What do we really know about borders? I mean us, European citizens with passports valid in most of the countries in the world. Us, the constantly-on-the-move, Ryanair-addicted, budget-overseas trip dependents, who do not even realise that we have crossed a border anymore: because for us borders do not really exist. Or, in the worst case scenario, they are simply annoying queues at Stansted, Gatwick or Dover. Travelling across Europe – and especially, in the so-called Schengen area – means that we can move freely from one country to the next without so much as the nuisance of showing a passport or an ID card to anyone. (I know: this is rapidly changing for the worse, and the resurgent ferocious nationalism across the continent will soon show that borders still matter. But for now, who cares?)
Everything changes if you are a non-European citizen wanting to travel across Europe. If you are from Gambia, Mali, Sudan or Ethiopia then forget what I have just said. Borders have never ceased to exist for you. On the contrary, they have become deadly barriers, locked gates, barbed-wire fences and insurmountable walls. They are everything but a passage in space and time. Because for you space is forbidden, and time will soon be suspended. The border shows its cruelty. The border’s cruel show.
In the last few years, we have increasingly seen not only a return to borders, but also – as anthropologist Nicholas De Genova argues – a new mediatised “spectacle of borders” (The Borders of Europe. Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering, Duke University Press: Durham and London, 2017, pp. 4-5). What presents itself as a crisis of territorially-defined state powers over cross-border human mobility — in short, what is fundamentally a moment of governmental impasse on the European scale — has been mobilized and strategically deployed as a “crisis” or an “emergency” for the reconfiguration of techniques of border policing, and immigration and asylum law enforcement. Within this crisis, borders are not just functional, but essential, for they have become crucial factors in the dispute over the most effective and efficient tactics of bordering, i.e. excluding and secluding. The paradox is that if there were no borders, there would be no migration crisis: only opportunities for mobility, passage, and transition.
For the excluded, borders are not mere symbols of power. They are power. They can separate what is deemed legal from what is deemed illegal, what is meant to be seen as human from what is meant to be de-humanised. What exists, from what does not, and will not, exist. But the border limbo is also, and fundamentally, a space of relations. A space of fear and hope, of frustration and resistance, of extenuating boredom and fragile excitement. Of unbearable silence and vital communication.
Ventimiglia is exactly one of these borders, of these border limbos. An administrative abstraction for us, a complex reality for ‘the others’.
An informal transit point, Ventimiglia is the last Italian town before the French border. It served as a crucial transit point for Tunisian migrants in 2011, when France re-established border controls with Italy. In June 2015, due to the increase in the number of migrants crossing the Italian-French border, France suspended its duties under the Schengen agreement once again and reinstated border checks. The space between the city of Ventimiglia and the French-Italian border was again transformed into a border-zone where most migrants remained stranded for weeks.
In this context, activists from Italy and France built a NoBorder camp on the Italian side of the border in June 2015, just a few hundred meters from the official border, and close to the cliffs. The camp functioned as a point of support for migrants who intended to cross the border. The sit-in and the NoBorder camp lasted for nearly three months. On 29 September 2015, the Ventimiglia local authorities evicted the camp using extremely violent means. After the 13 November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the French authorities further intensified its border controls. However, the Ventimiglia border has not stopped to be a gathering point for people on the move, and a place where state violence faces human resilience and persistence.
Here, Luca Prestia - together with fellow journalists and activists - has spent a considerable amount of time in the last three years. Not with the ambition to understand, or the arrogance to judge, but with the need to see with his own eyes, through the lens of his own camera. I have been following Luca’s work for long time, and his act of seeing is, to me, one of the most powerful I have ever encountered. Beyond the (anti)border rhetoric, and against the oversimplification of the media system, Luca has neither tried to propose a counter-narrative and a coherent epistemology, nor to play with emotions, forcibly stimulate the viewer’s empathy. He has simply – and simply, in an era of visual proliferation and addiction, means powerfully – tried to observe that strip of land, and in particular the lands between the town of Ventimiglia and the border fences at the so-called “passo della morte”, to record traces of those places, those passages, those human presences.
His photography is not emphatic. He has not chosen a punch-in-the stomach approach aiming at emphasizing misery (or, from an opposite perspective, a sheer feeling of rebellion), at exciting piety or resentment. He has opted for a more logical – and therefore more political – angle, by trying to capture details that would have otherwise been concealed and neglected.
Luca’s photography, in fact, is never complacent, neither thematically nor technically. Its motifs are often spare objects left behind, unappealing landscapes, and anodyne faces. He is not interested in easily conceding a temporary and cathartic agency to its subject. Human beings are never ‘just’ passive victims or powerful rebels taking their destiny in their hands. They are transient, fragile but real men and women, on a trajectory, in their journey, whose outcome cannot be taken for granted. That is why his act of recording, when facing the presence of human beings, is synecdochic (a hand, a foot, a t-shirt stands for the entire being): the act of seeing and interpreting can only be partial. Meaningful fragments are more revealing than artificially composed totalities. In art as well as in life.
A foot, an abandoned pair of shoes, a small sign of a human presence, in that border limbo, are also the epitome of the journey, of travelling itself, with its challenges, frustration, vigour, possibility. And it is not relevant to know to whom those objects, those hands, those fragments belong. We do not need to know, because we do not want to be trapped in the empathy/hostility dichotomy. We do not need false empathy, but rather to open our eyes. We do not want to be complacent observers seeking a sparkle of catharsis, and we are not supposed to consume a ready-made story. Instead, we want – Luca wants us – to question those pictures, and question ourselves as viewers (and our viewers’ power). He wants us to feel unease: to see for the first time, not to frame as we always do. He wants us to escape the dynamics of discriminating between the drowned and the saved. Those stories are not in our hands: we are not mediatised judges; we do not have any agency in those lives. Those stories are of the people that experience them, and we can either like it or not. Either we like them or we do not.
The limbo then also becomes the viewer’s limbo. There is a suspension of judgement, of commodification, of language. There is so much left “unsaid” in these pictures. There are signs, of course: indexical, iconic, and symbolic. But there are clear grey zones in terms of language and linguistic interactions. People that seem to be (but may not) be involved in conversations. Graffiti (made by whom? When?) on the pillar of a motorway viaduct. “Hope” written on a piece of paper stick to the very last border fence... Through these clues, Luca shows us a new unexplored territory. That of multilingual signs at the border, of multi-layered communication, of constant linguistic negotiation. Sociolinguistic landscaping, i.e. the study of the multi-linguistic traces in agglomerates and multi-ethnic places, would add an amazing complementary approach, and an additional piece of research, to our “ProLanguage” project. Is language giving any people any protection once they have left designated settings like “refugee camps” or shelters? What happens in the real world? What kinds of interaction occur? What is helpful and what is not, in terms of communication? Are signs entirely functional or purely symbolic?
“Hope”. There is so much hope in border crossing. Which, for us, also means crossing (inter)disciplinary borders, borders between academia and the ‘outside’ world. This exhibition is a good way – in my opinion – to question ourselves on the limitations of what we do, and the possibilities of what we can still achieve as researchers, as activists, and as citizens.
The exhibition "Beyond the border" has been displayed in Reading (September 2018), Bolzano (December 2018), Palermo (February 2019), Trento (March 2019), Bressanone (May 2019) and will be replayed in Cuneo (Fondazione Nuto Revelli, July 2019), Kostanz (September 2019), Milano-Bicocca (October 2019). Further dates and locations to be announced.
Follow Dr. Federico Faloppa and photographer Luca Prestia on Twitter: @f_faloppa / @LucaPrestia.