How Miami’s Museum of Art and Design Censored Forensic Architecture and Retreated From Social Justice

When I was working on my proposal for a Forensic Architecture exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design (MOAD) at Miami Dade College (MDC), news headlines were awash with the horrors of the Trump administration’s immigration policy and the normalization of disinformation in public discourse. A 40-minute drive south of MOAD, the Homestead Child Migrant Detention Center stood as the reification of both illiberal practices. Children were detained in unsanitary conditions, allegedly without adequate medical care, subject to sexual abuse, and exposed to toxins as well as damaging decibels of noise from the surrounding airbase.  Much about Homestead was obfuscated, and still today it is unclear what will happen to the children who were taken from their parents and then deemed “unaccompanied.” Other facts were well-established. For one, the prolonged detention of children seeking safety violates the Flores Agreement. The profit motive is even more troubling. Trump’s family separation policy was proposed by John Kelly when he served as Secretary of Homeland Security. He continued to advocate the policy as chief of staff and then financially gained from it by joining the board of Caliburn International shortly after the company received a $341 million no-bid government contract to operate Homestead as a for-profit temporary influx shelter. 

Forensic Architecture was no stranger to investigating detention centers, nor to investigating board members who profit from violence toward asylum seekers. Its contribution to the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Triple-Chaser (produced with Praxis Films), presented evidence that the Whitney Museum’s then vice chairman was in the business of manufacturing munitions used against immigrants and civilian protesters. As with investigatory artist projects such as Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics and Nan Goldin’s PAIN Sackler direct actions, Triple-Chaser reminded viewers of an important duality. Museums are often embroiled in unscrupulous systems of patronage. Concurrently, they are potent spaces for publicizing, examining, and protesting injustice.

Video still from Triple-Chaser (2019); during the process of training a “computer vision” classifier, bounding boxes and “masks” tell the classifier where in the image the Triple-Chaser grenade exists (image by Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films).

It occurred to me that while child welfare services, state inspectors, journalists, and activists were denied complete access to Homestead, Forensic Architecture’s mode of “counter-forensics” demonstrates that it is possible to peer inside nonetheless. Defined as a civil practice that turns the forensic gaze against state perpetrators of violence, counter-forensics often involves community collaborators and employs cultural forums to expose culpability along with the very ways culpability can be obscured. I also understood that displaying Forensic Architecture’s investigations, techniques, and theoretical principles would turn MOAD’s galleries into forums for accountability. The public programming would need to correspond. Therefore, I proposed dedicating the exhibition’s discursive and pedagogical events to supporting research and presenting evidence of human right violations at Homestead. My proposal was approved by the museum director, Rina Carvajal, and became the basis for an ill-fated collaboration with Forensic Architecture on its first United States survey exhibition, Forensic Architecture: True to Scale.

Video still from Triple-Chaser (2019); we asked activists around the world to find, and film, examples of the Triple Chaser grenade. We used photogrammetry to turn those images into a precise 3D model (image by Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films).

From the beginning, the Homestead project required significant but achievable divergence from normative museum operations. In addition to inviting guest speakers, we were forming a coalition. Besides hosting lectures, we would provide practical training on investigatory techniques and facilitate further evidence gathering and presentation. Beyond marketing the exhibition, we were drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis at and within our borders. Initially, the reorientation of our work seemed more like the natural fulfillment of MOAD’s mission than the intolerable threat to the institution’s power structure that it turned out to be. At the time, the museum’s mission statement professed: “art and design can change our communities and the world … MOAD strives to be a catalyst for action and a place that empowers people to rethink and remake their city.” With this project, there would be evidence that we meant what we said.

And indeed, there is ample evidence of the museum’s commitment to the Homestead investigation as well as our progress working with Forensic Architecture and program participants to lay the groundwork. We planned on finalizing logistics during Forensic Architecture Director Eyal Weizman’s trip to Miami. We would then visit the detention center and coordinate next steps with all of our partners. But two days before Weizman was to board his flight, Homeland Security revoked his visa-waiver.

Less concerned with Weizman’s denied entry than with my comments on it to the press, the museum director and MDC’s director of cultural affairs Natalia Crujeiras (who previously oversaw content for the propaganda broadcast Radio and TV Martí) called a meeting with MDC’s director of communications Juan Mendieta. He was particularly concerned in light of what he said was “grumblings from the board.” Board members appointed by Trump sycophant and anti-immigration hardliner Governor Ron DeSantis had recently filled a power vacuum left when the long-term college president announced his retirement in February 2019. The mere presumption of their disapproval was becoming a curatorial consideration. The museum director vocally fretted that the two previous projects I organized (Navild and Sosa: Black Power Naps/Siestas Negras and Paul Ramírez Jonas: Alternative Facts) might inspire them to cut our budget. She often said that we needed to include more Cuban exiles in our programing to placate one member in particular, who proposed turning MOAD into another Cuba museum

Mendieta told me not to discuss Weizman’s visa because it would add to an impression that the entire exhibition was critical of the Trump administration. I argued that True to Scale was about fact-finding, not partisan politics. I explained that an investigation of a US drone strike in Pakistan took place under the Obama administration, one of a racially motivated police shooting in Chicago occurred under a Democratic mayor, and that, per the director’s request, an interactive model of the site where Venezuelan security forces killed anti-Maduro rebels would be on view as well. They requested material pertaining to those works and adjourned so I could complete the install.

Video still from Triple-Chaser (2019); Rendering images of our model against bold, generic patterns, known as ‘decontextualised images’, improves the classifier’s ability to identify the grenade (image by Forensic Architecture/Praxis Films).

A misalignment emerged. True to Scale approached human rights as both a subject to discuss and the object of our professed principles, that which we would actually defend and meaningfully advance. The institution understood it as an indexical term that could swivel between two antithetical dispositions: woke to the left-leaning art community and anti-socialist to the power brokers of Miami. Just like MDC’s self-generated tagline, “Democracy’s college,” it served as ambidextrous virtue signaling to fundamentally conflicting stakeholders. The museum mouthed the words of social justice but with the realization that those words would preface consequences, it began to choke.

On February 19th, Forensic Architecture team member Dr. Ines Weizman inaugurated the exhibition by reading her husband Eyal’s statement announcing the launch of the Homestead investigation. MOAD began disavowing and suppressing the investigation the very next morning. Their argument began ad hominem. The director told Weizman that I had been acting “rogue” and “without authorization.” Explicit mention of our intention throughout a successful $120,000 Knight Foundation grant application, correspondence with the dean of visual arts on an internship to create augmented reality visualizations of the facility, the press release, a promotional video … reams of documents prove the contrary. The next argument deployed circular reasoning. It was impossible to approve a project that was not “fully-finalized.” To be fully-finalized, it had to assume “a neutral position” regarding Homestead. Ergo, approval was contingent on formally resubmitting a proposal for programming that did not investigate Homestead. 

Neutrality, of course, is not a non-position. It is a tacit endorsement of the status quo. In art history, the neutrality of institutions is both what Institutional Critique has long disproven and the pretext first used to censor art work rooted in this critique. Recall how the Guggenheim Museum excluded a pair of Hans Haacke’s investigatory works from a proposed 1971 retrospective because it “violates the supreme neutrality of the work of art and therefore no longer merits the protection of the museum.” Then as now, the act of censorship exposes precisely what these museums try to conceal: their own complicity.

According to Cuban dissident artist Tania Bruguera, the “suggestion” was Cuba’s first form of censorship. Similarly (and ironically), we can trace MOAD’s erasure of the Homestead investigation to a suggestion the director of cultural affairs made in October 2019. Since True to Scale “has controversial elements in our current political environment,” she wrote, “it is in our best interest to find a way to include some exploration about Cuba and Venezuela to generate a balance.” In December, the suggestion intensified into being “of outmost [sic] importance” and was reframed as a desire, “to include/represent the countries of origin of Miami’s majority immigrant community.” But wasn’t Homestead already checking that box? By exclude/othering the predominantly Latinx child detainees from consideration, the suggestion policed our discourse with the same immigration biases through which ICE polices US borders. Nevertheless, I developed programming to satisfy that problematic category. However, in February when the suggestion became a directive to remove all practical applications of Forensic Architecture’s techniques, achieve “balance” through a “diversity of opinions,” “divorce ourselves from the concept of investigating,” and use Latin American and Caribbean content to “divert attention from Homestead,” I could not capitulate.

My gag order grew to encompass all inquiries related to True to Scale. Reference to the Homestead investigation disappeared from our website despite Forensic Architecture’s strong objection. All marketing campaigns ceased until resubmitted through a new approval process whereby they were swiftly rejected. The marketing manager, Nicole Martinez, was wrongly accused of insubordination and resigned in exasperation. I was berated about the budget although nothing about it was amiss. With punitive implications, an exhibition I had been working on for a year was canceled along with our plans to make simple, inexpensive finishing touches to the True to Scale installation, such as re-painting a wall. Curatorial Assistant Gladys Hernando’s contract was prematurely terminated shortly after the director reprimanded her for expressing distress over the sudden hostility toward me.

Installation view of the Study Center within Forensic Architecture: True to Scale at the Museum of Art and Design, MDC, curated by Sophie Landres (courtesy Gladys Hernando)

Barred from further coordination with Homestead participants, I attended a mandatory MDC “Professional Development Day” event on the day I would have visited Homestead. It opened with the acting president boasting of “better inroads with the governor’s office” and “a new level of respect from the state government.” Two days later, I was sent a drastically gutted, “approved” version of our new proposal, which both Forensic Architecture and I found unacceptable. Tellingly, an edit to a panel description inaccurately added Cuba to the US State Department’s 2020 list of Latin American countries where Russia launched disinformation campaigns. That simply was not true.

The pandemic caused the museum to close before Forensic Architecture and I had a chance to respond. Working remotely, I drafted proposals to salvage parts of the project through virtual programming. Instead, MOAD reallocated the Knight grant funds to produce Dora Garcia’s nostalgic I Remember Miami homage to the city’s sun-bleached past. They described it as a “gesture of solidarity.” Then, although MOAD was set to reopen before True to Scale would close, I was placed on leave until my contract expired and was made aware that it would not be renewed. Yesterday (February 23, 2021), the Miami Herald reported that the Biden administration plans to reopen the detention center, now renamed the “Biscayne Influx Care Facility.”

Museums are rarely in a position to obstruct human rights investigations, but MOAD is not the only institution that censors art, castigates employees, and holds allegiance to political operatives that do far worse. Nor is it the only one whose Instagram grandstanding and social justice buzzwords are a form of misinformation. A current trend in political philosophy is to reclassify authoritarianism less as a regime type than as a practice that subsists in democratic countries and autocracies alike. Manipulating information to sabotage accountability is its defining attribute.  Producing knowledge to pursue accountability is “counter-forensics.” We need more of the latter in our museums because when we put this type of work on view, it looks right back at us.

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