• Sink Without Trace

Meet Forensic Oceanography

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

How long have you making work on the subject of migrant deaths at sea, and why did you start making work on this subject?

The Forensic Oceanography project was born in 2011 in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Uprisings, and in a sense could be understood as a response to the new demands of accountability for the death of migrants at sea that was brought about by that revolutionary impetus. What happened in 2011 was a reopening of the Mediterranean frontier by migrants, who seized the power vacuum left by the overthrowing of the Ben Ali and Gaddafi regimes. In Tunisia, migrants who took the sea started to be seen less of traitors of the state (as they had largely been portrayed by Ben Ali’s regime) and more and more as those who reclaimed another right which had been taken away from them by the dictatorship, guided by European states: the right to move. As several of those boats went missing, a very interesting movement developed to demand justice for the disappeared at sea. At the same time, crossings from Libya took place in particularly precarious circumstances, and several hundred deaths were recorded in just a few months over 2011. These deaths, however, were occurring in a sea which had been turned into the most surveilled maritime space on earth by the NATO- led military intervention that was taking place at the time and which had deployed more than 38 warships off the Libyan coast. As the human rights NGO GISTI argued in a press release, military actors could not not know and were thus guilty of failing to assist people in distress at sea. The NGO announced it would file suit against the EU, Frontex, and NATO and our project started to support that endeavour, which then resulted in the Left-to-die boat case investigation which is exhibited in the show.

Why did you choose to use the medium that you have in relation to the subject?

Out of the left-to-die boat investigation, we produced both a human rights report as well as the video exhibited here (“Liquid Traces”). The video came out of the desire to make our research available to the broadest possible public by giving it a form other than a 100-page report. Thinking of aesthetic strategies, video seemed to allow us to provide an answer to a question that we had since the very beginning of the project and that we had not fully been able to answer through the report: how do we combine the view from the boat with the view from the sky? Satellite imagery, one of the main technological means of documentation that we used, is often criticized for reproducing, through a technologically mediated vision, a highly asymmetrical power relation in which an objectifying analysis ends up silencing victims of violence. In this video, we wanted to find a way to combine this kind of distant vision of events, which was crucial in our quest for accountability, with the lived, subjective experiences of the migrants on the boat. As we produced the video, another important dimension of the film emerged for us. Several authors have argued that, in our analyses of borders, we have to move beyond their spatial dimension, to include their temporal dimension as well, as it allows us to become attuned to how illegalised migrants’ movements are accelerated and decelerated throughout their trajectories of inclusive exclusion rather than complete exclusion by the spatial limits of borders. However, it is very difficult to account for the temporal dimension of a border regime through static maps. The moving image instead really allowed us to give a form to the temporality of migrants’ movements, and the hierarchized rhythms of the Mediterranean mobility regime. In Liquid Traces, when we saw the slow movements of the trajectory of the drifting migrants’ vessel superimposed with the pulsating movement of maritime commercial traffic through the central Mediterranean – it looks like London at rush hour – it was the first time that we felt that the argument of the differential temporalities of movement was given an adequate visual form.

Tell us about your view on the role of art, galleries and museums, in relation to the subject.

The notion of forensics mobilized in the title of our project does not allude only to the application of scientific techniques to a judicial context, as in the traditional definition of forensic science, but refers more widely to ‘the art of the forum, the practice and skill of presenting an argument before a professional, political or legal gathering’. A forum is, in this sense, any space and assembly in which legal and political claims are presented and discussed. The project does not aim thus to operate only within narrowly defined legal arenas such as tribunals but rather to foster modes of political engagement that would operate across different spaces and media. In this context, museum and galleries are particularly important because we think that “aesthetics” (understood in the terms proposed by the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere as the politics of telling speech from noise, the visible from the invisible) is central to how the border regime operates and produces violence. The border creates particular conditions of (in-)visibility, (in-)audibility and (dis-)appearance and in order to intervene in that context one needs to position carefully in relation to that. Art galleries and cultural spaces more broadly offer us a chance to reflect on those aspects.

What do you hope to achieve with your work on the subject?

Our various reports were used as evidence in the context of several judicial processes that have attempted in various forms to bring accountability for the deaths of migrants at sea. From the perspective that legal scholar Robert Knox has called “principled opportunism”, we think that filing a contentious case such as this one has undoubtedly the merit of inserting “grains of sand” into the migration regime’s mechanisms, blocking it temporarily, forcing it to change slightly. For instance, one might say that the echo that the “left-to-die case” – and other similar cases we documented at the time – had on the press has probably contributed in some way to stopping the practices of non-assistance that were prevalent at the time. However, strategic litigation has also clear limits. Some of these limits are practical – legal cases are notoriously slow. All of the suits that we filed in 2012 and afterwards are still ongoing. But the limits of strategic litigation are also more substantial. For better and worse, the whole edifice of criminal law is based on the principle of individual responsibility, which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for legal arguments to address structural causes. Even if the helicopters and the military ship that refrained from rescuing the passengers of the “left-to-die” boat were identified, and their crews found guilty, it would be utterly unrealistic to think that this might challenge the foundations of the border regime, as the responsible individuals would probably be singled out as “bad apples”. Our attempt has always been to use singular events as a prism through which we can unpack and challenge more systemic forces, in particular how European migration policies create the conditions in which these events -which are not simply accidents- are bound to happen. But clearly the aim of holding states accountable for the deaths of migrants at sea is very far from being achieved. In that sense, for me what is perhaps the most important outcome of our work has been its capacity to contribute to the vast migrant solidarity movement. Together with many others, we introduced not only a new methodology, a new vocabulary for documenting and contesting the violence of the border regime, but we also contributed to creating a new awareness, as more and more groups fighting for migrants’ rights have started to use technologies such as vessel tracking and mapping to exercise a critical “right to look” at sea. Making these techniques available to the larger movement was precisely what spurred us to create the WatchTheMed platform in 2012, in the wake of the “left-to-die-case”. This then led to the establishment of the Alarm Phone, an emergency phone line for migrants and refugee in distress at sea, when a vast network of activists seized some of the methodologies that we had developed towards a different but equally important political tradition, which is that of direct support to unauthorized mobility.

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