This is Not a Ship

Mobile Borders, Istanbul Modern, Transnational Surreal

Surreality overtook me when I found myself unexpectedly confronting a gargantuan cruise ship moored alongside the Istanbul Modern art museum in June 2013. The enormous vessel imposed a kind of movable landscape, as if a towering mobile skyscraper-of-the-sea had deftly sidled into the passenger terminal next to the museum’s prime location on the west coast of the Bosporus. The ship’s migratory geography constituted an intrusive “mobile border” encroaching upon the city of Istanbul with the zero-setback arrogance of unbidden, impinging globalization. A walled blockade higher than the Euro/Mediterranean or US/Mexico border fortresses could ever be, this cruise ship entirely occluded the museum café’s usual expansive Bosporus vista. Its intrusion was every bit as exemplary of the global compression of local space as are the landlubber luxury residential towers, designer-driven shopping malls, high-rise office buildings and other global dreamworlds now insinuated amid Istanbul’s disinvested and demolished neighborhoods, their populations decanted further off into the expansive cityscape. As Turkish urban scholars have amply demonstrated for 20 years now, since the 1980s such dreamworld outposts of neoliberal urbanism have, like the ship, drifted in to restructure this and other megacities of the Global South, uncanny reminders of the dizzying collapse of space into the transnational Real. In riposte, only days earlier thousands of Gezi Park protestors had been roughly expelled in a haze of teargas from Istanbul’s Taksim Square by riot police, and even now continued nightly skirmishes in nearby Beyoglu.

This got me thinking about the Mediterranean cruise ship as a mobile border technology whose movements at the interface between Europe and its others assist in construction of a securitized European space. There are clear parallels here with the way Caribbean cruise tourism grew out of the 19th C multinational colonial plantation system and charted a sphere of influence in the Americas for US corporate/military interests. The placeless place of the ship, Foucault’s heterotopia par excellence, is indeed “closed in on itself and at the same time poised in the infinite ocean”; but hasn’t its “reserve of imagination” been troped toward stealth monitoring of the shifting boundaries of the transnationalized state?
For certain, the ship’s stature secures sovereign subjectivities for its European passengers. Surveillant agents of the mobile Schengen border regime, these global voyeurs leaned with an insouciant air of infinite entitlement upon the ship’s wrap-around promenade, regarding the city in turmoil, imagining their purveying tourist’s gaze unreturned. As the ship readied for departure to continue its “unforgettable adventure in this spice-scented slice of the world,” I wondered if the passengers were as oblivious to the Turkish protestors’ demands for democracy as to the desires for expanded opportunities that inspired the risky voyages of clandestine migrants whose desperate passage to Europe in leaky vessels had likely crossed their ship’s Mediterranean wake. The movable maritime spatial spectacle of the cruise ship had transformed Istanbul’s modernity into a transnational surreal, posing new challenges to questions of borders, mobilities, political subjectivities, and global justice.

With inspiration from:

  • • Akcan, Esra. (Land)Fill İstanbul. Twelve Scenarios for a Global City/Küresel Şehre Oniki Senaryo, Istanbul: 124/3 Publishing, 2004
  • • Azem, İmre. Ekümenopolis: Ucu Olmayan Şehir, 2012 (watch this fabulous film right here:
  • • Davis, Mike and Daniel Bertrand Monk, eds. Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism. The New Press 2007
  • • Dowling, Ross K., ed. Cruise Ship Tourism. CAB International 2006
  • • Göktürk, Deniz, Levent Soysal, İpek Türeli, eds. Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe? Routledge 2010
  • • Keydar, Çağlar, ed. Istanbul: Between the Global and the Local. Rowman & Littlefield 1999.
    Letsch, Constanze, “A year after the protests, Gezi Park nurtures the seeds of a new Turkey.” The Guardian May 29, 2014
  • • Magritte, René. Painting entitled The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe), 1929.
  • • Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16(1)1986: 22-27 (orig 1967)
  • • Thomson [Cruise holidays]

Kristin Koptiuch is usually found considering how to practice anthropology as much performance art as social science. Fieldwork in Cairo prepared her for Middle East studies, but the urbanism she absorbed in that megacity detoured her focus to global urbanism and transnational migration. In her efforts to comprehend the un-urban urbanism of Phoenix where she’s lived for two decades, Koptiuch adopts a cinematic gaze to map in cool ways the (trans)formative urbanism of this sprawling, sizzling-but-it’s-a-dry-heat edge city. She’s a fan of digital humanities for enhancing fun and critical thinking in research and teaching. But she also loves “being there”; she voyaged around the world on a ship when she taught on Semester at Sea in 2006, and has scarcely stopped traveling since. Anchored by visual imagery, abstractions steeped in social theory become concrete and engaging to Arizona State University students in her learning-from-the-city and migration courses. Check out details at or connect at

global urbanism / transnational migration / digital humanities
twitter: @koptiuch

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