Being and becoming: the body and border landscapes

Jill Marie Holslin

Essay published in the catalog for the fine art exhibition
“Where is Diana?” at Tabacalera Promoción del Arte, Madrid, Spain.
June 2017.

In her latest work,
“Where is Diana?”  Diana Coca
uses landscape and performance to invite the viewer to contemplate the
relationship between the body, systems of control and the construction of the subject
in the contexts of national borders and globalization. The movement of
people across national boundaries has been accelerated by an integrated world
economy, and in recent years, by war, terrorism and organized crime violence.

Today about 244
million people, or 3.3 percent of all people in the world, live outside of
their country of origin. Another 40 million people live as refugees in their
own country, having fled war, extortion or local gang violence. These
internally displaced persons often go unrecognized by international support
systems designed for refugees. Nation-states have responded with new techno-social controls and
enhanced surveillance systems to manage border crossing, and the result is that
our bodies have become sites of multiple encoded boundaries.  

Coca takes up this problem of
bodies and codes of state control, and through her own travel, she places
borders and border crossing at the center of her artistic practice. Having
completed residencies in Beijing, China and in Mexico City and Tijuana, Mexico,
she creates a series that enacts the time-space compression characteristic of
the postmodern condition and uses her images to stage the disorientation and
violence of the protocols of state regulation of migrant mobilities.  

Her images of a lone
black-clad figure in the landscape are both exhilarating and unsettling,
linking disparate spaces through the migration and presence of the same
singular figure. The landscape and the figure alike suggest alienation and the
disintegration of identities that were once rooted in particular histories and
specific local places. For landscape plays a social and cultural role in the
identity of people, and as representation it expresses the ideology of a

As geographer Joan Nogué notes,
people feel themselves to be part of the landscape, through a “deep,
intertwining complicity” that they establish over generations. While
globalization is putting pressure on local sense of place, likewise hundreds of
millions struggle to recreate a sense of place and identity in new
environments. In her landscapes, Diana Coca stages these tensions, and provokes
questions about the relationship between subjectivity and territory, mobility
and identity, borders and the body.

One could argue that as an artist, Coca occupies a position
of privilege as a cosmopolitan traveler. But in fact, her project shows the
viewer that like any international migrant, the comfort and certainty of her
identity is put in jeopardy at the moment she approaches the border of a
foreign land. The traveler is immediately called upon to justify the errant act
of border crossing, to verify her status, to demonstrate legitimacy. 

Coca’s project includes an assembly of physical evidence of
the new protocols of identity and belonging to which she was subjected upon her
arrival in China: passports and multiple identity papers, official letters, a
document presenting her name in Chinese characters, and a final document
entirely in Chinese. State
protocols generally use risk categories to separate ‘legitimate’ actions such
as tourism and business from ‘illegitimate’ actions such as terrorism and
illegal immigration. In fact, the state envisions a clear and unambiguous
line between legitimate, low risk groups and illegitimate, high risk groups,
obviously, it is a line that cannot be drawn.

One of
Diana Coca’s identity documents breaks down this facile distinction. In a
contract with the state, Coca declares to abide by the rules and if not, to
agree to the consequences: “I Diana Coca, declare that during my trip to
China I will not engage in any other activity not related to the type of Visa I
am requesting. If not, I assume the consequences, responsibilities and
penalties that could arise.” (”Yo
Diana Coca, declaro que durante mi viaje a China no voy a realizar ninguna otra
actividad no relacionada con el tipo de visado que pido. En caso contrario
asumo las consecuencias, responsabilidades y penalizaciones que podrían surgir

declaration demonstrates the way techno-power preemptively encodes multiple
identities in the very protocols of fixing them. Rather than distinguish
between the legal and the illegal, the declaration collapses them into one: the
transgressive, illegal act is anticipated in the very same document that
establishes legal temporary residence: both ‘illegal’ and ‘legal’ are identities
equally produced as a function of the law.  

issue of the construction of contemporary subjectivity under capitalism, in
particular the construction of “migrant illegality,” has been a
central discussion in many fields from human rights and criminal justice to
philosophy and art. Likewise, there is a long history of representation of the
landscapes of the US-Mexico border in survey drawings, painting, film and
photography. “The West” appears in 19th-century landscape paintings
in much the same way as it is represented in the later paintings of Georgia
O’Keeffe or the photographs of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, as a pristine, if
desolate wilderness untouched by human intervention. Later, the new topographics
photographers broke this spell with depictions of a nature hopelessly altered
and despoiled by the depredations of man. But both depictions rely on the same
sense of place: “the west” or “the desert” as a pristine
paradise. Despoiled or not, even a paradise lost was once a paradise. Thus,
paradise and its other coexist as functions of discourse.

Today’s political discourse of the U.S.-Mexico border
relies on the same assumptions and strategies as the aesthetic discourse in its
depiction of landscape. The image of the border draws upon a long-standing narrative of loss and
degradation. The new
president of the United States, Donald Trump has portrayed the border as the
site criminal lawlessness, as a place peopled with criminals, drug dealers and
rapists. As a space over which the authorities have lost control.

The Attorney
General Jeff Sessions, in a speech in April, vividly described the borderlands
as a space marked by death and violence. “But it is also here,
along this border, that transnational gangs like MS-13 and international
cartels flood our country with drugs and leave death and violence in their
wake. And it is here that criminal aliens and the coyotes and the
document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration… It is
here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this

depiction of the United States border with Mexico did not begin with President
Trump. But in isolating the U.S. southern border and coding it as a zone of
danger, this discourse masks the long history of militarization of the border,
and obscures the border’s dialectical relationship with the global. 

David Harvey reminds us, the
depiction of nature as a site of authenticity, and thus a retreat from the
alienation produced by the contemporary conditions of life, is part of the
process of marketing both space and human experience as a commodity. “Place comes into its own as a locus of some
potentially un-alienated direct sensuous interaction with environs. But it does
so by hiding within the fetishism of commodities and ends up fetishizing the
human body, the self, and the realms of human sensation as the locus of all
being in the world.”

Depictions of place,
space and nature as a self-contained retreat, mask the extent to which specific
local places are not only intertwined with but are a dialectical product of the

depictions are based in a unitary identity of space and place grounded in a
scientific approach to geography and landscape equal to the state’s
technocratic approaches to the body and identity: an approach that asserts
authority and control by claiming access to the transparently real.

history of the border wall illustrates the extent to which the border a
dialectical product of global economic and political forces. The first border barrier was
built in 1911 on the San Diego-Baja California border as a simple barbed wire
fence to impede the crossing of cattle. But throughout the 20th century,
discontented citizens in southern California projected their fears of
everything from Communism and disease to weak economic prospects onto the
border. For decades citizens called for a border fence to protect them from
communists carrying explosives, from diseased dogs that they believed might
cross from Mexico, and finally, to stop the border crossing of Spanish-speaking
Mexicans who for decades had lived in southern California but crossed
frequently to visit extended Mexico. Political leaders petitioned Washington
D.C. to build a federally-funded fence on their border.

fact, the first border walls on the U.S.-Mexico border were built as a strategy
to manage and regulate global economic flows of illegal drugs and migrant
labor. By the mid-1980s, illegal cocaine use in the United States was soaring
with 22 million users. In 1986, then President Ronald Reagan declared the
international drug trade a national security threat, and that same year the
Immigration Reform and Control Act linked immigration reform to improvements in
border security. As a
result, the borderlands were coded as a site of illegal drug trafficking and
turned into a theatre of war. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Defense created
Joint Task Force-Six (JTF-6), and for a decade, undercover military agents
conducted covert surveillance in cities and small farming communities on the
US-Mexico border. By
1990, construction on a fence was begun, its heavy panels made from Vietnam war
aircraft carrier landing mats. The war had come home.

1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA (Tratada del Libre
Comercio, TLC) opened the borders between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada to a free
flow of trade goods. The United States government subsidized U.S. producers,
and this allowed basic goods to be sold in Mexico at or below cost. Wages in
Mexico fell, factory jobs declined, and at least 4.5 million Mexican family
farmers were displaced and sought employment in the United States. That same
year, the United States implemented two new border security programs: Operation
Gatekeeper and Operation Hold the Line. The programs depended on a policy
called “prevention through deterrence”: a massive increase in border
patrol agents, electronic surveillance, with cameras and motion sensors in the
ground, bright lighting, a requirement to build border walls.

strategy was cruel and deadly, the idea was explicitly stated in the policy
documents–to disrupt known routes of migration, and increase the risk of
apprehension by pushing migration into the hostile terrain of the desert. Since
1994, more than 6000 people have died crossing the harsh Arizona desert, but
the United States continues to build more walls. In 2006, the U.S. Congress
enacted the Secure Fence Act, requiring the construction of to build 700 miles
of barriers across the U.S.-Mexico border, the Bush Administration and
then-Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff pushed the rapid construction of
border walls all along the U.S.-Mexico border. And just this year, the U.S.
Congress approved

Coca’s images of the contemporary subject in postmodern
border landscapes do not seek recourse in the authentic or the real. Rather,
the figure of the balaclava is an ambiguous, uncanny figure, and the landscapes
she creates are fantastical, created by her presence there.

On the one hand, the figure in black hiding her face with a
balaclava is a threatening figure, invoking at once ISIS terrorists, Mexican
sicarios, the drug-fueled violence situated in a bucolic tropical landscape. On
the other hand, the woman in the balaclava is a figure of resistance, reminding
the viewer of the punk defiance of Pussy Riot, and the determination of the
Zapatista movement.  

In Coca’s more tropical images, she invokes the image of the
pristine landscape, the viewer communing with nature, lost in contemplation of
the sublime only to interrupt that reverie with a threatening black-clad figure
staring straight at the viewer. Her landscapes rupture our belief in a unitary,
singular landscape, reminding us of the constructed nature of both subjectivity
and place. 

Viewed in the context of her travel, and her own engagement
with state protocols of identity and legality, Coca’s images illustrate that
landscape, like identity, is never fixed, never solid, but rather, is a
condition of being that is always in the act of becoming.   

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