Necropolis. Counter Forensic Practices for Mourning the ‘Othered’ Dead

Door Arkadi Zaides, op Tue Aug 30 2022 22:00:00 GMT+0000

For over a quarter of a century, UNITED for Intercultural Action, a network of hundreds of anti-racist organizations from all around Europe, has been compiling a list registering deaths of refugees and migrants who have attempted to reach Europe. This database forms the basis for the performance ‘Necropolis’, in which choreographer and director Arkadi Zaides attempts to outline an ‘invisible city of the dead’, mapped from the graves of the migrants who could not reach their final destinations in Europe.

Following the end of the civil war in Yugoslavia (1991–2001), about forty thousand persons were reported as disappeared or missing. Mass-scale post mortem investigations were conducted, including DNA sampling from relatives of missing persons, and matching the collected data to the remains of thousands of bodies retrieved from mass graves. Following this forensic procedure, twenty-four years of investigations and prosecutions delivered 161 high-profile indictments. Ninety individuals have been sentenced for genocide, crimes against humanity, and additional crimes.

‘The United Nations War Crimes Tribunal’ (2002) was created to lead these efforts and legislations such as the ‘Law on Missing Persons’ (2004) or the ‘International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance’ (2006) were put in place in an effort to ensure the right of the disappeared to be sought for and identified, and to uphold the rights of their families during such search processes.

Enforced Disappearance is a practice often used by totalitarian regimes in order to spread fear, or to eliminate political opponents.

‘Enforced disappearance’ is a legal term that defines the secret abduction of a person by a state or political organisation, or by someone on behalf of them, that is followed by a systematic refusal to acknowledge the rights, fate and whereabouts of the person made-to-disappear. Enforced Disappearance is a practice often used by totalitarian regimes in order to spread fear amidst their citizens, or to eliminate political opponents who threaten the stability of the regime. The fall of such regimes, as in the Yugoslavian context, could lead to a legal procedure, eventual prosecution of those responsible for the disappearance, and to a partial restoration of justice.

But what happens when there is no specific state, political group or organisation that can be appointed as the responsibles for the disappearance of a (larger group of) person(s)? Are there any legal frameworks, and who is accountable for a disappearance of a body when a complex web of national and international systems of regulations, laws, and installed border apparatuses are behind the crime?

UNITED List of Refugee Deaths

In 2018, while embarking on a new artistic project with a small team of colleagues, we became interested in the notion of ‘enforced disappearance’. On June 20, World Refugee Day, during a desk research as part of one of our artistic residencies, we stumbled upon a document named UNITED List of Refugee Deaths that was inserted in The Guardian. For over a quarter of a century, UNITED for Intercultural Action, a network of hundreds of anti-racist organizations from all around Europe, has been compiling this document, documenting deaths of refugees and migrants who lost their lives on their way to the continent. The list reported 34,361 deaths that occurred since 1993 ‘due to the restrictive policies of ‘Fortress Europe’. Spanning through its fifty-four pages we could not ignore the fact that only a very small number of the deceased were mentioned by name, leaving the vast majority of the reported dead without identifying details.

The list reported 34,361 deaths that occurred since 1993 ‘due to the restrictive policies of ‘Fortress Europe’.

We were struck by the numbers the list unveiled and wondered how the notion of enforced disappearance shifts when looking at the European context specifically since 2013, since death at its borders became such a widespread phenomenon. In her discussion of ‘the right to have rights’ in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt was concerned with the direct link between the formulation of human rights and the fact that these rights were to be preserved in the context of the nation-state. According to Arendt, as long as these two concepts are linked, there will always be people who are left stateless and thus without rights. The fact that some refugees or missing persons are classified as ‘voluntary’ refugees makes it harder to address them as victims of crime and therefore as demanding that necessary measures be taken.

These ambiguous circumstances make it very convenient for European countries to avoid ethical responsibility. When clusters of global powers are determining policies that abuse natural and human resources, the legal system has to respond to a more challenging scope of crimes. Such challenges are also at stake when dealing with large-scale migratory movements that are part of the new ecology in the anthropocene era.

Following his research into the human costs of European border control, professor of migration law Thomas Spijkerboer has already suggested that ‘border deaths are undeniably related to European border control policies.’ Consequently, lawyers are looking for new approaches to address the collective responsibility of the European states to the continuous deaths at their borders. These include attempts to hold heads of states or agencies, such as FRONTEX, accountable for the violation of the rights of migrants and refugees and their consequent deaths, through legal means.

Counter-Forensics as a Practice of Inversion

The European jurisdiction establishes a clear distinction between criminal, natural, and accidental deaths, which determines the way the bodies are subsequently handled. As the many thousands of deaths that take place at the gates of Europe challenge this taxonomy, the forensic procedures of collecting medical and biological data from the corpses are not carried out properly in most of the cases. Deceased refugees and migrants systematically and structurally fall outside the process and procedures that should determine their identity. The loss of irretrievable information that results from this neglect prevents any future identification of the victims. Forensic science and analysis not only aims to discover the cause(s) of death of a deceased person, it is also essential to assist family members with the process of mourning and resolving ambiguous loss.

© Institut Des Croisements

When systematic dismissal is at place, independant societal engagements aiming at investigating the deaths of the othered, are essential for the restoration of the dignity of the disappeared dead. For literary scientist Thomas Keenan, 'assigning names and histories after the event of annihilation' is crucial when the aim of the disappearance 'is not just to erase people but also their history and their rightful claim to share the earth with others.' He uses the term ‘counter-forensics’ to describe identity restoration as an essential 'process of political resistance and mourning.' For the members of the artistic collective and research agency Forensic Architecture 'counter-forensics’ is a civil practice that seeks to invert the institutionalised forensic gaze, with individuals and organisations taking over the means of evidence production, and turning the state’s means against the violence it commits.'

It is at place when 'civil society groups use a variety of scientific and aesthetic means to produce and present evidence in the pursuit of public accountability.' In investigations of pushbacks across the Evros/Meriç river and in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, Forensic Architecture has already proved border guards successful attempts of preventing people from entering Europe's territory, which result in more deaths at its borders. In these and many other counter forensics investigations they show how different methodologies such as working with testimonies, 3D modelling, geolocation, software development, data mining and pattern analysis could be used in order to reenact instances of human rights abuses by making ’the invisible, visible.’

Necropolis, Building the City of the Dead Made-Disappear

As our research advanced we wondered where our collective responsibility as artists, as citizens, lay in relation to the thousands of migrants dying at our doorsteps? How can we confront ourselves and the audience with our collective responsibility in relation to the dead non-citizens and their rights to be cared for, grieved, and properly mourned? Making the UNITED List of Refugee Deaths as our guiding document, as our map, looking at its endless details, we asked ourselves: Where are the remains of all these bodies? Where are the physical spaces where these individuals might be grieved and given respect to?

Where are the remains of all these bodies?

We scrolled the list as a body of data and looked for embodied practices that would resonate with this process of dealing with remains, evidence, and in this case, of dead bodies. In every residency we would arrive at, we scrolled the list with the goal of finding cases of migrant and asylum seekers’ deaths that took place in proximity to any new location we found ourselves in. This would include extensive internet research, contacting local institutions (city hall archives, detention centres, NGOs) that might obtain information about a specific case.

At one of the residencies that took place at Pact Zollverein art centre in Essen in Germany, we further articulated our search to resonate with the necessity for a physical location of mourning. After an extensive online investigation regarding several deaths that occurred in the Ruhr area, we focused on one article that revealed details about a location where a twenty-three-year-old refugee from Sudan, Emanuel Thomas Tout, was buried. Tout, one of the first cases mentioned in the UNITED List of Refugee Deaths, died in 1993 from injuries as a result of attempted suicide at a detention center in the small town of Herne. The article mentioned a memorial ceremony that had taken place ten years after his death, mentioning also the exact cemetery where he was buried.

Choreographer and performer Emma Gioia, member of the Necropolis artistic team, stands over the grave of Emanuel Thomas Tout at the cemetery in Herne, Germany. © Arkady Zaides

Arriving at Tout’s grave, we each made a gesture of respect. In addition, we registered the coordinates of the grave's location and made a video documenting a walk from the cemetery gate to the grave, holding the smartphone in front of us while walking. In the studio, we inserted the latitude and longitude of the exact location of Tout’s last resting place into Google Earth, allowing us to virtually revisit the grave while not being physically close to it.

Since then, we have been continuously searching for and documenting the locations of graves of migrants and asylum seekers in the proximity of any place where we arrive, gradually mapping the ever growing ‘city of the dead’ we began to call Necropolis. Until today, we were able to register more than one thousand graves, and the search continues. The cartography of Necropolis is thus always evolving and becoming more and more dense as more locations are continuously added to this growing archive. Furthermore, we began to ask the hosting institutions — festivals, theatres and residency spaces — to actively contribute to the grave location search. The ultimate goal of the project is to challenge the often ‘comfortable’ position of these institutions as well as audience members by urging them to join the mission of investigation and localization. Those who engage, are mentioned in the credits of the project, that are also ever evolving.

The cartography of Necropolis is always evolving.

The UNITED List of Refugee Deaths is the most accurate archive to date that documents the deaths taking place in recent decades at the borders of Europe. The Necropolis search starts from the data that exists in this list, but due to our actual presence at specific locations all over Europe, we continuously discover more cases of deaths not mentioned in the list. At times, we also find inaccuracies: a name that is missing, a country of origin that was not indicated or a wrong age of the deceased. We consequently send a detailed report to the UNITED network and thus refine the initial database our project embarked from. Now, there are entries that our project added or helped clarify. Various deceased migrants and asylum seekers that were previously mentioned as N.N. — which stands for 'Nomen Nescio', Latin for 'I don't know the name' — were given back their names.

Spectral Infrastructure that Haunts

The accompanying theatrical performance ‘Necropolis’ is operating as an intermediary in the process of building ‘the city of the dead’. It reveals the protocol and reports which graves we have located so far, but it also points towards all the resting places that are still to be searched, all the thousands of deaths that are still to be investigated. On stage, while seated with our computers in front of a large screen, with our backs to the audience, choreographer and researcher Emma Gioia and myself present the result of our investigation. We evoke in turn a very recent victim, an older case of death, a well-known case of a sunken ship, a suicide that took place in a detention center closeby, the exact date of a clash between migrants and police. The screen alters this data with a Google Earth map on which all the graves are marked. We invite the audience on a meditative scrolling through the empty ghostly territory of the city of the dead.

Necropolis, thus, could be observed as a ‘spectral infrastructure’; a term coined by the freethought collective to describe a far less visible and far less tangible infrastructure that is both hidden and haunting. Its architecture — which is constructed through a meticulous search of the burial grounds of the people who have systematically disappeared — 'sustains an undefinable and disruptive quality in the otherwise efficient seeming organism' of Europe, revealing the ghostly and 'ephemeral glue that holds it together.'

Each virtual tour through Necropolis embarks from the very location of the theatre. Google allows us to zoom out gradually and discover graves of migrants who are buried in proximity to the theatre. Further away we discover more graves in the neighbouring cities and countries. In mainland Europe we find singular graves of migrants who are mostly identified. Title cards on the screen reveal the coordinates of each grave, the name of the person buried, their age and country of origins, the date and the course of the death. While reaching the outskirts of Europe, mass graves are revealed where hundreds of migrants are buried, most of them without any identifying details. The information on the title cards becomes fractured, numbers replace names, names of ships retrieving the bodies from the Mediterranean sea replace the deceased’s countries of origins.

Necropolis could be observed as a ‘spectral infrastructure’.

Through the speakers, a disembodied voice guides us through the city of the dead. It constructs a ghostly territory in our imagination, revealing its ever expanding landscape built from the remains of the deceased. Written and performed by the dramaturg of the project Igor Dobričić, the text blends real events and mythological references into a hybrid speculative narrative. It is inspired by a real event following a shipwreck that took place off Lampedusa, on October 3, 2013, and that could mark the beginning of the so-called refugee crisis (or 'crisis for refugees,' as Gurminder K. Bhambra more aptly calls it to remove any doubt as to who is actually suffering). The 372 migrants and asylum seekers who lost their lives at that shipwreck were granted Italian citizenship by the Prime Minister Enrico Letta a day after the disaster took place. At the same time, the rescued 155 refugees from the same ship were placed in a detention centre with no rights.

The voiceover takes the absurdity of this event even further by claiming that 'we all are inhabitants of Necropolis'. The only way for one to join our community, 'is to become dead.' Just like the the placing of the grave location coordinates in Google Earth makes an estrangement to this widely used platform that is ultimately designed to accelerate mobility with information related to the results of Europe’s deadly border policies, the voiceover makes an anstragement to the space of the theatre and the people who occupy it by referring to them as the dead citizens of Necropolis.

A radical dramaturgical shift then breaks the cold and analytical approach of travelling through the digital landscapes of Necropolis. Sculptures resembling human remains, made by performance artist and sculptor Moran Senderovich, are brought to the stage. One by one we carefully place them on a table, while a scan of each body part is consequently projected on the large screen behind. We then slowly move and reorganise the sculpted parts, gradually assembling something that could look like a body; a body made of bodies. We are performing a forensic ritual, a procedure that a lot of the bodies of migrants who died at Europe’s doorsteps never have access to. Freedom of movement needs to be returned to the bodies who are admitted to Europe as corpses. And although in the City of the Dead there is no-body left to dance, it is exactly that no-body, that body of the bodies — the body of Necropolis — which we aim to animate back to life.