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Fuocoammare, or the critical call of a silent artwork

Can works of art provide an alternative critical way of thinking about migration and challenge the dominant European discourse?

ERROL BOON  |  19 DECEMBER 2020  |  ISSUE #13  |  LONG READ 

Fuocoammare’s poster. Fair use via Wikipedia (WP:NFCC#4).

One month after the release of Gianfranco Rosi’s award-winning documentary Fuocoammare (‘Fire at sea’) in February 2016, the notorious migration deal between the European Union and Turkey came into effect. Under this agreement, the EU paid Turkey six billion euros to stop migrants from crossing the European border. In addition to Turkey, the EU had already funded the Libyan authorities and even the Sudanese militia Janjaweed to stop migrants from coming to Europe. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum, presented on 23 September 2020 by the European Commission, is a continuation of this policy that is primarily aimed at reducing incoming migration flows – a forlorn policy, which guarantees neither the protection of human rights nor the promotion of humanist values. 

While the situation for migrants and refugees is worsening in Europe, as demonstrated by the burned refugee camps on Lesbos, the EU makes decisions which will further make people on the move more vulnerable as border control is reinforced and deportation instances increase. Paradoxically, the above-mentioned policy is a genuflection to the nationalist and xenophobic discourse that is blocking a pan-European migration policy in the first place. Hence, European migration politics is stuck in a mode of thinking that offers no perspective for a European solution for the humanitarian crisis happening at its borders. Our discourse about migration needs to be liberated.

As an alternative to this discourse in which European migration politics seem to be caught up, artists and cultural workers have sought to critically respond to the migration crisis in a different, namely aesthetic manner. At the recent Forum on European Culture, organised by DutchCulture and De Balie in Amsterdam, various of these aesthetic responses were presented, including Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare, Fernando Sánchez Castillo’s Figures of freedom, the photographic exhibition Afropean by photographer Johny Pitts, and Charl Landvreud’s performance The utopia of the normal space. These works of art offer an aesthetic approach to migration that disrupts the expectations and anticipations that are conditioned by dominant discourses.

I would like to focus on Fuocoammare, a documentary which opens with the following information:

‘The island of Lampedusa has a surface area of 20 square km; it lies 113 km from the African coast and 205 km from Sicily. In the past 20 years, 400,000 migrants have landed on Lampedusa. In the attempt to cross the Strait of Sicily to reach Europe it is estimated that 15,000 people have died.’

After seeing the numbers at the beginning of the film, the viewer naturally expects to see images of boat migrants and suffering refugees – images that are as horrific as they are familiar to us from the daily news. However, the scene succeeding the opening consists of long silent shots in which we see a young boy from Lampedusa, Samuele Pucillo, playing outdoors in the island’s beautiful nature, manufacturing a catapult and trying to shoot birds with a friend. As one watches the film, one encounters a documentary about Lampedusa that not only portrays migrants, but mostly the lives of people like Samuele and his grandmother, the DJ of the local radio station, and the doctor of Lampedusa. Given that Fuocoammare is a documentary about the migration crisis in Lampedusa, as the quoted opening facts inevitably imply, it raises the question of why Rosi chose to feature all these lives in his critical aesthetic approach to the subject matter. What is the critical potential of an aesthetic approach to such an overly discussed topic as migration? Can works of art provide a fruitful alternative mode of thinking, besides the forlorn discourse in which European democracy has become entangled? 

Sudeep Dasgupta and the aesthetics of displacement


During the Forum on European Culture, a colloquium on aesthetics in the age of displacement took place with Sudeep Dasgupta, Associate Professor of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam. Building on his articles ‘Fuocoammare and the Aesthetic Rendition of the Relational Experience of Migration’ and ‘The Aesthetics of Displacement’, Dasgupta explored the potentiality of aesthetic experience to disrupt and destabilise dominant political discourses. According to Dasgupta, migration inevitably challenges our existing political, intellectual and social understandings of the contemporary global order. He argues that instead of understanding the world as a relational space with entangled common histories, transforming societies and evolving cultures, the dominant discriminatory discourse proposes a map of a world that is divided into clear-cut territories and isolated cultures, separated by identifiable borders. From this straightforwardly communicable understanding of cultures, migrants are outsiders trespassing clear boundaries. In order to prevent European societies from a war of civilisations, religious conflicts, and an economic drain as a result of ‘them’ invading ‘our’ societies, it would be easy and even logical to argue for solutions based on reinforcing borders and marking out clear territorial separations, for instance by means of walls and border controls. 


However, the reality of migration thwarts this simplistic separatist world picture. Rather than fleeing from one nation to the other, trespassing territorial borders, a migrant should be seen as a translocal subject. The space that the migrant crosses is not primarily marked by topography, but by danger and safety, shrivel and prospect, risk and opportunity. In this sense, the migrant forces us to recognise how the global and local are intertwined and how the world manifests itself in our local environments, while the significance of the nation-state is increasingly relegated to the background. Thus, Dasgupta argues that the presence of migrants represents an evolving rather than static understanding of cultures, entangled rather than separated histories.


Dasgupta finds it relevant to talk about aesthetics in this context of displacement, because the aesthetic marks our experience in so far as it is a bodily experience before being a conceptual reflection. And that position in between sensing the world and making sense of it makes the aesthetic experience politically significant. For this process of conceptualisation – this passage from how we sense the world to how we know the world – always involves filtering the overwhelming amount of sensorial input. That is, in order to come to a conceptual understanding of the sensorial material, I inevitably exclude certain particularities and concentrate on others, so that there is always sense data that is left out in the process of shaping, meaning and interpreting the world. And this is where aesthetics becomes the arena of politics as we select certain sensorial impressions over others.

Since the aesthetic experience is sensorial before it is conceptual, it has the potential to interrupt the very process of conceptualisation: by standing between sensing the world and knowing the world, it can call into question our very capacity to know and to conceptualise the world. Hence, through its aesthetic experience art has the potential to destabilise dominant ways of explaining the world and can introduce doubt when political discourses claim self-evidence. In other words, rather than offering new narratives or moral statements, art’s critical power might lie especially in its ability to disrupt the defining and reductive operations of our conceptual thinking itself, no matter what its content might be.

One way in which art can do so is by refusing to use images as mere illustrations to offer simplistic explanations of the complex contemporary world. Photography and cinema, for example, can confront us with images that do not fit within the dominant discourses, as a result of which the viewer needs to explain these images to herself without drawing on dominant conceptual frameworks. An image that refuses to fit a general story or a rational argument might be the most subversive aesthetic experience possible, since it liberates the image from the expectation of telling a story or representing a situation. 



In order to understand the power of aesthetic experience to disrupt dominant discourses on migration, it is illuminating to look at the aforementioned documentary Fuocoammare as an example of how this critical potential can be realised. To understand how Fuocoammare undermines dominant modes of explaining the world, Dasgupta explains that the notions of migration, documentary, and Lampedusa ‘immediately raise assumptions, expectations, preconceptions, so that, when watching the film, I naturally expected to see the experience of migrants, their processes, images of boat refugees, stories of death, etc.’. According to Dasgupta, Rosi’s film is an example of an artwork where precisely these sorts of general assumptions are thwarted – where ‘we lose our way just at the moment when we thought we knew’ – and hence where the individual’s own critical and imaginative abilities are activated.


As described above, one’s expectations are already disrupted at the very beginning of the film, when the images succeeding the opening text do not form an explanatory or narrative link to the opening facts. The whole film consists of a sequence of images from Lampedusa that are not causally linked to each other as different elements of one narrative or argument. The images of migrants are connected with, for instance, pictures of Samuele learning English at school or of an old man catching sea urchins, without relating these images causally to construct a clear, linear plot about the migrants. In fact, apart from the opening statement, there is no voice-over or accompanying text to explain the connections between the scenes.


According to Dasgupta, the film does not seek to explain anything by itself: the images are not meant to illustrate an idea, to represent an explanation or furnish a description of the situation of the migrants. Rather, through this non-causal sequence of images, the viewer is left with the task of understanding the images without reducing them to a general story or argument: since the gaps between the images counter our expectations, we are forced to establish links by ourselves. That is, one can only make sense of this cinematic experience by contemplating and interrogating the actual images without relying on dominant discourses. 


Since migrants are not used here to explain or illustrate a general argument, Dasgupta argues that the bodies of the migrants transform from being merely objects of our knowledge and representatives of either a cultural threat or humanitarian crisis, to being subjects worth seeing and listening to. By not being pushed into a motivated, causal sequence, the pictures of the various figures in the film simply co-exist. Instead of representing the space of Lampedusa through a one-dimensional meaning or narrative, Dasgupta argues that Lampedusa thus becomes a ‘relational space’ in Rosi’s film: a place of co-presence where diverse individuals, intertwined stories, entangled histories, separate fragments, and an array of images cohabitate. As a result, the name ‘Lampedusa’ – that normally overdetermined symbol of threat and crisis, that place that demarcates ‘us’ from ‘them’ – is now liberated from its fixed identities and becomes a location for the lives of all at the same time. Dasgupta thus concludes: ‘the politics of the film resides in helping us to rethink Lampedusa as a space of a counter-intuitive copresence, (...) to rethink the relations between different people whose pasts and futures intersect in a cohabited present’.

Art as a truth claim or a moral call?


At the colloquium, the non-discursive or ‘muted’ character of Fuocoammare was questioned by philosopher Katia Hay Rodgers. Whereas Dasgupta highlighted the absence of voice-over and the scarcity of text and dialogue in Fuocoammare as a way of interrupting discursive expectations, Hay Rodgers pointed out that the film actually does capture some moments of text and dialogue. In fact, the film’s silence, which Dasgupta highlights in his argument, makes these spare moments of discourse all the more important, according to Hay Rodgers. In reading the film, as well as in analysing its critical potential, we must explain the power that these words might have: there are not just images that disrupt discursive expectations, but there are also words suggesting how to read the images. And, what is more, according to Hay Rodgers, it is inevitable that we continue to read the images within a certain discursive context of articulated thoughts, reasoning, and a minimal understanding of the present political situation. If the critical potential of a visual work of art, such as Fuocoammare, continues to depend on discursive reason, it remains unclear how art is able to disrupt dominant modes of explaining the world and thus transform our experience and understanding of global migration.


Dasgupta explained the politics of the film as a ‘non-pedagogic truth claim’: the depiction of the various unconnected figures underlines the co-presence of people – which is a truth that dominant separatist discourses seek to undermine. Hay Rodgers, however, interprets the depiction of the highly diverse figures on the small island of Lampedusa as a critique on the alienation of the European people from refugees and migrants; a critique that inevitably contains value judgements or articulated moral standpoints: ‘I see the film not as a truth claim, but as a call – a call that there is fire at sea, and that this is happening right now, in front of all of us’.


Similarly to Hay Rodgers, dramaturg and curator Lara Staal questioned whether a non-causal relational aesthetics, which Dasgupta reads in Fuocoammare, would actually be able to change our understanding of the world. Although Staal agrees that Fuocoammare thwarts the linear forms of storytelling that reinforce existing power relations, she wonders whether a disruption of dominant narratives alone is enough to counter xenophobic politics. In today’s world, where Staal sees a renewed desire for one single overarching narrative, we might need a strong counternarrative instead of images that disrupt storytelling. ‘Wouldn’t it be much more effective’, Staal asked, ‘if the arts try to realise their critical power within an alternative power structure, one in which values like empathy, identification and dependency are explicitly advocated?’ Whereas Dasgupta sees Fuocoammare as undermining discourses that construct power structures, Staal suggested that the arts must necessarily subscribe to a power structure in order to criticise another; therefore, we should not criticise the ‘bad’ stories by disrupting storytelling, but rather by telling different stories.

To conclude: the particularity of experience


One week after Dasgupta’s lecture, the oppression of particular experiences was again reinforced in the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The European Commission’s ‘fresh start on migration’ plans to put newly arrived migrants through a quick first application procedure of a maximum of five days in order to determine whether the migrants have any chance at all of receiving refugee status in Europe. Since such a quick procedure will be based on one’s country of origin and not on one’s personal story, the fundamental right of migrants to have their individual history is violated. This right to be heard personally is a crucial right of migrants, since a country of origin that is a safe country for one might not be a safe place at all for another. Within this conflict between, on the one hand, the general discourse of concepts, categories, procedures and expectations, and, on the other hand, the particular sensorial reality of individuals, art potentially has a political and emancipatory role to fulfil. Art can highlight the particular and sensorial reality that is normally lost in our conceptualised understanding of migration, such as a refugee’s experience that does not match up with Europe’s procedural system.


Considering Staal’s and Hay Rodgers’s remarks, the question becomes whether art should express an articulated moral position in order to be politically relevant. For Dasgupta, the emancipation of the singular experience can function as a critique of general structures without formulating an explicit political argument or narrative. He believes the aesthetic experience does not exclude knowledge or meaning-making; the film is not about nothing, there is a certain political point to be made. However, the responsibility of articulating the argument at stake resides in the viewer – and that viewer can thus also refuse to make that argument or perhaps overlook the possibility of making the argument.


At the core of Dasgupta’s view lies a reluctance to reduce art’s critical potential to that of telling a discursive or moral counter-story. Such a ‘pedagogic’ understanding of art naturally runs the risk of being moralistic and ineffective in convincing people that do not share the same moral outline in the first place. Indeed, whereas articulated moral arguments also occur in discursive contexts, such as academia, journalism or daily conversations between people, the idiosyncratically aesthetic critique that only art can potentially deliver against the political discourses around migration might exist in the peculiar disruption of conceptual discourse, rather than in presenting an articulated moral argument. That is why Dasgupta calls Fuocoammare a truth claim, which makes not a moral statement but a political one. Its truth claim is, of course, not a neutral description – as he says, ‘it will actually function as a call, a political interruption’ – but its provocative and disturbing effect on us is not pedagogic or moralistic.


In an attempt to promote mutual understanding and international fraternity, artists and cultural workers may explicitly make a case for values like empathy and solidarity. This is, of course, a possibility, and often a very noble option. However, such critical strategies also run the risk of reproducing, at some level, the logic and discourse in which Europe has become entangled. Fuocoammare demonstrates another artistic option that is less substantial yet more radical in its critique. In the case of migration, the violence at the European borders may not be due primarily to a lack of empathy or solidarity, but first and foremost to the oppressive discourses, narratives and procedures that fail to recognise the individual life of a migrant. Revitalising the ideal of international solidarity might thus happen in an attempt to emancipate, as much as possible, the individual, the singular, or the sensorial from its dominant discursive and conceptual context: an individual who is different, who is somewhere else, and whose fear of danger and hope of a better life will, to some extent, elude our conceptual understanding of migration.


This article is a shortened version of the original essay by Errol Boon published on the website of DutchCulture, the Dutch research and network institute for the internationalisation of arts and culture.


Errol Boon

Errol Boon is a researcher at DutchCulture, a lecturer at Utrecht School of the Arts and an editor at Amsterdam Museum. Boon is mainly working on philosophical issues concerning art and society, such as the relationship between international cultural practices and the challenges of globalisation. Among other topics, he has written on artistic censorship, fair cultural cooperation, and translocality in the arts.

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