Forensic Oceanography comes out of Forensic Architecture at the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths.

Today is the 10th an­niver­sary of the Tunesian rev­o­lu­tion. This re-opened the mar­itime bor­der with Europe, which had been closed off by the regime (a form of European bor­der ex­ter­nal­i­sa­tion). This led to a se­ries of shifts in mar­itime bor­der pol­icy.

Borders op­er­ate in an aes­thetic reg­is­ter (an Aesthetic Regime if you will), they use vis­i­bil­ity and aud­abil­ity as enc­force­ment mea­sures in ad­di­tion to the ones we usu­ally think of.

The ba­sic method­olog­i­cal move is the dis­obe­di­ent gaze. This is the idea that you seek to doc­u­ment what states are try­ing to con­ceal, and not re­veal what they want you to see. As po­lit­i­cal and aes­thetic con­di­tions change, this idea has to re-mo­bilised and re­sults in dif­fer­ent kinds of prac­tices.

The aes­thet­ics of bor­ders

Usually you tend to think of bor­ders in spa­tial and le­gal terms, rather than in aes­thetic ones. But we ar­gue that bor­ders have an im­por­tant aes­thetic di­men­sion. To con­test bor­der vi­o­lence, one has to chal­lenge aes­thetic bound­aries as well as ph­si­cal ones.

The un­der­stand­ing of aesthtics here comes from Jacques Rancière. Politics is not the ex­er­cise of power, but first re­sides in the con­fig­u­ra­tion of a space as po­lit­i­cal. The fram­ing of spaces, the de­mar­catino of speech and noise and so on. Politics can thus be char­ac­terised (in this polemic) as an aes­thetic ac­tiv­ity.

You don’t have to fol­low this idea all the way to use it in the study of bor­ders.

The aesthtic di­men­sion of bor­ders is­n’t just how they’re pre­sented in im­ages, but also the pri­mary con­di­tions of vis­i­bil­ity, aud­abil­ity they them­selves pro­duce.

[italian bor­der po­lice ther­mal im­age]

We see an over­crowded boat with cri­m­inialised mi­grants at­tempt­ing to cross the sea. Because of their cri­m­inil­las­tion by European pol­icy, mi­grants are forced to use clan­des­tine paths of travel. States try to make their move­ments vis­i­bile, de­tectable, know­able and thus gov­ern­able through imag­ing tech­nol­ogy.


This is why you see all this sens­ing ap­pa­ra­tus to de­tect threats” at the mar­itime bor­der. They’re draw­ing a line be­tween pro­duc­tive mo­bil­ity (like tourism) and threats of il­le­galised mi­gra­tion.

Images do play an im­por­tant role in the aes­thetic regime of bor­ders. Nicholas de Genova: The bor­der spec­ta­cle of mi­grant victimisation’. This is a cri­tique of the way mi­grant mo­bil­ity is spec­tac­u­larised by acts of im­age-mak­ing by states. The bor­der spec­ta­cle oc­cludes the con­di­tions that mi­grants fled in the first place, the European poli­cies that led to their sit­u­a­tion, and their fu­ture ex­ploita­tion on the eu­ro­pean labour mar­ket.

Thus strug­gles at the bor­der work by chal­leng­ing the bound­aries of what can be seen and heard.

After the 2011 Tunesian rev­o­lu­tion mi­grants seized the vac­uum in power to take a new free­dom that the regime (in co­lab­o­ra­tion with eu­rope) had de­nied them. There was me­dia cov­er­age at the time that framed these peo­ple as some­how be­tray­ing the rev­o­lu­tion, but them­selves de­scribed it as tak­ing ad­van­tage of a free­dom the re­giome had de­nied them.

This led to a change in aes­thet­ics. Instead of dur­ing the night, many cross­ings oc­cured in broad day­light, and with drum­ming and chants in­stead of si­lence.

Despite these con­di­tions, a num­ber of mi­grants died dur­ing these cross­ings. Even more who fled from Lybia, af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion there was su­pressed. We soon get the first re­ports of peo­ple dy­ing at sea de­spite a record mil­i­tary pres­ence in the Mediterranean. All of these dif­fer­ent state ac­tors were fail­ing to as­sist the mi­grants.

GISTI (a french NGO) filed a law­suit in 2011 against Nato for this fail­ing. The pro­ject fo­cused on the Left-to-die Boat case, where a boat was left to drift for two weeks de­spite re­peated in­ter­ac­tion with state ac­tors, killing most peo­ple on the boat.

As we start to in­ves­ti­gate this case us­ing Forensic Architecture tools, there was only a sin­gle im­age from a french pa­trol air­craft we could ac­cess.

States like to spec­taularise bor­der cross­ings, but here is an in­stance of these same states ren­der­ing as­pects of bor­der vi­o­lence in­vis­i­ble.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion made two moves:

  1. Understand the po­lit­i­cal ge­og­ra­phy of the Mediterraenean. It’s not a law­less area, but is in fact sat­u­rated with all kinds of com­pli­cated, over­lap­ping ju­ris­dic­tions, which al­low state ac­tors to move around re­spon­si­bil­ity as it fits them.
  2. Understand the re­mote sens­ing ap­pa­ra­tus de­ployed by states to ob­serve mi­grants, and to seize upon these tech­nolo­gies to record state vi­o­lence against mi­grants.

These moves strated the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. There were in­ter­views with sur­vivors, spa­tialised data points like the one dis­tress sig­nal the boat sent out, ocean cur­rent mod­el­ling, satel­lite im­agery (in which large ves­sels are vis­i­ble, but small mi­grant boats re­main be­low the thresh­old of de­tectabil­ity), recorded move­ments of mil­i­tary ships. All of this formed the ba­sis for mul­tu­iple le­gal cases against these states, but there haven’t yet been con­vic­tions.

Watch the MED

Watch the MED is a plat­form that tried to col­lect some of the tools we built for the mi­grant boat case. This opened a crack in the aes­thetic regime of the Mediteranean bor­der. sud­denly you start to see and col­lect some of the vi­o­lence states do so much to con­ceal.

But a se­ries of shifts in the bor­der regime chal­lenged this strat­egy of re­veal­ing vi­o­lence tho­rugh doc­u­men­ta­tion of in­fivid­ual cases.

2013 Sinking

In 2013, a mi­grant boat burned and sank a mile off the coast of Lampedusa, caus­ing a pub­lic out­cry. But un­like ear­lier cases, these deaths were no longer hid­den by European states but spec­tac­u­larised.

Lampedusa’s air­port was turned into a morgue, were me­dia and high-level European politi­cians gath­ered. They de­nounced the deaths as un­ac­cept­able, but did not chal­le­nege in any way the European pol­icy that had forced these mi­grants onto a dan­ger­ous route of pas­sage, but rather an­nounced an ex­panded prac­tice of bor­der sur­veil­lance to de­tect and ul­ti­mately de­ter mi­grants.

2015: Death by Shipwreck

This was the largest ship­wreck in Mediterraenean his­tory. More than 800 peo­ple drowned in a sin­gle in­ci­dent off the Greek coast. Unlike past in­ci­dents, this did not re­sult from prac­tices of non-as­sis­tance, but rather at the very mo­ment of at­tempted res­cue it­self. Here the boat rammed the mer­chant ship that ap­proached it in the mid­dle of the night.

Here you have an in­ci­dent that ap­peared not to in­volve a di­rect vi­o­la­tion of the law. But our analy­sis al­lowed us to form the hy­poth­e­sis that these in­ci­dents are the re­sults of a pol­icy of non-as­sis­tance at a much big­ger scale; The end of Operation Mare Nostrum pulled European as­sets back from the Lybian coast, mak­ing in­ci­dents like this one in­evitable.

We tried to re-con­nect the vi­o­lence of pol­icy with these lethal out­comes; as­pects that had been dis­con­nected in the hu­man­i­tar­ian spec­tac­u­lar­i­sa­tion of these in­ci­dents.

Baroness Anelay, the UK Foreign Minister in 2014, said in the Commons:

We do not sup­port planned search and res­cue op­er­a­tions in the Mediterranean. We be­lieve that they cre­ate an un­in­tended pull fac­tor”, en­cour­ag­ing more mi­grants to at­tempt the dan­ger­ous sea cross­ing and thereby lead­ing to more tragic and un­nec­es­sary deaths.

We showed the spa­tial re­treat of the Mare Nostrum op­er­a­tion, and its re­place­ment by Frontex. This op­er­a­tional shift led to a stag­ger­ing in­crease in mi­grant deaths at sea, as mi­grants ei­ther ran into a search and res­cue vac­u­uum, or had to be res­cued by mer­chant ships who are not built to carry out these dif­fi­cult op­er­a­tions (that’s why they end up ram­ming these mi­grant boats).

This is an ex­am­ple of us repo­si­tion­ing our­selves in re­sponse to chang­ing po­lit­i­cal and aes­thetic con­di­tions.

These twin ship­wrecks of 12 and 18 April 2015 led to an­other shift in the aes­thetic regime. Jean-Claude Juncker ad­mit­ted that it was a mis­take to bring Mare Nostrum to an end; it cost lives. We ar­gue this was not a mis­take but a care­fully planned pol­icy with a known out­come.

You’d think they’d re-im­ple­menmt Mare Nostrum, but in­stead the EU ex­panded Frontex, and launched a new anti-smug­gling op­er­a­tion. So it was left to European civil so­ci­ety to fill in the vac­cum. These peo­ple take to the sea, ans take from states their mo­nop­oly on:

Rescue NGOs pro­duce what could be crit­i­cised as a hu­man­i­tar­ian bor­der spec­ta­cle: im­ages of white sav­iours. Thats an im­por­tant crit­i­cal el­e­ment that some of these NGOs are aware of and try to mit­i­gate. But their im­pact on res­cue of mi­grants and their doc­u­men­ta­tion of bor­der vi­o­lence was fun­da­men­tal.

After a pe­riod of nor­mal­i­sa­tion of their prac­tice in 2015, res­cue NGOs came un­der at­tack. You started to see the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of res­cue NGOs, and the out­sourc­ing of bor­der pa­trol to the Lybian cost guard.

The re­sult of these poli­cies can be seen in the data: Resucues by NGOs de­crease, while in­ter­cep­tions by the Lybian coast guards in­crease at the same time. One of the NGO ships, the Iuventa, was seized by Italian po­lice based on du­bi­ous ac­cu­sa­tions. We coun­tered this with a re­port, but de­spite the ves­sel re­mains pre­vented from op­er­at­ing.

These two poli­cies are linked on an op­er­a­tional level: If the EU wanted mi­grants to be in­ter­cepted by the Lybians, they could not be in­ter­cepted by NGOs. But there was an aes­thetic di­men­sion, too: If you want the Lybians to be able to in­etr­cept, shoot, beat these mi­grants with­out re­pur­cus­sion, you have to pre­vent NGOs from doc­u­ment­ing these forms of vi­o­lence.

Outsourcing bor­der pa­trol to the Lybian coast guard al­lows European states a prac­tice of push­back by proxy, with­out Europeans ever com­ing into conatct with mi­grant bod­ies.

2017: Mare Clausum

In this con­text, Sea Watch equipped its ves­sel with sev­eral cam­eras on the mast, hel­mets, trans­form­ing the ves­sel and its crew into an au­dio­vi­sual ap­pa­ra­tus. Facing this two-pronged pres­sure, they rad­i­calised their vi­sual pol­i­tics as a re­sponse.

This makes pos­si­ble the 2017 re­port Sea Watch vs the Libyan Coastguard (or Mare Clausum). This is an in­ci­dent where 20 mi­grants died, some where brought to Libya, while some man­aged to swim to Sea Watch’s ship and were brough safely into Europe.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion led to a le­gal case at the court of European hu­man rights, which is on­go­ing.

If you look at this film, you see the mas­sive shift in aes­thet­ics from the Left-to-die case (where we only had a sin­gle im­age). We’re sud­denly in a dis­turb­ing prox­im­ity with bod­ies strug­gling for their lives. This vi­sual ma­te­r­ial is im­por­tant, but we’re wor­ried that by us­ing these high-res im­ages of white peo­ple res­cu­ing racialised mi­grants, we might be re­pro­duc­ing the imag­i­nary of in­va­sion that un­der­lies the poli­cies we’re crit­i­cis­ing. See also Georges Didi-Huberman’s cri­tique of the film Human Flow, which re­calls Walter Benjamins ar­gu­ment that crit­i­cism is the act fo cor­rect di­s­anc­ing.

We’re won­der­ing if these im­ages haven’t brought us too close to these events. You have to em­bed them in a cri­tique of im­ages of mi­gra­tion and the aes­thetic regime at sea.

You hope that the le­gal ac­tion will serve as a de­ter­rent for states to con­tinue their vi­o­lent prac­tices, but this did­n’t ma­te­ri­alise in this in­stance. Just af­ter the case was filed, Italy put in a rightwing in­te­rior min­is­ter, who fur­ther rad­i­calised the EU bor­der polic­ity and closed Italian ports to mi­grants.

Watch the Med Alarm Phone (2014)

This does­n’t in­ter­vene phys­i­cally at the fron­tier. It’s run by ac­tivists across Europe, who sup­port mi­grants call­ing from the mid­dle of the sea. People act­ing in solid­far­ity even if they’re phys­i­cally dis­tant. This has helped in a num­ber of cases, and helped to doc­u­ment a new prac­tive that emerged in 2018: Privatised push­backs.

In the Nivin in­ci­dent, a mer­chant ship is di­rected to re­turn a group of mi­grants to ly­bia against their will.

This is a case of rad­i­calised bor­der clo­sure. But a new tool also emerges: Satellite phones. Documentation of bor­der vi­o­lence is sud­denly moved into the hands of mi­grants, they do their own phop­tog­ra­phy and get it out to the world.

These suc­ces­sive shifts in bor­der pol­icy have all brought about dif­fer­ent con­di­tions of vis­i­bil­ity and aud­abil­ity. We’ve had to con­test with the am­biva­lence of our own work,too, which can run the risk re­pro­duc­ing the imag­i­nary of in­va­sion.

As the next step of the work, we aim to fo­cus no longer just on the mar­itime bor­der, but on the many other mo­ments and forms of vi­o­lence that af­fect mi­grants through­out their whole jour­ney.