Super Border

Published in Source Photographic Review issue 56 Autumn 2008

This journey starts with a failure to gain access to the interiors of the newly constructed surveillance stations that are a part of the Integrated External Vigilance System (SIVE), a new ‘vision machine’ that is now operational along the southern coast of Spain’s Andalucía.

I am used to such denials. For over ten years I have photographed the shadowy activities of a commercial security infrastructure that is perhaps one of the most representative of the new economies of globalisation. I have often experienced difficulties in attempting to interrupt the hierarchical flow of looking and there are times when I have stood idly at airports for contacts that failed to show and others where I have been abandoned at the side of the road when my subjects have decided that I am photographing the wrong thing. But I have also been sped through foreign cities in cars with tinted windows to unknown destinations (yes, such clichés are common in this world). I have photographed in shopping malls and in motels. I have been witness to extraordinary scenarios conducted by indeterminate security personnel in the landscape of the everyday: in parks, bars, beaches and parking lots; train stations, forests, villages, towns and cities. At the very least, I have usually persuaded someone to unlock their doors for me. For now though, all I can do is to resort back to that essential currency of documentary, to just walk along the route in observational mode, with camera in hand, and attempt to experience a landscape that may or may not feel changed by the advent of this super border technology.

In the Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau made the analogy between speaking and walking. He suggested that to put one foot in front of another was an act of enunciation, the formation of a narrative that connects the beginning to the end and gives voice to the space that is travelled in between. These pictures, then, are my multiform and contradictory speech acts. They are the words that collide with one another and interrupt any notion of harmonious syntax, an eclectic trace of an extraordinary phenomena that has truly embedded itself within the fabric of the everyday.

At three hundred million Euros, SIVE represents the apex of current technological development. It is capable of detecting a craft as small as a child’s inflatable boat at dead of night leaving the African continent. The infrared camera technologies, electronic monitoring stations and air and sea interceptor craft have no doubt been effective in cutting illegal immigration to this narrow part of the coast. So effective that its supporters see this as only the first leg in a Mediterranean wide expansion of a European super border and a technology that can be claimed as a benign life saver. But this system, for all its suggested humanitarian justification, represents a kind of failure of humanity. Opponents have suggested that SIVE will result in more perilous journeys being undertaken further up the coast, routes that will avoid such easy detection. Indeed in August alone over one hundred people were reported dead attempting to cross between the two continents, avoiding the SIVE surveyed Straits that are now too difficult to cross undetected. This conservative estimate of the drowned, including children as well as men and women, died coming the long way into Europe from Africa.

The airport at Malaga is the main entry point for tourists coming into this region on their way to the coastal resorts. I have decided to walk from here through to Cádiz and make my way down through the landscapes of the Costa del Sol, past the exhausted tourist towns of Fuengirola and Torremolinos and the exclusive marinas of Marbella. At Gibraltar (one half of the ‘Pillars of Hercules’) the whole landscape changes and is silenced by the levanter cloud that covers the summit of the Rock. The fog shrouded land and seascapes take on an ominous aesthetic and I think of Molly Bloom’s reminiscence of this part of the coast -  “I thought it was going to get like Gibraltar my goodness the heat before the levanter came on black as night and the glare of the rock standing up in it like a big giant". The Levante and Mistral winds compete physically and psychologically down here pummelling you for your attention and, so it is claimed, sending poor souls mad and suicidal with its lack of respite.

As I continue along the periphery, encountering the surveillance infrastructure distributed amongst the hotels and golf courses of the holiday landscapes, the container ports and international shipping of global trade that is ubiquitous on this coast, I slowly come to realise to what extent we are no longer separated from the systems of control that promise to protect us. It is as if the familiar hierarchy of looking has been dismantled and in its place something more akin to a soft panoptic submergence has taken place. ‘Integrated external vigilance’, I am aware, may not just be physical after all. The uncertainty of what I am looking for on this journey is often confirmed by the indeterminate nature of SIVE itself, a real series of monitoring stations that face down the threat that looms through the ocean haze, but also a dispersed amalgam of personnel, boats, aircraft and communications technologies that may just be too generalised for me to say for sure that these are definitely part of the infrastructure and not some fevered speculation on my part. In this way SIVE also becomes a state of mind as well as a real system.

Past the halfway point of my journey, through the industrial powerhouse of La Linea, positioned here by Franco as a counterpoint to the British occupied Gibraltar, and past Algeciras you suddenly stumble upon the magnificence of this region with Africa clearly visible across the Straits and the valleys on this side dramatically leading down towards the sea. At Tarifa the kite surfers slice up and down the surf and in their way briefly take control of the weather conditions here that have made putting to sea such a perilous ordeal for the centuries of ships and boats that have made this coast their watery grave.

Before setting off up the coast towards Cádiz, I sit above Tarifa on the westerly hills that overlook the town and eat my lunch and contemplate a memory of a summer here more than twenty years before when I was dragged into deep water by the current and came closest, in all my life, to drowning at sea. The current here is murderous and stems from the narrowness of the opening to the Mediterranean and the sheer volume of water flowing eastwards from the Atlantic ocean. It is at this point that the more saline and warmer Mediterranean water sinks to the bottom on its outflow and undercuts the cooler Atlantic water coming in. The internal and submerged tidal waves can reach one hundred metres with nothing to suggest this on the actual surface apart from a refraction pattern only seen in certain climatic conditions. Only the desperate, naive or the brave set sail across this point.

The Straits of Gibraltar, in mythological terms, originated from the violent separation of the continents by Hercules as one of his ‘twelve labours’ in expiation for the crime of infanticide. Driven mad by the Goddess Hera and resulting in the murder of his own children he was thus dispatched to complete his tasks of repentance to the absolute outer reaches of civilisation. According to Plato it is this very aperture that made possible the navigation by the barbarous citizens of Atlantis in their assault on Athens. Repelled and sent back through the Straits, they too paid for the attempted assault on the seat of civilisation by being wiped off the face of the earth and sent to the bottom of the ocean, city and all, in an enduring metaphorical warning on the price paid for the audacity of territorial penetration.