Laura Poitras (previously) is the Academy Award-winning director of Citizenfour; she teamed up with the activist group Forensic Archicture (previously), whose incredible combination of data-visualization and documentary filmmaking have made them a potent force for holding war criminals and authoritarians to account: together, they created Triple Chaser, a short documentary that uses novel machine-learning techniques to document the ways in which tear gas and bullets made by companies belonging to “philanthropist” Warren Kanders have been used against civilians to suppress anti-authoritarian movements, and even to murder innocents, including children.
Kanders sat on the board of the Whitney Museum of Art, where Poitras had a one-woman show (I contributed to the program book); he is also owner of Safariland, which manufactures the ubiquitous Triple Chaser tear-gas cannisters (Kanders has resigned from the board after the production of this short film).
When Forensic Architecture was invited to contribute to the Whitney’s biennale, they teamed up with Poitras to train a machine-learning system to recognize Triple Chaser cannisters in videos captured by protesters and journalists while they were under assault by security forces. They crowdsourced samples of the Triple Chaser cannisters, then created 3D models of them and placed them on a series of backgrounds to train their classifer. The video is narrated by David Byrne.
The resulting film — which documents the production of the machine learning system and its use in identifying Triple Chaser products targeted at peaceful protesters, as well as Kanders’ complicity in crimes (including the firing of live ammunition into the Occupied Territories in a massacre that killed many civilians, including children) and his connections to the Whitney — was submitted to the Whitney for the biennale (to the Whitney’s credit, they accepted the film).
Since then, the film has been withdrawn in protest of Kanders’ presence on its board; seven other artists involved the Whitney also pulled their work.
The activism is part of a wider project to halt the laundering of rich peoples’ reputations through philanthropy, a campaign that gained steam with the publications of Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All in 2018. Early on, much of the focus was on the billionaire Sackler family, who grew richer than the Rockefellers marketing Oxycontin through their family company Purdue Pharma, whose arts donations made their names synonymous with generosity, rather than mass addiction and hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths.
Since then, the focus has widened to include the involvement of “philanthropists” in antidemocratic technology vendors, which led to the Yana Peel resigning as CEO of London’s Serpentine Gallery over her ownership stake in The NSO Group, a leading vendor of surveillance technology to brutal dictatorships (their tools are implicated in the murder and dismemberment of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi).
Now Kanders is in disgrace over his war profiteering, and there are surely more to come. You don’t become a billionaire (or even a hundred-millionaire) through ethical investing: so many of the highest-return sectors are from the oppression economy — the Gulag Wealth Fund is a really high-return index to bet on.
Forensic Architecture also created an open source tool called mtriage that can crawl YouTube to download videos matching certain keywords and dates. It extracts frames from the videos so they can be passed through a machine-learning model to highlight material for closer analysis.
The Triple Chaser–detector is also intended to plug into mtriage. The software has proven capable of flagging images showing Triple Chaser canisters that it hasn’t seen before, although the team is still working to improve its reliability.
Poitras’ film ends with new allegations against Kanders, based on evidence gathered by a researcher she brought into the collaboration with Forensic Architecture. It claims that Sierra Bullets, a subsidiary of Clarus Corporation, a public company where Kanders is executive chairman, sells bullets to IMI, a supplier to the Israeli military. The film—and subsequent research by Forensic Architecture—suggest Sierra’s ammunition may have been used against civilians in deadly incidents last year that a UN investigation concluded could have been war crimes. Sierra Bullets, Clarus Corporation, and IMI did not respond to requests for comment.