Since 2011, Forensic Oceanography -a project initiated within the Forensic Architecture agency- has critically investigated the militarised border regime imposed by European states across the EU’s maritime frontier, analysing the political, spatial and aesthetic conditions that have turned the waters of the Mediterranean Sea into a deadly liquid for the illegalised migrants seeking to cross it.
By combining human testimonies with the traces left across the digital sensorium of the sea (radars, satellite imagery and vessel tracking systems), Forensic Oceanography has mobilised surveillance means ‘against the grain’ to contest both the violence of borders and the aesthetic regime on which it is founded. If the violence of European borders relies on particular conditions of (dis)appearance, (in)audibility, and (in)visibility, struggling for migrants’ rights means also challenging the boundaries of what can be seen and heard.
At Short Theatre 2020, Forensic Oceanography presents 4 investigations undertaken over the last nine years, each of which engages with a particular mode of border violence. The installation consists of: 4 video works, one for each investigation; a timeline situating the investigations within the fluctuating patterns of border control and (non-)assistance at sea, and showing the latter’s dramatic consequences for the lives of migrants; and an archive of research materials, containing Forensic Oceanography’s reports as well as video interviews that served as the basis of research. Overall, the installation seeks to unravel the shifting aesthetic regime operating at the Mediterranean frontier, dwelling on the ethical dilemmas and political challenges of representing violence.
On Monday 7 September at 7:30 pm, Short Theatre will host the meeting Immagini alla deriva for the opening of Liquid Violence by Forensic Oceanography with Lorenzo Pezzani, Annalisa Camilli, Françoise Vergès, Elsa Dorlin, Angelica Pesarini and online: Camilla Hawthorne. Free entry with reservations required on Eventbrite. For info see OHT / Little Fun Palace program.
Forensic Oceanography, Liquid Traces – The Left-to-die Boat Case (2014)
In March 2011, 72 passengers left the Libyan coast heading in the direction of Italy on board a small rubber boat at the time of NATO’s military intervention in Libya. Despite several distress signals relaying their location, as well as repeated interactions with at least one military helicopter and a military ship, they were left to drift for 14 days. As a result of the inaction of all state actors involved, only nine of the passengers survived. By combining their testimonies with wind and sea-current data as well as satellite imagery, Forensic Oceanography reconstructed the liquid traces of this event, producing a report that served as the basis of several legal complaints.
project team Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani, Richard Limeburner, Samaneh Moafi, Rossana Padeletti
produced within the frame of Forensic Architecture with the support of the House of World Cultures (HKW)
Forensic Oceanography, Death by Rescue – The EU’s Lethal Policies of Non-assistance (2016)
The “Death by Rescue” investigation focuses on two shipwrecks that occurred on the 12 and 18 April 2015. Both took place at the moment of attempted rescue by commercial ships, and led to the loss of more than 1200 lives combined. Starting from the reconstruction of these cases, but mobilising as well a forensics of policies, Forensic Oceanography demonstrates that by terminating the “humanitarian and security” Mare Nostrum operation, Italy and the EU enacted a policy of non-assistance through which they knowingly created a lethal rescue gap that made these shipwrecks inevitable.
project team Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani, Richard Limeburner, Sabine Llewellyn, Samaneh Moafi, Rossana Padeletti, Laure Vermeersch
produced within the ESRC funded Precarious Trajectories research project with the support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, The Crime of Rescue – The Iuventa Case (2018)
On 2 August, the ship Iuventa of the German NGO JugendRettet (‘Youth Rescue’) was seized by the Italian judiciary under suspicion of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” and collusion with smugglers. This counter-investigation refutes the authorities’ accusations. While the latter operate by decontextualizing factual elements and recombining them into a spurious chain of events, this analysis attempts instead to cross-reference all elements of evidence into a coherent spatio-temporal model. This investigation has been part of the legal defence of JugendRettet. The Iuventa remains to this day under custody of the Italian police in the port of Trapani, Sicily.
project team Forensic Oceanography Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani, Rossana Padaletti, Richard Limeburner
project Team Forensic Architecture Nathan Su, Christina Varvia, Eyal Weizman, Grace Quah
produced with the support of Borderline Europe, the WatchTheMed platform and Transmediale
Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture, Mare Clausum – The Sea Watch vs Libyan Coast Guard Case (2018)
On the 6 November 2017, the NGO Sea Watch and the Libyan coast guard were involved in a confrontation after both were requested to rescue a boat carrying more than 130 migrants. Sea Watch managed to recover 59 people who were brought to Italy, while 47 passengers were violently pulled-back to Libya, where several were subjected to grave human rights violations. At least 20 passengers died before and during the rescue. This investigation offers a striking illustration of the lethal outcomes of Italy and the EU’s policy of externalisation of border control. It is has served as the basis for a legal complaint against Italy submitted to the European Court of Human Rights.
project team Forensic Oceanography Charles Heller, Lorenzo Pezzani, Rossana Padeletti
project team Forensic Architecture Stefan Laxness, Stefanos Levidis, Grace Quah, Nathan Su, Samaneh Moafi, Christina Varvia, Eyal Weizman
produced with the support of the WatchTheMed platform, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Republic and Canton of Geneva
Charles Heller (Swiss, 1981) is a researcher and filmmaker whose work has a long-standing focus on the politics of migration. In 2015, he completed a Ph.D. in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a research fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
Lorenzo Pezzani (Italian, 1982) 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 together since 2011, Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani co-founded the Forensic Oceanography project, that critically investigates the militarized border regime and the politics of migration in the Mediterranean Sea. Their collaborative work has generated human rights reports, academic articles as well as videos that have been exhibited internationally.
Liquid Violence, Forensic Oceanography (2020)
© Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture. Film still Mare Clausum – The Sea Watch vs Libyan Coast Guard Case, 2018, 28 min
Notes on Short Theatre 2020
What else is your work about, besides what is already told in the synopsis?
While most of our work focuses on the violence of borders, it would not exist without the incredible courage of those who refuse them and decide to cross the sea, as well as those who act in solidarity with them. This work is also about them and the world they allow us to imagine.
Who or what—real or imaginary, present, past or future—do you think contributed to the creation of this work?
Smartphones have become a symbol of global migrations. They are part of what have been called “mobile commons”: all those tools, practical knowledge and organisational tactics employed by migrants to overcome the limitations imposed on their mobility. They have also become symbols of a new regime of documentation and evidence production, allowing to counter official state and corporate narratives and challenge the tyranny of their truth.
What do you imagine you will say about this work in fifteen years time? Would you ever have imagined making such work fifteen years ago?
I hope there will be a day when we will be able to look back at the death of migrants in the Mediterranean as a thing of the past but I fear this will not be in fifteen years time. Since migrants started to die in the Mediterranean more than 30 years ago, many have denounced what was happening at sea. Yet our project emerged specifically in the wake of the so-called Arab uprisings and the demands they carried with them. I could not have imagined this work without that moment of rupture.