Nyktopolitics

May 2017

EFTD (Embassy for the Displaced) is a faux-institution established between London, Athens, and the Aegean archipelago.

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“I am sure it wasnʼt very comfortable to lie down on the pebbles like that. But the soft evening light fell on his face when he lay down”

—Rohit Chawla, photographer at India Today, responding to critisism on his reenactment of the photo portraying a drowned Aylan ‘Kurdiʼ, as carried out by the Chinese Artist Ai WeiWei on a Lesvos shore.

According to some accounts, the name ‘Europeʼ stands for ‘where the sun setsʼ. The origin of the word may be deriving from the Akkad ‘erebu’, which translates as ‘to go down, set’, ‘erebʼ the Phoenician word for ‘eveningʼ, or the primordial Greek deity of Erebus – Έρεβος, ‘deep darkness, shadow’ – a liminal place of darkness between earth and Hades.

Such an etymological turn is particularly interesting to consider within the context of contemporary migration, as it invites us to position ourselves east of the continent, on the shores of Asia Minor and the Levant, now dotted with overcrowded internment camps, and look westward, towards the sunset, and across the same sea that today acts as a deterrent for so many. Over the past decade, the maritime space between Europe, Asia and Africa has become one of liminality, diaspora, and displacement. The strategic positioning of spaces for the documentation, interception and holding of migrants and refugees around the Mediterranean basin in Northern Africa and the Middle East, and the subsequent search for more remote and ever-deadlier routes on the part of those who attempt to cross it, hint towards an understanding of European migration management policies as a carefully architectured necropolitical project[1]Here, 'necropolitics' is understood as the decolonial critique to Foucault's concept of governmentality, as theorized by Achille Mbebe in the text with the same name.
[See, Mbebe, Achille. 'Necropolitics'. Public Culture 15(1), 2003, pp. 11-40]
, if not a blatant affirmation of a recent and still resonant colonial past. The Mediterranean sea, with its territorial waters, contiguous and contested economic zones, patrol areas and shorelines, that historically 'signal a world of mobilities, betweenness, instabilities, encounters and becomingsʼ [2]Steinberg, Philip E. 'Of Other Seas: Metaphors and Materialities in Maritime Regions'. Atlantic Studies 10, 2013, pp. 156-169. has been increasingly militarised by European authorities, and as such it has been rendered into a buffer zone, a ‘moat' to the European ‘citadelʼ. It has been made to absorb, to deter, and to kill. A post-colonial abyss, a Black Mediterranean[3]A term poached by Paul Gilroyʼs notion of a ‘Black Atlanticʼ, referring to the systematic displacement and enslavement of black africans across the Atlantic Ocean..

As Europe is once again becoming the geography of a long dusk, the subjects that are pushed to its shadows, and the people standing in solidarity with them, might find value in entertaining and mobilising this darkness to come. It is within this absence of light, in the fissures and disjunctions in the sovereign state, that one might attempt a flight, a strategic retreat from the stratifying territorial arrangements of the European border management project. If the contemporary national state is a project of soil, we must insist on locating on more liquid ground, where possibilities of disaffiliation, racial and national ‘contamination' and fluid frontiers open up.

It is from within this liquid darkness, emblematised by the belly of the boat, the ‘wombʼ that delivered so many bodies to the unknown, that the Martinican philosopher and poet Edouard Glissant proposes a strategy for ‘opacity'. Glissant developed his work Poetics of Relation within the context of a postcolonial Carribbean, yet his logic resonates heavily with the ebbs and flows of what has come to be called ‘the refugee crisisʼ; the lower in the deck one agrees to go, the cheaper the fare smugglers charge for a crossing to Lampedusa, to Malta, to Chios, or Lesvos.

As a response to the intensification of such crossings over the past year-and-a-half, the Aegean archipelago, the sea that separates Greece from Turkey, is surveyed, recorded and narrated by a number of optic and sensory regimes. Alongside an aggregation of operational images produced by the machinic vision of the border apparatus, representations of contemporary displacement for humanitarian purposes abound in social and mainstream, sovereign, media. Whether well-intended or not, they form part of a post-colonial gaze, distilled in which are configurations of national and continental identity and empire. A ‘soft evening lightʼ falls on the faces of the people who attempt to cross it – where bodies are stopped, images proliferate.

When does the human need to leave the image?[4]Attempts to answer such questions have been explored with great sensitivity in: Demos, T.J. The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 2013And what takes his/her place?
How can one attempt to image a life severed by representation, and who has the ethical right to attempt such an aberrant, aniconic distortion?

We, as critical visual practitioners, are faced with the challenge of responding to such questions today, and thus with expanding our imaginary to think of alternatives to visibility as tools of resistance.

Glissant invokes the ‘right to opacityʼ as a conscious and willful retreat of precarious subjects not only from the image, but also from the existing political arrangements that bring it into effect. A step back, that negates and ‘displaces all reductionʼ traditionally carried towards subjects that are ‘Otherʼ to western thought and epistemology. Such a gesture resists appropriation and is understood as one of enclosure, a leap to a liminal state of smooth, unnavigable darkness.

Subjectivity at the border is consistently haunted and interpolated by the invisible, the imminent, the dark. One can rightfully argue that when faced with conditions such as those that characterise the European border, where dangerous Illegal border crossings occur in hiding, dwelling the same shadows as do systematic detainment and covert deportation operations, a strategy for darkness risks paving the way to erasure, and should be evoked with caution. But the opaque, for Glissant, is not the obscure. Like the sea, an opaque existence allows some light to go through; enough for those who populate it to navigate, and those who wish to penetrate its oceanic depths to be deterred.

Thalassa – Θάλασσα – “sea” – in ancient Greek mythology, was Erebus and Nyx's (Νύξ – “Night”) grandchild.

Folding into the dark, then, is the hidden, the undocumented, and the aquatic. Α ‘Thalassopoliticsʼ calls for the much-crossed Mediterranean to be understood as more than a surface, or a metaphor, but rather, a disobedient, migrating body that deflects the accumulation of any dominant narrative and absorbs any state apparatus that attempts to settle on it. Nyktopolitics refers to the autonomies that are birthed in the opacity that encompasses its shores. The threshold between mobility, liquidity and sovereign rule is 'Where Land Meets Seaʼ.

A cloud of Unknowing

As was the case with early photography, a 3D, or lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) scanner is incapable of capturing interstices in time and space with precision. A still target is a prerequisite for a ‘cleanʼ model to be achieved, and that is what makes it particularly interesting when one employs the tool precisely to document a subject in a condition of movement. Then, the image created eludes indexical representation –portraits resist faciality, and skin colour becomes irrelevant. At the same time the representational choices that would not be apparent in a conventional photograph are unveiled; the position of the ‘cameraʼ is designated with an empty hole in the scan (the tool cannot ‘see' what is directly underneath it), and the laser beam creates a shadow on the ‘blindʼ side of the objects it hits. In doing so, the scanner captures the missing part of the image. The missing of the people.

The above video narrates a story of bodies moving in a landscape that stands relatively still. Human features and the terrain are conflated into an obscure volume with little hierarchy. There is just one body, made of movement.

3D scan stills, EFTD with ScanLab projects

The nomadic, dense, noncontiguous vertical geographies of the digital ‘cloudʼ have often been described as an extra-sovereign space, one that constantly deforms and multiplies itself and thus escapes integrity and categorisation. A sea of data. And a cloud of points. Like the high seas in previous centuries, the point-cloud is here imagined as a promissory and unnavigable space, a constellation that is open to interpretation through new processes of mystification. As representations of environments and events in three dimensions that they are, they remain contracted to the possibility of immersion, of encounter with the “other” that is contained within them. They assume the role of digital artefacts, belonging to an archaeology of the present that seeks to exhume, understand and uproot the power relations that the assigning of meaning engenders. Here, unearthed is the dependence of European modernity on the safeguarding of its former colonial borders around the Mediterranean basin, and on archiving the silenced territories of alterity that assemble around them. An archaeology that respects and safeguards the right and desire for some to remain unseen or untold, and calls for a renewed understanding of historiography and national identity as open ontologies is attempted.

To cloud also means to obscure, to unknow, to drape with a mantle of opacity.

References

[1]

Here, 'necropolitics' is understood as the decolonial critique to Foucault's concept of governmentality, as theorized by Achille Mbebe in the text with the same name.
[See, Mbebe, Achille. 'Necropolitics'. Public Culture 15(1), 2003, pp. 11-40]

[2]

Steinberg, Philip E. 'Of Other Seas: Metaphors and Materialities in Maritime Regions'. Atlantic Studies 10, 2013, pp. 156-169.

[3]

A term poached by Paul Gilroyʼs notion of a ‘Black Atlanticʼ, referring to the systematic displacement and enslavement of black africans across the Atlantic Ocean.

[4]

Attempts to answer such questions have been explored with great sensitivity in: Demos, T.J. The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 2013

[5]

Header image: From Édouard Glissant's Poetics of Relation, 1997

This work is part of a series: Digital colonialism