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Border Biology

Commmissioned by the international arts festival NEXT for the Eurometropolis Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai.

"In February 2016 I visited Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. The old port breathed a sort of relieved astonishment. It was warm and windless, but for days already not a single boat had been spotted. On the terraces people were speculating wildly about why the influx had dried up. I had arranged to meet a social worker, who apologised at length because there was nothing to see on that day. I answered clumsily that that must surely be positive in itself. The social worker remembered the shipwrecks and downpours of December. The thousands of bodies that queued for hours, sometimes for days in front of the registration tent. Until they were screened and digitized, like readable carriers of measurable identities. Stored in databases at the other extremity of the continent. They were soaking wet, those data bodies, down to the bone. Not from the surf, but from waiting in the torrential rain. Changing their clothes for the umpteenth, pointless time. Their squelchy, soaked skin, pleated in deep wrinkles. ‘Unrecognizable’, said the social worker, ‘like aliens’.


Years ago, as a student in Brussels, I was involved in a hunger strike by 103 illegalised migrants. That hunger strike lasted 60 days and carved itself into my soul: the smell of mould, empty stomachs,  instant coffee and electric heaters, the humming of the neon tubes, the headache, the constipation, the glucose comas. There in that underlit underground garage, where 103 hunger strikers were parked on their bedsore-inducing mattresses – 103 horizontal, unwanted bodies that were both a means of action and an act of despair – I was confronted directly for the first time with the physicality of social selection. With how the border often is not a question of geography, but of biology.


Philosopher Grégoire Chamayou describes the current illegalisation process that places displaced people outside the system of legal protection: not because they have perpetrated an offence, but because they themselves are the offence, simply by being present on the territory of the nation state.


On the windless terrace in Mytilene, the social worker also recalled September. The burning sun. The crossers who had just washed ashore, walking along the motorway. Overheated columns of people that snaked along the sweltering concrete – 60 kilometres from the north coast to the capital, heading for the ferries to Athens, heading for the buses to the Balkans, heading for … In the beginning, helpful motorists took pity on the hugely increased numbers of hitch-hikers. Until a ban was imposed on carpooling with washed-up migrants. Because whoever drives around with an unregistered data body, with a border violation made flesh on the back seat, is guilty of people smuggling.


We take such pleasure in honouring the image of Fortress Europe: for the old right a pipe dream that remains to be achieved, for the old left a nightmare that has already happened. Fortress Europe: with its neatly chalked outer border, and its iconic, electric fence. But in fact, for a long time now already the border has not been on the border. The border is everywhere. On the back seat of a helpful motorist’s car in Lesbos. On the bedsore-inducing mattress of an illegalised hunger striker in Brussels. In a glass tower in Warsaw which, besides a bank, houses the situation room of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. In a ski village in the Austrian Alps, where the back-ups are stored of the European fingerprint, Schengen and visa databases. In the French consulate in Abidjan, where up to 50 per cent of visa applications from Côte d’Ivoire are turned down. In a detention centre in Tripoli, where migrants are locked up on the basis of their intention to migrate to Europe. In an orbit around the Earth, where weather satellites not only track global warming, but also migration flows.

Europe is not a fortress. The border is not a wall. The border is a man-grown genetic parasite, which mutates, shifts and infects. Which sometimes results in death. Which, when its host body outlives it, is passed on from one generation to the next. Down to and including the umpteenth baby born on Belgian soil, who has seen nothing of the world except one or other Belgian maternity clinic, but who has already been added to the statistics as a ‘second-’ or third-generation migrant’."

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