30 December 2017

On Fences

“The proliferation of borders between states, within states, between people, within people is a proliferation of states of statelessness,” according to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. There is a certain creativity that comes from the liminal space between nation-states, a borderless border, a between-statehood, where home might be a distant memory, where home might be as real as Timboctou or utopia. (See my previous post.) Harney and Moten might wonder where Karl Marx got his “inheritance of the hold,” but it may be because he spent most of his life in an absolute state of statelessness, a refugee status of la nuda vita, bare life. Giorgio Agamben took his notion of la nuda vita from Walter Benjamin’s das blosse Leben, mere or naked life, of which “blood is the symbol” and over which “mythical violence” holds Blutgewalt, blood-power. (The German word Gewalt, interestingly enough, means both violence and power. If a border has a certain power, it might follow that a border also has a certain violence.)

Bare life is a notion Agamben gets also from ancient Roman law. The Homo sacer was a person who could not be sacrificed in religious ceremony, but also could be killed by anyone without being tried for murder under the law. The Homo sacer was set apart from society, too sacred to kill and too easy not to. Bare life today manifests as the refugee, the marginalized, the migrant—those forced to have no home. Unwilling to succumb to the lawlessness of his own bare life, Benjamin made the ultimate refusal by exercising power over his own mortality.

Theodor Adorno, like Benjamin and the many others forced to flee genocide in Nazi Germany, felt his own bare lifeness during his refuge in America. “Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated.” Perhaps he only speaks of the intellectual because it is his experience, but it seems apt to extend this characterization to all migrants, especially those forced to flee violence, hatred, and oppression in their homelands. “No individual” is “unmarked.” The borders set up by a “bourgeois” which has become “impenitently malign” help create a further demarcation on the migrant body. “The caring hand that even now tends the little garden as if it had not long since become a ‘lot’, but fearfully wards off the unknown intruder, is already that which denies the political refugee asylum.” For this, we build fences and walls. Those who align themselves with the state become “totally inhuman” in their quickness to dismiss human concerns for the sake of their so-called security.

They say that good fences make good neighbors, and the irony is not lost on artist Ai Weiwei, whose “multi-site, multi-media” public art exhibition in New York City takes that old saw as its name. Showing the marks of his own bare life, and with an eye towards “how populist notions often stir up fear and prejudice,” according to the brochure, Ai’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is meant to bring a public awareness to the “global migration crisis.” One of the major pieces in the exhibition, among over three hundred other pieces big and small, is “Arch,” located directly beneath the triumphal arch in Washington Square Park. “Arch” physically fills nearly all of the empty space within the archway with its birdcage-like design in silver steel. In the center at ground level is a tunnel lined in reflective material, cut in the extended two-dimensional shape of what appears to be two figures embracing. (This is a quote of a Marcel Duchamp creation for the entrance to the Gradiva art gallery in Paris.) In one way, you are free to pass through the sculpture; in another, you are not allowed to utilize the archway’s full space, restricting movement. “Arch” recreates a border in operation, where everyone’s passport is valid in the spirit of camaraderie—for now. As you might expect most members of the twenty-first century to do, there is a lot of selfie-taking within the reflective walls of the tunnel—a self-capture at the border.

Another piece in the exhibition is “Five Fences,” which, as the name suggests, is five sections of chain-link fence which have been affixed to archways on the north side of Cooper Union. When the fences were being installed, I thought that, perhaps, someone had decided to jump out of one of the portals, so the fences were a precautionary measure. This piece is perhaps not as effective as “Arch” or “Gilded Cage,” in the southeast corner of Central Park, simply because it is less interactive. The pedestrian is not confronted with “Five Fences” in the way that “Arch” alters the footpath, for example. Where “Five Fences” does confront is on the visual level, imposing as a mesh of incongruous steel fencing against the deep red-brown of Cooper Union.

How is it possible for good fences to make good neighbors? The existence of the fence to begin with signals a distrust of the other, predicating a breakdown of good neighborly relations. If the idea is to keep people “where they belong,” what happens when an individual has no place to belong, is stateless, a refugee, a bare life? What societal benefit is the state missing out on by imposing a policy of absolute non-entrance? What economy is being created around the fence, where money, goods, or services might determine your fitness to cross through? And then, what economy is created counter to that one, where tunnels might be dug or trucks might be trafficking, circumventing the fence?

Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951). Translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 2005.
Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Benjamin, Walter, “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections, translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1978.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe, UK: Minor Compositions, 2013.
Public Art Fund, brochure for Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, public art exhibition by Ai Weiwei, New York, 2017.

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