Borders and Crossings Examined through Film, Media, and Engaged Discussion at CICI’s Inaugural Conference

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Debarati Sanyal, Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry opening the Inagural conference on March 10, 2023. 

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Ronald Rael, Chair of the Department of Art Practice giving a presentation "Notes from the Borderlands"

April 14, 2023

How do border policies and technologies reanimate histories of racialized and imperial violence? How are climate and environmental changes affecting borders and their crossing? What are the possibilities and limits of humanitarian and human rights discourses on migration and refugees? 

These are only a few of the complex questions posed and discussed at the inaugural two-day conference titled Borders and Crossings: Contemporary Arts and Techniques of Migration, hosted by the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry (CICI) this March. Co-sponsored by campus units such as the Division of Arts & Humanities, the Arts Research Center, the Social Sciences Division and the Center for Race & Gender, the conference remained standing-room-only for two days of presentations and roundtable activities with speakers from around the country. 

CICI, formerly known as the Consortium for Interdisciplinary Research at UC Berkeley, aims to enable cross-divisional and global collaboration to address relevant political, social, religious and cultural issues. The conference’s curation showcased a broad and contextualized look at borders and crossings around the world.  Characterized as markers of division yet also by technologies, laws, imperial histories of sovereignty and nation states, borders are often reimagined, whether anticipated or not. 

Opening the conference, Debarati Sanyal, Director of CICI and Professor of French, said “Borders are deadly, they partition spaces and people as physical barriers and as invisible techniques of classification to be controlled. They are simply outsourced in different countries like Turkey or Libya in the name of humanitarian protection. To save lives that they keep in suspense if not an increase to danger.” She continued, “Long histories of colonialism and racism pulse through the sophisticated technologies of surveillance and deterrence at these borders and are materialized as brutal pushbacks.” 

“But the world of borders continues to be challenged by transgressive movement, dissent, and provocation. Borders are routinely crossed, redrawn, and reimagined by those on the move, who from states of deprivation and disposition build fugitive identities, new worlds, and alternate ecologies.”

In celebration of the inaugural event, Sara Guyer, Dean of the Division of Arts & Humanities commented “These changes [in reference to CICI programming] are part of a vision for the humanities here at Berkeley that is open-minded, inclusive, and hospitable. Thus it is meaningful that CICI’s inaugural conference reflects the difficult hospitality [of borders] in its theme and in its participants.” She continued, “It figures both the project of CICI itself, within the university, and the contributions of CICI to introduce conversations that cut across law, literature, architecture and philosophy.” 

Conference speakers ranging in backgrounds from literature to architecture included Thomas Keenan (Bard College), Zahid Chaudhary (Princeton University), Deniz Göktürk (UC Berkeley), Cristiana Giordano (UC Davis), Leti Volpp (UC Berkeley), Miriam Ticktin (CUNY), and Ronald Rael (UC Berkeley). With keyword roundtable discussions guided by Judith Butler and including Carolyn Chen, Khatharya Um, Rhiannon Welch, and Camilla Hawthorne.

Conference Recap

Methods of classification and control techniques at borders were discussed by two speakers.  Thomas Keenan, professor at Bard College, whose paper Paradoxes of Recognition: How to Make a Refugee, examined the invisible techniques of classification surrounding borders, which kicked off the conference with questions of refugee status. In a similar theme, Zahid Chaudhary, Princeton University English professor, then held his discussion, The Border as Illness, which examines the ways borders act as methods of classification and control. 

The conference continued with a number of formats, including film, performance and showcasing of artworks and architectures. A screening of Triple-Chaser by the research group Forensic Architecture is a response to the group’s invitation to the 2019 Whitney Biennial after former Whitney Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders made headlines when it was publicly disclosed that he was profiting off of tear gas sales. Forensic Architecture’s investigative project trains “computer vision” classifiers to identify objects; by constructing a digital model of the titular “Triple-Chaser” and recreating situations involving tear gas canisters, munitions can be recognized. The film provides a tangible, investigative outlook on the use of tear gas at borders and the civilians who fall subject to their use.

By incorporating performance, UC Davis Anthropology professor Cristiana Giordano with doctoral students Morganne Blais-Mcpherson and Aramo Olaya, presented What’s in a List?: Storytelling the Dead through Affect Theater. The performance and talk aimed to disseminate using a powerful medium. 

UC Berkeley art practice chair and architecture professor Ronald Rael presented Notes from the Borderland, using documentary work, images, and film to explore the U.S. Mexico border. Rael’s widely acclaimed short documentary “Borderlands” utilizes personal, professional and artistic experiences to communicate the concept of borders. Some of his pieces, such as “Bad Ombres,” play on former President Donald Trump’s expression “bad hombres,” which act as both a play on words and representation of the gradient of languages, foods, landscapes and culture that are shared across the political boundary between Mexico and the United States.

Another theme included presentations centered around the politics, legal systems, policies and alternative narratives surrounding borders. 

UC Berkeley’s Deniz Göktürk in the Department of German presented Tracing Complicity through Personal Archives and Machine Learning: On the Art of Border Trouble, which utilizes historical accounts and modern technology to examine borders in a modern context. 

Speaking from a legal standpoint, Berkeley School of Law professor Leti Volpp discussed the concept of abolition and how border policies can reanimate racial and imperial violence with her presentation Abolition in the U.S. Immigration Law Context.

Miriam Ticktin, professor of anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center focused on the concept of border walls and how they are constructed from a fear of invasion. Her talk Borders and Commoning: The Struggle Over Political Imagination defines “commoning” as a form of alter-politics to the current political order of borders.

A “Borders Keyword Roundtable,” moderated by celebrated UC Berkeley comparative literature graduate professor Judith Butler, concluded the inaugural day of the conference. The roundtable also included commentary from UC Berkeley ethnic studies professors Carolyn Chen and Khatharya Um, UC Berkeley Italian studies professor Rhiannon Welch and UC Santa Cruz sociology professor Camilla Hawthorne. 

“We are asked to consider technology, aesthetic experimentation at the border, as the ways in which borders are powered,” Butler said. “We also have been seeking to learn and see whatever senses are available to us; we have to understand through those senses the bounds of agency that emerge from critical and scientific people at most, and their allies, who can sometimes be anonymous.” 

You can listen to all of the conference panels on Soundcloud here or visit the CICI website for more information regarding other formats.