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Art and poetry are serving sociologist Julien Séroussi and his friend, artist and poet Franck Leibovici to understand and explain the detailed research and jurisdiction for a trial at ICC in The Hague.

In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague hosted the trial of Germain Katanga1 and Mathieu Ngudjolo2, both charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during an attack against the Bogoro village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as part of the ongoing civil war still affecting the country to this day. This was the first trial ever held at the ICC: the Court was officially set up in 2002, following the signature of the Rome Statute by 120 States3. This treaty is the ICC’s guiding legal instrument, setting its rules and standards. However, on a daily basis and especially during trials, the Court must compose with the disparate legal practices of the signatory countries, embodied by the judges, prosecutors and other actors – including witnesses and defendants. Their heterogeneous relationship to justice, in its formal manifestations or in its political, ethical and moral implications, forces the court to continuously reset the presupposed principles and effects of law and invent adequate vocabularies and methodologies. Thus the “universal” jurisdiction of the ICC requires many operations of translation and interpretation that go far beyond the mere question of language.

A researcher in social sciences, Julien Séroussi joined the ICC to work as an assistant to one of the judges on the Katanga / Ngudjolo trial. Using the tools of sociology, his tacit mission was to help reduce the “multiple legal, political, geographical and cultural distances separating the ICC’s judges from the perpetrators, victims and witnesses they have to judge; (…) and the site where the law is produced (The Hague) from the site where the crimes were produced, in far-off countries usually little-known by the Court’s legal practitioners”4. Julien Séroussi often discussed the complexities of this task with his friend, artist and poet Franck Leibovici, whose work is based on the invention of devices that process complex sets of documents in order to produce alternative representations of public issues. After the conclusion of the trial in 2014, Séroussi and Leibovici decided to join forces on re-examining the multiple documents produced over its course, such as pieces of evidence (available upon written request) or hearings transcripts (made publicly available on the ICC’s website, almost in real time): they were convinced that the instruments of art and poetry, by allowing “unexpected gestures” to appear in the “initial terrain” (the court), would help better apprehend the fragmented reality accessible from the hearings and produce useful tools for future trials. They submitted the idea to the ICC, who encouraged their endeavor.

In 2014, I invited Leibovici and Séroussi to introduce their working process (then in its early stages) during a workshop at Witte de With center for contemporary art (Rotterdam)5. Analyzing a series of documents presented as evidence during the trial, they emphasized the many obstacles, or “distances”, faced by the judges and other participants. Notions of space, age and family relations, for instance, were understood quite differently by the judges and by the witnesses, and often didn’t conform to the Western criteria that seemed implicit to the Court. One of the most striking example concerned the chains of command the Court tried to establish in order to determine levels of responsibility in the crimes considered: the judges did not foresee that medecine-men and fetishes would play such an important role alongside the military and the politicians, nor did they expect that witnesses would refuse to testify for fear of the fetishes, whose power easily bypass the mere human protections offered by the court. But these obstacles were not just cultural, and the judges (a Frenchman, a Malian and a Belgian) did their best to avoid Western-centric, overbearing positions and interpretations, inevitably without always succeeding – the very concept and structure of the ICC are indeed grounded in a Western conception of justice. They were also technical: the apparatus of the court, its interpretation, translation and recording devices, its language and spatial codes also produced a series of glitches that obfuscated the work of the law.

And yet it is precisely because of these obstacles that the trial became a stage for the invention of a new international legal language, and a material for Séroussi and Leibovici’s experiment – which started with the elaboration of maps displaying the numerous possible connections between actors, facts and pieces of evidence6. Indeed, the thousands of transcripts available online bear witness to these hesitations, deviations and rehearsals. In 2016, Leibovici and Séroussi published a book, bogoro7, including a body of transcripts that were selected according to four criteria: testimonies of the attack over the village itself; excerpts highlighting the distance between the legal practitioners and witnesses, featuring, as Leibovici specifies, “thick descriptions, qualified as such by anthropologists because they reveal hidden social mechanisms”8; moments when legal procedures had to be invented or explicated; and the recurring intrusion of technological glitches. An index of tags, or keywords, allows for a transversal reading of the transcripts, and emphasizes the plasticity of words (“militia”, “enemy”…), which gain new meanings over the course of the hearings. They also reveal the heterogeneous elements forming the realities represented in the trial, how they are composed and can be, subsequently, re-composed or edited.

Visitors are invited to actively engage in this process of editing in another iteration of the project, muzungu, an exhibition showcased for the first time at the contemporary art center Bunker Sztuki (Krakow) in 2016, and subject to evolve in the future. There, all pieces of evidence (administrative documents, pictures, diagrams, transcripts) were printed on A4 paper (the format used by the ICC) and displayed with magnets on a wall. Color-coding and keywords were used to highlight pieces of information that were left aside during the trial. Visitors could suggest new configurations and connections between the different documents, which did bring up, according to Leibovici, unexpected narratives and relations. Images played an important role in that process. Indeed, as a legal practitioner herself admitted, judges and prosecutors are not trained to read images, unlike curators, artists or exhibition visitors, who applied their own fields of expertise to the documents, thus giving way to alternative readings. Another crucial aspect was the constant presence of a mediator, who ensured that the documents were not contemplated as aesthetical artifacts but understood as discursive tools to be activated and confronted with each other. The exhibition thus allowed anyone to reach an understanding of a mass of materials that would have otherwise remained opaque, even if publicly accessible.

The book and the exhibition were presented to an audience of art professionals and ICC employees during a conference in October 20169, thus effectively returning to the realm of law and bridging different audiences. Before addressing the impact of the project on various audience circles and the potential uses it suggests, it seems important to clarify a crucial point. One can’t avoid raising ethical questions when first encountering Leibovici and Séroussi’s project: after all, their work is based on materials describing terrible events and crimes, the consequences of which still affect many lives in DRC and elsewhere. They point out themselves that the absurd character of some of the exchanges between judges, prosecutors and witnesses could even appear disturbingly humorous. However, they make it very clear that this work is not about the situation being judged, but about the production of law through technical apparatuses and language operations. The workshops, talks, book, exhibitions, etc, are meant to exercize a “forensic practice of writing”, which contaminates the initial lingua franca (law) with other vocabularies and approaches.  By inviting different audience circles with various agendas to re-perform a series of operations and gestures over the materials produced by the trial, the project generates a common space where alternative forms of knowledge can be produced, circulated and activated.

Such a collaboration between a sociologist and an artist, as well as with the multiple actors and methodologies at play in the trial, is rooted in a definition of art that is neither driven by the “solarium model”, as Franck Leibovici ironically puts it (the artist “gets tanned by a [historical or political] topic” that inspires his work); nor fits the categories of “activist” or “socially-engaged” art. Rather, it is an oeuvre-enquête (an “inquiry-artwork”): various operations of redescription and translation are performed in order to exploit potentialities and invent tools that could operate within the initial situation (the court) as well as with other audiences produced by the various manifestations of the project. “Thus”, Leibovici states, “if we manage to change the content of the definition of an “artwork” or of the word “poetry”, thanks to new instruments and new collectives, we have a chance of producing an effect and have consequences over the institution.”10


Virginie Bobin is head of programs at Villa Vassilieff, Parijs


1 Alleged commander of the “Forces de résistance patriotique en Ituri” militia.

2 Alleged commander of another militia, the “Front nationaliste intégrationniste”.

3 This notably excludes China, Israel, Russia and the United States, who did not join the international effort to investigate and try individuals charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Only citizens from the signatory States can be tried by the ICC. In 2016, several African countries threatened to withdraw from the ICC, thus weakening its margin of action and credibility.

4 Quoted from a public conversation between Franck Leibovici and Julien Séroussi at Fondation Ricard (Paris), April 28, 2016. A recording (in French) can be listened to here:

5 In the manner of late US artist Mark Lombardi’s infamous network-drawings documenting financial and political frauds.

6 bogoro, Questions Théoriques, Paris, 2016. An English version of the book is in the making.

7 Quoted from a conversation with the author, forthcoming in the French social sciences review Ecritures, 2017.

8 Public conversation between Franck Leibovici and Julien Séroussi in the seminar Art and Democracy organized by Council on Oct. 23, 2016 during the International Contemporary Art Fair at Grand Palais (Paris). See: Leibovici gave another talk at the Gulbenkian Foundation the same month. Listen to the recording (in French) here:

9 Franck Leibovici, “Sur quoi opère l’art”, interview with Cristelle Terroni, in La Vie des idées, Oct. 14, 2016. Translated by the author. Original interview available in French here: and another talk at the Gulbenkian Foundation the same month. Listen to the recording (in French) here:

10 Franck Leibovici, “Sur quoi opère l’art”, interview with Cristelle Terroni, in La Vie des idées, Oct. 14, 2016. Translated by the author. Original interview available in French here:

Virginie Bobin

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