Obstruction – To Touch To Measure (2015 – )
The Space of Identity Politics: Borders, Monuments, and the Media
What does it mean to live in the shadow of a wall? And furthermore what does it mean to live with a ruin, monument, souvenir, or a prototype of a border wall, security fence, or separation barrier? At their most basic level walls function as spatial markers which make the limits of a given territory visible. Their realization requires vast amounts of material and, more importantly, symbolic energy. This significant narrative reveals the evolving relationship of our societies to their spaces and is fundamental to shaping our identity and perception of the world. For Lefebvre (1974), Deutsche (1996), Smith (1996) and others space is social construct; a “social practice” that results from the intersection of the physical world with our mental understanding and our lived experience. In this way a sense of place, of familiarity, belonging or alienation can be understood as resulting from this process. To conceive of a sense of place can also be seen as distinct from or in opposition to other places. However for Massey (1994) a “global sense of place” would acknowledge the interconnectedness of places and define our individual and collective identities. This is described by Lippard (1997) as a sense of “multicenterness” and by Sack (1986) as the fundamental spatial form that power (imperialistic and colonial) takes. Like Lefebvre’s theoretical triad, Massey (1994) sees space as the interconnection between people moving, physical trade, and media broadcasting while emphasizing the power dynamics inherent in how each is determined. Anxiety about this relationship between place, identity and territorial sovereignty; of the “global village” enabled by technology has been viewed by many scholars as the symbolic need to make the limits of given place visible through physical and technological border fortification. This is viewed by Hirst (2005) as a process which creates a basis for international governance and by Brown (2010) as creating a “reassuring world picture.”
Working at the intersection of political geography, visual culture, media ecology, this project questions the cultural implications and the related media and material conditions that contribute to the ways in which we understand space and place in the context of contemporary borders and borderland(s). Central to this work is developing an open ended framework that will consider the role that aesthetics, discourse, the mass media and citizen journalists play in shaping narratives, producing space and constructing identity. The field of Border Studies is vast and having been approached by multiple academic disciplines resists the establishment of a singular framework. This makes the concept of borders an inherently complex and problematic geography. Much of this scholarship has focused on descriptive analyses of boundaries, locations, and the political and historical processes. They have been seen as mobile, in flux, electromagnetic, and as a global economic management system which frequently reference the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 9/11 attacks in the United States as critical moments that have impacted narratives and public policy. However the majority of narratives found in the mass media, social media and public memorials seldom acknowledge these complexities and either offer no framework for understanding or an oversimplified and fixed meaning. Visible borders may be intended to divide, but they also function as a meeting place, tourist attractions, theatrical stage for performative protest, and as a backdrop for artistic production solidarity, and the expression of counter narratives.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 it simultaneously became a memorial, a physical object which functioned as both an icon and as an index for free society in a borderless world. It has since become a collectable commodity consisting of a variety of products including key-chains, postcards and remaining sections permanently installed throughout the world. For some, these objects have become emblematic of a “mental wall” which is seen as a metaphor for psychological and cultural divides in places such as Germany post reunification. This phenomenon was also described as a “Wall Disease” (Mauerkrankheit) in 1973 by former East German psychiatrist Dietfried Müller-Hegemann (Leuenberger 2006). Since the fall of the wall there have been a reported seventy seven new border walls built around the world, many of which were a response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and more recently due to global migration. In 2010 the city of Toronto experienced the effects of a temporary security fence which transformed the city by sectioning off a part of the city centre as part of a G20 Summit. Six years later the phrase “Build the Wall” became a presidential slogan and 2017 the US Government commissioned eight border wall prototypes which were built near the US/Mexico border for the purposes of testing. The widely publicized structures were visibly similar to other existing border walls, were primarily visible from the Mexican side of the border and abruptly demolished in 2019.
The rapid development of a global network of communications has created new ways of seeing and new forms of social organization. Digital technology juxtaposes the loss of direct vision with the reality of total global surveillance thus extending the border beyond its mappable location. Like physical places, images are made things. They take on an independent life and “create the social formations that they signify” (Mitchell 2000). Borders make themselves know when they become visible and are made meaningful as physical objects, regulatory policy and as representations. They first take shape abstractly as maps and have evolved to produce images themselves through surveillance. They are looked at, over, through, and in many cases even if they are removed their memory still remains in the form of markers and monuments as memories that continue to produce space and are implicated in individual and national identities. These representations of borderland(s) have the potential to normalize power relations and erase history.
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