F.L.O.A.T.S: Floating Laboratory On Action and Theory at Sea

(A collaborative project by Nikolas Kosmatopoulos, AUB and Marwa Alshakry, Columbia University)

The Floating Laboratory on Action and Theory at Sea (FLOATS) is an experimental global conversation inspired, motivated and literally moved by the sea. As such, it is located nowhere permanently, but rather it is rotating in the Mediterranean Sea, along other innate and non-innate flows, such as merchandise, minerals and militaries, occasionally navigating through them. FLOATS seeks to be a continuous critical commentary on the perils of state-oriented sovereignty and land-centered social theory. It takes seriously the idea of “floating” and the state of contemporary rootlessness, as in migration, therefore, while facilitating floating conversations over questions of social theory and the environment, including the relationship between nature and humanity. Towards these ends, the Floating Lab wishes to produce, proliferate and project theoretical and artistic commentaries and action formats on emerging collective visions of utopia – and their extension beyond the human – as well as to provide the platform for the construction of future political imaginaries.

FLOATS will begin with a three-year-long first round (2017-2019). This phase will include organizational meetings, teaching workshops, conferences and public events in rotating sites around the Mediterranean, Lesvos, Tunis, Beirut. (see appendix at end for the full two year program). FLOATS will facilitate collaborations between scholars, artists and activists based in the region, and establish networks of communication and exchange between academic centers around the Mediterranean Sea, such as the American University of Beirut, the University of the Aegean in Greece,  the American University in Cairo, Bogazici University in Istanbul, among others.

2017 Theme: Utopia and the Sea

The sea had always a prominent – albeit unexplored – place in the history of utopias. The utopian genre in literature begins officially half a millennium ago with Thomas More’s homonymous novel (1516), which depicts Utopia as a communitarian island discovered by a traveller lost at sea. Ever since, the tropes of the traveller, the island, and the sea at large had been constitutive elements in many subsequent utopian discourses: ‘The New Atlantis’ by Francis Bacon and ‘The Pain Island’ by Henry Neville in the 17th century, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ by Jonathan Swift and ‘The Description of Spensona’ by Thomas Spens in the 18th century, and a plethora of utopian novels in the 19th century, such as the Travel to Ikaria (Cabet 1842), ‘News from Nowhere’ (William Morris 1890) and “The Island of Dr. Moreau” by Herbert Wells, the most influential writer of utopian literature and science fiction. This romantic period, in which writers articulated their optimistic versions of liberating eutopias (good utopias), was followed in the 20th century by a pessimistic period in the genre, in which utopian novels were mostly depicting totalitarian dystopias, indeed monstrous fusions of state, science and technology (examples are Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984). The sea was crucial in the imaginary constructions of these early anti-authoritarian utopias in this literature as opposed to the later authoritarian dystopian novel, as categorized by Maria-Luiza Berneri. In the anti-authoritarian, utopian novel, after all, the sea had always mediated between some dystopian present land here and a distant, hopeful utopian future there across the sea.

Contrary to this popular literature, the sea – like the concept of utopia itself- does not feature much in our current social theories. , If anything, the sea seems lately to assume protagonist role in the articulation of present-day dystopias, such as the liquid refugee cemetery of the Mediterranean. In this regard, the sea is the reflecting interface of multiple dystopias-in-the-making: murderous border regimes, impending ecological disasters (oil spills in Atlantic; plastic islands in the Pacific), world-threatening naval stand-offs (South China Sea), but also modern capitalism as such, for which the sea is the basic lifeline both for energy transport and communication (under sea cables).

It is clear that the sea will always have a prominent place in the future of utopias, either in their eutopian or in their dystopian forms. However, given this crucial place in our collective life on the planet, it is shocking how little we think about, with and through the framework of the sea today. In social sciences, most research eclipses the sea in favor of the dominant conceptual frames of methodological nationalism, land-based rights discourses and regional area studies. Yet, recently there have been some efforts to focus on the sea itself from a materialist and object-oriented perspective, thus adding the maritime view to an epistemological movement that seeks to study and understand the relationship between nature and culture beyond the typical hegemonic anthropogenic borders of collective life. Art has long embraced the sea as an important field for reflection, emancipation and awareness, while much activism has as of late taken place in the sea in order to challenge diverse versions of enclosure and siege, imposed by states and their armies (Gaza Ships, Refugees Welcome etc.).

FLOATS aims at bringing together these diverse currents and flows. It consists of a semi-public intensive course and a series of related public events: an open conference, an exhibition, and public film screenings in two annually rotating locations in the Mediterranean Sea. FLOATS thus hopes to address the entanglement between common presents and future utopias from the perspective of the sea and to raise awareness of the possibility of thinking and acting via the sea or through an aquatic framework; It invites academics, artists, activists and the public in creating ‘small-scale models’ of utopias in both a literal and metaphorical sense and to contribute to the active proliferation of floating formats for the future.

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