics as a Tool for Detecting Clandestine Graves,” Journal of Forensic Sciences57(4), 2012: 983–8.

[7] Wagner, Sarah. “The Quandaries of Partial and Comingled Remains. Srebrenica’s Missing and Korean War Causalities Compared”. In Necropolitics. Francisco Ferrándiz & Antonius C.G.M. Robben, eds., 2015: 121.

[8] Weizman, Eyal. Forensis, 27

[9] Rifkin, Mark. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017: 11.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *