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  • The Migrant Is Dead, Long Live the Citizen!Pro-migrant Activism at EU Borders
  • Jennifer M. Gully and Lynn Mie Itagaki

"[B]order struggles open a new continent of political possibilities, a space within which new kinds of political subjects, which abide neither the logics of citizenship, nor established methods of radical political organization and action, can trace their movements and multiply their powers"

—Mezzadra and Neilson 2013, 13-14

In late June 2015, a Berlin-based artivist group called The Center for Political Beauty (Zentrum für Politische Schönheit; hereafter ZPS) planned and staged a performance piece titled The Dead Are Coming (Die Toten kommen). Controversial but widely praised by pro-migrant activists and inciting global media coverage, the sensationalist, carnival-barker title was garishly congruent with its gruesome content. The ZPS applied for permission to exhume the body of a drowned migrant interred in an anonymous grave in Sicily. Subsequently, paying to have the body identified and next of kin notified, the group secured her transport to Germany. The body, that of a woman whose family had survived and had managed to reach Germany, was buried in a proper Muslim ceremony with her family's permission. The scandalizing presence of a corpse in the performance piece, together with a large-scale memorial service in front [End Page 281] of the German Chancellery, garnered a publicity rarely seen for a piece of political activism. Given the location the group chose—between the German Parliament and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe—the ZPS's artivists engaged not only the politics of today, but made powerful connections to the German past. The many parts of the ZPS's performance are now preserved online as a multimedia project on their website, alongside images and analyses of other provocative performances they have staged and documented since 2014.

In its performance artivism,1 the ZPS typically exposes contradictory constitutional mandates and border policies responding to larger global developments and the specific history of German politics and citizenship. The ZPS's political protest through performance art importantly points to not only the spatial relations of what has been traditionally located as the periphery and center but also the historical dimension of the current crisis; its artivism crucially juxtaposes earlier refugee crises of World War II and the Cold War with the current one. The ZPS reminds its audiences of the origin of today's asylum regime in the aftermath of the Holocaust (Carens 2013, 192) in ways that challenge Germany's present-day exclusionary border policies. The "borderscape" that the ZPS brings into view in their performance art thus enables a wide-ranging analysis of the changing nature of Europe's borders, the thanatopolitics of the EU's border regime, and new possibilities of political intervention.2 We argue that the ZPS constitutes the artistic expression of the emerging field of critical border studies (CBS) and its emphasis on the performativity of borders.

The ZPS's grassroots art and activism has engaged thousands, as audiences and participants, to embody and perform the critiques offered by CBS and to recognize their everyday actions and their individual and collective dissent as practices actively constituting borderscapes and, most importantly, the life and death of migrants themselves.3 We argue, however, that the dead at Europe's borders index a stage anterior even to this "bare life" in Giorgio Agamben's terms, drawing parallels to what feminist theorists of the black diaspora identify as the political violence enacted on racialized subjects that creates abject flesh without minds or bodies (Spillers 1987; Wynter 2003; Weheliye 2014). Given this process of dehumanization, we contend that what Alexander Weheliye identifies as the "enfleshment" of migrants' bodies actively constructs a transient, unrepresentable, and thus immediately forgotten nonhuman trapped in the non-place of the border; the migrant and the border simultaneously contrast and yet produce the immortal citizen nation-spaces of Europe. To sustain the immortality of nations, these imagined communities can only include living or dead citizens and dead migrants, but must exclude living migrants from their continuing collective memory. However, by including the migrant's exhumation and then her symbolic burial among the many memorial...


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pp. 281-304
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