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The destruction of The List at the Liverpool Biennial is deeply troubling

7 August 2018

Reading through the first page of The List, what’s most immediately, crushingly sad is that, for every entry where the cause of death is accompanied by a name – ‘Omar “Susi”(boy, 16); deliberately crushed by truck near Port of Ceuta (ES) after driver chased after refugees’ – there are five more for which that column is marked with ‘N.N’. The Latin is nomen nescio – ‘I do not know the name’ – but it’s hard, reading in English, not to think that the words ‘no name’ hide behind the letters. It is almost a grim relief to find the second page more generously peopled. The 39 who ‘drowned when small wooden boat capsized off coast of the Spanish enclave of Melilla’ had presumably been furnished with ID cards, for each of their identities is inscribed here. ‘Alpha Oumar Diallo (man, 19)’; ‘Mamadou Dian Diallo (man, 21)’; ‘Amadou Bailo Diallo (man, 19)’ – prose would buckle under the weight of the named and unnamed, but The List goes on. As of 5 May this year, it documents 34,361 instances of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants perishing on the way to Europe since 1993, and this number is growing.

The Turkish artist Banu Cennetoğlu has been involved with The List since 2002, when she came across it on the website of UNITED for Intercultural Action, an Amsterdam-based NGO. As an artist whose work has long been centred on modes of documenting the experience of refugees, Cennetoğlu felt compelled to do what she could to heighten the visibility of the database – it has since been released in pamphlets, newspapers, on transport networks, and on billboards, from Amsterdam to Greece, Bulgaria, the US, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Turkey. Most recently, it has been displayed as part of the Liverpool Biennial, where The List in its entirety was pasted on the hoardings of Great George Street. There are moving photographs of visitors or passers-by reading through The List, and accounts of the impact it has had upon the throng of commuters who pass the hoardings daily. ‘It’s deeply distressing’, the poet Eleanor Rees wrote on Twitter, ‘as it should be.’ On Wednesday 1 August, however, the Liverpool Biennial announced that the work had been torn down.

No cause has yet been determined – there were early suggestions that it had been mistakenly removed by Liverpool city council, but a council spokesman has since told the Guardian that he was ‘100% sure’ this was not the case. The Biennial has appealed for information, but there is little to go on. As of 3 August, the incident had not been reported to police – one wonders whether this would be different if Cennetoğlu had not taken the principled stance of refusing to class her presentation of the database as an artwork, and therefore to assert intellectual property or ascribe it a monetary value. One hopes that details of the work’s destruction come to light, and that the immediate and obvious conclusions that all but demand to be drawn are disproved. For now, however – and especially in light of last weekend’s news that 12 men ransacked Bookmarks, Bloomsbury’s independent, socialist bookshop, chanting far-right slogans and destroying book displays, with one wearing a Donald Trump mask – it’s hard to dismiss the symbolism of the act. There are those who wish that witnesses like these would vanish, leaving no trace, N.N..

Following this article’s publication it was reported that the Liverpool Biennial reinstalled The List on Monday 5 August.