The Aesthetics of Borders

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.