Research Project

About the research project: 

In which ways is the European “refugee crisis” represented and how are those representations managed by the media, politicians, activists, and the public? What are the mechanisms and processes that give the crisis a certain aesthetic value and how are they transformed into a form of visual symbolic capital for narrating the story of an island, a country, and the whole of the European Union? From the large-scale charity exhibitions of Ai Wei Wei to the symbolic use of Lesvos as an unsuccessful and problematic example of Europeaness in Nigel Farage’s campaign in favour of Brexit: Lesvos becomes a synecdoche for the multiple narratives of the global refugee crisis. Correspondingly, from graffiti and street art works in urban centres within and beyond Greece, which portray Lesvos and its inhabitants as paradigms of self-organised, spontaneous solidarity, to the Nansen Prize that elevates local society as an example of humanity: the island and its inhabitants are presented as exemplars of humanitarianism and solidarity. Through these conflicting depictions, Lesvos is a case study of the power of representation in the construction of subjectivities and populations as well as in the formation of concrete relationships, actions, and policies.

Lesvos constitutes an exemplar case through which we can study the processes and mechanisms of the construction and transformation of the nation-state, the European Union, and the porosity of their borders. As the island is transformed into a European hotspot, its borderline is transformed into what  Nicholas De Genova calls the ‘spectacle of the border’ (2015). As a result, new stereotypical representations are created through which one can view the relationship between Greece and Europe, citizen and migrant; but also, the polarities between the recognition of rights and their infringement, as well as the reconstitution of common ground for collective actions. These dual relationships form the central conceptual axis of our research.

Ιn particular, this research aims to map the various representations of the ‘refugee crisis’ through both the hotspot regime and the performative acts of commoning (the creation of the commons). Methodologically, the research material is collected from two sources: (a) field research on the island of Lesvos and (b) corresponding representations in the rest of Greece, Europe and the world—or, to put it differently, how Lesvos is being portrayed outside the physical space of the island. This mapping not only aims to collect and classify the multiple representations of Lesvos, but also to reflect and critically locate these representations in the visual economy of the refugee crisis, in which such images circulate.

Therefore, the main aim of the research is the creation of an Atlas—an online and interactive database—in which the refugee crisis, the hotspot regime, and the common spaces that have been created are brought together through the emergence and critical confrontation of the multiple representations of Lesvos. In this light, the philosophy and function of the Atlas itself is an act of representation and commoning; that is, a process of writing, sharing and disseminating both the local and mobile history. This process includes narratives and untold stories, collective memories, and the daily experiences of local populations, who encounter their migrant and refugee counterparts. Together, they create visible and invisible actions and demands.

Research Questions

This research is based on the following central research questions:

  • In what ways is the refugee crisis represented and reproduced at the local, national, European and international level?
  • Though which mechanisms and processes are these representations conceptualised? How do they become a symbolic capital in telling the story of an island, a country, and the whole of the European Union?
  • How do we interpret and critique the multiple and (in many cases contradictory) depictions of Lesvos in a context of representational crisis?
  • How do we construct epistemological positions, established patterns of perception, and conditions of visibility by analysing Lesvos as a time-bound border spectacle and hotspot regime?

Finally, how, within this particular moment, is it possible to create common ground and practices of commoning?

Research Hypotheses 

In recent years, Lesvos has contributed to the creation of new representational stereotypes, through which the history of Lesvos and the place itself are sometimes reproduced as a “state of emergency” and sometimes as the locus of necessity for the emergence of new forms of social life and action. Primarily, we note that Lesvos constitutes the most exemplary case through which we can observe the construction and transformation of the EU, notions of the nation-state, and their fluid borders, on which European immigration and asylum policies take place. 

In this light of the dual crisis we mentioned above, we propose that the crisis of representation contributes to the crisis of representative democracy. Lesvos becomes a case study in order to recast the political conditions of representation as a form of political and democratic action. The island is, at the same time, a space established by the logic of the hotspot, a scene of international political activism; but also, an epistemological tool for collectively devising and constructing alternative ways of governing life, knowledge, visibility, and representational reproduction. The proposed study aims to disentangle the processes surrounding the production of Lesvian subjectivity. This becomes possible due to the effects of the aforementioned processes in producing social impact, representational crises (in both the aesthetic and political senses), as well as, predetermined political identities. Therefore, the redefinition of Lesvos through the approach of combining new spaces, populations, relationships, and actions is necessary and possible through this research.

Conceptual Framework

Amongst the multiple dimensions of the contemporary global crisis, are the mass movements of populations from the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African countries to EU territories, mainly across its southeastern border. Like most conceptualisations of the notion of the crisis, so too, the ‘migration’ or ‘refugee crisis’ is ‘constructed’ (Rajaram, 2015); in other words, it is a representation. The rhetorical ambiguity between the ‘migration’ versus the ‘refugee’ crisis reveals the categories on which the global system of governance of population movements is based (De Genova in Bojadžijev and Mezzadra, 2015). In order to avoid such ambiguity, in the present text whenever we use the first term (‘migration crisis’) we refer to the discursive contract that includes the second (‘refugee crisis’). 

The hegemonic narrative of the ‘migration crisis’ contributes to a dramatisation of the situation that produces categories of ‘passive’ subjects. At the same time, this narrative reinforces specific forms of intervention and management that follow the logic of militarised humanitarianism (Hyndman, 2000). In both  instances, a link is implied between ‘crisis’, ‘social imagination’, and an economy of representation (Azoulay, 2008). Correspondingly, amongst the latest ways to manage and regulate the movement of migrant populations—apart from the state’s borders—are hotspots, which are located in border regions, at the limits of European territories.

The political management of migration through the logic of the hotspot, as in the case of the refugee crisis, reinforces dominant perceptions of the Other and produces further inequalities, creating a regime of insecurity and fear of the ‘dangers’ ostensibly posed by people’s mobility. As such, migration management invests in a social imaginary that implies a constant state of ‘exception’ and ’emergency’ that requires immediate resolution; in this way, it legitimises dominant forms of intervention and practices of governmentality. Through this vicious circle, the logic of hotspots reinforces the dominant conceptions and representations of the Other that, in turn, confirm the hotspot regime. 

Apart from various representations of the migration crisis and the hotspot regime, the movements and migrations of populations are of great interest to us because they constitute a transgressive process that challenges the sovereignty of national territories on which policies of exclusion are based. Specifically, mobile populations have encountered and have, since, co-existed with solidarity-based initiatives and actions, creating a ‘crowd’ (Hardt and Negri, 2004/2011). Along with these encounters, migrations and movements create a mobile network of emergent common actions and struggles. The creation of a commons provides the conditions for (a) challenging the crisis as ‘a state of emergency’ requiring ‘humanitarian’ and ‘management’ interventions; (b) cultivating solidarity across borders and beyond fear; and, finally, (c) the creation of cracks in enclosures of surveillance and control (Holloway, 2010). Thus, such actions to create a new commons respond to the technocratic ‘tragedy of global commonalities’ (Andersson, 2016: 12), since, in contrast to this tragedy, they not only do not constitute a ‘crisis’, but rather, constitute a struggle against individualisation, and against politics of representation and borders.

Thus, this research proposes a mapping of the various representations of the ‘migration crisis’—through the hotspot regime, the performative acts and the new, emergent commons—in/of Lesvos that have taken place both locally in the island, in Greece, in Europe, and also globally. Such a mapping suggests the metonymic relationship between Lesvos and Greece, repositioning Greece as the hotspot of Europe (Papataxiarchis, 2016; see Cabot, 2016). The island of Lesvos has been a key entry point for migrant and refugee populations (Troubeta, 2012; Petrakou and Iosifidis, 2012; Petrakou et al., 2015) from the 1990s until today. At the same time, it is a prime example of the construction and transformation of the nation-state, the EU and its fluid borders, on which European immigration and asylum policies are taking place.

Drawing on the concept of ‘spectacle of the border’ we note that from the beginning of the so-called ‘migration crisis’ until today certain representations of Lesvos as a ‘deathscape’ (Bojadžijev and Mezzadra, 2015) have been circulated, in which the coastline is shown to be covered by tonnes of plastic boats, life jackets, clothes and other personal belongings. The same coastlines are guarded by the European border guard Frontex, which has been providing operational support to the Greek port authorities since 2006. The function of Frontex became more crucial in 2011, with the European Agreement on strengthening control and prevention of irregular migration at the Greek-Turkish land and sea borders. The deployment of NATO forces to the Aegean Sea followed soon after.

Concerning the hotspot regime, given that its technocratic definition describes it as a space for arranging, classifying and channeling ‘mixed’ migrant and refugee populations (EC, 2015)—that is, materialising a distinction between those entitled to international protection (asylum) and those to whom it is denied—virtually, the hotspot of Lesvos is made visible through an earlier and ‘naked’ separation (Agamben, 1998; Athanasiou, 2007; Athanasiou & Tsimouris, 2013) between life and death, survival and extinction, rights and precarity. 

At once border and node of crucial importance, we could liken Lesvos to Europe’s social and political ‘container’; since, like other hotspots in the Mediterranean, it encompasses not only migrant and refugee ‘populations’ (who, for example, at the detention centre of Moria are forced, in the ‘best case,’ to live in a container); but also, through the trafficking of representations of it, since Lesvos is subject to, surrounds, and channels, the “crisis of Europe” more generally.

At the same time, mobile populations are interspersed with a multitude of initiatives and actions based on solidarity and provision (providing essentials and clothing, housing solutions, collective kitchens on the street, online donations, etc.) Going beyond the notions of the state and its institutions as the only legitimate actors involved, such initiatives take place along the coastline of the island and in its interior, as well as in the rest of Greece and elsewhere in Europe and the world. The precondition for these actions, but also as one of their results, is the depiction and visibility of Lesvos as a quintessential border or as the “gateway to Europe”; but also, as the main front for a rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis.

However, on the level of daily reality on the island, there are many aspects that comprise the living conditions of the local community, beyond ‘the migration issue.’ Many who come to Lesvos, either as journalists, solidarians, and NGO staff, treat it as a ‘non-place,’ or alternately, as a ‘heterotopia’; one of the reasons for this is the socially constructed image they have of it (Petropoulou et al., 2016a, 2006b, Alexiou et al., 2016, Micheli et al., 2016, Papachristou et al. 2015). Similarly, many Lesvian residents learn about what is happening next to them only from the media or the Internet, without having ever been to the sites under discussion. 

In this way, through the socially constructed image of the Other and the island that is continually projected, a complex network of relations and articulations is created. In the last period, due to the crisis, many jobs in productive sectors have been lost. On the other hand, more and more young people find work only on temporary contracts in spaces of confinement and control. The combination of these two dynamics raises questions concerning how a whole society orients itself, and how, in the final analysis, it is affected by the image that is constructed of it (Petropoulou, forthcoming).

When these successive cycles meet and come into contact through everyday actions, then unexpected events and new—iconoclastic—images are created, which change the habits of different parties. Overall, we would suggest that, in Lesvos, various realities and regimes that either coexist or conflict (what is certain is that they are intertwined) are concentrated: the geographical and geopolitical location, population movements, control and management, representations and polices of migration and asylum, solidarity actions, the creation of common places, everyday collective practices and acts. 

Therefore, in order to approach the representationally privileged position of Lesvos in what is, in the final analysis, a global crisis of social, political, and economic structures, as well as its reality as a space and the potential for the creation of commons, we will frame the proposed research with concepts drawn from (a) border studies (Mezzandra & Neilson, 2013; De Genova & Tazzioli, 2016; Anderson, Sharma & Wright, 2012); (b) the sociology of crisis and the visualisation of precarity (Tsilimpounidi, 2016); as well as (c) the literature on commoning (Linebaugh, 2008; De Angelis, 2003, 2013; Κιουπκιολής, 2014; Kολέμπας, 2016; Λιερός, 2016; Stavrides, 2011, 2015).


Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, mapping is a constantly evolving process, and, therefore, a way of thinking and acting that instead of representing already existing territories creates new ones. These views have informed a set of of critical, feminist, localised, and radical theoretical approaches to research methodology (Casas-Cortés and Cobarrubias, 2007; Casas-Cortés et al., 2006; Cobarrubias, 2009; Holmes, 2007), as well as the practices and actions of autonomous collectives (Bureau des Etudes, Hackitectura, Iconoclasistas, etc.). The methodology of mapping also plays a significant role as ‘militant research’ (Casas-Cortés and Cobarrubias, 2007; Casas-Cortés, Cobarrubias, Heler, Pezzani, 2017; Collective C.C. et al., 2012) that shapes the Academy as a site of struggles and social relations.

In this light, in this project we propose the process of mapping as a method that activates a different form of knowledge production, in the spirit of experimentation and creativity. We perceive and use it as a tool that provides the necessary space for claiming and transforming reality, and the ability to activate social relations—not only in an abstract context of scientists and researchers—but through the practical implementation of collaborations and common actions. 

In a world wherein territorial jurisdictions are always already violated and invaded, and wherein borders are spaces of radical coincidence and condensation, an urgent need is created not only for mapping but also for remapping. In this sense, remapping means participating in a tense process of renegotiation, in the first instance, of the concept of space—since the local  and global are combined and overlap in many different ways. In addition, remapping deconstructs the hegemonic norms of belonging and the distances between self and Other. As a project, remapping goes beyond closed traditions and the frozen time of national identities; instead, it is involved in ideas of an open present; it promotes diversity; it indicates that decision-making ought to be participatory; and it recognises that its logic and portrayal is not beholden to any absolute truth. In essence, remapping creates the promise of a new place, of a world in which many different worlds fit and belong. It is a dynamic concept that is defined by the passion for change, a fact which makes it an appropriate research tool in the era of overlapping crises.

If we consider maps to be representations of known places and territories, which are always accompanied by specific narratives—strength, power, political and spatial territory—then we could also suggest the reorientation of these maps as a process of remapping of place, but also of the provision of new symbols and representations that would depict new portrayals. Through this conceptual process of eroding borders and creating new dialogical territories, we must be in a position to methodologically include in our mappings all those who remained invisible and marginalised because they could not fit in the cognitive, ethical, or aesthetic map of the dominant world. This approach is consistent with and is inspired by the critique of methodological nationalism that Urlich Beck, amongst others, has advanced (Beck, 2006; Weimer & Glick Schiller, 2002). According to Beck, methodological nationalism reinforces the idea that the nation-state is the only and most reliable container in which we can safely draw conclusions about national societies. Moreover, according to the logic of methodological nationalism, whole populations are treated as ‘illegal,’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘lacking rights’ (Rajaram, 2015). 

In other words, the method of remapping widens horizons of perceptions for the content, the function, the actions, and the aspirations of spaces of encounter and collaboration. It therefore transcends prior closed categorisations, identities, political and ideological origins, and disrupts every concept and practice that tends to accumulate power and to create borders and enclosures. In this way, it displaces the emphasis from the traditional model of action and reaction, indicating new ways of possible articulation of everyday life. That is, remapping is a dynamic method which includes  ‘newcomers’—but also any given Other—without, however, being based on assimilation, incorporation, and homogenisation.

In conclusion, the proposed remapping does not aim simply to collect and classify the multiple representations of Lesvos; rather, it aims to highlight the semantic relations between signifier and signified, especially when the signified takes on the dimensions of universal reproduction of hegemonic ideologies. In this light, the Atlas is a new form of topography that proposes a new process of conceiving and writing not only local history but also mobile history. In other words, it deals with the detailed exploration of a specific place through a dynamic process of becoming in space and time. Consequently, topography is not just concerned with depictions of landscapes; rather, it derives material from narratives and untold stories, collective memories and everyday lived experiences of local populations as these encounter their migrant and refugee counterparts—and, often, as they co-create visible and invisible actions and demands.

The Atlas, which will be a database and online platform, will consist of the articulation of depictions of Lesvos. Both the Atlas and the web space it will occupy make possible the redefinition of the space and time of the study. Thus, space and time are perceived as an articulation of constantly moving and contingent conditions and practices (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).

This research is located in the current conjuncture of the global financial crisis; in the Europe of redrawing of its borders and migration policies; in the Greece of crisis and austerity; and in the Lesvos of confinement, of classification of populations of the move into those who have rights to international protection versus those for whom such rights are  not recognised and who are subject to deportation—that is, of the island, the country, and the continent as hotspot. The objective of the research project—through the use of methodological tools that reveal and contest the spectacularity of the aforementioned, overlapping crises, but also make visible marginalised perceptions, performances, and representations of Lesvian space—is to contribute to the reorientation of the existing state of emergency (austerity, deprivation, marginalisation, and abrogation of human rights) to a state of emergence (creativity, new political subjectivities and collective visions).