Mare Nostrum, or On Water Matters

Emma Cox, Marilena Zaroulia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This dialogue between two performance academics, whose childhood memories are intertwined with memories of the sea, aims to consider the role of performance as response to or reflection on the numerous deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, while tracing echoes and resonances of the migration crisis in the Australian context.
In the wake of the cessation in late 2014 of Italy’s European Commission-supported Operation Mare Nostrum migrant search-and-rescue programme, and with escalating numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean over recent months, theatre and performative protest interventions are occurring with greater frequency. We discuss two of the most prominent modes of representation and response. The first is the narrative or storytelling mode, based upon testimonies or fictionalized stories of survivors, rescuers and other witnesses to maritime migration. Works such as Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa (Soho, London 2015), and Case Farmakonisi, or The Trial of Water (Athens Festival, 2015) depend on narrative imagination and the ability of audience members to envisage the invisible, to witness the unknowable.
The second is what we call the ‘synecdoche’ mode, which uses techniques of protest and site-responsive installation art across Europe, employing visual and embodied grammars to trigger affective engagement in public places. Works such as Die Toten Kommen [The Dead are Coming] (summer 2015) by activist collective Center for Political Beauty raise a key dilemma that our dialogue also begins to probe: amidst this most urgent of contemporary crises, what is that we look to performance and activism for (ethically, aesthetically and politically)? Why is it important that migrants’ deaths occur under the watch of a community of European nations whose maritime technologies have, over the last five centuries, directly enabled the extensive exploitation of lands and peoples outside Europe? What may be the structural and psychological explanations for a collective failure of empathy (not just mere concern or compassion) by those of us who do not know what it means to be abjectly ‘at sea’ in a neoliberal world? What does performance that sits at the border of our earth-bound existence and the infinite sea—‘mare nostrum’ with its many unknowns—invite us to perceive, and what does it permit us to ignore?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)141-149
Number of pages9
JournalPerformance Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2016

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