Urban Laboratory for Law’s Decoding | Amsterdam, 2019

The first manifestation of the Urban Laboratory for Law’s Decoding [Urban Lab] will take place in Amsterdam. In this context, a densely populated city with both long-establised and recently settled migrant demographics, the Urban Lab will address migratory and asylum laws. The objectives of the Urban Lab are threefold; these interwoven aims are orientated towards rendering legal practices transparent to a layman public:



1. Knowledge Distribution

There are two qualities of knowledge that the Urban Lab intends to circulate amongst its participating audience. The first concerns the role of narrative and rhetorical strategies in the courtroom; by means of role-playing, the participants are encouraged to examine the potential impact of differing modes of articulation and narrative framings. The second quality pertains to the implications of legislation and its terminology. Such knowledge will essentially equip the participants with the ability to better navigate legal frameworks. Not only will the participants gain an enriched understanding of the language and concepts of the legal field, they will also understand how to best ‘perform’ in such a territory.


The technique of role-playing creates a particular condition for learning — it is a dialectic process, whereby the participants learn from enacting and observing, in sharp contrast to the didacticism that typically characterises classroom learning.



2. Generating Visibility

Migration courts are attended only by the legal representatives of the state and the applicant. Even the applicant themselves are rarely present. As a consequence, the procedures surrounding how asylum applications are assessed is effectively concealed from public view. This not only enlarges a general lack of societal awareness on issues of migration and asylum, it further stimulates the ever-increasing sentiments of hostility and xenophobia that are becoming alarmingly dominant in the political discourse of many European countries.


The inability to bear witness to the inner-workings of such legal cases generates fertile ground for ‘social mythologies’ to arise, which see the migrant or asylum seeker rendered as a caricatured threat. The Urban Lab seeks to counter these growing tensions by providing a tangible impression of how such applications are handled, thus illuminating a nuanced, human component that is far too often trivialised or outright overlooked in popular media.



3. Humanising the legal process

The court room is a theatre that declines the name of being such, preferring to proclaim itself a site of neutrality. Nevertheless, the architecture of the court resounds of both a choreography and scenography of hierarchy. The space is, essentially, already encoded with a script — the potency of which is only further reiterated by every enactment that takes place within the court. The grammar of the lawyer’s theatricality is characterised by their necessity to convince, to compel, whereas the judge is charged with the task of interrogating.


The transcripts of legal proceedings often testify of how de-humanising such processes can prove; the subjecthood of the defendant is rarely reflected by the questions to which they are subjected. In the instance of asylum cases, the applicant is required to justify not only their presence in the country in which they have arrived, but to further justify the potential fatality of return; this scenario demands the applicant to excavate profound fear, all the while they are suspended in an obscure, uncertain bureaucratic process. Unsurprisingly, this results in prolonged distress.


How can the nature of testimony and trial be revised so as to insist on a humanised process? After providing a foundational knowledge on legal procedures, the Urban Lab hopes to eventually propose the opportunity to re-imagine these very procedures. In this vein, the Lab also wishes to draw critical focus to role and malleability of interpretation within the current structure. Court cases are always negotiated in reference to previous cases — when a judge rules a verdict, this act reiterates, augments or nuances existing laws and shall underpin future court cases. The law is as malleable as the interpretative act — a frenetic relay of influence takes place between the law. the interpretation, and the resulting verdict.