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The scandal - Notes on the autonomy of the image

Florian Schneider

It is the night of the 29th of September 2005. 215 men and women have made a momentous decision. Over several weeks or months they have been eking out an existence reduced to bare survival; seeking cover in a low forest or shrubland, camping in flimsy tents, with no access to food or water, and without money.

Although they came so close to the final destination of a journey full of privations, what opens up now is a reverse perspective: the longer they are standing still the further they get from the finish. Europe, or at least the official territory of what is considered the 'European Union,’ is only a few meters away.

They have been discussing the problem in many nightly meetings. Should they take the risk and leave one night all together or wait for another opportunity? Should they continue to try to cross the border in small groups of at most a dozen people—in such low numbers that it does not cause a stir?
The people living in the forest are well organized in small groups of 15 to 20 members. Most of them gather according to their countries of origin, but there are others who join a group of a different country. A group elects a leader among its members, and the group leaders meet in a council.

The decision to cross the border in the night of the 29th of September is almost unanimous, though apparently without the consent of the elder leaders who are sometimes called 'the fathers of the forest.' They must have feared the scandal such a decision would cause; they were aware, at least, that such an exodus and its aftermath would dramatically change the situation in the forest.

The images taken by the CCTV cameras of the Guardia Civil, the Spanish military police, show dozens of people using improvised ladders to climb the three-meter-high fence running along the 50 kilometer border around Ceuta, a military outpost in the north of Morocco.

One can only guess how painful it must be for a human body to crawl through the barbed wire; and then one sees them jumping the three meters down onto the road that runs behind the fence.

Almost everybody was hurt. Broken arms, legs and sprained ankles, injuries to the head. Seven people lost their lives. They did not survive the fall into Europe. Or they were shot by the border patrol's rubber bullets.

The footage spread by Reuters over the next few days is a sacrilege of serious journalism. It consists of a nine-second sequence from the images of the surveillance cameras, animated in fast motion. Broadcast all around the globe, looping every hour, a dribbling voice-over gabbles about the 'storming of Fortress Europe.'

The sequence turns out to be an unintentional piece of art. In its conceptual radicalism and determination it far outstrips many 'politically engaged' works seen at biennials and art exhibitions which deal—more or less superficially—with the issues of borders and migration.

Instead, the border appears here in its almost perfect postmodern design: performed through a scandal, in a widely publicized incident involving moral outrage, disgrace, and allegations of wrongdoing.

But what is so scandalous about these images? At first sight, the scandal relates to the collective attempt to overcome the border, the self-authorized and self-organized transgression of the fence.
It is a scandal in the truest sense of the word, which derives from the Latin 'scandere,' to climb. But there is yet another, no less compelling, etymological perspective: the border as 'skandalon,' which is the ancient Greek word for a stumbling block.

In this respect, the events of the 29th of September serve as an exquisite example of what activists and theorists of the 'noborder network' have, since the early 1990s, called the 'autonomy of migration.'

This expression seeks to understand migration as a much more complex process than its usual reduction to misery and calamity. The patterns of victimization are as omnipresent as the ubiquitous control system. Both advocates and adversaries of the contemporary border regime seem to understand migration as a logical result of the movements of capital—as its unsavory aftereffect or appendix.

The 'autonomy of migration' claims that both research and activism should refrain from indulging in recurrent tropes of charity and compassion. Instead, it recognizes the manifold social and political processes needed to practically cross a border. These processes are, politically, constituting migrant subjectivities.

Migration is not the action of an isolated, asocial, expelled individual. Its social and subjective dimensions appear, rather, in its autonomy and independence of the political measures that try to control it. To escape one's country of origin, to cross borders, to perhaps seek something more somewhere else, is an eminently political act.

But the night’s events had an even wider impact. They exposed the redundancy of the hi-tech gadgets central to the staging of technological supremacy around Ceuta (and in many other border sites).

Every few hundred meters, there is a watchtower equipped with spotlights, sound and movement sensors, and video cameras providing CCTV footage to a central control booth via underground cables.

The decision of the Guardia Civil to release the footage was deliberate. Normally it is inaccessible to the public and the press.

Yet the scandal is not the release of the images; rather, it lies in fast-forwarding them. The low frame rate of the recordings of the surveillance camera is accelerated through an additional time lapse. Normally this video effect is applied in order to highlight processes that would appear rather subtle to the human eye.

The purpose is all too clear: of the 215 people who crossed the fence that night, only a few dozen were captured in the published footage. The manipulation of the images transforms the distinct number of individuals into a swarming mass.

The animation effect, also known as ‘undercranking,’ transforms them into animals—even insects, bereft of all human agency. Their staccato, choppy movements reveal an imaginary plague beleaguering Europe, over-running its outposts and fortifications.

According to the dictionary, a scandal usually is produced by a mixture of both real and imaginary events. The scandal suppresses the distinction between the real and the imaginary. It operates through unuttered laws which regulate that which is permitted to some and not permitted to others.

The real movements of the border crossers who appear in the news footage are chopped up and broken into the smallest possible pieces, jerky, saccadic movements. In order to reconstruct an impression of coherence, they have to merge inseparably with the most banal, enduring fantasies and 'common sense' about illegal immigration.

The scandal transforms the event to solicit a moral outrage, the purpose of which is nothing but the reaffirmation of the border, which would otherwise be invisible, disputed or disbelieved.

The scandal affirms that the border is still there, still true. Its conceptual homogenization of real and imaginary reassures us. Moreover, t allows us to enjoy and to cooperate with the regime that relies on the frail and ineffectual facts on the ground. On the same basis, we can even worry about its perversions and moderately criticize its violent character.

Each of these three notions of the scandal are instantiated by the frame of the image as well as within the frame. The frame is the allegedly necessary homogenization of real and imaginary elements. It is the border that limits what is and is not visible, and thereby establishes what can and cannot be said.

And yet there is another, a more disturbing presence, beyond the field of the image and its homogenization of space and time— indeed, beyond the frame of the scandal and its homogenization of real and imaginary.

It takes place out-of-field, outside of the frame, and it testifies to an elsewhere; not to something literally to the left or the right of the frame, but rather to the spaces where the border crossers come from, and where they are going. Neither exists in the immediacy of the footage of the events; both must be negated, ignored, in the mise-en-scene of 'Fortress Europe.'

Moussa K., for example: he fled from the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2003 looking for another life in Europe. Passing through Guinea-Conakry, Mauritania, and the Western Sahara, he tried to enter Spanish territory in Las Palmas, but was caught by Moroccan police and deported to Oujda on the Moroccan-Algerian border. With some comrades he decided to try again in Ceuta.

In June 2005, after a month of walking across 900 kilometers of Moroccan desert, they reached Castillago, a small town near the border at Ceuta. 'We lived like animals—it was like in a war zone,' he recalls of the three months he spent in the shrubs.

On the 28th of September he decided to take part in the collective attempt to climb across the barbed wire fence and make his way into Ceuta. The slogan of the collective effort was: 'No retreat, no surrender.'

Moussa made his own ladder from small tree trunks and branches and succeeded—unlike his friend, who died from police gunfire. A few weeks later his injuries were almost healed. He now hopes to obtain a residency in Spain and to study mining somewhere in Europe.

But what is really at stake is not the relative out-of-field, such as geographical destinations, privations and longings, motivations and identities, but the nullification of any subjectivity. The essential function of the border regime is to render innocuous any past experience of the border crosser, let alone future desires. As soon as the border is passed, engineers become cleaners, academics turn into sex workers and brain surgeons become taxi drivers—ready-made for overexploitation on the informal labor markets of late capitalism.

Rather than lamenting the unfairness and considering himself a victim, Moussa K. seems to understand border crossing as an process of extreme desubjectivation—in large part by living in ways that are almost unlivable. Pushed beyond the conditions and limits of what is often described as 'human,' his experiences become a sort of negative freedom, as Foucault might say.

Border crossing exists neither in the images nor in the imaginaries of the border and its regime of scandalization. It rather insists or subsists somewhere else, in an absolute out-of -field or hors-champ'

In his cinema books, Gilles Deleuze associated an ‘absolute out-of-field’ with the concept of 'durée' or duration. Instead of measuring sequenced movements in homogeneous space, he suggested a heterogeneous, non-representative notion of time which is irreversible, irretrievable and indivisible.

Something quite stunning happens when the published, animated nine second sequence of border crossers at Ceuta are re-rendered back into what might have been experienced as 'real time.' The specters supposedly overrunning Fortress Europe seem to stand still. Every single image is stretched and prolonged to an almost unbearable extent.

Since CCTV cameras usually run with a lower frame rate, in this case compensated for by the speeding up of the video material into fast motion, any attempt to slow it down again results in what, at first sight, seems a pointless duplication of each single original frame.

With one exception: the only moving part of the image is the counter of the time code running smoothly from frame to frame, replacing one image with its double, metering a faked sameness and presenting every 25th part of a second as if it were enjoyable as pure time while all the content of the image is waiting for the next moment of release.

As the movement of the border crossers is halted for a moment that feels infinite, one witnesses a strange kind of apparition. The deadlock of over-mediated content causes a collapse of time. It has emerged as the result of a two-fold manipulation of the footage: first a fast-forwarding for the sake of the scandal, then its reversal through slow-motion: an ethically necessary, but apparently quite arbitrary restoration of the time in which what seemed to happen could have actually happened.

The elapsing of time produces new blocs of invisibility, potential hide-outs between the still images—uncontrolled zones between the frames.

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