The Figure of the Migrant

by Katrin Trüstedt

In a Palazzo in Palermo, a video installation of a moving digital map of the sea traces the disappearance of a migrant ship. With this installation, the project Forensic Oceanography makes visible what is – even from this Palazzo, facing the Mediterranean Sea – usually removed from sight.

The figure of the migrant is, according to Thomas Nail, the political figure of our time, and this century will be the century of the migrant. In his book Nail traces the long history of migration, to question the notion of the nation state – in fact historically a fairly recent idea. Understood as a stable and organic, self-reproducing and self-sustaining whole, this notion tends to cast migrants as abnormalities and exceptions.[1] Instead, the figure of the migrant, the stateless, and the refugee should be seen as the defining figures for our time, as writers from Hannah Arendt[2] to Thomas Nail have suggested. With much more climate change migration to be expected, this figure can only become more crucial. While appearing quite prominently in political discourse as a problem, the migrant has remained in many other ways still unseen. It is this peculiar status of the figure of the migrant that “Forensic Oceanography” highlights in Palermo, as both excluded and included in European politics and discourse.

Europe itself is a hybrid form, both much older than the historically young notion of a nation state, and much younger [3] – younger as institutionalized in terms the European Union, founded after the atrocities of the second world war, in order to overcome the lethal legacies of the nation state and to overcome the unholy “trinity of people-territory-state” (Hannah Arendt). The long history of European migration goes back to the mythical origin of Europe itself, as embodied in the figure of Europa. The mythical figure Europa, abducted by Zeus who appeared in the form of a bull, and taken to Crete, originally stemmed from Phoenicia, a region on the Mediterranean coast of today’s Lebanon and Syria. According to this myth of migration and alterity, Europa lent her “alien” name to the place of her involuntary exile. Ovid’s Metamorphoses has the myth of Europa end in the midst of the sea, in movement, with the figure of Europe migrating towards the land that will have been called after her. The figure of Europa inscribes such a decentered and excentric position into the very name of Europe.

In today’s political discourse in Europe, the figure of the migrant seems to systematically occupy a position of ex-ception – of being included as being excluded (Agamben) – and as a symptom of externalization. Processes of “externalization” generally depend on giving something “outward form”, as the OED has it (“To make external; to embody in outward form; to give or attribute external existence to; to treat as consisting in externals)”[4], and at the same time thereby make it possible to disassociate ourselves from this externalized entity. The OED’s definition thus highlights the dynamic of externalization as involving both exclusion (“To make external”) and inclusion (“to embody”, to give something recognizable “form”).

In his book Around us, the deluge: The externalization society and its cost the German sociologist Stephan Lessenich claims externalization to function as an organizing principle of the contemporary Western world order.[5] European social life, as he shows, rests on certain costs – financial, social, environmental or otherwise – being unaccounted for and shifted elsewhere: out of sight and onto others. European waste, including nuclear waste, and the environmental costs of the goods to be consumed in Europe are exported to Africa. Together with the externalization of violence, by way of the export of weapons, deals with dictators, or proxy wars, these costs continually create conditions for migration. Externalization in this  sense is thus one of the main causes for migration to Europe. Our externalization society, however, seems to be unable to face up to its own dependencies and contradictions. Therefore, it excludes and externalizes migrants on yet another, this time discursive, level, banning their existence in the language that is used to keep them separate, while keeping migration as a main political topic closely present: as something that is to be excluded and reduced.

Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees thus seem to take on the role to confront Europeans with what they cannot just not know: their responsibility as a society of externalization. And because the migrants inadvertently seem to give such responsibility a face, when this responsibility is being rejected, attacked, repressed, or expelled, they usually are, too. There seems to be a partial, abstract and indirect awareness of the systematic exploitation that drives migration. But having this half-knowledge does mostly not lead to a conscious acknowledgement of our role, but rather to the rejection of knowledge and responsibility by rejecting migrants and refugees that appear to embody and personify it, in a self-reinforcing vicious circle.

Externalization thus suggests a connection between embodiment and exclusion, giving (outward) form and removing from sight. In psychoanalytic discourse, such projections of internal content onto other people both to get rid of it and to keep it close in order to be able to distinguish oneself from it go hand in hand.[6] The political reaction to the self-generated migration seems mainly to consist in the reiteration of exclusion and externalization. The EU has increasingly externalized the responsibility for migrant ships in the Mediterranean Sea.[7] By delegating the responsibility to Libyan and other northern African authorities who are funded to intercept and rescue migrants before they reach European shores, the responsibility for dealing with migration from Africa is externalized. What was once the responsibility of Mare Nostrum – literally: our Sea – is delegated to the countries from which the ships of migrants depart. Various political agents in the European Union try to make migration – which is at least partly the result of the externalization of social costs of our modes of production and life – the worry and concern of those bearing the costs. At the same time, while the figure of the migrant is kept present, it is singled out mainly as something that is to be contained and rejected.

The three-part installation Liquid Violence from the collective Forensic Oceanography visualizes the systematic externalization of the figure of the migrant. Liquid Traces (2014) traces the fatal trajectory of one “left-to-die-boat”. The migrants’ vessel left the port of Tripoli on March 27, 2011 with seventy-two migrants on board. Due to NATO’s enforcement of an arms embargo in the central Mediterranean Sea as part of the military operations in Libya, at that time this was the most highly surveilled section of sea in the entire world. After the migrants placed a distress call by a satellite phone, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome signaled the boat’s distress and position to all vessels in the area, and alerted Malta Maritime Rescue Coordination Center and NATO Headquarters allied command in Naples. Although evidently inspected by an aircraft, helicopters, and a military ship approaching them in circles, and in spite of clearly being on NATO’s surveillance radar, the boat in distress was left to die. On 28 March, after having probably entered the Maltese Search and Rescue area, the vessel ran out of fuel and began to drift back until April 10 when it landed southeast of Tripoli. Eleven of the seventy-two migrants were still alive; two died shortly thereafter.

We see a map of the moving militarized border regime in the Mediterranean Sea and witness a display of the complex conditions that have provoked thousands of deaths recorded at European maritime borders. The fluid map is based on various technologies such as satellite imagery, ship location data, geospatial mapping, and drift models. Through a voice-over we follow how the responsibility to rescue the migrant ship is externalized form one agent to the other. By showing what is unseen within the regime of visibility imposed by the surveillance tools, the video highlights the precarious relation of an imperative of visibility on the one hand and the invisibility of the deaths in its center on the other.

Mare Clausum (2018), another part of the installation, traces the effects of Italy and the EU’s policy of externalized refoulment and the violence exercised by the Libyan Coast Guard on their behalf. A confrontational rescue operation of a migrant boat on November 6, 2017, involving rescue NGO Sea Watch and the Libyan Coast Guard, left at least 20 people died, while 47 passengers were ultimately pulled back to Libya where several faced grave human rights violations. The confrontation was based on policy agreements with and support for the Libyan Coast Guard by Italy and the EU. In this way, a militia-infiltrated Libyan Coast Guard has been made to operate what Forensic Oceanography calls refoulment by proxy on behalf of Italy and the EU.

Liquid Violence exhibits the intricate relation of making visible and invisible. Highlighting migration in this way, Forensic Oceanography intervenes in the discourse on that border area, countering the imaginary notion of a stable state with stable borders with the complexities of the Mediterranean Sea. Rather than focusing on the land, Liquid Violence directs our attention to the non-space that is the sea, that lacks the “apparent unity of space and law, of order and orientation” pertaining to the land (Schmitt).[8] Everything is liquid here, including the zones of sovereignty and jurisdiction. This border is not one made of concrete, but one constantly drawn and re-drawn by changing regulations and practices. The violence is not just physical, but one of transferal and denial. Instead of the fantasmatic notion of a wall keeping everything foreign out of a given state, the “liquid violence” of the sea captures the complexities and contradictions of our contemporary and future borders.

This video installation in the Palazzo Forcella De Seta was part of the art exhibition Manifesta 12. Palermo’s iteration of the European Nomadic Biennial did not take place in confined spaces designed solely for art, but rather consisted of artistic interventions spread across the city, based on local partnerships and initiatives, reflecting on and in fact intervening in contemporary legal and political struggles concerning migration. Continuous migration of people, capital, goods, data, seeds, germs – from the Ancient Greeks, the Arabs and the Normans to the more recent arrivals from Northern Africa, South East Asia and the Middle East – has shaped and reshaped the city of Palermo throughout its history. Besides its long-term connections with Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean over the last 2000 years, Palermo has also been taken and occupied by almost every leading European power. The Manifesta 12 has highlighted Palermo’s function and potential as a laboratory for diversity, for new models of citizenship as well as human rights. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, has launched a call to abolish the residence permit and for mobility as an inalienable human right.

Liquid Violence involves various strategies of making visible what is kept in the marginal, transitory and violent space of the sea, marking the unseen in the context of the visibility regime of our surveillance era. It re-appropriates surveillance data in order to make visible what these techniques are usually not used to make visible but in fact to block from view, highlighting the sea as this non-space of exception, revolving around the invisible act of violence by neglect, and pointing us to the invisible bodies and invisible lives entrapped in this externalization of migration. As a larger installation, Forensic Oceanography arranged a whole constellation of different videos and other materials, while one could only focus on one at a time, necessarily turning one’s back on others, as well as on the actual sea outside of this Palazzo. In this way, the installation makes us realize our own blind spots. It lets us face up to what we are in fact not seeing – something we cannot afford not to see.



[1] Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015

[2] Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” The Menorah Journal, 1943.

[3] Cf. Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, entry “externalize, v.”

[5] Stephan Lessenich, Neben uns die Sintflut: Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis, Berlin: Hanser, 2016.

[6] For Freud, a dream is “an externalization of an internal process.” cf. Jean Laplanche, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, Language of Psycho-Analysis, entry “projection.”

[7] Cf. EU Borders and Shifting Internal Security: Technology, Externalization and Accountability, edited by Raphael Bossong, Helena Carrapico, Heidelberg: Springer, 2016; EurAfrican Borders and Migration Management: Political Cultures, Contested Spaces, and Ordinary Lives, edited by Paolo Gaibazzi, Stephan Dünnwald, Alice Bellagamba, London: Palgrave, 2017.

[8] “Third and last, the solid ground of the earth is delineated by fences, enclosures, boundaries, walls, houses, and other constructs. Then, the orders and orientations of human social life become apparent. … Law is bound to the earth and related to the earth. This is what the poet means when he speaks of the infinitely just earth: justissima tellus. The sea knows no such apparent unity of space and law, of order and orientation.” Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum, Telos Press, 2006, p. 42.