Venice is a city known for boats. Throughout history, it has been a navel superpower, and today, given its 150 canals, boats are still a main way to travel – and not just for tourists looking for a romantic gondola ride. However, with the 58th Venice Biennale, another boat has graced the ‘City of Water.’ For the duration of the biennale, Barca Nostra, which means ‘Our Ship’ in Italian, will be on show at Venice’s Arsenale. Barca Nostra is part of an ongoing project created by Christoph Büchel alongside the Assessorato regionale dei beni culturali e dell’identità siciliana, the Comune di Augusta, the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015, and others.
The ship, described as ‘a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration, engaging real and symbolic borders and the (im)possibility of freedom of movement of information and people,’ is the fishing boat that became the tomb for as many as 1,100 people in 2015. The shipwreck was the deadliest in living memory and when it sank, it was carrying somewhere between 700 to 1,100 refugees when it was only meant to carry about 15 crew members. In other words, it had as many as five people within one square meters. The boat sunk about 200 kilometers south of the Italian island of Lampedusa and 100 kilometers from Libya in the Sicilian Channel. Only 28 people survived the tragedy when the fishing boat collided with a Portuguese freighter attempting to come to the boat’s aid.
In 2016, the Italian government decided to retrieve the wreckage in 2016 at a cost of €9.5 million. After a failed attempt in the same year, they finally surfaced the boat on June 30th, 2016 from its resting place, 370 meters below sea level. Since then, the Italian government went to work to identify as many of the victims as possible. The boat then moved to an Italian Naval base’s refueling station in Melilli where it has been since.
When the boat arrived in Melilli, the Comitato 18 Aprile 2015 was created to preserve the memory of the wreckage and the people who died because of it. After that, a number of proposals were put forth as to what to do with the ship, including in 2016 when the Prime Minister of Italy suggesting the wreckage be sent to Brussels for the European Union to ‘take responsibility for the “scandal of migration” so that similar tragedies [would] not occur in the future.’
Finally on April 18th, 2019, four years to the date after the wreck, the Italian Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the Italian Ministry of Defense chose to hand the shipwreck over to the Commune of Augusta through the Barca Nostra project. For the first time, the boat left the Navy Base in about three years and made its way to Venice.
The vessel stands in Venice as a ‘symbolic transfer of the status of the shipwreck that changes its legal status from a former object of court evidence to an artefact,’ a ‘relic of human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration,’ an ‘dedicated not only to the victims of the tragic event in 2015 and the people involved in its recovery, but to our mutual responsibility representing the collective policies and politics that create such wrecks.’