FORENSIC ARCHITECTURE In an essay called “Frontier Photography,” first published in Artforum in March 2009, Trevor Paglen writes about the connection between mid-19th century frontier photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and Timothy O’Sullivan and the military and industrial remote sensing systems in place today, “bringing symbolic and strategic order to blank spots on maps through surveillance, imaging, and mapping.” There is sometimes an almost cliché conception of the desert as this extra-territory, a place outside of sovereignty, a kind of colonial grasp of the desert and of those living inside or beyond it. In recent years, this colonial imaginary is being put into policy: the desert along the border between the US and Mexico, along the sea and desert borders of Europe, etc. These spaces are being mobilized as buffer zones, as hostile environments that are weaponized to guard Fortress Europe. Properties common to the desert and to the sea—flatness, scarce inhabitancy, minimal structures—somehow lend themselves to this kind of securitization that is very much part of the defense systems in both the United States and Europe.
RICHARD MOSSE In practice, certain parts of the Sahara Desert are extra-legal spaces—lacking sovereignty, like the High Seas. So it’s interesting to conflate them in terms of a colonial imaginary, as you say: a space in which the unpleasant spectacle of our refugee “crisis” can be outsourced, delegated or exported. EU immigration policy has tended to outsource its “wall,” for want of a better word, far beyond Europe’s borders, to places like Turkey, Niger, and even as far afield as South Sudan. For example, the EU sends personnel and large amounts of funding to the Libyan Coast Guard, which has a long record of human rights violations. This is deeply problematic, as a recent Forensic Architecture case study revealed.
FA Yes, the “wall,” or policy of containment, is definitely taking many forms, aiming on the one hand to delegitimize rescue NGOs from the central Mediterranean, while on the other, supporting the LYCG to intercept and pull back migrants more effectively. Some of which you address in your work, and some through our cases conducted alongside Forensic Oceanography, such as the Sea Watch or Iuventa investigation from 2017, where an NGO’s boat was seized by the Italian judiciary under suspicion of “assistance to illegal migration” and collusion with smugglers.