Being and becoming: the body and border landscapes

Jill Marie Holslin

Essay published in the catalog for the fine art exhibition of Diana Coca “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 culture.

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.”)

The 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.  

The 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

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. 

As 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 global. These 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.

The 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.

In 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.

In 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.

The 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.

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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