Borderpanic remedies

Grisha Dolgopolov

Hossein Valamanesh, Longing, Belonging, courtesy the artist and Sherman Galleries, Sydney

Hossein Valamanesh, Longing, Belonging, courtesy the artist and Sherman Galleries, Sydney

Moving from the safe boundary of my home I unwittingly undergo extreme border disorder. I am lost, but I keep going, hopeful. I take all the wrong roads ending up going north. I want to go south. I swerve to the far right. Pulling up in no-man’s land I attract the attention of the toll attendant. I ask the good-looking Pakistani working the border post, “Can I do a U-turn on the Harbour Bridge?” He looks around and furtively suggests, “as long as you do it quickly and no one sees you. Be careful!” Borders are artificial and arbitrary. It is only through transgressing the boundaries that we learn them and how to avoid them. Borders are there to be broken. There is no need to panic if you do it quickly.

Borderpanic sought to bring together artists, media makers, activists and thinkers who question geopolitical and metaphorical borders. It was an exploration of cultural and intellectual responses to the current border crisis and refugee dread. The idea was to examine the increasing symptoms of ‘borderpanic’ and to investigate possibilities of resistances to the increasingly permissible racist discourses and manufactured security hysteria. The project was to document responses to the depravity of government policy and the new racism and act as a catalyst for ongoing transnational social, cultural and artistic resistances.

Curators Deborah Kelly and Zina Kaye explained that the term ‘borderpanic’ is a description of the “tangled pathology of anxieties peaking after Tampa and following the escape of 70 people from Villawood Detention Centre in July 2001 and, of course, the brilliantly engineered extrapolation of this ‘hysteria’ in the federal government’s 2001 re-election campaign.” Suvendrini Perera makes the important observation that this has also entailed the gendering and sexualising of borderpanic with a focus on ‘the right kind of maternity’. Since October 2002 borderpanic has mutated into an alarmist Code 3 security psychosis based on ‘credible intelligence’ of al-Qaeda on Australian soil.

Connections are constantly being formed in government discourse between incomparable issues such as asylum seekers and ‘9/11’; JI and the infiltration of terrorists masquerading as Indonesian refugees; chadors and bombs; suspicious activity and the ubiquitous al-Qaeda. Although these associations appear ridiculous, through repetition they are gaining a strange popular legitimacy. In response, the Borderpanic project sought to unravel these wag-the-dog connections by drawing together a broad range of activities, responses, exhibitions, talks, performances and people to challenge the prevailing dominant discourse.

In the current political context it is the job of artists and cultural workers to do something, but what is to be done and why do you do what you do? Participants in the Tactical Media Lab (TML) which was part of the Boderpanic event claimed a variety of motivations: “I do art because I am scared,” “I desire to challenge displacement and disillusionment”, “I don’t want to witness fellow human beings behind razor wire”, “I am working through successful-migrant guilt”, “I want to get people to talk and think about what they are doing”, “I want to create something for tomorrow”, “I do what I do because there is no point doing anything else”… In these admissions few asserted that they were activists. Rather there was a longing to be active. Borderpanic offered a forum, bringing artists together to counter the disgust with government policy felt in isolation. As a creative meeting process the Tactical Media Lab was extremely effective. The concept originated from a series of conferences and festivals organised in Amsterdam since 1993 under the title Next Five Minutes. The Sydney TML is one of a chain of such events that are taking place in different parts of the world (www.n5m4.org).

TMLs are creative colloquiums with no leader or set objectives, but myriad ideas and incredible organisational demands. They avoid the Chekhovian dread of grand ideas by focusing on small-scale, practically achievable projects. These involve ways of working with old and new information technologies to produce easy, accessible, low cost forms of social intervention and communication practices. Lead by the dynamic Alissar Chidiac, the Sydney TML generated 5 creative clusters focused on Media Jamming, Cultural Actions and strategies for the WTO protest, Public Mischief and Performance.

Artists shared their techniques and achievements in speaking to a wider community and challenging the prevailing hysteria and Islamaphobia. Cultural workers reported on what alternative processes were going on in their states. There is a surprising amount of grassroots activity and connectedness between church groups, such as the Aboriginal Catholic Centre, and refugees. Serafina Maiorano pointed out that “activism is occurring in many forms—from the streets, to the church halls, to the picnic areas of our suburban and city squares, to academia, to the galleries, to people’s homes and online.” These responses are the unique cultural statements and practices of people challenging the status quo, educating others and making do within the available resources of their immediate communities without fanfare. The TML was an occasion to share these moments of resistance, as the border between activists and artists gently faded outside the confines of institutional imperatives.

Some of the ideas that came out of the Media Jamming cluster cannot be discussed publicly. However the general focus was on strategies that included: producing alternative statistics; creative, fictive rewrites of Government Policy; tackling talkback radio; pursuing media hacking opportunities; extending ideas like Mickie Quick’s Refugee Island street-sign alteration kits; and creating a culture-jamming network. Participants were adamant that art can create change, but there was an equally strong awareness of the limitations of preaching to the converted. It was clear too that traditional forms are no longer as effective as media jamming and cultural pranks. The customary form of theatre, for example, lacks tactical culture jamming’s jagged immediacy, the diversity and breadth of its audience reach and its mingling in the everyday. Subsequently, I saw Citizen X at Sidetrack Theatre. This was an overly earnest production playing to small sympathetic houses. Its ideas would not cross over into the mainstream, whereas events such as No One is Illegal’s Rethinking global eviction action placed more than 200 chairs at the front of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs in Melbourne. There was the welcome mat for Sculpture by the Sea with “Go Away” printed on it, and there have been various street theatre protests. All appear to be far more appropriate, democratic and effective as national actions.

Borderpanic had a strong global focus with a number of informal international guests. The German activist group, Kein Mensch ist illegal, demonstrated that the power of art in challenging corporate and government actions remains robust. Deportation.Class is an online and travelling poster competition that drew attention to Lufthansa being used for the deportation of asylum seekers whilst allegedly making huge profits from it. Lufthansa attempted legal action and tried closing the exhibition, claiming enormous losses from the campaign. But internet providers from all over the world have offered to mirror the exhibition (www.deportation-alliance.com).

At the Borderpanic symposium Nikos Papastergiadis contextualised some of the artworks at the Performance Space exhibition. He discussed Hossein Valamanesh’s 1997 installation Longing/Belonging in terms of Gaston Bachelard’s Psychoanalysis of Fire. The vacillation about what being-at-home means is characterised in the photographic image of a Persian carpet in an outback clearing with a campfire burning at its centre. This symbol of a domestic gathering place in another space appears uncannily homely in the rug’s woven geometry integrating into the spidery arms of the eucalypts. As Valamanesh claims, “where one belongs or what our longings are is not that clear cut.” The fire does not destroy the carpet, but purifies and fuses it to the landscape. The image is symptomatic of the longing for home that is constantly changing, transforming fire into light through a process of idealisation.

Another speaker, Julian Burnside QC, made a convincing argument against the current regime of border protection based on the idealisation of Australian national character, accusing the Howard government of “betraying our ordinary human decency and stealing our reputation as a decent and generous people.” He detailed the illegality of the scandalous ‘Pacific Solution’ that debauched the sovereignty of island states and denied basic rights to the asylum seekers. He provided a stinging criticism of the amateurish, politicised Refugee Review Tribunal with its assumption of guilt, perversion of facts and inability to lead inquiries, illustrating this with a gut-wrenching account of horrendous injustice done to a child. He argued passionately that the concept of border protection is not relevant because asylum seekers do not threaten our way of life. In contrast, the government’s reaction to the Tampa crisis and refugees in general “turns Australia into a place where we no longer want to live.” However this commonsense appeal to national pride was justifiably challenged with a reminder that it is dangerous to fight overt nationalism with nationalistic appeals to “core values.”

Meditating on the theory of borders, Ghassan Hage paralleled Burnside’s argument in suggesting that borders are a mechanism for defining ourselves—they are designed to stop the disintegration of what they protect and we have to live up to that image. Hage reasoned that borders protect the ‘good life’, but they also can lead to claustrophobia that destroys this life by preventing communication with the outside world. “We lose touch with the good life that we are protecting and become attached to the defensive mechanism. In that moment we lose touch with what it means to care. We have transferred care into worry about everything and this has become pathological. Relax a little! But somehow we cannot relax. The nation is meant to look after its citizens, but what happens when it stops caring about all of its citizens—worrying replaces caring.”

The focus of the Borderpanic project constantly oscillated between, on the one hand, what we can do to challenge government actions by raising awareness of the refugee issues and, on the other, our focus on ourselves in this action. There was an important reminder that the artwork and interventions are not about activists, but about refugees. As activists we need to challenge the notion of helping refugees. So often it is not we who help them, but they help us to rediscover ourselves, our lost courage and fading generosity. As Deborah Kelly sentiently stated, “Borderpanic is not enough, it’s not a solution or even a proposal. The point is, it’s worth starting somewhere. How are we to participate in the history we are standing in?”

Borderpanic, curators Deborah Kelly, Zina Kaye, project initiated by Performance Space, co-produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art. Sep 6-22

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 12

© Grisha Dolgopolov; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
Close

Join our e-dition list

Sign up for free online e-ditions offering occasional reviews and commentary and curated selections from and response to the RealTime archive 1994-2017.