The Smart Fence is the Message

EU border barriers as violent media

2019

 

Since 2015, hundreds of kilometers of reinforced barriers have been built on the outer borders of the European Union. These fences, erected to prevent migrants from entering the EU, largely consist of mesh fencing and so-called NATO razor wire, but are oftentimes also equipped with loudspeakers, lights, electric shock devices, and various sensors. The Hungarian anti-immigration fence on the border with Serbia features a particularly broad range of such technological additions.

 

Despite these features, the fence might appear to be not much more than a crude physical obstacle, violently separating spaces and people. Its high-tech additions seem to merely enhance its power to separate. While this material dimension is important, the ways in which the fence operates in practice cannot be reduced to just this. In most direct encounters, people don’t come into physical contact with it. When you stand next to the fence, your eyes are likely to be drawn to the sharp appearance of the blades of the razor wire. According to the manufacturer of the wire for the Hungarian fence – European Security Fencing in Malaga, Spain – this is the most important aspect of razor wire: it is a ‘passive safety’ product that primarily operates as a ‘deterrence.’ It is conceived to communicate the threat of physical harm, rather than to inflict it. Hence, unlike conventional barbed wire, no green-coloured or otherwise inconspicuously looking razor wire is produced. The point is that it is visible.

 

There are other deterrent aspects to the fence as well. When you approach it, cameras detect you and the loudspeakers start to play a voice recording of a warning message in various languages, pointing out that damaging or crossing the fence is a criminal act under Hungarian law. Meanwhile, yellow warning signs tell you that the fence is electrified and touching it poses a shock hazard. This latter aspect also operates primarily as a deterrent, because there seems to be no actual danger: the shock is reportedly only ‘mild.’

Last but not least, if you do touch the fence, movement sensors notify border guards at a nearby watchtower, after which they speed towards you to see what is going on and intervene if they deem this necessary. This is what happened when I stole a piece of razor wire from the fence (Border Operation, 2018.) Shortly after I started cutting the wire, two border guards arrived by car and started yelling at me. I ran off as fast as I could, scared to be pepper sprayed or otherwise assaulted by them.

 

Considering all this, it becomes clear that instead of looking at the Hungarian border fence as a more-or-less technologically enhanced obstacle, the following might be a more accurate reflection of the way it operates: an ‘intervening substance through which sensory impressions are conveyed or physical forces are transmitted.’ This is one of the Oxford Dictionary of English definitions of a ‘medium.’ (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2019)

EU-border fences are media that transmit different contents, ranging from notions of danger, (il)legality and authority, to affective exchanges between people protecting and challenging its structures. However, if we follow McLuhan’s (1964) adagium that ‘the medium is the message,’ another question arises. If the medium itself – rather than the contents it transmits – defines its broader cultural relevance, what would the ‘message’ of these EU border fences be? The first answer that comes to mind seems straightforward: the broader relevance of the fence is its limiting effect on migration. But this answer is less conclusive than it might appear. It remains debatable whether the new border fences have led to the significant decrease in the influx of migrants to Europe that has taken place during the years since they were built.* Moreover, when we examine the way the fences – particularly the Hungarian one – have been represented in news reports and government communication another message comes to the fore.

A 2017 press release on the website of the Hungarian government reads ‘”Smart fence” is working, second border barrier is being erected.’ In addition to announcing the supposed success of an experiment with a new fence design in preventing people from crossing the border, the title already shows that another interest is at stake in the article as well. The use of the adjective ‘smart’ is relevant. The designation ‘smart’ is conventionally used for everyday technologies that enhance comfort and efficiency through detailed and accurate data processing. In other words, by referring to the border fence as ‘smart’ it is framed as an innovation connected to the world of high-tech consumer culture. This focus on the technologically advanced aspects of the fence has also featured prominently in media reports, oftentimes accompanied by images that put the fence’s sensor elements at the centre of attention.

 

Thus – especially when considered from the perspective of its representations – we could say that the ‘smart fence’ is the message. While digital technologies make up only a small part of the fence they tend to be foregrounded in representations through the use of the idiom of digital consumer culture, combined with a visual focus on – supposedly – advanced technological features. Thus, the fence contributes to the idea that EU border protection is part of the everyday paradigm of digital consumer culture, rather than the realm of territorial, military violence that is now taking place in civilian spaces. The fence does indeed have a few features that involve digital sensor technology, but the framing of the whole structure as a ‘smart fence’ or ‘high-tech border’ draws attention away from the fact that its main components are razor wire, mesh fencing, metal bars and a ‘vehicular access trench’ in between two parallel barriers. Rather than a high-tech innovation, the fence actually isn’t very different in design and function from the Iron Curtain that separated Europe during the Cold War. In the end, its main modes of operation evolve around the impression of physical threat evoked by the razor blades and metal obstacles it is made of, and the physical obstruction it poses. It has little to do with the conventional associations of ‘smart’ technology with an optimized, ‘civilized’ everyday life.

 

This framing of a technology of violence as supposedly clean and precise technologies is by no means an anomaly. It is symptomatic of a broader cultural practice that uses narratives of technologization to justify means of violence, such as ‘smart bombs’ and armed drones. In other words, there is more at stake than just this fence. This is about a more fundamental culture of violence that lies at the basis of consumer capitalism and that is closely tied to what philosopher John Gray (1999) critiques as the ‘myth of progress,’ the belief that ‘new technologies will conjure away the immemorial evils of human life.’

 

The question is therefore: how might we counteract or deconstruct this misleading message of technologization and draw attention to the violent material realities that it obscures? One approach I have taken is to ‘de-digitize’ the supposed high-tech aspect of the fence. European Studies #1 (sensors) (2019) consists of three C-type prints that document the seemingly high-tech elements of the Hungarian border fence, but represent these with a visual idiom that belongs to a pre-digital era. I used an analogue mid-format camera made in the German Democratic Republic in the 1960s – the time when the Iron Curtain emerged – to take photos of a unit of sensors, loudspeakers, cameras and lights that are attached to the fence; a constellation that has also been featured prominently in media reports about the fence. After developing the film, contact prints were made: the negative was put directly onto the photo paper and was exposed without further (analogue or digital) processing. I cut the prints slightly wider than the exposure area of the camera’s objective. As a result, edges of the film and parts of the brand name (Kodak) and serial numbers can be recognized when you look carefully.

 

Thus, I reversed the representational logic of the Hungarian government and news media. Instead of framing a largely low-tech structure as part of digital consumer culture, the high-tech elements of the fence are now represented in connection with an era of the past: Despite all attempts to make ‘fortress Europe’ appear like a necessary and justified component of a progressive, liberal democratic society, its actual workings are reminiscent of the dark days of Cold War separation.

 

 

 References

Gray, J. (1999). The Myth of Progress. The New Statesman. [online] Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/node/148940 [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019].

 

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. NY: New York: McGraw-Hill.

 

Oxford Dictionary of English. [online] Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/medium [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019].

 

Ploeger, D. (2018). Border Operation. [Digital video, 3:28].

 

Ploeger, D. (2019). European Studies #1 (sensors). [3 C-type prints].

* Various critics have argued that other factors, such as the developments of the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere and a limit to the total number of people who are able to flee, played a more prominent role in the decline than the border fences. Besides, it has been pointed out that erecting barriers tends to mainly lead to people diverting to alternative routes, instead of refraining from migration. See for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/europes-new-border-fences-are-derailing-migrants-but-not-stopping-them/2016/03/09/2a932c9e-dfc9-11e5-8c00-8aa03741dced_story.html [accessed 22 October 2019]