The concept of a visa as simply a document issued by a country's government allowing the holder to enter or leave that country obfuscates the enormity of a process that is difficult, prejudiced, capitalistic, dehumanizing and, often, utterly absurd. Though we have always lived in a world in which travel, migration, exodus, exile and exploration have marked human existence, the extraordinary magnitude of these movements in our current time is unprecedented.
While the dynamics stemming from our system of visas and passports is, then, much more an expression of the “now” than is commonly understood, the foundations of the migrations they were created to restrict were laid with the process of almost a hundred countries extricating themselves from the yoke of colonialism in the mid-twentieth century. Transitions to peace and stability in many of these countries have been impossible, colonial rule having put capitalist structures in place that have wiped out entire communities’ abilities to sustain themselves in terms of agriculture and trade. That whole communities are forced to leave their native lands in search of basic needs such as food, water, employment and shelter is the status quo. Today’s wars and climate change only exacerbate these migrations.
The advent of passports and visas went hand in hand with the coming of photography, as the image of the individual became an important form of identification, and while the two World Wars saw the use of passports and identification in catching out spies, a proper discussion of a global system did not take place until conferences held by the League of Nations in late 1920s. However, the kinds of passport guidelines we are used to now did not come about until 1980, after the United Nations formalized and standardized the system.
While loose forms of documentation and checkpoints existed before the concept of the “nation” became firmly rooted in our society and our collective psyche, nation-states and state systems in the past half-century in particular have aimed to control movements of all people, monopolizing the authority to restrict movement and creating intricate surveillance systems. These practices of inclusion and exclusion do not take place on a level playing field. Bureaucratic systems become labyrinths; controlling machines intended to create difference and estrangement on those for whom they are designed. "The rule of no one" as Hannah Arendt called it in her long essay On Violence, referring to the deliberate missing link between bureaucracy and its subjects, is the absurd logic of disorientation and dehumanization mastered ironically by the very countries that owe their wealth and prosperity to a golden past of colonial travel, unchecked and fluid, tied with all kinds of imperial projects. They are now the same nations the practice the most virulent and inhumane policies of restriction, control, surveillance and humiliation.
This Warscapes Retrospective, loosely entitled VISAS, attempts to provide an understanding of the experience of documentation and bureaucracy as it affects human beings at a physical, psychological and ontological level. Images through art and photography form the crux of this special issue as it conveys the immediate and urgent experience of displacement and dehumanization. Every article in this special issue approaches the burden of bureaucracy from a tactical angle. For example, we decided to republish philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s 2004 letter of protest in which he declares that he will not enter the United States to teach. The US, then in the throes of its post-9/11 surveillance euphoria, had made fingerprinting and retina scans mandatory for foreign travelers. Agamben claims in his letter that “it wouldn’t be possible to cross certain thresholds in the control and manipulation of bodies without entering a new bio-political era…” He goes on to remind his readers of Auschwitz, suggesting that tattooing then seemed the “most normal and economic way to regulate the enrollment and registration of deported persons into concentration camps.” Agamben concludes that the bio-political tattooing being practiced by the US could very well be the precursor to those practices and must be opposed.
Meanwhile, we include a short excerpt of Next, a collection of 65 stories of absurdity and bureaucracy collected by Maria Rosaria Baldin, a veteran and sympathetic Italian immigration officer.
It is the visual component, however, that makes VISAS a particularly special retrospective. In Strangeland, photographer Bar Am-David offers a glimpse into the lives of the African asylum seekers that dominate immigration in Israel today. Saiful Haq Omi’s stunning images of Rohingya refugees from Burma, in The Disowned and the Denied, documents life in a refugee camp in neighboring Bangladesh and a resettled Rohingya community in the United Kingdom. Banned Booty is a series of whimsical art installations by Steve Maloney, who intervenes in the post-9/11 surveillance culture by collecting items confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA): Scissors, Swiss army knives, nail files and an occasional deer antler make for majestic visual pieces. For the first time, we have chosen to excerpt some pages from a charming children’s graphic novel, Azzi in Between. Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, Sarah Garland’s book chronicles the traumas of little Azzi, who is uprooted from her home and resettled in a new country where the language and culture are completely unknown to her. We hope it can nudge readers towards an understanding of the ways in which the visa experience can forever alter a child’s innocence. And, finally, 9 Days in the Desert encapsulates the work of a young activist and blogger, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, on the US-Mexican border. Bermejo made daily hikes along desolate migrant trails hauling gallons of water and food.
Ultimately, we hope to evoke the spirit of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as he captures the life of limbo at the Athens Airport…
by Mahmoud Darwish
Athens airport disperses us to other airports. Where can I fight? asks the fighter.?
Where can I deliver your child? a pregnant woman shouts back.
Where can I invest my money? asks the officer.
This is none of my business, the intellectual says.
Where did you come from? asks the customs’ official.
And we answer: From the sea!
Where are you going?
To the sea, we answer.
What is your address?
A woman of our group says: My village is my bundle on my back.
We have waited in the Athens airport for years.
A young man marries a girl but they have no place for their wedding night.
He asks: Where can I make love to her?
We laugh and say: This is not the right time for that question.
The analyst says: In order to live, they die by mistake.
The literary man says: Our camp will certainly fall.
What do they want from us?
Athens airport welcomes its visitors without end.
Yet, like the benches in the terminal, we remain, impatiently waiting for the sea.
How many more years longer, O Athens airport?
(Translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)