by Élisabeth Vallet
It is a desert, swept by hot wind, which burning air we struggle to breathe. Or a city with a rumbling belly, where loud merchants harangues passersby in a festival of screams and odors carried by the breeze. Or a swamp, where reeds shiver as Spanish moss swings from tall trees with the constant blow sweeping over the river nearby.
From the Neguev Desert in Israel to the Sonora Desert in Arizona, from Hili in West Bengal to Padang in the State of Perlis, each location bears the fracture of a wall. A frontier wall erected by men. Everywhere, these walls are illusions that scarify the world. They are allegories of fear—a sneaky, crawling fear that grows increasingly noticeable, audible, until it becomes blinding and deafening. Walls crease, alter and disfigure the world they fragment, but they cannot eradicate the wind that keeps carrying the odors, the sounds, and the life that goes on, hidden beyond the separation line.
The wall has become the ultimate rampart against fear, in a global world where unsteady States struggle to demonstrate the vitality of the social contract. In a global space where individuals try to slow down the flows that affect them beyond their control. In an overstretched place where the poorest ones’ forced immobility is confronted with the chosen mobility of those in power. In the face of severed ties of trust that should unite those that govern and those governed; the States and their subjects; the elected and the electors.
The temptation of the wall, the medieval entrenchment reflex that seemed obliterated in the obsolescent world of the end of the Cold War, had not said its last word. September 11 gave legitimacy to the surviving temptation of fortifying the world to make it less threatening.
There were eleven of these fortifications from another era, still standing the day after the fall of the Berlin wall. They are now 70, representing a distance superior to the Earth’s circumference. They define frontiers in Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa. They tear apart frontier zones that used to be aware of their common heritage, to be rich in their proximity. They isolate ecosystems and breathe the life out of them, depriving animals of their pastures and reproduction lands, and rivers of their natural beds. They turn Others, however close and familiar, into dangerous, mischievous strangers, at the expense of a trans-frontier balance that sometimes dates back centuries. They erect an illusory screen between “The World” and “Us”. They are a true dramatization of the fringes of the States, of the frontier zones. Walls today are both a legacy of the past and a place of technological experimentation, a laboratory where thermic sensors or killer robots get tested. They are as well as a labeling of Others, the migration, for the purpose of internal policies.
A wall is a staging of the frontier, instrumentalized beyond rationality by populists and dictators, whose own studies show that walls only slow down the flows without ensuring protection against the more harmful phenomena (trafficking, terrorism) that keep finding their way around them, even through legal gateway ports.
To grasp the “Wall” in its globality, as well as its absurdity, we must transcend politics, and get other disciplines on our side. Walls are fragmentation, suffering, theatricalness, and scenography. They deconstruct one universe to erect another. Interdisciplinarity is essential in the study of walls. A wall is made of national and human stories. A wall is the object of political mobilisations and the vector of a protest art. A wall offers more than a piece of concrete in the eyes of men. And that is where visual and documentary art can support and complement the research on these 20th century fortifications, even becoming one of its pillars.
Élisabeth Vallet is a member of the Observatory of the United States and the director of research for the Québec region with the Borders in Globalization group, as well as the scientific director of the Chaire Raoul-Dandurand. An associate professor at the UQAM’s Geography department, she teaches geopolitics. Dedicated to making scientific knowledge intelligible, Élisabeth Vallet has also been a columnist at Radio-Canada and at the Devoir since 2014. In 2017, she received the Richard Morrill Outreach Award of the Association des géographes américains.