Liquid Traces: Spatial practices, aesthetics and humanitarian dilemmas at the maritime borders of the EU
This practice-based PhD critically investigates the aesthetic and spatial conditions that have turned the Mediterranean into a military-humanitarian border zone, dissecting the political anatomy of violence inflicted at and through the sea. It understands the maritime borders of the EU as a paradigmatic conflict zone in which new assemblages of power, legal arrangements and uneven patterns of mobility have emerged in relation to a vast, and yet patchy, surveillance apparatus. Contrary to the popular representation of the maritime territory as a homogeneous and empty expanse, the sea appears here as a technologically mediated space thick with events and complex relations between people, environments, and data. Recasting the notion of structural violence in aesthetic terms (i.e., as violence hidden in plain sight), this thesis further investigates documentary, humanitarian and cartographic practices that operate across this contested frontier and their role both in governmental practices of control and in migrants’ infrastructures of mobility. Part 1 (Genealogies) locates the current migration regime at sea within a longer genealogy of bordering technologies and aesthetic practices operating at sea. Part 2 (Liquid Traces) builds upon “Forensic Oceanography”, a project that I co-initiated in 2011 and which has mobilised geographic and media technologies (remote sensing, drift modelling, GIS, vessel tracking and others) to document the violence perpetrated against migrants in the Mediterranean. Here I read the maps, videos, visualisations and human right reports that I have co-produced during this project and that have been used as evidence in actual legal proceedings as attempts to challenge the regime of (in-)visibility imposed on this contested area. This thesis offers a new “cognitive mapping” of migration at sea by following my own situated encounters with the practices, policies, discourses and geographies that constitute the sea as a frontier.
Member of Roundtable Two
Directed by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, 17 min, 2014
Liquid Traces offers a synthetic reconstruction of the events concerning what is known as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which 72 passengers who left the Libyan coast heading in the direction of the island of Lampedusa on board a small rubber boat were left to drift for 14 days in NATO’s maritime surveillance area, despite several distress signals relaying their location, as well as repeated interactions, including at least one military helicopter visit and an encounter with a military ship. As a result, only 9 people survived.
In producing this reconstruction, our research has used against the grain the “sensorium of the sea” – the multiple remote sensing devises used to record and read the sea’s depth and surface. Contrary to the vision of the sea as a non-signifying space in which any event immediately dissolves into moving currents, with our investigation we demonstrated that traces are indeed left in water, and that by reading them carefully the sea itself can be turned into a witness for interrogation.
As a time-based media, the animation also gives form to the Mediterranean’s differential rhythms of mobility that have emerged through the progressive restriction of legal means of access to the EU for certain categories of people and the simultaneous acceleration of the flows of goods and capital.
This animation was first produced for the exhibition “Forensis” at the House of World Cultures, Berlin, in March 2014. It is part of the research project Forensic Architecture – funded by the European Research Council and hosted by the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.