Rising Rights, Unbound Islands, and Contingent Movements

Laura McLean

In her book ‘Australia and the Insular Imagination’, Suvendrini Perera seeks to invert established imaginaries of the island continent. She pursues the idea that ‘what constitutes and defines Australia is not ground, as terrestrial land mass, but rather the variable element that envelops and overlaps it’.In opening up the bounded state of the nation to the oceans that surround it, Perera introduces an ontological shift counter to popular imaginaries that seek to close off Australia from a world in flux.

Perera was one of seven figures to join us in September last year for a symposium that took another island nation, the Maldives, as its focus. Held in Venice at the library of the Historical Archives of Contemporary Art of the Venice Biennale, the Contingent Movements Symposium invited Perera, along with Mariyam Shiuna, TJ Demos, Marianne Franklin, Nabil Ahmed, Davor Vidas, and Irit Rogoff to explore possible futures for the country, which is threatened by rising sea levels. The Maldives, an archipelago of 1192 islands scattered though the Indian Ocean southwest of India, has an average elevation of just 1.5 metres above sea level. It is believed that the nation could become uninhabitable by the end of this century.

Speculating on the contingent circumstances Maldivians may face as a permanently displaced population, and exploring these within a global context, the symposium sought to explore the potential humanitarian and cultural consequences of this scenario. It emerged from a research project developed by myself with Hanna Husberg and Kalliopi Tsipni-Kolaza for the inaugural Maldives Pavilion, curated by Chamber of Publics Secrets. Our project, the Contingent Movements Archive, examines the future effects national and international law might have on human movements, and how mobile technology and the Internet could assist in preserving a displaced culture, while helping dispersed communities adapt and connect. The former president of the Maldives posited Australia, India, and Sri Lanka as potential sites for relocation, and the viability of this proposal, or lack thereof, is a specific focus. The core platform for the project is the Contingent Movements Archive website which gathers together artworks and texts that think through these issues in different ways. As a quasi archive in itself, it also explores the proposal that before the nation is lost, the knowledges, languages, codes, images, and objects that make up Maldivian culture could be digitized and uploaded to create a national archive, or even a proxy nation, for a diaspora without homeland.

In grounding a study of the geo-political repercussions of sea level rise in the Maldives, the dissolution of the circumscribed island object has come to represent a more general planetary unbinding. The eroding shores of the country signify an ontological loss of definition that more broadly applied has immense repercussions for territorial and human rights worldwide, and renders fundamentally unethical an insular imagination.

What follows is an outline of how these ideas unfolded over the two days of the Contingent Movements Symposium.

Researcher at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and Director of Projects at Maldives Research, Mariyam Shiuna opened the event with a discussion of the history and changing socio-cultural landscape of the Maldives. The nation has recently undergone a process of democratization, though not without some difficulties. The instance of an island nation deeply involved in political processes highlighted one of the key themes of the symposium, that of real and existing islander agency, or more widely the agency of the global south in the face of climate change. Political allegiance, says Shiuna, now joins one’s island of origin as a definer of identity in the Maldives. For her the geography, the materiality of place that grounds identity and culture is irreplicable, and so she asks, what is the Maldives without its islands?

Writer and critic TJ Demos went on to discuss how artists and activists are confronting an environment in crisis, positioned at the intersection of materialist practices, political structures, and economic flows. Framing these intersections within theories of political ecology, Demos stressed their connection to climate justice, which demands the inclusion of marginalised people in negotiation processes, in recognition that climate change jeopardises human rights and exacerbates socio-economic inequalities worldwide. Critiquing the Argos Collective’s treatment of Maldivans in their work, as depoliticised subjects without agency, Demos emphasized the need for a global transnationalism that avoids mirroring modes of neo-colonialism.


Born in Samoa and raised in New Zealand, Marianne Franklin co-chairs the Internet Rights and Principles Dynamic Coalition  at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum Speaking from this position grounded in global media and transnational communications, Franklin sought to unpick the problematics of archiving a nation online. Computers and the Internet, she reminds us, are cultural artifacts constituted by attitudes and knowledges. They must be seen as made up of norms, values, codes, and hierarchies, and as hubs of access and control. Who, she asks, would control a national digital archive? Where would it be stored? A sustainable archive would have to take into account the exponential acceleration of technology, and would do best to avoid reliance on corporate infrastructure to ensure perpetual access. For Franklin, the necessary principles for creating a national archive – of freedom, openness, and governance – are not so different to principles of human rights we might want for the Internet of the future. While rights online have been stressed at UN level for the last five years, it is only now, after revelations about the surveillance network of the US and other Western governments, that this issue has come to the fore more widely. Essential to the conversation too is a consideration of the multiplication of the hot, energy hungry server farms that keep the Internet running. The natural and technological are more bound than we first imagine, she stresses. Connectivity is deeply embedded in the Earth’s surface.

Speaking around certain questions of maritime law, refugee law, and their place in an emerging spatial politics, artist Nabil Ahmed’s presentation took the title ‘HIC SVNT LEONES (Here are lions)’, a term used by medieval cartographers to depict areas on a map that were not yet discovered or were considered dangerous. Relating this to an island lying between India and Bangladesh, Ahmed drew attention to the significance of definition in claiming rights. This anonymous landmass was for a while terra nullius, land belonging to no one. Its definition came about when vast quantities of coal and gas resources were discovered in the Bay of Bengal, and the two countries made territorial claims. The contested island now has two names, one Indian and one Bangladeshi.

Ahmed notes that the term terra nullius is derived from res nullius, a thing not yet the object of rights of any specific subject. This is of particular relevance regarding islander futures. A defined territory is one of the key constituting elements of statehood. Should all land be lost to the sea, a nation could be legally dissolved, and citizens would have to acquire other nationalities and be absorbed into other states, or be rendered stateless2.Under current international law there is no such thing as a ‘climate refugee’. Refugee status, and therefore the protection of human rights by host nations, is not currently afforded to individuals displaced by ‘natural’ forces3. To be rendered res nullius then, a legal non-subject, is to be stripped of any claim to rights.

This looming issue was taken up by Davor Vidas in his talk ‘The Anthropocene and International Law: Challenges of Sea Level Rise for the 21st Century’. Vidas is Director of the International Law of the Sea Programme at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, and a member of the Anthropocene Working Group, which was established by the International Commission of Stratigraphy with the mandate to ‘examine the statigraphic basis for the term Anthropocene, and consider justification for its possible formalisation’. The significance of this formalisation would be the subsequent adoption of the term in international law, and hence the legal acknowledgement we have entered a new geological era precipitated by human activity. This would have huge repercussions for the International Law of the Sea, says Vidas, which applies to 71% of the Earth’s surface, and is to a great extent about territorial rights. The national boundaries of coastal states are presently defined according to a baseline fixed under the stable conditions of the Holocene. In the case of sea level rise this core aspect of statehood may become questioned, requiring a profound reexamination of accepted perspectives in international law, in which the primacy of human rights will have to be recognised, perhaps even above territorial rights.

A panel discussion fluctuated around the idea of surpassed baselines. Climate change may be in the air, says Vidas, but when something is in the rock, for lawyers this is rock hard evidence. Yet geological time, Franklin points out, in the complete opposite of web time. While two years ago it was not clear that rights needed to be recognised online, by now enough evidence has accumulated to argue that they do. The UN Human Rights Council stresses that these rights are existing human rights. These may form a baseline, says Franklin, but today when our personal data travels in a split second across several sovereign territories, in particular the US, current practice is preempting any current edifice of law. The result is the emerging need for a form of human rights that trump sovereignty. At present, the possible primacy of human rights above territorial rights or state sovereignty would sound entirely heretic to any textbook of international law, says Vidas. Yet this will change. A biocentric model that goes beyond even an anthropocentric one has already emerged in nations such as Boliva and Equador, points out Demos, where laws of the Rights of Mother Earth have been instituted.

In her talk that followed, Perera, who is Deputy Director of the Australia-Asia-Pacific Institute at Curtin University, considered how the island states of the Maldives, Australia, and Sri Lanka have been cast into states of ontological, environmental and political crisis. As a political and imaginative figure, the island projects wholeness in Western epistemologies. British colonialism introduced this idea of wholeness to Australia and Sri Lanka, where previously a more heterogeneous sense of geography existed. The more material and elemental notion of the island as a kind of geobody, says Perera, suggests a corporeality that is deeply felt, and experienced as whole and organic. Yet while the borders of Australia are demarcated, withdrawn, and legally defined as sea on the migration map, refugees moving through its waters in their boats and with their bodies are also writing new geographies. Between the coastal porosity writ by these movements, and the dissolution of small island nations, Perera finds hope. The insular political, territorial, and spatial order of Australia might be opened up, she says, if the country were to recognise its role in contributing to the rising seas that displace islanders with a similar ethical stance extended, for instance, to victims of the 2004 tsunami. Though wrought by crisis, she sees this shift in ontologies as an opportunity to reconcile ideas of natural and political disaster.

In her concluding discussion, curator and writer Irit Rogoff reflected on the relation of subjects to systems. Geographies, says Rogoff, are utterly dependent on having a position. You have to map out from somewhere. Exhausted geographies are the abdication of a singular position from which you can map the terrain, which forms a set of possibilities for multiple identifications that will not adhere to a singular and hegemonic set of guiding principles. The case here, however, surpasses that. There is a recognition, says Rogoff, that all this is premised on an interest in the relation of subjects to systems, but not through subjectification. Most of the understanding that we have of the relations of subjects to systems is through modes of subjectification, but what would one have at one’s disposal if one began to produce a set of relations that was not produced through subjectification? How can a structure have a subjectivity? For Rogoff, the notion of exhausted geographies has fragmented into a multiple set of positions that are far less binary. Rather than people experiencing a structure through a process of recognition of their own subjectification, for her the primary question is does this structure that you are talking about have a subjectivity, does it allow for a fragmented subject that is consciously aware of the multiplicity of its own subject positions?

From the transnational ethics of political ecology, to rising rights and decentered subjectivities, the surpassing of theoretical boundaries in the symposium was a positive move towards understanding the consequences of an unbound earth for an island nation. The paradoxical space opened up in this enquiry was partly explored at UNESCO two months later, when we presented works by Nabil Ahmed, Rosa Barba, Drew Denny, Heidrun Holzfeind and Christoph Draeger, Benedetta Panission, and Marian Tubbs in an unpacking of the Contingent Movements Archive for the exhibition Adapting in the Anthropocene. The archive continues to expand online.

  1. Perera, Suvendrini, ‘Australia and the Insular Imagination: Beaches, Border, Boats, and Bodies’, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2009, p.1
  2. Park, Susin ‘Climate Change and the Risk of Statelessness: The Situation of Low-lying Island States’, UNHCR Legal and Protection Policy Research Series, May, 2011 http://www.unhcr.org/4df9cb0c9.html (accessed 18/6/13)
  3. Guterres, António, ‘Climate change, natural disasters and human displacement: UNHCR Legal and Protection Policy Research Series, August, 2009 http://www.unhcr.org/4901e81a4.html (accessed 18/6/13)


Laura McLean (Sydney/London) is a curator and writer, and Deputy Chair of Runway. Holding an MFA (Distinction) in Curating from Goldsmiths College, and a BVA (Hons...


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