Wednesday, January 28, 2009

LA's Surveillance Timeblades

[Image: Police Helicopters, by John Nyboer, via Polar Inertia.]

Up on Polar Inertia right now in the winter issue is a sweet little photo stream of LAPD helicopters by photographer John Nyboer who writes, “Police helicopters are an inescapable presence in Los Angeles. Near the freeways, daily accidents beckon the air patrol along with a swarm of TV news twirly-birds. In the more densely populated neighborhoods, copter blades beat the air day and night as the police respond to crimes real and imagined to probe with binoculars and spotlights. The wealthy Hills of Beverly and Hollywood are not immune to their presence: the police integrate these neighborhoods into flight patterns. Even at the beaches, LAPD and Sheriff's copters pay surprisingly close attention to sunbathers and tourists.”
This reminds me of an older post here on Subtopia which sort of situated the military helicopter patrol constantly whirling over Baghdad as the shadowy cog in a perpetual motion “War on Terror” that endlessly churns at its nexus point in the Middle East.
You’ll have to forgive me for reposting an extract from that old post here again:

“the war machine lodged in the cradle of civilization; its precision blades rotating and sweeping violently across the face of modern Baghdad like Leviathan clockhands that have seized control of history and time itself. Somehow superior to the sun’s own momentum this shadow of war remains fixed at the center of Baghdad’s image and place in time right now. The Blackhawk’s crusading swords dissect the airspace of Iraq’s temporal sovereignty delivering a chronographic-like stoppage of time across the city as the Gods of War have seen fit to hack the moment – and as if the entire metropolis were completely calibrated to the time/space dials of U.S. occupation.
However, despite curfew the Blackhawk – bound to the sky in circuitous patterns of panoptic centrifuge – is what also keeps the gears of time constantly spun. Looping barely above the earth day and night the war machine’s black glove turns a great balance wheel back and forth upon which the entire city rests. As such, Baghdad is like the militarized pacemaker for endless conflict always oscillating in and out of stability; it is a city tectonically wound over and over again for a perpetual motion War On Terror.
Look at the photo once more though and you may find it’s not even Baghdad at all. Listen carefully. Overhead the Blackhawks are circling. Nearly everywhere now from San Diego to Afghanistan the skies are filled with these propellers and others just like them synchronizing the invisible gear trains of conflict across every time zone. They are the symbolic clockworks of a wartime economy, and this image to me just seems like a giant time stamp for it all.”

Though, it may not be the LAPD helis which will reel in our concern in the future so much as the flight of this miniature drone, described as a basically a hi-tech kite armed with GPS enabled compasses and video camera which can be controlled by users on the ground. The Skyseer was sort of illegally tested by the LAPD in 2006 without proper FAA licensing, but is being hailed as a promising implement in the evolution of urban surveillance. Operates like a toy, is capable of hovering and pinpointing precise locations with its remote viewfinder, streaming video back to command stations, is cheap and lightweight, and probably the next step before even tinier robotic surveillance systems take over.
So, if you look up to the sky one day and see this toy airplane just sort of hanging out overhead, with no kids in site, be advised, you could be making an unwitting appearance on Homeland Security, USA! Make sure to wear a good disguise.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Towards a Nomadic Fortress [Refuge/Refugee]

One, if not the only, concept I’ve been exploring and trying to articulate in my own verbosely infected terms here on Subtopia is what you’ve heard me refer to (too many times by now) as the nomadic fortress, or what I see as pervasive border space today. No longer just a question of contested territory, hard boundary lines, and stricter border enforcement between two nations, but a space that functions more ubiquitously on several paradoxes around global mobility and a rise in detention markets, detention politics, national security as the new global architecture.
Rather than a single structure, the nomadic fortress is a whole syntax of control spaces linked across multiple landscapes that constitute perhaps the world’s first universal border fence, loosely connected across continents through a kind of geopolitical geometry that super-imposes a border just as much as enforces one between the First World and the Global South. It is, you might say, the Great Wall of Globalization.
This space has no regard for borders any more as we traditionally understand them, no respect for national territory; it hovers over and slips between those definitions, goes around and under them when it needs to, ultimately passing through border fixity as it sees fit. It is in some way the final border, a border that is never at rest but is always modifying itself for greater tactical vantage; a kind of flexible mock-hydrological regime that deploys and aligns other sub-border levers and valves below it to secure the conduits of neoliberal capitalism and the flows of people who are captives of them in one way or another. A structure that utilizes an entire atlas of border fences with a range of satellite technologies, web-based border vigilantes and extra-territorial floating prisons, to feed the border as a kind of geopolitical gutter space that siphons the subjects of migration off into a swollen infrastructure of detention where billions of dollars and are spent on their bounty.
It is a fully transitional geography of unsettled coordinates, excessive legality and perpetual legal suspension. This border doesn’t take the defensive posture that borders traditionally have in the past, but instead is on the move and on the hunt for a new class of would-be border crossers who’ve been bound together in a dangerously wide-cast surveillance net that is incapable of distinguishing the refugee from the enemy combatant, the migrant from the smuggler, laborer from insurgent. It is the border as the worst kind of political blur space. It is as immovable as it is fluid, like a sea of transparent blast walls crashing on the shores of geopolitical exile.

Anyway, I’ve written a chapter for a book recently put out by Chain, a publication that dedicates each edition to an artistic and literary exploration of a given topic. The editors just launched a new books series Chain Links that is intended to expand the depth of these topics further.

[Image: REFUGE / REFUGEE (CHAINLINKS), Jena Osman, Ed., Dec., 5 2008 - Small Press Distribution.]

Their first book Refuge/Refugee is a look at the nature of “refuge” and what it means to be a “refugee.” This concept has evolved dramatically in some ways over time, yet has remained impervious to change in other ways that has allowed refuge to become a space for something else, something maybe even counter to the very notion of its origin.
Jena Osman, the book’s editor, writes in her intro:

By definition, a refuge is a safe place for those in danger: a nature refuge shelters wildlife from over-hunting and habitat loss, a refugee camp protects innocent civilians from perilous warring forces. But the closer one looks at these spaces of protection, the more permeable their borders, the more complex the acts of isolation they require.
The fearful rhetoric of “homeland security” dominated American domestic and foreign policy for most of the eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration. Once considered a refuge for the tired, poor, and huddled masses, the United States became a protectorate of the muscular ideals of xenophobic nationalism. The trope of the “melting pot” was replaced by the material realities of border walls, surveillance devices, and other spatial controls, all in the name of security.
The etymology of the word “secure” comes from the Latin securus, se meaning “apart from” or “without” and cure meaning “pains” or “care.” In order for a refuge to keep its contents safe, contained, and “carefree,” it must maintain a radical separation from that which exists outside of its frame. Such detachment is impossible; inevitably, the exterior seeps through to the interior (and vice versa) in a network of complex, yet mappable, relations. The four pieces in this book call attention to the fact that a “safe place” can never achieve complete autonomy from its threats.


In this climate, a place of refuge (be it for birds, for natural resources, or for people) seems less possible than ever. Typical conceptions of refuge attempt to stabilize (paralyze?) a constantly changing and often volatile situation inside of a detached and enclosed space, separate from the world that surrounds it. In other words, the imperatives of verbs (escape! run! refuse!) are forced to submit to the stasis of nouns (shelter. tent. detention center.) The essays included here suggest that the verb is crucial; the criss-crossing pathways, the teeming flyways, the pipelines of migratory networks, all work to enable a necessary flow through the circulatory system of an environment, a nation, an infrastructure.

My essay Towards a Nomadic Fortress is a survey of the infrastructure of a border industrial complex, if you will, that is cashing in on creating and enforcing this new bordering, tracking down and detaining transients, unconscionably blurring the lines between immigration and national security to the point of total human rights devolution. It collects a lot of what readers have seen here on Subtopia, but organizes it all a bit more thoughtfully, I hope.
I’ve mentioned this publication before briefly in this earlier post on the border floods that were created along the US/Mexico border as a result of the Border Patrol’s irresponsible barricades. If you missed that one it might be worth checking out, since I elaborate more there on the concept of the border fence as a techno-militaristic form of irrigation control for the fluidity of global migration.
However, below, is an extract from the chapter I wrote as well:

* * *

Capital is fencing you in . . .
or out, depending on where you stand. Either way, the spread of wealth trumpeted by free trade has divided the world essentially into two camps. On one hand there is a ubiquitous and symbolic gated community that insulates the world’s elite behind exclusive neighborhood enclaves. On the other hand, capital is devising an unprecedented perimeter that encircles the global south through a flexible and strategic militarization of cross-border flows and refugee internment. Even though neoliberalism has expanded the free market across borders, boasting a hyper-fluidity of movement and global exchange, the migrating laborers themselves are cordoned off by a frenzied new trend in border fence construction. As Mike Davis has suggested in his essay “The Great Wall of Capital,”(1) the smashing of the Berlin Wall not only spread the hope of a future era of transnational freedom, but also donned a new generation of partition monstrosities, from simple razor wire barricades to 40 foot high concrete blast walls topped with sniper posts, 360 degree panoramic video cameras, sensor-activated stadium lights, apocalyptic sirens, and ominous CCTV surveillance trees that see just as well—if not better—at night. For every piece of the Berlin Wall that gathers dust on some tourist’s bookshelf there is a new rampart, a new bulwark, a new checkpoint or chain-linked fence, a new parapet or palisade planted in some subdivided corner of the world, mounting another front against the desperate waves of global migration hurling themselves at the gates of a forbidden first world Eden.
Crucial to the mobility of capitalism today is a systemic architectural complicity that plays into this bisection of global urbanism. Currently, the two fastest growing trends in global housing are gated communities and informal settlements like squatter communities and refugee encampments. Architecture not only exercises a role in the design of gated communities (often referred to by critics as the “architecture of fear”), but also helps plan their counterparts—refugee camps (which usually end up becoming permanent ghetto spaces) and migration zones.
Architecture is fundamentally engaged in the politics and production of space. Its definition (in rudimentary terms) can be boiled down to either providing a basic form of shelter, or organizing a corresponding set or system of walls that either blocks or enables human mobility in some fashion. Since mobility and the right to movement are inherently political (perhaps even the most essential of human liberties) the concept of a border fence is as much about architecture as the design of a public square. For that matter, so is the detention center, the underground smuggler tunnel, and the prison hulk. Crude as they may be, entire landscapes of official and unofficial spaces huddle in the shadows of constructed nation-state dividers. As these politically-charged and ambiguous spaces become more and more pervasive, the role of spatial planners is called into question – can architecture more actively and conscientiously engage these spaces to help mitigate their impact on those who inhabit them?

Between the gated community and the refugee/squatter settlement (or, between the first world and the third) the expansion of border fences serves as a contiguous spatial membrane through which dislocated polyps of territory, extra-territory, and various lairs of state and illicit power materialize. In this loose sense, architecture is a political practice, facilitating what Giorgio Agamben has referred to as “spaces of exception.”(2) These exceptional spaces are reflected on both sides of the fence, where concepts of refuge and detention are ambiguously blurred and incorporated into the border by a more pervasive logic of national security.
Since commerce, goods, and information now flow freely within a kind of liquid society of transnational interplay, the substrata of cross-border migration has become more of a parched landscape where liquidity and fluidity (in terms of movement) have been extremely deprived. Instead, the nomadic routes of migrants and refugees are dictated by tactical arrangements of concrete embankments, unsurpassable berms, dangerous ditches, trenches, and other deployed dikes and levees strictly designed to prevent the north from being flooded by the populations of the south. We can think of these floodgates as goliath mechanisms of bio-political hydrology, re-flooding certain labor zones and reservoirs with migrants ripe for exploitation while drying up other labor wetlands altogether where manufacturing industries have evaporated or moved on to different regions. Today’s border fences are less about stopping the flows of mass migration than they are about engineering a whole taxonomy of barriers that can identify and redirect them, informally outsourcing the pools of global labor from one geography to another. And while some routes are pushed deeper underground by all of this, other subterranean passages are merely forced to the surface. This massive border hydrology is shifting human resettlement patterns for generations to come.
To look at the migration paths fingering upwards from Africa towards Europe, (like the Trans-Saharan migration zone, for example), or the sea voyages along the coastal peripheries of Spain and throughout the Mediterranean Sea, or the veins of movement that tendril northbound from South America up through Mexico to eventually split in multiple fractions across the US/Mexico border—we cannot help but draw comparisons to the great alluvial landscape patterns of the world’s riverbeds and streams and long winding natural water movements that have contoured the planet’s topography for centuries. Metaphorically speaking, the refugee is ultimately the captive of a kind of mock-hydrologic system of exclusion and containment—a military hydrology of border control—where national peripheries no longer spill into one another but become more hardened by structures of institutionalized violence and friction. This is a new kind of political architecture.
In opposition to the hydrologic sprawl, we can also think of architecture as the spatial libation of capital, and how capital is distributed through the landscape. Here, the architectural legacy of globalization is most epitomized by a networked infrastructure of fortified skyscrapers that preside over the global cities of the world. Towering over everything in their coordinated constellation of financial supremacy, the global city is the strategic beacon for the distributed power of transnational lordship. These magnificent high-rises have become the medieval castles of the 21st century, the postmodern fortresses that buttress a new era of corporate sovereignty, peering down from an elevated landscape several-hundred floors above the scope of any public scrutiny. Virtually untouchable and beyond oversight, this overarching sanctum of steel lattice and impenetrable glass is the apotheosis of what Thomas Barnett has more broadly named the “functioning core” of globalization; it is the celestial corporate headquarters governing over the rest of the world(3). The towers are the sheer verticality of uneven capitalist development in physical form. At their apex, the world’s skies are emblazoned with executive secrecy and runaway finanscapes, where mysterious hierarchies and enterprising collusion take cover in soaring crowns of architectural majesty cloaked only by nature’s foreboding clouds.
These restricted stratums form a kind of aerial cross-section of global capital’s abstract infrastructure—from top-floor transnational boardrooms to unmarked airborne jetliners, from presidential suites to panoptic control rooms, from sunken server storage bunkers to classified bases of retreat, and from diplomatic safe-havens to ungodly moneyed tourist nests that hang over embassies abroad like royal frill clinging to the pearly gates of the free world. Posing as some sort of meta-nation-state, these global cities are tethered by stacks and stacks of office towers that seem to pop up almost overnight in places like Dubai and Shanghai. These towers are the new monolithic pistons for this post-world-war borderless capitalism and are what turn the globe today. If such built forms are any indication, however, then in essence the pre-eminent spheres of neoliberalism are marked by what Evan McKenzie refers to as a vast floating “privatopia” that tends to loom over the globe in their own suspended state of governance.(4)
While this particular landscape of globalization is vastly nomadic, in that it is subservient to the absolute mobility of capital (think transit villages, global hotel chains, networked financial institutions, widespread commuter infrastructure, city-like airports and the aerotropolis, outsourced factories, etc.), the nomadic landscape of the developing world is becoming all the more stationary and enclosed. In terms of the urbanization of migration, the architectural remains of globalization’s legacy amount to a broken intercontinental chain of border fences and security walls, dismal refugee camps, overcrowded detention centers, peripheral squatter settlements, dangerous inner-city homeless shelters, jail cells, and seats on a deportation-class airplane. For all intents and purposes these “spatial products,” as Keller Easterling might choose to call them(5), create a vast reciprocal infrastructure—a kind of global “subtopia,” to use Ian Nairn’s term.(6) And even though the subtopia is not officially recognized as being connected by any singular interlocking physical form, the sum of its scattered parts loosely constitutes its own sort of whole: a mammoth informal hydrology of migration control, or what I call a “nomadic fortress.”
In the wake of devastating natural disasters, civil wars, campaigns of genocide, and intolerable economic pressures that cause millions to seek new livelihoods abroad, a dispersed mass of refugee warehousing has taken shape around the world. The overall geography of this reveals a complex and extended global border interwoven by spaces of refuge and detention. Together they form a strategically linked and unprecedented militarized stopgap between the developed and undeveloped world.
Given the spatial dimensions of military power today, the transit zones of migration are becoming increasingly controlled by constructs of displacement that are more or less plugged in to this evolving hydro-like model, conducting the flows and currents of global nomads into a turbulent system of dehumanizing channels and estuaries that extend all over the world through lesser known deltas and canals towards a hidden geography of inevitable round-up and detention. With the escalation of the “Global War on Terror” the planet is (in a less visible and less linear sense) being carved by a Herculean dam that attempts to regulate the passageways for a whole spectrum of floating populations. To visualize the nomadic fortress is to expose the creeping dimension of exceptional space that is quietly consuming the map. As Agamben has noted, earlier forms of internment such as the concentration camp are perhaps even more constitutive of the contemporary political space governing our lives today. Lines between the “place of refuge” and the “space of detention” have grown alarmingly blurred while immigration law has been distorted by the security discourse of terrorism prevention and a political hubris which threatens to undo human rights laws set in stone since modern democracy’s inception. The physical borders between nation-states act as secret economic turbines that run on the uncontrollable tides of cheap exploitable labor that can be selectively imported as easily as exported. While cities in the developing world are treated as “feral” incubators for terrorism, refugee camps continue to hatch in the developed world with their own disastrous results. Meanwhile, the pathway to citizenship lurking in the shadows of globalization has become a space of intense political conflict rather than a streamlined process of international cooperation, further darkening the line between the opposite camps of the neoliberalized gated community and the “untamed” global favela.

* * *

It's long, typically, and from there goes on to break down the nomadic fortress for its consituent parts: border fences, surveillance technologies, detention archipelagos, border automation, etc., and then concludes with a rant on the border-industrial complex's production of exceptional space, and what if any role architecture has in countering it.
There are three other contributors as well that probably make the book more worth the purchase than my own piece (but as usual, I am a pitiful self-promoter!). Emily Adendroth wrote a very interesting “poetic essay” on the the paradoxes of the Lake Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge, observing at times, among many things, an inauspicious absence of wildlife amidst the Navy’s logic for wanting to build a massive airstrip nearby to land its F/A-18 Super Hornets.
Amze Emmons, an artist who practices deriving meaning from the everyday by stripping our visual elements down to a kind of bareness of perception in order to reveal what is more hidden, applies his de-censorializing technique to a Camp Management Toolkit compiled by the Norwegian Refugee Council back in 2004 for assembling refugee architecture. Rereading certain passages of it, with large portions omitted by Emmons, helps to see more clearly the pretense of its operational prose that almost nonchalantly implies a certain order could be constructed out of a wretched conditions of chaos. It’s a cool deconstruction of the manual’s language and what it suggests about the authors’ own perceptions of disaster response.
The Documentary Project has worked with refugee teens over the years to enable them to narrate their own stories of struggle and survival, and the book includes a powerful series of interviews with many of these children which brings the book down to earth in a very vivid way.
And, as I’ve already mentioned, Jena Osman’s introduction provides a short journey through the historic development of the nature refuge and how as a concept it’s evolved into a far more integral and vulnerable network of movement patterns and relations that bind the world and forces us to question what it means to protect, whom are the true beneficiaries of refuge, and how is the concept being held hostage today by subjugation rather than sanctuary.
Anyway, I am happy to have contributed to it, and if you are interested you can purchase it here through Small Press Distribution.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Occupying Slum

[Image: The Dona Marta slum in Rio, Brazil. Photograph: Gregg Newton/Reuters.]

When the tough get going, well, you know what they do, they do what most governments do – they wall it off, right? That’s Brazil’s old but new plan to help “reform” the “gang-plagued slums” encrusting the hillsides of Rio. Actually, ‘walling’ is hardly anything new in Brazil.
For anyone interested in the wave of fortified enclaving that drove São Paulo’s rabid urban development through the 80’s and 90’s, I suggest reading Teresa Caldeira’s book City of Walls. I’ve been flipping through it – a very insightful and well researched documentation of the upper class’ exploitation of a culture of fear to justify urbanizing spaces of exclusion and enclosure (you know, gated communities, closed condominiums, secured shopping malls, restricted office space, neighborhood checkpoints, private security outposts, etc.), and how – in order to do this – social and political discourses around crime and immigration were dangerously intertwined with these transformations as they ultimately arose from the democratic “consolidation” following the military’s rule ending in the mid-eighties.
She pretty clearly documents the patterns of spatial segregation that emerged from Brazil’s democratization which was politically alleged to help neutralize inequality, but of course did not. City of Walls is a really good account of how the urban and political form is inextricably linked, and the ways the built environment serves as an arena for political contest and democracy’s reproduction of social inequality.
I mean, it’s something we can track in tons of cities these days, this neoliberal blueprint for secured enclaves and social division; neoliberalism as a perhaps softer urban form of socio-economic segregation; an absorption of the old powers of segregation re-spatialized through the postmodern spaces of transnational capital. I wouldn’t say the book is dated by any means but is certainly terrain most Subtopia readers are familiar with by now, still nevertheless highly relevant. Certainly the book’s real strength is in observing the Brazilian patterns of spatial segregation and shedding light on the roots of political stabilization dependent on these urban models of division to secure power. Caldeira raises lots of good questions about the kinds of social foundations and egalitarian principles that democratization is built on, and all the cultural sacrifice that comes with creating a city which boasts equality but is really defined by an urban DNA of separation.
Anyway, this is no book review, and I plan on talking to her more in the future about this very topic so I will hold my clumsy tongue until then. But, the result of the last couple of decades has turned São Paulo, like so many other cities around the world (LA, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, San Jose (CR), Mexico City), into a kind of hyper-fragmented segregopolis (or segropolis, might be easier, I don’t know) if I may coin a new more than likely useless term here: basically, an urban blotter of enclaves and secluded reserves for which the distribution patterns of class division and poverty no longer follow a center-rich/periphery-poor paradigm, but are completely internalized within and throughout the metropolis now in moneyed peaks and impoverished valleys, social islands, architectural pockets of wealth shadowed by de facto ghettos; it is a city that has stripped from and withdrawn into itself, peeling with an upper crust, abandoning old models of public space for egregious thresholds of privatization; I don’t know, an urbanism pockmarked by inner-fortification.
Anyway, Rio however is different in that it still highlights the classic peripheral geography of urban poverty with its tourist Mecca centered around a clump of beaches which is, for all intents and purposes, a militarized paradise surrounded by some of the densest poverty in the world.
As you can read here the plan is to build a “650-metre-long concrete barrier” to “encircle part of the famous Dona Marta slum” south in the city, which authorities are billing, audaciously enough, as an "eco-barrier" […] “intended to protect the nearby Atlantic rainforest from illegal occupation as well as improve security and living conditions for slum residents.” They’re also claiming this is part of a much bigger blueprint for rehabilitating the slums, but the wall (which would be 3 meters high) is part of a first step in helping to force favela residents to begin to connect with Rio’s greater public services, or so the Brazilian government insists.
Really? Wow. Ok, so maybe they are building some other accessible public works projects as well (also mentioned in the article), but if people are squatting on the hillsides and they want to prevent them from expanding, then how about helping to build a little more affordable housing first? If they want to draw people away from the narco industry, then how about getting a serious plan together for new job creation? What about city planners working directly with the favelas to better devise their own infrastructure, their own connections to the city without having to “be forced”? There is just something in the tone of “rehabilitating” the slums that seems to start off on the wrong foot. Where has the real help been for the last 20 years anyway? Why has it even gotten this way to begin with?

from Rachel Neild, consultant with the Open Society Justice Initiative: Criticized as ''social apartheid'' by the Brazilian human rights groups Global Justice, this measure not only is offensive - even if couched as an environmental measure - but it will not work. Effective safety policies require situational prevention in urban design - generally cleaning up public spaces, redirecting traffic flow, street lighting, and so on - not walling off problem communities. But they also demonstrate that you cannot simply design out crime; you must also have targeted law enforcement and, most important, social prevention programs that address causes of crime in the family, schools, recreation and employment. For a Latin America example, the city government of Bogotá developed an integrated crime prevention plan by building an integrated information system and using community policing. The city achieved remarkable reductions in victimization, including homicide. (source)

Interesting point about community policing that I’ll get back to later. But, in this case I can’t decipher whether this planned wall is an attempt to wall out a mass of citizens from the paradise, or if it is more of a tactic of further containing them within their own cloistered hillside territory. Even if it is intended to de-limit the expansion of informal settlements in the jungle, or prevent hideouts for narcos, the wall will hardly achieve it. It’ll probably only increase the spatial compression within the favela and forcibly drive people over the wall even more, or teach them merely how to circumnavigate it – perhaps the wall will one day even be incorporated into the favela’s expansion someway. Either way, the wall in the interim will serve both exclusionary and containment purposes the same, I suppose.
I am reminded of a quote from Mike Davis who wrote towards the end of Planet of Slums, “The demonizing rhetorics of the various international “wars” on terrorism, drugs, and crime are so much semantic apartheid: they construct epistemological walls around gecekondus, favelas, and chawls that disable any honest debate about the daily violence of economic exclusion. And, as in Victorian times, the categorical criminalization of the urban poor is a self-fulfilling prophecy, guaranteed to shape a future of endless war in the streets. As the Third World middle class increasingly bunker themselves in their suburban themeparks and electrified “security villages,” they lose moral and cultural insight into the urban badlands they have left behind.”

[Image: Rio police hoist the Brazilian flag above the City of God shanty town, claiming they have now conquered the slum. Photograph: Hipolito Pereira/Agencia O Globo.]

According to the Guardian plans to erect walls around Rio's slums were first proposed back in 2004, but were scrapped. Some quick googling turned this up in an old Independent piece:

Luiz Paulo Conde, the deputy state governor, caused controversy last year by suggesting that the slums be surrounded by 10-foot-high walls. His proposal, with its uncomfortable echoes of Israel's West Bank "separation" barrier, has since gained a number of powerful supporters. But this week the immediate prospect of a favela barrier was delayed after Rosinha Matheus, the state governor, exercised her veto and stopped the project, saying the barriers "would be a form of discrimination of good citizens who make up the infinite majority of these communities".

Nevertheless, a wall itself would only be, in Davis’ terms, a further act of leaving behind, and in my amateur view would hardly serve real progress any better.
Though, in reading some other news it’s clear what President Lula’s primary goal for slum reformation is right now – not aggressive social or economic stabilization, or “protecting the living conditions of the slum residents,” but is, quite simply, to secure the ‘untamed hillsides’ in a more entrenched militaristic sort of way.
The wall is only part of the strategy. “In their long, bloody battle to take back control of hundreds of slums from drug gangs,” the New York Times writes, “Rio's police are trying a new tactic -- staying in place and talking to people.”

[Image: Rio police conquer the City of God, Peixoto/Agencia O Globo.]

Sounds civil enough, right? Basically, they’re beefing up a community policing campaign with new higher paid recruits (untainted by corruption) who’ve gone through some sort of special community training courses to effectively occupy the favelas through stationed outposts, regular foot patrols, and by trying to befriend the community through normal and constant presence, long term.
As good or bad as that may sound, at first it sure comes off as an improvement over the old tactics of crashing the hillsides with air raids and violent searches, vicious arrests, informal assassinations, and regular accidental killings. But wait, read on, those tactics are apparently being reserved, too. Of course they are. Who are we kidding here. Still, in light of Rio’s violent legacy, this new approach at least seems more conscientious, more tactfully responsible, if not minimally more humane than just the business-as-usual bloodthirsty counter-terrorist-like interventions that have traumatized these communities for years.
But, wait a second, let’s not get carried away. Do the police really think that writing themselves into the daily reality of the community will be as easy as just buddying up to residents with some new faces and innocent smiles?

[Image: [Image: Rio police conquer the City of God, Peixoto/Agencia O Globo.].]

After decades experiencing some of the most heinous police brutality and corruption ever witnessed, where roughly 4000 people die in Rio each year (1,330 of whom at the hand of the police alone in 2007!) do Brazilian officials really believe that “hearts and minds” will be won over by a good old fashioned dose of “good mornings” and “good evenings,” or that some neighborly conversations about football are going to regain the trust of those who by-and-large view Rio’s police with extreme prejudice and more than justifiable intolerance and suspicion?
This article suggests it’s all so the police can get close enough to sort out the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” According to Conor Foley, “The Brazilian government has even invited officials from Britain to draw on their experiences from Helmand province in Afghanistan and Basra in Iraq.” Hmmmm…..that doesn’t exactly immediately put my suspicions about insidious militarization at rest.

[Image: [Image: Rio police conquer the City of God, Peixoto/Agencia O Globo.].]

It’s old news now (yet still utterly contemporary) that the Pentagon is training for future wars to be fought in cities and slums buffering their periphery. Mike Davis and others have written extensively about the shift in military thinking around the city and the informal urbanization of the surrounding slums that poses a new terrain for the military in the coming (and current) days of geopolitical conflict. Many Third World cities and slums of the Global South are officially cut off from the main industrial conduits of the core cities of global capital and thus are built upon informal models of economy and space. So while the global favelas have been “left behind” and become autonomous in a sense they have also become through a military perspective more or less demonized as dens of potential anti-western extremism and combatant hives of an anti-globalization movement; or, more dangerously as incubators for terrorism.
Brazil’s military is to a very large degree helping to evolve this notion of the “feral city” and of the “necessary” military practice of pacifying the slum. Raúl Zibechi produced a fine piece last year on how the military establishment has been forced to retool its doctrine and practice towards new models of warfare to secure the city in the context of globalization where urban poverty has reshaped the battlefield. Early on, he mentions how Brazilian armed forced admitted in the media to employing military tactics in the Morro da Providéncia favela that had originated with Brazilian soldiers on a UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, and how ultimately Brazil has been adamant about keeping members of its army there in order “to test, in the poor neighborhoods of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, containment strategies designed for application in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and other large cities.” Further, he points out that Brazilian newspapers went on to reveal how their military in Haiti used other community-friendly tactics like throwing Christmas parties and film nights in the desperate places in order to more secretly gather information on the slums and their inhabitants. A basic befriending in order to snoop strategy.

[Image: [Image: Rio police conquer the City of God, Peixoto/Agencia O Globo.].]

So, when we find out today that Brazil is trying this new approach in the favelas one is forced to reconcile, for all the good nature officials are trying to show with this community policing effort, isn’t it really just a military modus operandi that’s been practiced elsewhere already, from Haiti to recent Human Terrain tactics battle-tested in the “War on Terror” in the Middle East? How can we not question the sincerity then or false pretense of this latest move? Is the new favela militarization a sincere effort to avoid counter-insurgency warfare in the slums, or is it somehow just the evolutionary means for executing the vanguard of those tactics? Just as Brazil uses its army in Haiti to develop slum-securitization techniques, aren’t they simply using the slums in their own country to devise the same types of warfare that are expected to be used across the Global South in the future?
Nevertheless, I expect the residents in Rio’s favelas are even doubly more suspicious of the police with this latest move.
In this article one resident warned, despite the police’s decent disposition now, that this assures them of absolutely nothing since there’s no telling how people will be treated on the outside by the police once (or if) the police retreat from the favelas. Nor does it account for what will happen to the residents if the gangs decide to retaliate against those residents who began to trust the police. The mistrust is deep and widespread, and what the police gather as ‘resident trust’ may be shortlived as well. Another resident said that in their opinion if given the choice a majority of the residents would probably rather be protected by the drug lords than the police (should that even be surprising?....hardly), but as it is now the residents are being more strategically situated somewhere in the middle of the two powers, as both the police and gangs vie for public influence in the favelas.
The police have stated that the way the favelas are set up the drug gangs are protected somewhat by a civilian wall, a barricade of residents who are strangers to the police. So, it makes sense, in order to protect lives and cut down innocent killings that it’s far more helpful to be able to recognize and identify residents, I get that – even though that doesn’t address the nature of some of the unacceptable police tactics used in the first place when storming these places.
However, my own cynicism tells me that this community policing effort is just another way to not necessarily dismantle the civilian wall that protects the gangs so that innocents don’t get hurt, but is a means for wrestling it away from them for the police’s own protection. In many ways, the battle in the favelas is a battle over the residents and the rights to control them and where they stand. That is the essence of urban warfare and securing the city: securing the population. Once residents become more friendly with police, the gangs will grow concerned about the residents’ loyalty, and no telling what could happen to them after that. The policing effort may in the end just draw violence against innocents from the gangs, who will then be blamed for the innocent killings, shielding the police from their own wrongdoing or misconduct, which makes this strategy seem all the more disingenuous and disgusting, if you ask me.
Even though I have been to Rio, walked near some of the favelas briefly, and have friends who try to help me understand the logistics and realities there better than my own vantage could ever afford (I confess I have no idea what’s really going on or what I think this latest strategy will bring), it sure reads like the police are in a more quiet and less obvious way looking to turn the tables and create their own “civilian walls” inside the favelas – the perfect counterpart to a real 10 ft. high barricade they’re assembling on the outside. Walls come in various shapes, sizes and forms, and if you can’t build walls on the inside then it looks like the new approach is to garrison the walls that already exist there.
Anyway, one by one, you can read, the favelas are being infiltrated by Rio’s police. The famous Cidade de Deus (City of God) was reportedly just cleared of all its “drug gang members” days ago, an iconic favela to start with, to say the least – while Santa Marta, heaped at the foot of the famous O Cristo Redentor statue, is beginning to see police outposts cropping up within. None of this news is the least bit encouraging, in my view. As someone who has great interest in seeing these communities develop, Rio, taking on the complexions of a more long term Israeli-style occupational tactic for conquering the slums, looks like it might slowly be turning into a Latin version of the West Bank more and more these days. But wait a second – that’s not necessarily anything new either, I’m afraid.

[Previously: MOUT Urbanism; Diagnosing Slum; Squatter Imaginaries; The City in the Crosshairs: A Conversation with Stephen Graham (Pt. 1)]

Monday, January 19, 2009

Measuring DC's Inaugural Security Blanket

Well, tomorrow is the day, as you well know, Barack Obama will take over for good ol’e George Bush Jr. as the new Prez. Finally, someone is officially taking over, barring any “extraordinary” political shenanigans, I suppose. I don’t know, Bush is just such an avid stuntman I can’t wait for noon tomorrow to come and pass so this historical changing of the guard is incontrovertibly in the books.
It’s also the day the greatest show on earth that major cities all over the world have come to reckon with – Fenceland – will bring an equally historic setting for the occasion. The show has been going on for years borrowing city spaces for the ultimate show of security theater, and tomorrow it will do so again what it does best, that is turn Washington DC (home of the Grand Wizard of Oz-works behind much of the global production of Fenceland) into a full fledged mock occupied territory. And as you’d expect this latest installment is going to be bigger and badder than ever before. Perhaps, as some suggest, the single most complex security event ever assembled.

So big this time around President Bush even declared tomorrow a state of emergency!
Ha! What a fitting last-minute declaration for a president who will go down in history as nothing other than a complete ‘state of emergency’ himself, one who’s legacy will clearly represent a lack of limitation and power to abuse democracy in order to lead and operate in a total state of exception, above the law, outside the law, in a war with everyone and everything including perhaps most of all the law itself. In fact, he couldn’t have made a more predictable move in his final moments of glory. It’s perfect! Well done Dubya – no one can ever say you weren’t unflappably consistent. It’s said to be the first time in U.S. history that an advance declaration of emergency has been used for a “non-disaster.” Go figure.
Actually, what it means is that the government set aside an extra $15m to fund additional security or medical aid in the event Washington needs it – whether they did (or do) or not I am not sure. But, the idea of millions worth of surplus security waiting in escrow to just be dropped like some hypervigilant net down over the city, adds another creepy dimension to the domesticization of the security zone that has already turned DC into a strategic stage for military occupation.
Noah over at Danger Room likened it to turning DC into the Green Zone, which is pretty much what Fenceland is: the Green Zone packaged and made mobile; security architecture performing a grand scale transplant of exceptional sovereignty. It’s a nomadic fortress (normally reserved for the world’s superfluous populations) tailored now for the upper class participants in the inner cities of Empire.
So, for all you lucky detain--, I mean attendees out there who have paid the price of admission for tomorrow’s prestigious affair, and for those who haven’t but just plan to join the millions or so other diehard Fenceland fans, here’s a little break down of the security pomp and circumstance that is making this the most fortified inaugural celebration in history to date, or at least until the cavalcade of military urban orthodoxy sets its sights on the next city.
CNN’s guides to this affair first informs us that the Secret Service is responsible for coordinating the entire security act, “which will involve 58 federal, state and local agencies. All of them are represented at the Secret Service command center, where they can communicate and work together to respond to any report of a possible problem.”

To start:
Airspace restrictions around the Capitol are being tightened. The U.S. Coast Guard is closing portions of the Potomac River. Miles of roads will be closed, along with most of the bridges into the District of Columbia. Checkpoints are going up, and undercover teams are being deployed to look for suspicious people or vehicles.
Don't Miss

Explosives-sniffing dogs will be on hand to nose out bombs, and horses trained in crowd control are on duty. Thousands of security cameras are being used to monitor activities, sharpshooters are being stationed, and sensors will be used to detect chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

In addition to Secret Service agents, the security effort will involve 8,000 police officers from the District of Columbia and other jurisdictions, 10,000 National Guardsmen, about 1,000 FBI personnel, and hundreds of others from the Department of Homeland Security, the National Park Service and U.S. Capitol Police. Another 20,000 members of the National Guard are ready to respond if there is an emergency, according to Chertoff.

The New York Times, which offers fanboys this groovy guide, says law enforcement agencies will operate from a network of centers to command ground, air and waterborne forces together. But, don’t worry, there’s a lot more.

Less visibly, federal authorities will deploy 155 intelligence teams of plainclothes agents throughout the region including at Metro subway stations in the outer suburbs of Virginia and Maryland.

Teams of intelligence analysts, evidence response technicians, bomb experts, cybersecurity specialists, hostage negotiators, emergency medical personnel and SWAT units will also be nearby and out of sight in off-site locations unless they are needed.

Still not satisfied with the set design?

“With roads and five major bridges leading into the city closed for the inauguration, and vehicular traffic excluded from large parts of downtown, transit officials have warned riders of “crush conditions” and long waits for buses and subways.

Fighter jets will provide air cover and Coast Guard boats equipped with automatic weapons will patrol the Potomac River. Chemical, biological and radiological detectors, installed after the Sept. 11 hijackings, are already in place.

Businesses and hoteliers have been briefed to be watchful during the inaugural events

“Public and private buildings will be closed to normal business near where Mr. Obama will be sworn in and along the parade route up Pennsylvania Avenue. No one will be permitted to enter a nearly two-square-mile area without a bag search and passing through a metal detector. Officials have warned people not to bring strollers, folding chairs, coolers and umbrellas.” (NYT)

For the FBI’s part, well, in addition to running around behind the scenes in this mobile command center they’ll also be deploying at least one (how many exactly I'm not sure) of these MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected – of which similar vehicles are being used by US forces in Iraq and Afganistan to shield against roadside bombs). New Scientist has a gallery of all the bells and whistles, including bomb-detonating robots and this bomb containment vessel.

I don’t think it's been officially stated just how much all of this is costing, but DC officials fessed to dolling out roughly $50m, while Maryland and Virginia both have pitched in another $12-16m each. If this isn’t an exercise in how to effectively take over and shut down the heart of a city, or how to scale it for perhaps the greatest MOUT crash course ever designed, then I don’t know what is. Now, I’m all for protecting Barack Obama and the million or so members of the public from any tragedy, but WOW – this is an urban security planner’s tactical orgy dreams come true.

Sorry for the bulk reposting on this one, but those are at least some of the bare bones factoids on DC’s security state, be advised -- which just goes to show the kind of Washington Obama is really inheriting. I mean, here is a man making history on numerous fronts, who may indeed be the most globally applauded U.S. president to ever take office, but as he's doing so it is painfully obvious that the entire nervous system of the nation is all the more desperately sheathed in Kevlar myelin right where the Bush regime has left it.
Sorkin sums up the inbred insecurity of this landscape simply enough by saying: “What makes the new War on Terror more singular – more sinister – is that the convergence of unsettling fear, shadowy demonized foe, hyper-technology of ubiquitous reach, and the communal power of the corporate state, has truly globalized the condition of fear. If every space is susceptible to attack and every person a potential attacker, then the only recourse is to watch everyone and fortify every place. If every communication is potentially a fragment of conspiracy, then all must be recorded. Walking the streets nowadays, with troops at the subway entrance, barricades around buildings, cameras staring from lampposts, metal detectors and card swipes at the office door, cops profude, newsstands billboarding alerts from every corner, involuntary anxiety at the sight of handbags and kerchiefs, it feels – more and more – like the battle for freedom is being lost.”
That's the quick and dirty of it. Take Patience and Good Shoes, and prepare to be screened to death.

(Thanks to Pruned for sending me lots of bits there!)

[Previously: Architects of Nebulous Detention; G8 Walls; "Fenceland" (The Greatest Show On Earth!); Subverting "Military IKEA"; Return to Panic; fortress urbanism: Super Bowl City (Detroit); Getting Ready for a Radical Roundup in Denver.]

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baghdad’s Post-Blast Wall Bibliothèque

As I kept flipping through the images in this gallery of Baghdad’s incredible blast wall murals, recalling fairly recent news of how the U.S. military had begun dismantling some of the barricades in Dora (a district in Baghdad), and even more recently how control of the Green Zone was just handed over to the Iraqi government, despite all the questions of sovereignty, I wondered where those removed sections of concrete blast wall might go next; or where – theoretically, in a more hopeful future – thousands of others just like them would eventually end up as well permanently undeployed, perhaps even repurposed some how for greater urban benefit.

Which begs the question: can blast walls be reused towards something progressively humanitarian? Has this ever been architecturally explored – sort of like the work of Conclus? Can blast walls serve new housing types, micro-infrastructure, something to help actually rebuild the battered Iraqi landscape?

If the essence of military architecture has always been to guard, could these rudimentary fortifications be converted into something entirely antithetical to that – what is the opposite of defensible space exactly anyway? In this case, how could reusing the Bremmer Walls, which have consumed Baghdad, help not only to de-colonize but rebuild the city? They are each mini-colossuses, difficult to manage and move. But, can they be broken down into smaller more workable pieces in order to serve a new architectural configuration, and maybe the foundation for a revived sense of Iraq’s urban justice?
Or would it just be more practical to crush and recycle them, obliterate them from the Iraqi landscape altogether?

Other projects are addressing similar issues of picking up the pieces of post-military occupation landscapes, notably Decolonizing Architecture based in Palestine, which is looking at the abandoned remains of IDF military outposts and checkpoints littering the West Bank to determine whether they have a place on the future landscape of Palestine. Regine wrote a good review of their recent exhibition in Brussels. However, while Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal are primarily considering re-occupying these de-militarized shells less than really materially deconstructing and recycling them, I do recall Eyal Weizman in an interview for Canadian Architect once mentioning something about the potential of repackaging 40 years' worth of the Israeli occupation’s architectural garbage and using it to make a new wave-breaker outside Gaza’s port. That sounds amazing to me.

Nevertheless, it seems like there are possibilities for a design studio to consider how blast walls might be architecturally reimagined to serve a more direct humanitarian pursuit in post-occupied communities, I don’t know.

In order to paint the murals on Baghdad’s blast walls a specific council was formed to oversee about two dozen artists who had applied for permission and formal funding, since there were legitimate concerns the murals might be used as propaganda to inflame tribal violence, or as territorial pawns for warring Sunni and Shia contingencies, which would obviously defeat the purpose of using such a beautification project to help reclaim the colonial dimensions of the walls and remake them into something neutral, united, nationalistic, and mending of the wounded Iraqi political landscape. What other choice is there than to turn them into a tableau, or a collective public space diary of sorts – an urban scroll for baring witness to the occupation?

Tragic as it may be to say, the blast wall galleries are actually gorgeous. I realize that’s probably a controversial statement to the degree that such walls could ever be considered ‘gorgeous,’ but with all due respect the local artists (known as Jamaat al-Jidaar, or "the Walls Group") I think they have more than met the grim realities of the concrete barriers with triumphant spirit – if these imperial bricks could ever be reclaimed by those they lord over then I would say many of Baghdad’s inserted walls have been.

As much as I hope to see the blast walls in Baghdad brought down one day for good, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to see the transcendent murals lost in the mix, so I wonder: could the murals (or, even should they, for that matter) be preserved some way, say, bound in the architecture of a kind of postmodern Etruscan tomb, where future generations could pass through a labyrinth of extracted battle walls, and in a sense reread the texts of the US occupation as scrawled and dabbed in Iraq’s own eyes.

Clicking through the gallery got me to imagine the walls as the separate pages of an almost Zeusian-sized book cast and bound in concrete, like some epic future/ancient walk-through space, part bunker, part museum, part something else made legible only through an encounter with this display of brutal war walls.

Maybe we would call it a kind of post-occupation blast wall bibliothèque that you would meander through like an Egyptian mastaba, or something, gazing at these pictographs, scenes, and illustrations that have over the last several years authored Baghdad’s introspective account of the American occupation. It would be a long contemplative walk through an untangled knot of corridors weaving together a semi-ruined maze. We would read the blast walls almost as if they had forced a kind of architectural subconscious to the surface of the concrete upon which a resilient Iraqi memory had been reflected and taken refuge.

Whatever. I’m probably just completely romanticizing the shit out of these blast wall murals, and will be the first to confess. Yet, one thing that is curious (back to the issue of sovereignty): who actually owns the blast walls today, the U.S. military or the Iraqi government? What if the Iraqi Ministry of Culture decided they wanted to preserve the murals in their own way, at this point in time would they be within their rights to retain the decorated barriers somehow, or does the U.S. government hold the rights over Baghdad’s blast wall avant garde? There’s probably a very straight forward answer.

I presume, in the meantime, any chunks that are taken out of the streets would be loaded onto trucks and wheeled to either storage yards in or outside Baghdad, or back to Kurdistan perhaps where many are made. In fact the The New York Times a while back mentioned upon their removal “the bullet-pocked slabs (each the shape of a tombstone and the height of a double-decker bus) are stacked in large storage zones waiting to be used elsewhere or moved to a central depot.” Further:

Five miles south of Fadhil there is a blast-wall graveyard, for used barriers and ones that may never be put up. This is at Forward Operating Base Falcon, a United States military post near Dora.

Dora, as you can read about more in that same piece, had been a very active stage for violence until the Americans walled key parts off it off, limiting access and funneling flows into and out of the district through highly secured corridors, a strategy many credit for helping bring security to Baghdad, though not without incredible price for the locals themselves, as we have mentioned here before.

Nonetheless, it’s the ‘blast wall graveyard’ that snags my attention. James Aalan Bernsen who writes a milblog for Slate posted an interesting piece on an old T-wall graveyard in Iraq. Just a few months ago he wrote, “the concrete wall-building industry is one of the biggest industries in Iraq right now.” He said, the T-walls “have become such iconic symbols of life in Iraq that generals give miniature replicas out as departing gifts to their subordinates.” And it’s not just the Iraqi people who have been painting them, the U.S. military has also re-envisioned them.

Quoting him at length:

Many folks have taken to decorating them. At the Baghdad International Airport there's a row painted with the flag of each of the 50 states, and signed by soldiers from those states. Some of the drawings are crude, but most are elaborate and well-done:

It's not exactly China Lake, California and B-29s, but these desolate remnants of our military past will be a reminder, long after we're gone, of what it was like at the peak of the war.

Walking to lunch one day, an Army captain friend of mine nodded to some of the barriers we passed on the way. "What do you think will happen to these things when we're gone," she asked.

"I don't know. Maybe they can lay them on their sides and use them for road beds. Or for canals," I said, not too convincingly.

The truth is, there probably isn't any good use for them other than making walls, and hopefully Iraq will one day get to the point where walls aren't all that necessary anymore. Still, they're big, they're heavy, and there here, and they will likely still be here for generations -- if not centuries. Kind of like the Marsten Mats I kept running across in France that were left over from D-Day, T-walls will endure long after the American military is gone.

Well, there is a lot to be said there, I think – still, can anything be done with the T-walls?

Forgive the exploitative sentiment in my tangent here, but personally I’d love to go hang out there for a week with a serious wide-angled macro lens and photograph all the accumulated textures on the concrete super close up, inspecting those worthless objects as a kind of topographically ambiguous landscape of urban scarring and political wounding – the wall as a fossil for the brutality of occupation; remnants of a colossal crime scene.

So often, the only focus given to “the wall”, like the Israeli Separation Wall for instance, is on its greater impact on the Palestinian people (and for good reason), but what about the occupation’s impact on the Wall itself, what might the markings and impressions there be able to tell us and help identify about the violent, or even “mythic dimensions” of conflict, as Paul Virilio was after while combing the littoral remains of the Atlantic Wall? From random graffiti to various inscribed messages, to the many little ways in which the wall is informally used for things attached to it, like makeshift stepladders, marketplace racks, crawl spaces, advertisements, signage, a basketball hoop, etc. I’d love to capture the functional aspects of the wall on both sides this way, as a residual membrane, the debris of an unconscious mediation across borders, or something.

To observe the completely different meanings of each side, the wall as interface for culture compressed by intense political violence, border contest, humanitarian violation, geopolitical casualty, and so forth. Is there a bisected culture intrinsic to the wall (certainly there is) that we can trace geopolitically and use to discern something about the nature of conflict space production through meditation on the blast wall itself, and the behavior that naturally emerges in its shadow? Maybe more time needs to pass in order for the ruinous wisdom of the blast walls to reveal their dimensional secrets and cultural meanings to us. Is it too soon to see the writing on the wall, in a sense, of what these walls mean in a greater historical legacy of Empire and the military production of social space?

Put another way, what can an intimate inspection of the Wall help us to better understand about its impact on the lives of those people who brush up against it daily (Iraqi citizens and occupation soldiers alike), or of the psyche of those who have constructed these walls, who use it in some way, who are forced to confront it, avoid it, for whom the blast wall is a regular part of their psycho-spatial frame of reference, their physical and metaphysical bearings?

In our recent interview with Tom Hilde, speaking on the contemporary make-up of ‘torture space’ he wisely stated that the nature of it today is not merely one of historical evolution or “a contrast of social values,” but is rather a case of “instrumentality... both in terms of the goals of torture and the management of public opinion.” Better yet, Tom said, “Maybe even in the management of the souls of the torturers” themselves. Indeed, in those terms, what do the blast walls suggest not only about the management of public opinion of the occupation, but more interestingly about the management of the colonial souls who have themselves occupied Iraq?

I realize to any other person this might seem like an absolutely dreadful if not torturesome assignment – to wander around a storage yard of worthless concrete barriers and photograph them all day with genuine interest in the nuanced intricacies of their damage, sifting for information in their erosion, looking for a story or a bit of poetry in a single spike that had been pounded into it for some mysterious purpose. I would love to try and soak up the revelatory autobiographies of these slabs’ archeological wear and tear, as if the tombstones could whisper bits of testimony to me, or relay the dying memories or last wishes of a weary life who fell beside them; to the subtopian eye it would be a compelling foray into the realities of those who have and continue to interact with these walls on a daily basis, those who have scaled them, crawled through them, been thrown up against them, who have lost or saved their businesses because of them, hid behind them for their lives, been made to stare at them for years, whose mother’s hearts have been splattered all over them. I wonder if the cold concrete might even emit a disturbing energy from all the different projections they have absorbed over the years.

If the decaying textures on those concrete pages could tell stories then what would the chips and cracks and striated bodily patterns narrate to the unassuming anthropologist who would listen to the Wall’s stories with open and impressionable ears? While Baghdad’s murals certainly tell an Iraqi epic of historic proportion, the informal pictures dispersed in discursive threads of war torn decomposition no doubt reveal their own equally telling saga of occupied struggle. But, there are two totally different stories written on both sides of the wall, from completely different perspectives, and that fascinates me.

Or maybe I’m a whack, I don’t know. I’m sure I’m typically over-wording my musings here, flaunting with absurdity and bias, but I’d imagine myself to be a kind of urban forensicologist for the UN investigating the slabs for evidence of anything that could suggest their role in a greater act of war crimes – as if I were a lifelong fortifications expert, with special degrees in military architecture, 19th century Russian literature, and environmental psychology and spatial cognition; who is also a quick study in the material damage of urban warfare; a pattern recognition whiz kid, (not quite an IED forensics expert) just some off-the-wall tripper who gets his kicks contemplating a psychology of walls as extensions of human behavior, as cultural mirrors and psychological molds. I’d be ushered around by soldiers who laughed at me behind my back and saw me as some sort of phenomenal nut case known to possess an oddly reliable sixth-sense reputation for exploring the phenomenology of architecture as a criminological tool – you know, a bizarre wall mystic with a bent on social justice.

My objective would be to examine these remains as devices of military violence and gauge the inhumane consequences brought by them, to those on both sides – I would unravel the narrative of the wall as both a reflective threshold (double-sided mirror), and as something intentionally violent. If architecture (in it’s barest bones) were a weapon, it would be here laid out in a massive kit of parts ready to be re-assembled, re-aimed and retriggered again as the structural enforcer for an illegal occupation elsewhere. The graveyard would almost look like disjointed pieces of a new age battering ram, militarized walls without purpose; a surplus of fortressization.
But, you never know, that might not even be the least bit interesting.

More realistically, however, I wonder how long does a single blast wall typically rest in storage in today’s age of the “Global War on Terror”? Or how many more remain stored in the streets themselves? How long do these monumental tombstones sit idle before being redeployed to another violent stage, so they can essentially sit idle elsewhere in a different neighborhood, props in a slightly different configuration? Maybe even returning back to the very same place in Dora from where they began, depending; or outside the country altogether – in Kabul, for example.

I don’t know why this is so damned interesting to me. The idea of an entire landscape of blast walls squatting on the earth waiting for another foreign invasion is eerie (is this the nomadic fortress scattered in temporary hibernation?); to me they are curious war fossils lingering in a desperately unexamined state – what, if anything, can be learned about humanity from these battle-encrusted walls? Such an innocuous weapon, one that doesn’t do or perform anything at all when you think about it, they’re just bloated bricks of concrete merely taking up space in a strategic delineation; a simple wall designed to be routinely assembled and disassembled over and over again across the planet. Is this the architectural violence of biopolitical idleness in its crudest form?

I wish someone would produce a documentary on the lifespan of the blast wall, from the contracts and regulations that financialize them to the circulatory infrastructures that transport and station them, with profiles of the engineers who design and test them, to the military planners who survey and plot their specific locations, to the anonymous laborers and infantry grunts who take responsibility for actually rooting them into the ground.

Of course, the reality is that most of the slabs rarely move at all. They are erected, and then are simply moved to a storage yard nearby from where many have not moved ever since. But, I still would love to chip one with an RFID tag or something and monitor its movements over the course of, say, the next hundred years, or perhaps the past 50 might have been more interesting. What geographies would emerge in such time? Could the Wall serve as a prism in helping to deconstruct the logic of the war machine, the spatialization of disaster capitalism, the military planks of neoliberal nation building, of Empire’s exclusionary fixtures for controlling the flows of capital and superfluous populations? I don’t know, as usual, not entirely sure of my own inquiry yet. Forgive me.

As mundane as such a film project might sound some precedent has already been set in Simone Bitton’s film Mur about the Israeli Separation Wall. From the opening shot the viewer follows along the Wall in the West Bank for seemingly a roadside eternity, before getting a brief tour of the production plant that casts these concrete planks and a scene of the Wall’s unbelievably quick assembly and installation dangling from a winch. Bitton then interviews a couple of Palestinian laborers who supplied concrete in their need for work before having a conversation with Amos Yaron, the director general of Israel's Defense Ministry at the time, who called the “security fence” the “greatest engineering project the country has ever undertaken.” All in all it is a short but powerful spotlight on the industrial and political underpinnings that have surgically parceled the Wall into the earth’s surface.

Similarly, I would love to shed light on the American contractors who are building the US-Mexico border fence, a project that will continue to cost millions annually on down the road just in order to maintain from weather conditions and cross-border sabotage.

Today, companies are cashing in on billions by building highly fortified fences and barriers all over the world. To expose the capitalist machine behind this border-industrial-complex from the perspective of its own product just seems like a critically appealing project to me. One day.

I may be all alone on this one, but what a story it would be to follow a specific 12 by 5 foot tall concrete T-wall that begins its life in an Israeli manufacturing camp outside the West Bank, from the time it’s set to dry to being fitted into place overlooking an eighty year old Palestinian farmer struggling to keep his farm. With a solar charged panoramic camera on top to record everything, we find several months later this section of blast wall is unexpectedly removed and stored in a nearby bunker while the IDF plans to redraw the boundary more directly through this village.

Yet, in the same time, we learn there is a kind of unofficial Secretary of Walls who has somehow emerged in recent years to oversee the global administration of NATO’s inventory of war-time barriers. Say, for a moment all of the concrete barricade and blast wall hydrology that has ever controlled the flows of militant rebels, insurgents, refugees, squatter communities, migrants, had been accounted for statistically in the books of this unnamed secretary. However this inventory has come to exist, let’s just entertain the thought that hundreds of thousands of blast wall blocks over the course of decades have been regularly moved by an international network of heavy lifters, stacked upon oversized flatbeds in convoys and rolled across continents back and forth from a curious central crypt somewhere deep in Central Asia whose only purpose is to archive reams of concrete slab designed for war, where inside at some point the Great Fragmented Wall of Baghdad once filled a dozen underground warehouses neatly piled and ordered within a leviathan card catalog system indicating its pieces by their unique sizes, weights, thicknesses, blast proof calibers, all numbered sequentially like the boxcars of a 100 mile long train you find broken down in a rail yard somewhere in California. The unread pages of war’s indestructible tome just lying in wait – in weight, until the military academics of Empire decide one day to unfurl them again in the field.

There is of course a giant bureaucracy around these walls, and the Secretary does his job frighteningly well when he suddenly gives the order to the IDF to ship this one slab off to a random intersection in the banlieues of Paris. A Kurdish blast wall cartel and his underpaid haulers are called in for the job. Old pros – the best in the biz. After a ferocious month of street rioting there the wall is then immediately moved to a contentious immigrant grotto in the south of Italy, for weeks absorbing the backlash of angry mobs, riot police, hate groups and migrant rights activists together, testing the limits of its structural integrity with heavy collisions, only to find itself later that year used as the cover for a Lebanese smuggler on the border with Syria who stashes small amounts of hash within the crumbling crevices that have been excavated into it by urban conflicts that took place hundreds of miles away, until eventually during its transport from the Middle East to South Asia it slips off the winch of a Chinese forklift and shatters into 4,378 pieces inside an anonymous warehouse somewhere in the outback of Mongolia, where it, along with tiny morsels of unenjoyed hash and unread notes and wads of cash, are swept into some waste pile and it’s life of traveling obstinacy comes to an abrupt end.

Others are tracked, too, through Cairo and Kinshasa before filling security orders in Tijuana, Rio, Jakarta, and Mogadishu. Through out their journeys many of the walls are painted over by layers and layers of murals from previous occupations, conflicts, fierce activism, overall compiling a richly textured visual history of a worldwide militarism movement and its vibrant resistance who together face a violent unknown in these walls, before leaving their own indelible imprints on them, adding to a sort of run-on story that only the walls themselves go on to tell.

With each new occupation the walls bare witness to the brutalities they themselves accompany, acquiring their own knowledge, and become a sort of cultural measure of geopolitical conflict.

Certain blast wall sections would gain special notoriety for particular artwork that had gathered upon them. A bizarre new art industry would even emerge around them. Perhaps one wall, with Baghdad’s art preciously blanketing it, winds up in São Paulo, where Os Gêmeos take their spray cans to it but with total respect for the distant image that has landed in their city and add their own element, at which point art collectors worldwide begin to take notice. Suddenly the blast wall has incredible value, worth thousands on the art market, until a German trader manages to pull off the heist of the century with his cronies from an earlier mission in Berlin, and gets away with the wall inside a massive crate buried at the bottom of some cargo ship headed for Turkey, where it will be sold on the black market back to the Kurdish blast wall cartel who is now recollecting all of Baghdad’s wayward blast walls in a secret underground lair, stacking them like concrete bullion with incredible archival display meant only for the world’s blast wall connoisseurs, like Fidel Castro, Salaman Rushdie, and even Angelina Jolie who regularly peruse the archive and each have sections from the West Bank bombed by Banksy, and chunks from Sinai's barriers adorned with Twist’s famous boozers in their own personal collections.

While a strange consortium of revolutionary art purveyors, blast wall smugglers, dictators, ex-generals, guerilla leaders, and maybe even art institutions would haggle over them with other unsuspecting collectors of military artifact, the walls would become a strange kind of currency amongst military planners, who would drive the Secretary crazy scrapping over them and their own perceived property rights while lobbying to regulate the further rate of production of new blast walls. Until eventually the Pentagon realizes their cultural value and suddenly they all start disappearing, one by one, and a new an improved cheaper form of plastic blast wall begins to hit the war market in its place.

Anyway, you get the idea. Who knows, the real story would more than likely turn out an incredibly boring-ass examination of a bunch of barbaric hard hats with absolutely no personality whatsoever, or anything remotely interesting to say beyond the daily barks of any old construction firm that contracts for the military. No offense! But, is there a more curious economy there, a more intriguing political story, a strange subculture, an informal market place for the blast wall? I would love to explore this earlier post -- In the Business of Blast Walls -- a little further some day.

I’m certainly no historian of military space, but in this post-Euclidian age of hyperterritorial friction, overlapping infoscapes, autonomous systems, virtual infrastructures and network sovereignty, asymmetric warfare and so forth, the blast wall is a creepy physical reciprocation of the same micro-bordering that is so characteristic of global space production today. It’s a gratuitous structure, utterly anti-technological. The blast wall is the wall of a super-imposed sovereignty; a retro-medieval intra-urban insertion fulfilling the military urge to reoccupy and redraw the geometries of the city into angular funnels of power, redirecting traffic and forcing new trajectories for the ways battles are staged in cities. Blast walls are prosthetic scaffolding tilting the floors of power in favor of occupation.

Paul Virilio in his classic meditation Bunker Archeology would call this the “strategic geometrizing” of “defensive redoubt” that gives the military the ability to convert the city into a fragmented prison overnight by suddenly dropping a bunch of walls into it that throw entire districts into lockdown. The war of the future, as we already know, is one not between city but within it. What will this mean for the spatial logic of the rule of law as time goes on? What will the future military dimensions of space control in the city look like next? How will the blast wall continue to evolve?

Not just fortified enclosures anymore, but entire cities of walls riddled with checkpoints from the inside out. The sabotaged lattice space of spontaneous violence, blocks of carceral control, a rash of blast walls reprogramming the city’s spatial logic. The wall evolving into something completely mobile, like two-ton books of concrete slab that slide out on great cantilevers, choking the isle ways of the city, creating new ones on the Borgesian shelves of Baghdad’s mythological Bibliothèque. Walls that freely move – Matrix 'desert of the real' style. As if the wall has reached military projectile status itself now; a weapon – bombing a landscape with viral walls that can attach and detach at any point, inject, leach, siphon, stack, infect and divert flows. An autonomous mazing, or military labyrinthizing of the metropolis. Ironically, then, whereas cities were once about the establishment of vehicular infrastructure to help speed up the culture of production, the blast wall is response to a culture of car bombs aimed at defeating the predation of a global system that’s hijacked the city. Baghdad has long been an open sky library for volumes of political violence and architectural memory.

Virilio also talks about the issue of time and (as does Ballard) the morphology of modern fortifications that developed in unison with the shortening of military conflicts, wars that can be waged overnight and won in the course of a few days, and how military space has enabled this. Aren’t the contemporary blast walls the perfect incarnation of the “GWOT”’s indefinite time-space dimensions, since they’ve been designed to be extraordinarily temporary, but have persisted in the battlefield now to the point of near permanence? These deposits are the urban translation of a suspension of government, a war on law – Baghdad’s state of emergency; the pages of a city made in concretized walls of exception.

Philip Misselwitz refers to this as “conflict urbanism”, or as he and Tim Rieniets describe it: “a city that changes its physical form, infrastructural systems and in an accelerated, at times almost daily fashion. Processes of urban change such as road planning, closures, construction of walls, fences, etc. that require year-long planning processes in Western cities can be implemented virtually over night – an uneasy, panicked ridden dynamism, that relies on the rapid implementation of facts on the ground. This permanent state of radical transformation has involved a dramatic, physical and demographic growth, as well as unprecedented decline and destruction."

Anyway, in ways similar to how the global financial system is not only a blueprint for an economy of trade but an economy of space production, you could say architecture in this case is the logic used to organize an economy of walls that configures space for habitability, capital production, mobility, spatial control and war; architecture, while a product of the economy itself is also just a means for commodifying walls. More specifically, the economy of war is an economy of walls, like the prison industrial-complex is an economy of walls.

If Dubai’s towers represent neoliberal stockpiles of currency in spatial form on one side of the spectrum, then the endless paging of blast walls might represent the equivalent architectural cache of neoliberalism's militaristic expansion on the other side that’s been needed to secure its vertical gated communities that stretch half a mile high. Is that what the translation of this global economic collapse will continue to boil down to: surging Burj Dubais and teething Bremmer Walls?

Whatever, I’m talking out of my ass, as usual, but – the blast wall tells us something, and I guess I’m on some silly mission to try and find out what it is, as far off as I still may be. Though, again, maybe its meaning will come later, in some future use, reformed, de-colonized, rehumanized. Out.

Galleries: LAT, WSJ, NYT, Guardian.