Border Controls/Border Movements

by Ayesha Hameed, Leila Pourtavaf

Border Control/Border Movements

In recent years, a new body of work has emerged within contemporary art that they takes national borders as its subject matter. While much of this work explores the complexity of national borders, a primary focus within this body of work has been to document and represent the experience of migrants and refugees across these borders to a primarily Western audience. As such, borders have emerged as yet another discursive space where art and politics meet, engage in dialogue, and clash. Often, what is at stake in such a meeting is the tension between the work of art creating an environment of possible experience for the viewer, asking the viewer to examine her own capacity for empathy, and a voyeuristic Western gaze onto an essentialized subject who is a victim of global forces. In an era where difference, diversity and multiculturalism all become decorative, commercial and stripped of any potency as sites of resistance within contemporary art institutions, it is fair to ask what this new body of work allows and disallows. Is it just another way to elicit empathy from a Western audience through representations of trauma while uncritically engaging with their voyeuristic impulse? Or can it go further to avoid emotional essentialisms and recognize migratory self-determination and inspire social change? The following investigation attempts to unpack some of these tensions by putting a radical perspective on migration and borders alongside some contemporary exhibitions that foreground such issues.

Global Apartheid and the Global Border

In a global context characterized by asymmetrical economic relations between North and South, the effects of colonialism and capitalist globalization compel people to move. While capitalist globalization allows and enforces the free circulation of goods and industry in ways that profit rich industrialized nations, the same freedom of movement is not allowed to the very people these neo-liberal trade policies are exploiting. This creates what many refer to as a system of global apartheid in which migration is a result of global inequalities but at the same time vilified and restricted.

While post 9/11 border security and control has dominated national discourses and government policies in Western nations, contemporary migration patterns and the ways in which they have been controlled are the result of economic policies that pre-date 9/11. Global apartheid is an international system of minority rule whose attributes include: differential access to basic human rights; wealth and power structured by race and place; structural racism embedded in global economic processes, political institutions and cultural assumptions; and the international practice of double standards that assume inferior rights to be appropriate for certain “others”, defined by location, origin, race or gender. Global apartheid is reinforced through borders that are at once rigid and porous. These borders function to maintain a dividing line between the global north and the global south.

In his exploration of the work of architect Teddy Cruz, Rodrigo Tisi describes the ‘Global Border’ as an extension of the US-Mexico border across the world, to the Gibraltar Strait and the Israeli-Palestinian border. These three sites constitute key zones of border-crossing, whose curtailment the post-9/11 security state is founded upon. What marks these three sites is their prevalence in the rhetoric of security and the constancy with which they are crossed, bent and breached.

Hard and Soft Borders

In Border Crossings: Chronicles from the Edge Teddy Cruz describes how the Bush administration has allocated billions of dollars to “harden” the San Diego/San Ysidro – Tijuana checkpoint, making it larger, with more technology at its disposal. The aim to ‘harden’ borders is an interesting paradox, highlighting the permeability and the gravity of movement that it sets itself up against. However, Cruz points out that it is a paradox even in its own terms:

The wall itself was built by the US government, six inches into its own territory, using recycled steel landing mats left over from former George Bush, Senior’s Desert Storm war in Iraq. The message is strong: Stop! Go back! … In reality the wall is an anachronism; it is virtually powerless against the international connections and interests of a world emancipated by flows of information, technology… This is the paradox of a world defined by geographies of contradiction, a world that wants to be simultaneously bordered and borderless.

In other words the rhetoric of the security state is incommensurate with the dictates of neo liberal economics. So it is faced with the paradox of maintaining exclusionary and confining borders, while trying to maintain the cooperation of the political and business elites across the borders of states. This contradiction arises even without taking into account the interventions into - and crossings - of the border. It is in light of the new needs of border control that Eyal Weizman describes the military tactics of Ariel Sharon as a “Geometry of occupation” that proliferates on decentred frontiers and elastic lines, or that underlies Bryan Finocki description of the multiple incarnations the border, the fence, and surveillance technologies conglomerated in the present and imagined in the future.

It is from this more complicated notion of the border that the issue of migration needs to be explored. In his exploration of the multivalent manifestations of mobility, Tim Cresswell describes how in Europe, laws like the 1984 Schengen Agreement increased the mobility of Europeans traveling within the continent only by defining a less mobile counterpart:

This differentiation of mobilities at a continental scale could only be operationalized through a multitude of local spatial reorganizations and practices of surveillance…Few would think of the borders of Europe as being in Manchester, Amsterdam or Bologna, but there they are – a multitude of dispersed nodal borders. It is in these transport nodes that Schengen space was enacted and, indeed, materially produced.

The Schengen accords were represented as the abolition of borders, but they can also be seen as the multiplication of borders and the production of new kinds of borders.

What produces these new borders of course are the people who cross them and more importantly, the people who cannot. In other words, a peculiar balance is created where the lessening of borders for those considered insiders in Europe necessitates the reinforcement of the borders around Europe to keep outsiders out of this ‘free’ zone. More specifically, these borders are designed to keep the poor out of the regions where the wealth of the world has been accumulated. They are also effective in keeping people in low wage areas where global capitalism has confined them. This reality is most starkly in view in places like the U.S. border with Mexico.

While tightened border security is intended to exclude migrants who are deemed “undesirable”, they are not necessarily intended to keep all migrants out. Although the global North in general relies heavily on the labour of non-status migrants, the legally sanctioned right of the state to deny permanent legal status guarantees that a growing number of migrants will be a highly exploited pool of labour. Thus, contemporary migration control is a reflection of larger global injustices.

Frontier Art

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of writings, films and contemporary art that addresses emerging systems of border control. Contemporary explorations of the notions of the border, like the exhibitions “Fronteres” at the CCCB in Barcelona, and “There is no border, there is no border, there is no border, no border, no border, no border, I wish” at the Galerie im Taxispalais, Innbruck highlight that there are many borders whose enforcement are equally important in today’s political climate and they operate on several registers: physically, fictionally, imaginatively, psychically. “Fronteres” for example, explores video and photojournalistic work on nearly a dozen qualitatively different types of borders, including those encountered by Roma Peoples, those without papers, refugees, coupled with calculations of lengths of borders and types of fences. In another context, New York-based Dominican artist Scherezade Garcia describes the prevalence of the border between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as “liquid”. These complicated representations highlight the multiple registers that borders operate upon.

Ursula Biemann and Brian Holmes caution against focusing too much on the scope of repressive border controls. Instead, they focus on giving representational space to actual border practices as experienced by those who are most directly affected by them. Their co-edited catalogue The Maghreb Connection: Movements of Life across Africa tries to create a space for migrants across North Africa towards Europe to represent themselves. In its compilation of films, photographs and essays, this catalogue and its accompanying exhibition attempt to provide the possibility to glimpse at the complexity of border cultures, migratory movements, modalities of living, and adaptive temporary housing. The Maghreb Project attempts to combat the paradox of a transnational level of border control by trying to build a transnational consciousness in the form of counter-geography.

If we understand geography not as a physical science but as a signifying system that allows to grasp the relations between subject, movement and space, we begin to recognize its great potential for an aesthetic practice on the subject of migration.

Consequently, if one looks at the works in this exhibition and the intentions of the catalogue as creative interventions into understanding the multiple registers of the impact of borders and border crossings, then it brings into comparison several manifestations of border culture. These manifestations fit into Ignasi de Sola Morales’ notion of interstitial spaces, but spaces furnished with mobilities, temporary architectures, spatial interventions and anti-monuments. To understand this is to understand the passage of migrants across borders not as the desperate act of victims, but as a different mode of inhabitation and representation that challenges the very notion of borders and the parameters of nation states.

Teddy Cruz and Rodrigo Tisi Performativity in Architecture e-misférica Volume 3:2 November 2006 Special Issue: Borders: Hybrid Imaginaries, Fractured Geographies. 19 September 2007 Path: Teddy Cruz – Rodrigo Tisi.

Teddy Cruz Border Crossings: Chronicles from the Edge The American Institute of Architects 2007. 19 September 2007.

Eyal Weizman Strategic Points, Flexible Lines, Tense Surfaces, and Political Volumes: Ariel Sharon and the Geometry of Occupation in Stephen Graham ed Cities, War and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Politics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Finocki, Bryan the Automated Border [weblog entry] SUBTOPIA: A Field Guide to Military Urbanism Tuesday, June 12, 2007 19 September 2007.

Tim Cresswell On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. New York: Routledge Books, 2006, p. 234.
For a description of this exhibition see and

Scherezade Garcia Sabana de la Mar. Salvation Action in e-misférica Volume 3:2 November 2006 Special Issue: Borders: Hybrid Imaginaries, Fractured Geographies. 19 September 2007 Path: Scherezade Garcia

Brian Holmes and Ursula Biemann Introduction to The Maghreb Connection Geobodies. 19 September 2007.