Guest post by Richard A. Vogt. Richard is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University and a sessional teacher at the Australian National University. His work focuses on European border politics as crisis, particularly in relation to the Balkan region and southeastern EU, and its externalisation into North Africa. He is on Twitter @richardvogt2019

Review of Reframing Migration: Lampedusa, Border Spectacle and Aesthetics of Subversion by Federica Mazzara (Peter Lang 2019).

The focus of Giacomo Sferlazzo’s artistic practice changed during one of his habitual visits to a landfill in Lampedusa, Italy. While he had previously been collecting found objects along the island’s shore since his childhood, in 2005 he came across a piece of a boat and a water-logged Quran. The union of these objects, remnants of failed voyages and ongoing hope, is a repeated motif that can be seen throughout Federica Mazzara’s curation of resistance art by, and about, migrants. I was first made first aware of Mazzara through the exhibition Sink Without Trace, organised with artist Maya Ramsay. The aim of this was to make present and personal migrant deaths at sea through a host of alternative artistic representations across a range of mediums. Further expressing this desire to expose the tragedies that are hidden along the Mediterranean route to Europe, this book does not disappoint in its concentration on the intersectionality of border and migrant studies. Reframing Migration: Lampedusa, Border Spectacle and Aesthetics of Subversion is the outcome of her ongoing research into artworks that challenge the border spectacle through a critique of the state-dominant view of migration.

Nicholas De Genova’s concept of border spectacle as that which creates scenes of exclusion - increasingly witnessed in Europe through the fencing of the Balkan route, or the sprawl of migrant camps – is used by Mazzara to organise four concise chapters. This is aided theoretically by Martina Tazzioli’s work on counter-mapping, central to the empowerment of migrants and their journeys that have posed a challenge to the omniscience of the state’s sovereign gaze. As the surveillance mechanisms of the state delimit and identify their target – the migrant – thereby creating the migrant as an object for it to control,  so too can the migrant in turn respond to the state with disobedience and identify new autonomous routes and form new associations. Mazzara argues that the state “script of illegalisation,” whereby it defines the migrant as the uninvited trespasser upon the nation and through which it renders the migrant invisible within a statistical mass, needs to be challenged by activist voices that write new, subversive scripts. Not only does she work with a new vocabulary of migration studies, Mazzara is determined to personalise the migrant experience itself by means of both art and rhetoric.

Reframing Migration is part treatise on the aesthetics of borders and the migrant voyage, and part catalogue of significant artistic interventions regarding migrant deaths at sea. These concern the necropolitical Lampedusa experience; whether in Ramsay’s rubbings from grave markings, Lucy Wood’s repurposed boat fragments, or Aida Silvestri’s spectral portraits. The border violence around Lampedusa is unavoidable at times, but largely has been the result of Europe’s active neglect. The events of 3 October 2013, when 368 people drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, have been pivotal in many accounts of the renewed focus on the Mediterranean route to Europe. This single shipwreck has been returned to again and again as a key moment in Lampedusa history and is well represented in this book, creating a legacy of its own; a space of exception for recent European migration. The deaths of so many migrants at this time was a real “perceptual shock” to the region, and has since been commemorated in a Day of Remembrance throughout Italy that highlights a key border hypocrisy, one that subversive art makes clear: a dead migrant is worth more than a live one. While the EU rhetoric of saving lives at sea is predominant, the militarised policies of securing the border by all means necessary and at such a high price take precedent for electoral purposes. In Zygmunt Bauman’s terms, migrant lives are wasted lives; they are treated as a superfluous population and the “friendly fire” of impersonal globalisation. Mazzara uses this trope and transfers it to the repurposed migrant waste material found along Lampedusa’s shorelines, the graveyards of boats, and the landfill dotted with forgotten evidence.

Mazzara’s focus on works that reconfigure migrant waste forms a large part of her argument against state spectacle. Accordingly, the art of recycling migrant waste as art is intended to return agency and dignity to those who are rejected as a threat. What is most important in these attempts at recapturing migrant experience, Mazzara contends, is the fact that we need to divorce the state spectacle of the border from the everyday, human experience told in individual migrant stories. Askavusa which means “bare feet”, is an art collective doing such work. This work consists of redefining the concept of Lampedusa, which currently is most well known as a beach-lined tourist destination, as rather a cemetery of boats on the way to Europe. They have compiled migrant bric a brac into a broader assemblage with their ongoing Porto M project. Prayer rugs, odd shoes, photographs, letters stitched inside clothing, toys – all of these were refuse found on the island. Picking through countless ruins such as these, the memento mori of shipwrecked lives, the many artists represented – Tamara Kametani, Dagwami Yimer, Kalliopi Lemos, Jason deClaires Taylor, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, Ai Weiwei, Isaac Julien, Broomberg & Chanarin, among those mentioned elsewhere – bolster Mazzara’s view that the aesthetics of border violence are best engaged with by rhetorical questions, not didactic answers.

Following the 3 October incident, the image of a drowned young couple embracing was made public. Further north, Larsen’s End of Dreams saw 48 sculptures hung beneath a wooden platform off the Calabrian coast. They were wrapped in such a way that they looked eerily like corpses in body bags, to be situated in the ocean long enough to acquire the algae and fungus of time, and the shrouds then repositioned within a museum space. Whilst they hung from the ceiling of the Mediterranean Sea, bathers climbed all over the wooden deck, bathing under the sun and unaware of the migrant corpses. Later - due to unexpectedly wild weather - the platform was shattered and the bodies cast adrift. Some found their way to the European coastline, covered in scratches and gouges. Most disappeared, unseen again. Like recent edited works Border Aesthetics: Concepts and Intersections and The Politics of Public Memories of Forced Migrations and Bordering in Europe, Reframing Migration is an important contribution to new ways of investigating the border’s impact on migrant bodies. The message we take from Mazzara’s analysis of such aesthetic approaches is that, beneath the waters off Lampedusa, it is not the migrants that are the threat, it is the border.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Vogt, R. (2020). Book Review: Reframing Migration: Lampedusa, Border Spectacle and Aesthetics of Subversion. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/09/book-review-1 [date]