Space, Assemblages, and the Hostile Border

by | 31 Jan 2018

Last year, I went to an art exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bonn by the Swedish duo Lundahl & Seitl. After trailing around the gallery led by text messages from an unknown sender called “the Collector”, we were asked to don headphones and sightless goggles before we entered the second stage of the exhibition. The sensation of being lost at the periphery of boundless space was acute, as the voice told us to delve into the previously viewed artworks – the spatio-temporality of a series of maps would unfold with each unsteady jerk of our limbs, or we became trapped inside the glass of Max Ernst’s lantern, a moth to the synchronised light, party to the throbbing beat behind our eyelids. My sense of space unfolded through a flattened miasma of perceptive distortion, in which I could extend my arms to grasp at empty space whilst the sibilant utterances of a dogmatic Guide echoed around sharp corners and edges. I felt at times as if I was stepping off a great precipice, only to remove my goggles and find myself in a white corner of a room, a sense of definable place collapsing in all at once.

Stumbling through this space in a disorientated state is a regular experience when encountering the multiple ways in which immigration policy and border securitization attempts to hide or obscure its function as an assemblage, and its ongoing encounter with the shaping of space. On 18th January 2018 the British Government signed the ‘Sandhurst Treaty’ with France, reaffirming a commitment to joint border security “’the management of the joint border’ and reduce the time taken to process migrants”. This reaffirms the approach made in the 2003 Le Touquet  Agreement, stretching synchronous Anglo-French border controls across the channel, so that the state could both be in one place and yet not there at all, declaring the Calais camps both as a non-space existing outside legal recognition, as a limbo space of purgatory which effectively allowed both states to deny responsibility and obligations to resettle those inhabiting this space.  The £44 million pledged by the British government under the Treaty ostensibly will be dedicated to strengthening the walls, fences and security to expand the ‘hostile environment’ in Calais. The Treaty continues to propagate the myth of the exported border, relying on the Common European Asylum System (in particular, EU Regulation 604/2013, or “Dublin III”). The CEAS takes its authority from the idea of Europe more broadly as a juridical fiction representing order as a spatial system, a fiction which must constantly project a vision of itself as Jurgen Habermas’ ‘postnational constellation’ on the way to a cosmopolitan ideal, in which borders may be exported to include ‘limbo’ spaces of immigration detention: demonstrating not the end of law but rather an assemblage, a spatial imaginary composed of intensified moments of deterritorialisation. An assemblage is an ontology of exteriority which can be experienced through a spatio-legal reading of the Treaty itself: lurching between an ambiguous shaping of the ‘shared border’ and references to the “pressure” of migratory flows, a textured materiality of presence in fluctuation being constantly put aside/beyond the entanglement of space that is being made to function as a myopic contract of intervention and crisis management. The fact that parts of the Treaty will cease to apply post-Brexit – when both Parties cease to be participants in Regulation 604/2013 – highlights the disruptive temporality perpetually obscured in its authorising intent. Exteriority here is dependent on the acknowledgement of the possibility of “return”, but as Colin Yeo points out, “the meaning of this word seems to have been stretched to include “sending migrants to an entirely new country”.  Furthermore, extending border management into “source and transit countries” – those mechanistic stops along a factor line of crisis exportation and neoliberal distancing from the figure of the human – expresses an attempt to despatialise the border zone whilst relying on that very spatiality to produce a residual spatial order. It also generates a cartography reliant on a colonial encounter with space and the entanglement of spatial form in the construction of a ‘crisis’ of an unstoppable nature necessitating repressive securitization of the space which lies beyond the border zone. It is not, then, a case of retreating but of a denial of entanglement, both in proximity and in the unfolding of materiality that is always discarded in favour of carceral language.

The proximity of the Sangatte refugee camp to the Channel Tunnel perfectly encapsulates this ambivalent spatial dynamic at work. Established in 1999 just half a mile from the entrance to the Channel Tunnel by the French Red Cross to provide shelter for refugees having to sleep rough, the camp – housed in a giant warehouse used for storage while the concrete lining of the Channel Tunnel was being built –  faced regular demands calling for the camp to be shut, with Eurotunnel claiming they had been forced to spend more than £6m on security measures to protect the 1,700-acre terminal site, including 20 miles of outer fencing, six miles of razor wire and 300 video cameras. Acknowledging the particular way in which matter is organised through these textures of the built environment draws attention to the way in which the State operates by simultaneously unfolding and spreading outwards. It functions through the striation of space under the guise of being able to capture movement and seclude disorientation, whilst at the same time, the State demands deterritorialisation in order to define itself as a spatio-temporal certainty, keeping at bay the dangerous migratory ‘flows’ narrativized as endlessly exerting pressure on vulnerable borders.

For Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, the ambivalent materiality of the surrounding space is encountered in the performance of flows and interruptions. In this sense, the border can be touched and felt as a material presence which commanders the textured reality of our locational juxtaposition with the delineated territoriality of the law. As Keith Woodward and John Paul Jones III emphasise, “Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual spaces are anchored in a resolutely materialist understanding of spatiality”. Turning from the lines of flight which are so readily evoked in discussions of the rhetoric of the ‘migrant crisis’ placing ‘pressure on the border’, to the theoretical condition of the space itself, challenges assumptions of connectivity and continuity (in legal terms, along the lines of birth place or lineage as determinants of nationality): for Deleuze and Guattari the process of becoming makes no distinction between spaces that precede or come after it.

Assumptions about space frame the spatial imaginaries which are considered legitimate: those which can swell and contract to permit offshore worlds for finance capital and yet deny responsibility for limbo spaces for unwelcome bodies, construct physical and metaphysical bridges to stretch across seas in the feverish imagination of the imperially nostalgic, and legal cartographies which continue to shape space, with fatal consequences . These spatial imaginaries reflect the paradoxical attempt to revoke materialist entanglement whilst shaping space as a response to the narrative of crisis, negating the violent racist, gendered, heteronormative conditions which delineate its everyday composition.

The exhibition experience recounted above stands as a metaphorical warning to critical legal scholars that we must fight against the sense of unfolding through false movement and a reliance on the overwhelming assertion of distortion and displacement. Drawing attention to the material composition of these spaces emphasises how this composition is indeterminate and in flux. In an assemblage, parts can be extracted: relying on exteriority in a system of border control negates this reliance on the relationality between the parts, and their involvement in the multiplication of lines as part of a process of material production. Spatialising this process through an excavation of both the spaces themselves and the legal frameworks which attempt to despatialise these limbo zones by externalising the border is one way of refusing to play the game of detachment proposed by the State.

As Jean-Pierre Alaux, an activist with GISTI (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés) recalls, regarding the original camp at Sangatte:

“It was an inhumane place. Imagine, if you will, a steel warehouse. In the winter, you couldn’t heat it, in the summer, it was like a furnace. The migrants had no intimacy, they were housed in trailers that could fit up to eight mattresses. It was an emergency housing center in a building that had been built for machines. Imagine the noise, the echo in that space


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