BARCA NOSTRA is an ongoing project initiated by Christoph Büchel in collaboration with the Assessorato regionale dei beni culturali e dell’identità siciliana, the Comune di Augusta, the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015, and other parties, to be presented at the Arsenale of Venice at La Biennale di Venezia, the 58th International Art Exhibition, “May You Live In Interesting Times”, from 11 May through 24 November 2019. The project is coordinated by Maria Chiara Di Trapani.
On 18 April 2015, the Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwreck in living memory occurred in the Sicilian Channel, 96 km off the Libyan coast and 193 km south of the Italian island of Lampedusa in international waters. There were only 28 survivors, and between 700 and 1100 people were presumed missing. The fishing boat, which would normally have a crew of fifteen men, was carrying an average of five persons per square meter, migrants locked up as the ship’s ballast in the hold and machine room. After colliding with a Portuguese freighter attempting to come to its rescue, the boat sank with its imprisoned human cargo.
This tragic event occurred at a time when the European Union was implementing Operation Triton, conducted by Frontex, the European border control agency, with the aim of maintaining the European border in the Mediterranean exclusively within the 30-mile limit from the European coasts. Following the European Union’s decision to end Operation Mare Nostrum, the rescue of boats in distress, previously at the expense of Italy and the European Union, was left to the normal rules of navigation, which impose the obligation of providing assistance to those in difficulty on whatever ship is closest.
The Italian government decided to retrieve the shipwreck at a cost of 9.5 million euros and initiated an investigation of the remains of the deceased in order to give them back their identities and to provide authorities with the ability to inform their families.
On 30 June 2016, the shipwreck was recovered – after an initial unsuccessful attempt in the same year – from the seabed by the Italian Navy (Marina Militare) at a depth of 370 meters. It was transported to the Pontile Marina Militare di Melilli (NATO) near Augusta, Sicily, where removal and identification of the hundreds of bodies still imprisoned within its hull began. The unprecedented operation involved hundreds of professionals and volunteers, including personnel of the Italian Navy, the Fire Brigade, the Italian Red Cross, forensic pathologists and personnel of several Italian universities, as well as national and local authorities.
Since the termination of that operation in 2017, at a total cost of 23 million euros, the wreck has been standing in the refueling station of the NATO, the Italian Navy base of Melilli, while various organizations and individuals have proposed plans for its future location and role.
After the arrival of the shipwreck at the NATO pier of Melilli, the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015 was established with the aim of preserving the memory of the tragic shipwreck by creating a “Garden of Remembrance” in Augusta, Sicily.
In October 2016, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposed bringing the shipwreck to Brussels and warned that Europe must take responsibility for the “scandal of migration” so that similar tragedies do not occur in the future.
In July 2017, an initiative by the Laboratorio di Antropologia e Odontologia Forense, University of Milan, proposed turning the relic into a Human Rights Museum in the Milanese Città Studi. The proposal was approved by a municipal vote in Milan, and 600 thousand euros were allocated by the Italian state to the project.
In May 2018, a migrant initiative in Palermo started a cultural petition to claim the recovered shipwreck of the 18th of April 2015 in an act of symbolic and political appropriation, proposing a European procession with the shipwreck – similar to the syncretic Santa Rosalia procession in Palermo, in which a ship that initially brought plague to the city symbolizes the triumph of life over death – to become a mobile monument to the European Union, wandering over national borders throughout Europe in support of the human right of free mobility. All of these proposals competed on political levels, causing polemics in the Italian and international media, but none have come to fruition thus far.
Exactly four years after the tragic shipwreck, the boat was released on 18 April 2019, by the Italian Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the Italian Ministry of Defense, to be handed over to the Commune of Augusta through the project BARCA NOSTRA. It was a bureaucratic odyssey riddled with obstacles, to clear the ownership and responsibilities regarding the shipwreck’s uncertain fate, and to prepare the boat for the continuation of its journey.
At the end of April 2019, the boat left the NATO Base in Melilli for the migropolis of Venice, a city believed to have been founded by fleeing refugees. For the duration of the 58th La Biennale di Venezia, the vessel will stand at the historic Arsenale, the site where ships for cultural and religious wars (among them the Battle of Lepanto led by the Catholic “Holy League” of the Venetian Republic and Spanish Empire, against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean) were produced: one of the roots of today’s European cultural war against immigration.
The ongoing BARCA NOSTRA project facilitates a symbolic transfer of the status of the shipwreck that changes its legal status from a former object of court evidence to an artifact, considered “a special vessel to be disposed of” by ministerial decree, to a “bene culturale”, a significant symbol of our “interesting times” and collective complicity and memory, resulting in its first public exhibition at the Arsenale in Venice.
BARCA NOSTRA is a part of a larger project of a continuing odyssey. It is a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration, engaging real and symbolic borders and the (im)possibility of freedom of movement of information and people. The vessel has become a symbolic object, dedicated not only to the victims of the tragic event in 2015 and the people involved in its recovery, but to our mutual responsibility, representing the collective policies and politics that create such wrecks.
The public exhibition of BARCA NOSTRA at the Arsenale – in the context of the cultural spectacle and economic operation of the Biennale in Venice, a city based on migration that feeds the machine of its own destruction through mass tourism – opens up the possibility of actively using the collective shipwreck BARCA NOSTRA as a vehicle of significant sociopolitical, ethical, and historical importance.
BARCA NOSTRA is an inversion of a Trojan Horse in the ongoing battle of contemporary political strategies wherein the vessel of those who were literally imprisoned inside it as human cargo
becomes pars pro toto for the continuing migration crisis and the political and cultural shipwreck of which we are all part.