The Sea as Paradigm

The Floating Laboratory of Action and Theory at Sea (FLOATS) held its first open meeting on the Greek island of Lesvos in July, with the objective of exploring the practices and theories of utopias at sea. The full index for PoLAR’s conference report is here.

Chain of events in the “left-to-die” boat case as reconstructed for the Forensic Oceanography report.

By Lorenzo Pezzani

Since 2011, the Forensic Oceanography project which I co-founded with Charles Heller has critically investigated the militarised border regime imposed by European states across the Mediterranean Sea, analysing the political, spatial and aesthetic conditions that have led to large-scale deaths of migrants over the last 30 years. In keeping with the FLOATS conference’s invitation to embrace the sea as a simultaneously utopian and dystopian space, Forensic Oceanography attempts to redirect the light shed by the border surveillance apparatus back towards the lethal effects of bordering, thus contributing to the many forms of migrants’ rights activism that have taken the Mediterranean Sea as a central terrain of struggle. In doing so, the project has also attempted to rethink the sea as a crucial laboratory for the reorganisation of territory on a global scale.

Far from being a homogeneous and lawless expanse, the sea is crisscrossed by a multiplicity of jurisdictions and legal regimes, as revealed by migrants traversing the Mediterranean. At sea, the moment of border crossing is expanded into a process that can last several days and extends across an uneven and heterogeneous territory that sits outside the exclusive reach of any single polity. As soon as a migrants’ boat starts navigating, it passes through the various jurisdictional regimes that carve up the Mediterranean (from the various areas defined in the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea to Search and Rescue regions, from ecological and archaeological protection zones to areas of maritime surveillance). At the same time, it is caught between a multiplicity of legal regimes that depend on the juridical status applied to those onboard and on many other factors. These overlaps, conflicts of delimitation, and differing interpretations, however, are not a malfunction but rather a structural characteristic of the maritime border. Here, it is not the absence of law, but rather the proliferation and spatial entanglement of different legal regimes that produces violence on a large scale. For instance, the strategic mobilization of the notion of “rescue” has in several occasions allowed coastal states to justify police operations in the high seas for which they would otherwise have little legal ground. Conversely, European states have referred to different interpretations of the Search and Rescue convention to deny assistance to migrants in distress at sea, often with tragic consequences.

These examples show how maritime zones should not be understood as exceptional spaces that are radically opposed to state-like territoriality, but rather as paradigmatic of various legal and political spatial formations that we commonly associate with firm land. It is in the early modern period, when control of the world’s oceans became “a fundamental part of European empire building” (Manke 1999) and the bases for the contemporary juridical-political architecture of the sea started to be laid, that the sea became “a privileged arena within the global order”. (Benton 2005) Historians of empire have effectively shown how transoceanic trade and colonization fostered the proliferation of differential zones of variegated sovereignty and disenfranchisement that were not, however, temporary aberrations from an ideal standard of territoriality, soon to be eliminated under the overarching jurisdiction of accepted international norms (as, for instance, conventional narratives of the maritime origins of international law claim), but were rather integral to empire. This is what made of the sea not a deviation from the sovereign norm, but rather one of its crucial models. As Lauren Benton has effectively put it, “international norms take shape not at Westphalia but at the edges of the Indian Ocean.” (Benton 2005)

The vision of the sea as a laboratory of modern political spaces continues to have enduring relevance for understanding and assessing the production of political space in today’s world, which as many have noted is characterized by the proliferation of “a broad range of partial, often highly specialised, global assemblages of bits of territory, authority, and rights that begin to escape the grip of national institutional frames”(Sassen 2008). As such, the deeply uneven legal and political geography of the sea continues to offer a privileged vantage point for the study of the political spaces in which we live.

lorenzo_pezzaniLorenzo Pezzani is an architect and researcher. In 2015, he completed a Ph.D. in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is currently Lecturer and leads the MA studio in Forensic Architecture. His work deals with the spatial politics and visual cultures of migration, with a particular focus on the geography of the ocean.

Working with Charles Heller since 2011, Pezzani co-founded Forensic Oceanography, a collaborative project that has developed innovative methodologies to document the conditions that lead to migrants’ deaths at sea. They also launched the WatchTheMed platform, a tool enabling nongovernmental actors to exercise a critical right to look at the EU’s maritime frontier. They have authored a number of human rights reports, including the “Report on the Left-to-Die Boat” (2012); the “Death by Rescue” (2016) report; and the “Blaming the Rescuers” (2017) report, all of which have had a major impact both within the fields of migration and border studies, nongovernmental politics and the public sphere. Based on their empirical analysis, they have lectured internationally and generated a number of theoretically innovative articles published in several edited volumes and published articles in a number of international journals such as Cultural Studies, Postcolonial Studies, the Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, ACME, Spheres, Global Media and Communication, Philosophy of Photography, New Geographies and the Harvard Design Magazine. Their videos “Liquid Traces” (2014) and “Death by Rescue” (2016) and “Mare Clausum” (2018) have been exhibited internationally, including at the HKW, the Venice Biennale, the MACBA and the MOMA and the ICA.

Works Cited

Benton, Lauren. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

—. ‘Legal Spaces of Empire: Piracy and the Origins of Ocean Regionalism’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 47, no. 04 (2005): 700–724.

Mancke, Elizabeth. ‘Early Modern Expansion And The Politicization Of Oceanic Space*’. Geographical Review 89, no. 2 (21 April 1999): 225–36.

Sassen, Saskia. ‘Neither Global nor National: Novel Assemblages of Territory, Authority and Rights’. Ethics & Global Politics 1, no. 0 (1 January 2008).

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