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Border Studies

At the end of January of this year, twenty scholars interested in the intersections of media, urbanism, and migration convened at the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC) at the University of Texas at Dallas for the three-day symposium Platforms to the World. I organized the symposium in conjunction with my ATEC colleagues Heidi Cooley and Dale McDonald, co-directors of the Public Interactives Research Lab.

Our aim was to create a forum to address an essential contradiction in 21st century media: while emerging media technologies promise faster and more intimate connections with people around the world, media technologies themselves actively contribute to the reinforcement of social divisions and political borders. The instigating force for the event was the belief that media’s “border logics,” their simultaneous making and unmaking of boundaries, deserved closer scrutiny.

The fourteen participants accepted from the symposium’s open call represented a variety of disciplines, academic institutions, and countries of origin. Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, junior and senior faculty alike discussed their interest in and work around issues of borders, media, and migration in a set of events aimed at promoting collaborative thinking and making. The symposium opened with a plenary session on the relationship between media and the making and unmaking of borders in everyday life, featuring Feng-Mei Heberer (NYU), Carlos Jiménez (U of Denver) and Shannon Mattern (The New School).

The bulk of the symposium, however, consisted of workshops where all participants shared their research interests, questions, and methods. A “lighting talk” style session allowed everyone to introduce themselves and their academic or activist work in order to reveal connections between interests as varied as, for example, Punjabi cinema of migration, decolonial mapping initiatives in Chile, and makeshift surveillance hacks in Palestine. Eschewing formal research presentations, the symposium encouraged instead active conversations about methods for socially engaged scholarship and critical making. The workshops facilitated brainstorming and collective project building emergent from the disparate backgrounds and strengths the participants offered.

Platforms to the World also considered the borders that emerge in a swiftly evolving urban landscape. On the second day, we visited the Trinity River, which unofficially defines the western border of Dallas, to consider how urban infrastructures perpetuate social divisions. In preparation, three graduate students at ATEC, Catalina Alzate, Angelica Martinez Ochoa, and Cansu Simsek, led a workshop on the history of the river and the city and encouraged us to reflect on our own movement practices and spatial relationships to the urban environment’s (official and unofficial) borders.

The site visit afterwards provided a “borderland” in an urban setting for participants to try out in practice the issues we research in a transnational setting. Although most participants were unfamiliar with the area, the visit served not only to get out of the university building but also to promote reflection on what sustains “border logics” in the local context of the Dallas area. We took a few hours to explore the river and its surrounding areas, collecting “media samples” that we could work on afterwards to create media interventions based out of the Dallas Continental Bridge.

The media interventions created by the three groups (a video history of the bridge, a fake tourism ad for Dallas, and a series of personal oral reflections) allowed us to think through the symposium topics in a different register. During our last session, we brainstormed future collaborations and projects we could pursue. We left on Saturday, February 1st, with a renewed investment in our intellectual work, a sense of potential new directions, and a healthy dose of collaborative spirit. Surely there would be plans for a second meetup in the near future. Like many others, however, we had little idea of the changes the following months would bring.

The global COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed civil rights protests of spring and summer 2020 have only made the issues we discussed that weekend in January all the more pressing. In the global context, lockdowns have collapsed the informal economies of many places in the Global South. Those of us who research these migratory flows can begin to anticipate the long lasting effects these changes will bring to millions of vulnerable migrant populations.

At the U.S. national level, several symposium participants taught us about the widespread use of media by the Department of Homeland Security to promote its closed-borders ideology. The visually explicit deployment of DHS agents to harass and arrest protesting civilians within U.S. cities and the new propaganda videos released by Border Patrol are only the most extreme recent examples of such trends.

These resonances extended to the local as well. The area of our field visit during the symposium became the focus of controversy during the summer Black Lives Matter protests in Dallas. On the evening of June 1st, BLM demonstrators congregated at the local courthouse and walked on the Margaret Hunt Bridge, one of the vehicular bridges crossing the Trinity River. Dallas PD forces kettled protestors in the bridge, fired pepper balls and smoke bombs, and arrested hundreds citing the city’s curfew — except the bridge was just outside the borders of the curfew perimeter. Following public outcry, charges against those detained were dropped and the fallout of these events has already led to the resignation of Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall.

So where does that leave us now?

Many of the future plans proposed at the end of the symposium are still achievable, even if they take time to set up as we adjust to our new normal. For instance, participants hoped to develop and maintain archives of resources for scholars, students, and activists hoping to learn more about the “border logics” of everyday life and the roles that media technologies play in such logics. Several of us suggested expanding our workshops into virtual collaborations that would allow those physically impacted by borders to participate. In an era of travel bans and repeated lockdowns, these sorts of gatherings may become all the more central to developing intellectual and creative projects. Thousands of teachers, professionals, and families turn to Zoom for hours these days to carry out mundane activities and work duties. Questions about how these technologies facilitate international connectivity while perpetuating social divisions and hierarchies continue to be paramount.

Platforms to the World was hopefully the starting point for a series of creative engagements with these questions, as media continues to shape and transform our relationship to the world.

It started with a Twitter joke.

91665683_10105499601122550_7703103242141433856_oAs the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, governments instituted different kinds of lock down procedures to limit the amount of people coming into their country in an effort to reduce the possibilities of contagion. These procedures varied widely, from shutting down all incoming flights, to restricting entrance to citizens, to mandatory 14-day quarantines for anyone coming in. Some countries, such as Turkey and India, even instituted restrictions for internal movement. Within the United States, individual governors took (or opted not to take) measures to restrict who could come into their jurisdiction, and under what circumstances. Then there were the local measures. When the shelter-in-place restrictions in Dallas County and its neighboring Colin County began to differ substantially, an offhand remark on social media signaled the possibility that an administrative division such as the county line could become an actionable border in the time of COVID-19.

Borders in the Time of COVID-19 is a project about tracing the management of local, intra-national, and international borders during this pandemic. Some of these borders are established boundaries that have been reinforced since the pandemic began. Others, like county or state lines, have newly become sites of movement restrictions. Decisions about movement restrictions must inevitably balance limiting contagion with the need to provide essential services and maintain provision of basic goods. At the same time, some decisions taken under the cover of crisis have little to do with public health and may in fact be motivated by other ideological factors.

Border studies teaches us that borders are not only tools for dividing up a territory but also strategies for demarcating differences in society. Who is in, who is out, and who gets to make that decision are all politically charged choices with material effects on people’s lives.

…borders are, to some extent, designed to perform precisely this task: not merely to give individuals from different social classes different experiences of the law, the civil administration, and elementary rights, but actively to differentiate between individuals in terms of social class.

Étienne Balibar, What is a Border?

I envision this project as a public humanities initiative that will marshal the critical insights of border studies with the methodological tools of digital humanities to respond to and make sense of these rapid changes. For Phase 1, I have launched a website asking for information about how border closures are affecting communities at the local, provincial, and national level: https://covidborders.info/

Inspired by the rapid response efforts of other digital humanists like the Torn Apart project, I hope this initiative will engender collaborations with others across fields and locations who are likewise interested in tracking the roles of borders in these uncertain times.