media, information, the contemporary

Objects as Exhibits: Performance of the Forensic

This is the fourth and final research note from Pallavi Paul, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.

“Things are what we encounter, ideas are what we project.” ~ Leo Stein (A-B-C of Aesthetics, p44)

In his work the The Theory of Things, Bill Brown asks us to turn our attention towards the distinction between ‘Objects’ and ‘Things’. The difference between the two Brown argues, lies in the threshold between the “nameable and unnameable, the figurable and unfigurable, the identifiable and unidentifiable[i].” In other words the relationship between the two is characterized by constant tension and possibility. According to Brown, something is an object when it’s address to the human subject and the world around it is concrete i.e. a car, a stove, a table. The moment these objects stop working and their use value runs out i.e. the car breaks down, the stove stops, the table breaks- we are confronted with the ‘thingness” of an object. He notes, “You could imagine things, as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization or their mere utilization as objects-their force as a sensuous or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems[ii].”

If seen in relationship to Brown’s ideas the career of digital objects begins to appear more attractive. In his tripartite model for defining digital objects Kenneth Thibodeau notes that digital objects are constituted of the ‘physical’ dimension i.e. the device and form in which it exists for instance a magnetic tape or a camcorder. They also exist as ‘logical’ objects   i.e. via the systems of code they deploy e g. software or the manner in which data files are organised and finally digital objects exist   as conceptual objects i.e. in its encounter with the lived world and its implications on everyday life e g. as a photograph or a piece of music. By making the conceptual dimension an integral part of the digital object, Thibodeau is able to account for what Brown would call the ‘thingness’ of these objects. Further, if one were to preserve a digital object it is important to retrieve all its physical, logical and conceptual dimensions[iii]. The question of not only the hardware and software, but also the conditions under which the data was produced and circulated become the very basis on which the digitality of an object can be established and verified. It is in the context of what Brown terms as “the threshold” between use and interpretation, that I seek to open out the ways in which digital objects are reimagined to exceed their use value as just DVDs, video/ audio files, surveillance cameras etcetera and are performed and interpreted as exhibits in judicial contexts.

Performing Video: A Case Study

A woman in her mid-twenties is seen walking into the lobby of a hotel in Delhi’s Mahipalpur area. Captured by the only CCTV camera aimed at the reception, we see her being followed by two young men. They appear to have entered together. One man and the woman, temporarily exit the frame. The second man continues standing at the reception, waiting for an attendant to arrive. He looks in the direction of the woman and the first man and looks away. After a few minutes, the woman re-enters the frame (unaccompanied), walks around the reception and sits on a sofa. We see her in profile. She does not seem visibly agitated, however her face is not clearly visible. Both the men remain absent from the frame for the next five minutes. They walk across the reception and exit from the other side. Soon, the woman follows them. The footage at no point shows the three people talking to any one else or addressing each other. This entire action plays out over twenty minutes of video . Through the duration of the clip we see some waiters in the reception area and no other customers are visible[iv].

The footage of them leaving the hotel is not available. The contents of this video became the key evidence in a case filed by this woman against these two men.

In her complaint the woman alleged that the two men had been stalking her for a few months prior to the incident. A confrontation followed in which she turned down their advances. Angered by this, the accused kidnapped her from outside her office, assaulted her in their car, threatened her to keep quiet and took her to a hotel. Here she was taken to a room and molested. The next morning, she was taken out of the hotel and released on the condition that she would not relate this incident to anyone, else her entire family would be harmed. On seeing injury marks on her body, the woman’s family took her to a Police Station and a complaint was registered against the two men.

In the absence of any eye witnesses , the video recording of the moments just preceding the incident became extremely significant. In an interview conducted at his chamber in Dwarka Court, Mr. Naresh Sharma, the defense lawyer in the case said, “We only had this video to conclusively prove our case. Even if the faces and details are not clearly visible, the body language is very telling”[v]. He further added, “whenever we present a photo, video or sound in court we always start by asking both parties whether they themselves attest the veracity of the material. In case both parties attest their own presence in the video/photo, the material is taken as being forensically sound. “ Even though such instances are extremely rare , just a certification under 65B of the Evidence Act is enough to produce the material as evidence in court.

This case became fascinating, because neither the woman nor the men denied being in the video. This shifted the attention of the court from the physical integrity of the video to its ‘narrative’. The case would be argued on not how the video had been recorded or whether the people in it could be identified, but rather, interpreting what was happening in the frame.

In a twenty three page judgment Additional Session’s judge Mr. Virender Bhatt noted , “During the cross examination of the prosecutrix, the CD filed alongwith Charge Sheet was played on the laptop arranged by the Inquiry Officer. After viewing the CD, the prosecutrix deposed that it contains the CCTV recording of the camera fitted inside and at the gate of the hotel, to which she was taken by the accused . She admitted that she is seen alongwith the accused and his friend in the hotel[vi].”

If seen carefully, there is hardly anything that the video tells us about the incident. In the absence of sound, clear visuals, close ups or continuous action – the only portrait of the crime scene seems sketchy at best. Firmly in the domain of pure interpretation, this visual ‘proof’ begins to collapse upon itself. The men could or could not have threatened the woman, she could have had injury marks on her body and there could have been a conversation between them off camera. What is an adequate performance of fear? How does one enact or betray intimidation on camera? How suspiciously does a kidnapper have to behave to look suspicious enough in a video recording? How does one’s way of walking and standing testify to events that have occurred prior to being captured in pictures?

Further, it is this internally unstable image that becomes a sounding board for versions of the incident also emerging from human witnesses. Both the defense and the prosecution’s arguments were constructed around the assumptions of the video, without questioning the premise of its claim on the ‘real’ version of events. The prosecution lawyer in the case Mrs. Tejinder Kaur noted, “Our plea was simple, that in these twenty minutes perhaps the girl seems unperturbed, but what about the time for which there is no recording?[vii]” The statements of the waiters and hotel attendants too were taken in order to prove the suggestions of the video. This becomes obvious when one compares the noting of the judge in this case to the statement of a waiter who had seen the woman and the two men enter the hotel. In his statement before the court the waiter said, “ The girl appeared to be in a happy mood and was moving around freely and talking to persons present there.” Echoing this almost verbatim Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhatt notes, “A look at the contents of the CD, which has been annexed alongwith the Charge Sheet and which was played to the prosecutrix during her cross examination, shows that the prosecutrix was in a happy mood in the company of the accused inside the hotel and also while entering the main gate of the hotel. At no point of time she seems to be under any pressure or threat[viii].”

Disregarding any possibility of an affective complexity, the video image is taken to be an enactment of the interpretation of human witnesses and the judge alike. In their work on cognition and forensics Dror and Cole note, “that forensic science, as a practice, has historically dismissed cognitive bias by conceptualizing it as an ethical issue, to be overcome by moral discipline, rather than as an inherent cognitive issue, to be managed by bias-minimizing actions[ix].” In the current judicial climate to concede then , that the forensic object is an “object of opinion” is akin to making an accusation of prejudice and bias against a judge, lawyer or an investigating officer. If dealt with as a disciplinary challenge rather than a moral lapse, the ‘aura’ of the forensic object can be dismantled not to exclude digital and physical traces from the investigation process, rather locate it as a shifting vector in a force field of possibilities. To recognize it as an interpretation at the outset, invents the forensic object as a sensate ‘thing’ as opposed to a frigid ‘object’ waiting to be decoded/used.



[i] Brown,B. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1, Things. (Autumn, 2001), pp. 1-22.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Kirschenbaum discusses Thibodeau’s argument in the introduction of Mechanisms (2008)

Kirschenbaum, M. (2008). Mechanisms. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press pp. 3

[iv],. 2014. ‘State Vs . Pankaj Kumar, On 30 April, 2014’.

[v] Sharma, Naresh. 2015. State Vs. Pankaj Kumar Case Pallavi Paul Interview by . In person. Dwarka Court.

[vi],. 2014. ‘State Vs . Pankaj Kumar, On 30 April, 2014’.

[vii] Kaur, Tejinder. 2015. State Vs. Pankaj Kumar Case Pallavi Paul Interview by . In person. Dwarka Court.

[viii],. 2014. ‘State Vs . Pankaj Kumar, On 30 April, 2014’.

[ix] Dror, I. E., and S. A. Cole. 2010. ‘The Vision In “Blind” Justice: Expert Perception, Judgment, And Visual Cognition In Forensic Pattern Recognition’. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 17 (2): 161-167. doi:10.3758/pbr.17.2.161.