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The Political Aesthetics of Immigrant Protest

Rozalinda Borcilă with Katarzyna Marciniak and Imogen Tyler

from: Immigrant Protest: Politics, Aesthetics, and Everyday Dissent,
SUNY Press, 2014 (excerpted)

Much of Borcilă’s art practice responds to the racialized politics of migrant “illegality” which became entrenched within the U.S. and Europe in the 1990s. As Alessandro De Giorgi argues, this was the decade in which migration was systematically “produced as a ‘problem’: as an invasive and incorrigibly ‘foreign’ menace to national sovereignty, as a racialized contagion that undermines the presumed national ‘culture,’ as a recalcitrant ‘criminal’ affront to national security” (163). In the U.S., the emergence of a new grammar of migrant illegality nurtured an escalating anti-immigrant hostility which was concretized through punitive immigration and citizenship laws, and the development of a massive for-profit global immigration detention estate.

Borcilă’s current counter-cartographical work “Riding the Zone” (Borcilă 2012) develops this earlier work through a focus on unmapped zones and places of exception, including Foreign Trade Zones and U.S. military installations. In this work she draws attention to the ways in which the military-industrial-complex is not a secret ideology or technology, but is “hidden in plain sight.” The problem for the artist is how to depict or document what we already in effect “know” through processes of estrangement, the creation of sensory fabrics, which pierce the prevailing regimes of perception. In this vein, Borcilă calls for forms of disruption and the generation of “social conflict” as a response to everyday modalities of illegality. She rather beautifully describes this aesthetics of conflict in the following way:

transgression or trespass – considered not for their value as individual acts, but for the potential of their accumulation. The dynamic buildup of infinitely small disturbances changes structure into movement, being into becoming, thing into current. As this dynamic develops and builds, representation moves, strains against its surface, swells and eventually breaks (Borcilă, 2005).

Theoretically speaking, Borcilă’s work is reminiscent of Jacques Rancière’s writing on political aesthetics which describes “the role of art or the practice of art [as] a transformation of a certain state of relations between words and things, between words and the visible, a certain organization of the senses and the sensory configuration of what is given to us and how we can make sense of it” (2008, 174). Aesthetics in these terms is concerned not with “beauty” or with the marketization of art-objects as objects of value and exchange, but conversely with art as forms of potentially disruptive forms of practice which trouble and disturb prevailing regimes of perception. Political aesthetics is concerned with questions of in/equality and is what we might understand as declassificatory practices which refuse or attempt to undo given forms of “knowing” and “perceiving” (see Tyler, forthcoming). Indeed, Rancière argues that “nothing is political in itself,” but anything may become political if it gives rise to a meeting of two logics, namely the logic of the state and the logic of equality (32).

In Rancière’s account, the political is located not within the official workings of Government or the hegemonic aesthetics of mass media, nor in the “event” of protests but rather in the “dissensus”–or the third space–such protests can open up in the public sphere. Rancière suggests that what matters is the interruption which “fearless speech” gives rise to, and the disputes which unfold from fighting words. Such disputes, Rancière claims, can produce new inscriptions of equality “and a fresh sphere of visibility for further demonstrations” (40). In this context we we might understand that the possibilities of resistance to migrant abjection lie not in singular acts of resistance but in the building of wider communities of struggle that question the inclusive/exclusive logic of citizenship, the economics of illegality and the global marketization of migration […]

In what follows, Borcilă, Katarzyna Marciniak and Imogen Tyler discuss her past and current work, the relationship between art and activism, and the possibilities and limits of collective practice and the aesthetics of immigrant protest.

Katarzyna Marciniak and Imogen Tyler: Before we speak about your current projects, let’s return to your earlier work in order to offer the readers a better context for your artistic practice. In 2008 when we first spoke, you offered me (KM) your materials which I used for my graduate seminar on Transnational Aesthetics and Politics. I thus first experienced your work in a pedagogical setting. In this course students analyzed theory, cinema, and performance art to probe the contemporary terrain of transnational productions focusing on complexities of immigration, foreignness, alterity and legitimacy in different national contexts. The artist whose work was initially most inspirational for the class was Guillermo Gómez-Peña and his bold experiments with “reverse anthropology” and “Chicano cyber-punk art” (2005, 10). So he was my students’ favorite until they saw and read your work and immediately started making connections between his and your performance pieces. They thought you were an Eastern European female Gómez-Peña! In fact, you use his writing in your projects—can you tell us about his influence on your practice? Simultaneously, I want to complicate this question by telling you that while my students claimed they “understood” his Latino “rage” (even though the majority of them were white Americans) as a conceptual basis for his border aesthetic, they were surprised to experience your immigrant rage in relation to border experiments. Was it because your art—involving East European female body—felt more “alien” to them than perhaps a more familiar Latino or Chicano art? Was it perhaps because they are not used to thinking about immigrant resistance in relation to East European identities in the U.S.?

Rozalinda Borcilă: Peña’s work, in its totality, was incredibly inspirational to me. However, I referred to his work primarily because I understood it to dominate a certain arena of performance and writing in relation to the space of the border and the body of the migrant. He, not just his work, but his persona, his presence, his image, became a compulsory reference for anyone whose work dealt with the politics of identification and with normative understandings of the body and of citizenship in dominant U.S. culture. I felt I needed to acknowledge this directly. It raised a series of important questions about racialization in relation to migrant illegality, and challenged me to be explicit about working through a body considered to be “white on arrival.” At the same time, there is a political economy to migration–and its illegalization–that I feel is important to at least gesture towards, if not explore and theorize through artistic means. I was specifically working with feminized migration as neoliberal capital expands globally post 1989–therefore the repeated uses of the gymnast, the mail order bride, the interest in the domestic(ated) body as a site of consumption. I was also considering the role of visibility–and of lines of sight, of the politics of appearance and dis-appearance–in policing/ marketizing the migrant female body, and in the transgressive acts of migrants who collectively produce global spaces that resist visibility. My whiteness is a process that unfolds through specific historical conditions. It is part of a series of complex equations that has to do with stratification in relation to reproduction and power relations. At the same time, the increasing “emancipation” of middle class western white women, produces (or is predicated upon) the emergence of a global underclass of migrant domestic servants and other reproductive laborers, the most marketable of whom can also be racialized as “white.” In other words, Eastern European migrant women become highly marketable in the global circuits of exploited reproductive labor–from sex work to child care–as long as they could “pass as white.” In the 19th century, eugenics played a significant role in the emancipation of middle class white women in the U.S., whose potential to produce middle class white babies became a strategic, speculative asset (to project neoliberal rationality backwards), linking citizenship, race and class. Today, the relative privilege of “white” Eastern European women on the market of exploitable reproductive labor also hinges on racialized understandings of class reproduction–simply put, a nanny that looks white capitalizes, and socializes, differently. Their racialization has to do with the reproduction of highly differentiated and stratified spaces, populations and regimes of mobility.

I also referenced Peña’s work because I wanted to trouble the relationship or distinction between art and life sometimes made in reference to his writing. This has been a concern in my work, especially of the last 10 years in relation to the distinctions between art and activism.

KM and IT: The issue of East European whiteness you raised is one of increasing importance in transnational feminist and media discourses as recent scholarship begins to pay attention to the need to de-homogenize whiteness precisely by recognizing the crucial historical differences between, say, western whiteness and more invisible East European whiteness (Bardan, 2008; Marciniak, 2008; Murawska-Muthesius, 2006). You mentioned the challenge to be explicit about working through the body that is viewed “white on arrival”– can you tell us a bit more about this challenge?

RB: Living on both sides of the spatio-temporal 1989 divide, I found myself racialized in conflicting and confusing ways that required some interrogation. I had to try and understand empirical evidence and embodied knowledge in relation to more systemic political and economic equations. Pre-1989, Romanian whiteness was produced and normalized primarily via tropes of Latinity and via differentiation from Roma populations, who were, and continue to be, perceived as illegitimate and abject subjects in all national regimes. The end of 1989 is seen as the end of the Cold War, most present in the popular imagination as the fall of the Berlin Wall. But in the 1990s the wall between East and West becomes, of course, reconstructed through other technologies and mechanisms, above and below national regimes. The production of “globalized” space reconfigures stratification through a series of new processes, and produces a set of new scales (at once more vast and more molecularized), along historically familiar vectors (race, gender, citizenship and so on). You mentioned the “fear of contagion” that becomes characteristic of Western discourses in the ’90, and the production of the racialized migrant as a criminal category under the guise of national security. In the case of migration from the former Soviet Block, this was also specifically a fear of the contagion of “communism,” which linked national security with capitalist exchange. Capitalism became equated with national interest, and we begin to see racialization playing a significant role in a changing state form and its articulation with global markets.

Neoliberal capitalism imposes itself as the only planetary logic in the early 90s. In the course of the systemic devaluation and dismantling of domestic economies of the 1990s, increasing numbers of Romanians are forced to migrate for work. Upon arrival in Western and Northern Europe they find themselves “illegalized”. Over the course of this decade, Romanians in particular are racialized as gypsy or Roma. The space (economic, juridical, political) that we now call Europe is a construction that hinges on a number of stratifications, including the racialization and illegalization of migrant groups, which simultaneously determines its margins. In the US however, it is, migrants from Central and Latin America who constitute the primary flexible labor market and who are racialized as non-white. By distinction, many migrants from East Europe arriving in the US during the 90’s are both illegal and “white” on arrival.

But Eastern European racialization as white is volatile, slippery, “flexible” due to the role of chronotype and the importance of vision – of visual markers, and technologized visualization that characterize neoliberal regimes of subject formation. And vision is a learned process, it is political, it is relational. Of course, racialization is not about skin color, it is about relations of domination and subjugation. Neoliberalism, in this specific example, appears as an adaptive logic, as a range of technologies that “optimizes” existing conditions, creating hierarchies of migrant populations within capital markets.

Different communities of illegalized migrants and refugees have developed highly nuanced and sophisticated ways of “surfing” regimes of visibility and invisibility. Eastern Europeans in particular are keenly aware of the tactical importance of “passing as white” while at the same time maintaining spaces that are densely “invisible” to the state and to the market. In the same ways that so-called black markets operate both outside of, and within, the logic of “legitimate” markets, the invisiblity of Eastern European illegality requires the production of a visible whiteness.

However, when displaced and illegalized communities become highly politicized and –more importantly, self-organized–the contradictions inherent in these flexibilized and speculative ways of being are exploded, explicitly articulated, and challenged. It is here that the possibility of an “outside” to these regimes is collectively articulated and practiced.

KM and IT: The story you are telling about the complex intersections of whiteness, neoliberalism and il/legality is both a fascinating and an important one. The focus on Latino/North American and African/European modalities of border crossing and migrant illegality within academic scholarship, and within critical art practice often obscures the nuances of the production and negotiation of “white” migrant illegality–and the “shades of whiteness” produced through both racializing bordering regimes and through migrant negotiations of these regimes.

Could you tell us about some of your current work with migrant youth in Chicago?

RB: I have been working within the NoName Collective, a counter-capitalist, anti-racist group of mixed-status immigrants who come out of various experiences in migrant justice work and grassroots organizing. The primary public face of the collective and its initiatives is the Moratorium on Deportations Campaign, which is a kind of meeting place for a shifting constellation of migrant justice, anti-war and anti-capitalist groups and individuals. Over the last two years we have developed a series of actions and formalized a set of practices–some self-consciously performative–that articulate a set of shared critiques of, and desire to experiment with, dominant forms of organizing and social movement work. Our practices include workshops and teach-ins, bike caravans and durational walks, speak-outs and collective writing. While doing this work, my expectations as an artist were swept aside by the very new (to me) conditions under which we were working. I have found it important not to determine in advance the forms the work will take, or to author individual projects, images or text. Rather we have collectively developed many texts, performative events, images as well as forms of “territorial research” and moving seminars, which involved people using their experiences and bodies to develop a collective visualization of a larger, dynamic geography. I see this as a kind of collective theorizing and articulation that seems to gesture towards the possibility of dissolving both art and organizing into a more generalized social process of oppositional learning and being. Curiously, these were the very questions I had been exploring in my artwork for some time, particularly in the performances developed with the collective BLW[i], and in my critiques of the institutionalization, and marketability, of “social practices” or “relational” art. In my own development as an artist, this exploration lead me to practices that exceed what is recognizable as art, and to collaborations within social bodies that are excluded from the circuits of the art market (see Borcilă 2009).

It is maybe banal to say, but one of the main distinctions between art and social movement work hinges upon questions of authorship and attribution of methods, objects or images, upon identifying rights over objects within a process of exchange. In other words, these differentiations are produced in the mobilization of art within the circuits of capital — and therefore cannot be overcome within it. Collectivism can be a significant challenge to this distinction, but only as part of a significant, long-term counter-capitalist project.

At the same time, the more I work as an organizer, I have learned that it is also important to maintain a space of relative autonomy for the “artistic” sphere–as it allows social movement work to escape from dominant political forms and imaginaries, such as campaign organizing. In the NoName Collective, we trespass into the domain of “art,” but it is a kind of “art drag” that allows us to stage heightened social conflicts in real life, with real risks, under the guise of art or performance. It also allows people whose legitimacy in the U.S. is denied, to claim a different position, both individually and collectively. For instance, we developed an intervention into a meeting conducted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through a series of written statements and manifestos, interviews, and actions collectively called “Shut Down ICE”–interpreted by officials as a plan to blockade or force entrance into ICE headquarters. In fact, we used the slippage between “ICE” and “ice” to march across the city with a 100 lb block of ice, and to stage a confrontation with it upon arrival at the main ICE headquarters in the financial district. This was lot like street theatre, but it was directed at escalating a social conflict within incredibly asymmetrical and hostile conditions. It is surreal to enact something like this with participants who are undocumented and facing deportation. “Shut Down ICE” played out within mainstream media channels as a very real blockade and as a political crisis for state representatives in the struggle around a new proposed Immigrant Detention Center. For us, this shift or slippage between ICE and ice, between the symbolic and the “real,” was a way of dealing with the political as aesthetic through engaging performative practice.

The NoName Collective also developed sign-making workshops where people could think critically about what a collective sign–such as a flag–is. These workshops enabled us to work towards a collaborative articulation of our identity as a migrant collective. For me, this was artistic and political work, as complicated and intellectually challenging as anything I have ever been involved in, somewhere between popular education, performance art and movement building. As the signs became objects, put into action in protest events, replicated and multiplied, they were photographed and became circulated and sold as authored images in both media and artistic spheres. So all our activities produced discrete images but none were of my authorship. It is somewhere along this fault line that the irreconcilable conflict between the role of organizer, and the role of art worker as author of images or events, makes itself most felt by me at this point.


we are not alien

“We are not alien, we are awesome”, 2011. Developed collaboratively during sign-making event, written by 10-year old Josue Herrera. Image by Sarah Jane Rhee.


KM and IT: There is a vital tension emerging here between “art” and “activism” and between “the singular” and “the collective.” As I (IT) see it, this is not a conflict which you seek or should seek to resolve in your work, but is rather a description of a form of “life practice” which engages with “sore spots”–sites of pressure and weakness–which you/I must continuously seek out. At the heart of all of this work, what it is has in common, is what Judith Butler terms the “theatricalization of political rage” (232). In my own work (IT) as a scholar-activist (rather than an art-activist), I am also interested in maximizing these spaces of tensions. In writing about migrant protests in the UK, for example, I am interested not in the singularity of protests as “events,” but in their documentary “after-lives” and residues, and the forms of alternative story-lining of the political present tense which they enable. It is for me, the capacity of acts and events of protest, be they nominally “aesthetic” or more recognizably “political” in orientation, to be transformed into political parables which trouble prevailing forms of common-sense about the meaning of democracy and rights which is most important. For it is the vitalization and proliferation of acts of resistance within their many documentary after-lives that allows for the weaving of alternative political imaginaries with which to perceive differently the state we are in. So, while protests like “Shut Down ICE” might register as little more than minor disturbances within the public sphere, the restaging and repetition of these acts, in spaces which include publications such as this book, form part of a broader critical practice of counter-mapping which is creating an unravelable fabric of political resistance across borders. It is the accumulation of “small acts” which strain against the invisibility and inaudibility of abject lives constituted by sovereign power. Perhaps this sounds too hopeful, but in what are for many the current dark days and perhaps end days of neoliberal capital, it seems to me that the intellectual and the political challenge is precisely about the necessity of working at the borders of older and different genres and forms of practice as a means of reinventing “from the scene of survival, new idioms of the political, and of belonging itself” (Berlant, 262). In a more practical register, survival also means being strategic as well as making compromises, including perhaps the necessity of taking up given names of value, such as “artist” or “academic,” as a means of making interventions which are “registerable” within the public domain.

Given the forms of generic and disciplinary border crossing with which your current art and activist practice is engaged, we wonder how you position your work in the broader context of the upsurge in similar forms of art-activism around the globe, as a response to the democratic deficits, staggering economic inequalities and laissez-faire violence which have been effected by neoliberal globalization (Federici, 2011). In particular, we wonder how or if you imagine the “glocal” implications of your work with AREA in Chicago in relationship to the current upsurge of “space-hacking” forms of protest against austerity, best illustrated by the wave of pro-democracy revolts in North Africa and the Middle-East (the “Arab Spring”) in 2010 and 2011, and the North America and European Occupy movements against austerity that were inspired by these revolts? We are thinking in particular here of the activism and scholarship which thinks with notions of “the commons” and which seeks to think connections between seemingly disparate forms of resistance from below in relationship to the broader frameworks of neoliberal disenfranchisement.

RB: You mention the ways we intervene, strategically leveraging our positions, while understanding that we live irreconcilable contradictions. This does indeed seem like our only option. But the goal to me seems to be to create the conditions for a collective exodus, a withdrawal that can constitute something else… otherwise, we are stuck juggling tactics, we are stuck trying to leverage what we have towards what we understand as a collective project, even as we remain in the battle for cultural capital and legitimacy that sees us competing against each other for the same jobs, the same contracts, the same grants. And we see this in the recently institutionalized markets of socially engaged and relational art practices. What does it mean when autonomous or resistant practices are marketized? What are the mechanisms through which collectively generated value becomes converted into private capital, and what role does the art worker play in this? We live this contradiction as artists and academics because, even as we resist, our economic self-interest coincides with the perpetuation of the prevailing economic and political system. To seek to undermine it is self-destructive.

To shift the terrain it is necessary to ask how a more collectivized exodus is possible, how questions about intervention or oppositionality might be socialized differently. That is to say, how might we live differently, how might we feed ourselves and each other, how might we collectivize our reproduction?

Let me back up to your provocative suggestion that actions, images, events have numerous after-lives, through the example of “Shut down ICE.” When Homeland Security announced a public meeting on a new detention center project in Crete, IL, something we had been organizing against for many months, our process called for direct action. “Shut down ICE” grew out of years of thinking and doing collectively, and appeared to us as somehow self-evident. I do not think we saw it as symbolic; it was our full intention to challenge the legitimacy of this “public meeting” and of official claims to public consultation and transparency, to actually, not symbolically, shut it down. By necessity this meant to manifest, to constitute another public, to invent and enact different forms of what a public meeting could be, to make real the alternative, at any cost. We had developed techniques for leveraging mainstream and alternative media channels not merely as a platform to amplify, but also to test out the possibility of inserting radical formulations within official discourses and spaces, to produce a set of surreal performances. (As when a local evening news anchor finds herself citing deportation as a form of state terror). The system response was swift–Homeland Security and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (who we see simultaneously as targets and partners in a strange unfolding dance), called off the public meeting citing security threats from protesters, effectively shutting themselves down. We immediately announced a public meeting with ICE at their main headquarters downtown Chicago – at the same time as the originally scheduled official meeting. Again the response was swift: hundreds of robocops of all jurisdictions were called in to barricade the building, and once again the news media presence was overwhelming – as was the presence of people who arrived to participate. It is under these conditions that “Shut Down ICE” unfolded. The event itself is part of a process that greatly exceeds it, that takes place over many years and that builds structures, relations, networks, and a kind of improvisational “group think”.

Often, in art as in organizing, the focus is on producing an event, an image. Your reflections on after-lives finds a corollary in a simpler organizing notion that social change has to do with community-building, that is to say constructing stories, forms, relations, temporalities, sensations: Understanding communities as living systems within larger ecosystems.

“Shut Down ICE” was one of many efforts to stop the detention center – from NGO’s pushing legislative initiatives, to suburban citizen NIMBY campaigns, to our own teach-ins, educational campaigns and durational walks. But there was no alliance, no way for these different tactics, and positionalities, to speak to each other. The success of our efforts in ultimately stopping this detention center suggests something very provocative: that overlapping – and often incompatible – efforts, forms and tactics is at the moment a more realistic model than alliance-building or the rather thin understandings of “solidarity” we manage to practice within the relative safety of privileged positions. In this fight we did not work together – we did not coordinate, bridge or even translate well across the different efforts and organizations, recognizing a set of incommensurabilities and asymmetries that we felt we could not overcome. We tried instead to push others into the fight, to rattle the bushes. Somehow, the sheer density of these efforts created the conditions for overlapping effects, a kind of accumulation that resonated for me with Graciela Carnevale’s notion of building nets that can hold us as we resist reality (2009). In the radical movements of the 1960s, in the Global South and in the North, social change was imagined as a break. Today we are looking more at building alternative structures that can sustain us, from within which we can produce realities, something we see perhaps most strongly in the U.S. not in the recent movements against austerity, but rather in the ongoing grassroots work in a place like Detroit, so clearly articulated by the work of Grace Lee Boggs (see Lee Boggs and Kurashige, 2011). We are experimenting and learning how to build such structures–spaces, relations, practices, languages–and we are often surprised and humbled by what we find. Carnevale suggests art can be understood in terms of its effects, as “a critical doing that tends to invent ways of life more human and just” (2009). If this is so, what art might become may surprise us as well.



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[i] BLW is an arts collective which stands for the last names of the artists, Rozalinda Borcila, Sarah Lewison Lewison and Julie Wyman and it is also an acronym for BeLikeWater and BeLoW.