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ADS4: Legal Fictions

Phoebe Walton

I am a London based designer with an interest in performance and narrative. For the past two years I have been taught within ADS4; here I have developed a critical design approach, using architectural tools to probe complex social issues and propose speculative alternatives. Over both years, my work has examined the role of fiction as a powerful communicative tool that shapes collective attitudes and behaviours. I have developed a practice which utilises performance and popular narratives to engage the public with complex, often intangible issues, such as the climate crisis, artificial intelligence and legal systems. 


Before joining the RCA, I completed a BA in Architecture at the University of Cambridge and went on to work in an architecture practice for two years. Last summer, I undertook a design research residency at Heat Island. My project, PWSMPF1 (Phoebe Walton’s Speculative Modelling for Potential Futures version 1), examined the role of narrative, prophesies, determinism and graphical language within climate model systems. 


Post RCA, I plan to continue developing a narrative based critical practice, working with performance, models, installation and animation. 

Degree Details

School of Architecture

ADS4: Legal Fictions

Law is a continual performance. Legal systems are human made constructs that establish collective values, to govern and control society. We perform these systems daily, following their rules and logic. Through this constant performance, law appears objective, fixed and factual - illusions that maintain the system’s power and hierarchies. Courtrooms are the epicentre of this charade, whereby legal structures are promoted through procedure and performance, with rituals and symbolism exerting the laws authority, both over the case in hand and the system at large. This is amplified through the recent media presence of courtroom trials - with the US televising real cases, and the popularity of fictional legal dramas. These pop culture trials frame the common perception of law, demonstrating an idealistic, biased representation of the legal system. 


In 1932, the legal realist philosopher Jerome Frank asked ‘Are Judges Human?’ - considering their claims to objectivity within the courtroom. However, what would happen if judges really were not human, but instead Artificial Intelligences? 


Law is considered a natural sector for AI, with the growing industry of Law Tech already capitalising on this potential. Considering a future where the legal system is maintained by AI, courtroom trials will no longer be necessary, decisions will be made instantaneously through algorithms, the mechanisms of law will be invisible, and the subjective biases acknowledged, but hidden. So, the performance of law will have to remain, to foster trust and validation with the system.


Left, a portrait of me according to StyleGan2 AI. Considering a world where AI is given increasing authority - destabilising our anthropocentric certainty. 

The Title Credits — A never ending legal drama, for a future where judges are no longer human

James v Birnmann, a never ending legal drama, is situated in a future where law is controlled and maintained by AI. It acts as a sinister mixture of entertainment and social pacifier, for a legal system increasingly detached from human control. As purely symbolic vestiture, the performance is untied from the functioning of the legal system. Following in a common law tradition, the ur legal trial is based on precedent of past ‘real’ trials and ‘fictional’ legal dramas - it is an amalgamation of our perception of law. 


Supreme court pop stage set
'Overruled!' - a pop catchphrase
Rehearsal room at 5.13am
Markings of the OJ trial
The entrance hallway - between performance and reality
Atrium - architecture performing the scale of the law
The screen room - site of surveillance
Asleep in the prop room
Props for a legal drama - ginger beer, snails, flags, blue moving sculpture
The constantly growing prop room
Pan up the courthouse facade
Courthouse square - a collection of facades and symbols
Performing the OJ car chase at sunset
Recreating an iconic moment for the popular perception of law

The never ending performance is a ground hog day style re-running - with small changes and iterations happening continuously. The infrastructure needed to support the show is immense. It requires a whole world - of backlot, stage set, and supporting spaces - where the boundary between what is and is not performance space is blurred. Where actors, crew, cleaners, visitors, are absorbed in this continual performance of law.


The overtly symbolic architecture participates in the charade. It is a site of spectatorship, for viewing the collage of legal iconography - security gates, flags, legalese, legal drama tropes - a synthesis of pop culture and authoritarianism. The vast scale and the surreal implications of its relentless re-running suggest the lengths we will go to, to sustain the performance of law and protect the authority of the legal system. 


Motion capture of actor 1504 - miscellaneous legal poses
Screen test of actor 2034, woman fifties white - miscellaneous characters
StyleGan2's Courtroom Sketch
1 James v Birnmann script by AI GPT-2

Whilst the public can visit the never ending performance of James v Birnmann, most only access it through television, on a twenty four hour channel of its own. However, this performance is mediated by animation - the spaces, its actors and the drama are transferred into the animated landscape, which makes explicit the representational, symbolic nature of the performance. 


This follows in the tradition of western courts, where the public may access a trial through being a physical audience member and via the courtroom sketch. Live action representation is avoided for its misplaced sense of objectivism and consequential biased understanding of the legal system. Through training the AI StyleGan2 on hundreds of courtroom sketches, it produces its own versions - a familiar iconography of the vague, fictional representations of the courtroom. 


The AI GPT-2, trained on legal transcripts and prompted by legal dramas, wrote the ur legal drama - 1 James v Birnmann. The script is a synthesis of legal cases; akin to legalese, its meaning is indiscernible to most, yet it holds a familiar authority.

Corridors for walking and talking
A view framing the city

The script is combined with recognisable tropes from legal dramas, creating a performance that is a hyperbolic symbol of law. Throughout legal dramas, corridors are important places for lawyers to hold urgent conversations whilst walking - their inability to stand still demonstrating the fast paced nature of law. A warehouse of corridors enables the endless walking and talking shots.


Rooms have windows that frame a city - signifying the laws status and relationship with wider society. To facilitate this, windows surround a scaled model of New York, that reconfigures and condenses the city.


Set of a UK courtroom
Set of a US courtroom
Set of an Icelandic Althing
Set of an Azande Benge ceremony

There is a long tradition of promoting the law through courtroom procedure and performance, using language, costumes, props, choreography and architectural stage sets. From Azande Benge ceremonies, which entrust the poison oracle and chick, to the Medieval Icelandic Althing ceremony, held on the ‘Law Rock’, to the familiar scenography of modern western courtrooms. Whilst these sets vary, expressing their respective legal systems and cultural customs, each utilises a similar framework of performance. 


Magistrates data centre - a new legal typology
Architectural symbolism amplified

The increasing use of AI within western legal systems is seen in the growing industry of Law Tech in the US, with state courts devolving decisions such as sentencing and bail to these private technology companies. Within this algorithmic legal decision making, biases - usually along racial and socioeconomic lines - propagate unchecked.


Considering a future where the legal system is maintained by AI - the performance of law in courtroom trials will no longer be necessary. Whilst detached from the functioning of the legal system, this form of symbolic representation will have to remain, to foster trust and validation with the system. 


Courthouses will be replaced by data centres. With a public presence and claims to transparency, these new legal typologies will demonstrate the huge quantities of precedent data and processing power used to maintain the legal system.


Symbolism will be amplified - architectural forms will be used to reinforce the authority of the AI legal system, with AI, in this case StyleGan2, producing its own versions - trained on precedent data. 

Restaging OJ v The People - side bar shot
Extracting the camera angle - side bar shot
Restaging OJ v The People - witness close up
Extracting the camera angle - witness close up
Restaging OJ v The People - the gloves
Extracting the camera angle - the gloves
OJ v The People - harvesting the camera angles
OJ v The People - harvesting the camera angles
OJ v The People - harvesting choreography
Legal drama tropes data harvesting
OJ v The People; Burks v The United States; Donoghue v Stevenson data harvesting

James v Birnmann, the ur legal trial, is based on the history of legal precedent, following in a common law tradition, as well as tropes from legal dramas. Mirroring the AI legal system, precedent data from both these real and fictional cases are harvested.


For designing this drama, notable cases are studied. The OJ - Simpson trial is significant for its relationship to the media and popular perception of law. Key moments of the trial have been restaged, from the hundreds of hours of television footage. Such as the shot of OJ as he tries the gloves on, facing the jury in the courtroom, and the public jury at home - who witness the crucial moment of the gloves not fitting. The camera angles and choreography are extracted for these key sequences. 


Cases that go to court, rather than being settled outside of the courtroom, are predominately contentious and quite surreal - as such, James v Birnmann is too. In the 1932 English Case of Donoghue v Stevenson, May Donoghue fell ill after drinking a bottle of ginger beer with a decomposing snail in it. The supreme court ruling lay the foundation for the modern law on tort.