Feature

Foreign Bodies

Francis Frascina on Brexit, the body and the workings of the state

Fallout from the EU Referendum casts work by Mona Hatoum, Lars Laumann and Trevor Paglen in a new light.

In the third week of June, it seemed impossible to read Mona Hatoum’s Corps étranger, 1994, included in her retrospective at Tate Modern (Interview AM396), and Trevor Paglen’s works in this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize at the Photographers’ Gallery without thinking about incessant media rhetoric surrounding EU referendum debates. Most obviously, the literal translation of Hatoum’s French title into the English ‘foreign body’ (or bodies) clattered into identity and migration discourses of nationhood and otherness within the UK body politic. Then there were Paglen’s concerns with the limits of visual culture in representing state phenomena, actions and processes ‘hidden from the public eye’ and his advocacy of multi-disciplinary analyses of ‘images that teach us how to see the world that’s around us all of the time’. In practice, his untitled large-format-camera photographs of sublime Nevada skies containing minute details of US military combat aircraft, such as Predator, Reaper and Sentinel drones, which confirm that geographic location’s lethal reality as the base for these unmanned aircraft, are lessons in the skills of critical looking. Such lessons were dispensed with in June’s plethora of UKIP posters and tabloid images of migration ‘plague’. Was it possible to see the lethal reality, the metaphorical drones, of these posters and images designed to frame or manage social fear in manufacturing consent?

Hatoum’s play on words in relation to her video/sound installation suggests bodies as being externally diverse but internally similar, as visually manifest in multi-cultural differences but at the same time unseen in anatomical and biological processes of what she calls their ‘inside territory’. Here, though, the communality of the internally similar is rendered insecure by the normally hidden character of such ‘inside territory’, with symptoms of autoimmune diseases, viruses and adrenaline-driven fear or hatred that even the endoscopic camera cannot reveal. In 1988 Susan Sontag famously wrote about AIDS and its metaphors to locate that decade’s negative rhetoric in historic descriptions of diseases that are not simply fatal but transform the body into something alienating like leprosy, syphilis and cholera: diseases described as repulsive and ‘collectively invasive’. Plague metaphors to demonise otherness as a transforming foreign body, a cancerous ‘enemy within’ or invasive ‘enemy without’ have been mobilised by leaders of nation states keen to obscure their own agendas.

An example from the UK is Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s use of the phrase ‘enemy within’ to attack trade unions – especially the miners’ union – and peace campaigners such as CND and the Women’s Camp at Greenham Common, and of ‘enemy without’ to justify military actions against legacies of the British Empire, ranging from the Falklands War to covert and overt operations against the IRA, while combating virulent Tory Eurosceptic attacks which characterised the EU as an exogenous organism causing internal disease to the UK body politic. Since the 1970s, a constant fight between supporters of remain and leave has been endogenous to the Tory Party system, substantially contributing to the downfall of both Thatcher and her successor John Major, before causing David Cameron acute symptoms.

If Hatoum’s Corps étranger is, in Paglen’s terms, capable of teaching us to see the world around us more critically, one testing encounter was UKIP’s launch of its billboard poster, on the morning of 16 June, with ‘BREAKING POINT’ painted in large red capitals over a photograph reminiscent of recent refugee news footage depicting a long, sweeping, mostly male crowd walking towards the viewer. The text below read ‘The EU has failed us all’, and below that the strapline: ‘We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.’ The only predominantly white body in the photograph is obscured by text. Nigel Farage defended his party’s poster with the appeal ‘we should open our hearts to genuine refugees’ before mobilising rhetorical tropes of gendered sexual and terrorist entry into a boundaryless body: ‘But, frankly, as you can see from this picture, most of the people coming are young males ... the EU has made a fundamental error that risks the security of everybody.’

Farage conflated the EU’s long-standing commitment to the free movement of citizens – internal mutual migration – with Europe’s emergency responses to a specific humanitarian Syrian refugee crisis in which tens of thousands have been forced to leave their homes to escape a brutal war waged on an industrial scale and religious/ethnic persecution. Arguably, the latter is an unintended consequence of western foreign policies since 2001, particularly the UK’s alliance with the US, which still awaited the judgement of The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, chaired by Sir John Chilcot before it was finally published on 6 July. The difficulty and complexity of visually representing the realities of these policies characterise Paglen’s work, including his photographs of CIA Black Sites (such as secret torture locations) and ‘landing sites’, where underwater transcontinental fibre-optic cables (carrying internet traffic), which the NSA and GCHQ partners have tapped to pursue secret surveillance agendas, come ashore: from Miami Beach in Florida to Norden in Germany, from Morro Beach in California to Marseille in France. His continuing series ‘Code Names’, c2001, lists (in a variety of formats) words, phrases, and terms that designate military programmes and operations whose existence or purpose is classified, kept secret from a state’s citizens. When ‘blowback’ occurs, unintended consequences of these programmes and operations – civil wars, refugee crises, terrorist atrocities – dominate media representations, which are compromised by official disavowal of any causal responsibility by western state agencies. Consequently, citizens, unaware of the complex, often covert, causes of unpredictable violent actions – described as ‘evil’ by the same disavowing agencies – experience fear, anxiety and uncertainty.

Reporters quickly confirmed that UKIP’s source was a picture taken on 15 October 2015 by a Getty Images staff photographer documenting Syrian refugees on the Croatia-Slovenia border. In 2007, Slovenia became party to the Schengen Agreement, which was established separately from the EU in June 1985, whereby currently 26 European countries (not all in the EU) have abolished checks and controls at their mutual borders. Significantly, as the UK and the Republic of Ireland have opted out of the Schengen Agreement (apart from police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters), the pictured refugees could not freely enter either country’s controlled borders. A Getty spokesperson acknowledged: ‘It is always uncomfortable when an objective news photograph is used to deliver any political message or subjective agenda. However, the image in question had been licensed legitimately.’ By midday on 16 June, Twitter users had identified a stunning similarity between the composition of the photograph and Nazi propaganda footage of refugees from persecution during the 1920s and 1930s shown in the first part of the BBC’s 2005 documentary series ‘Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution’ with the German voice translated into English subtitles: ‘These are the types of Eastern Jews who flooded Europe’s cities after the last war – parasites, undermining their host countries, threatening 1,000-year-old cultures and bringing with them crime, corruption and chaos.’

Shortly after 1pm on 16 June, Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen since 2015, was murdered by a male constituent shouting ‘put Britain first’ as the bullets from his gun and the blade of his knife repeatedly penetrated her body. Two days later, when the murder suspect was asked to give his name at Westminster magistrates court, he replied: ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’ Hatoum’s Corps étranger becomes multiply relevant. As I have argued, ‘foreign body’ refers not only to being entered from outside but also from within, as though a host organism cell or stretches of human DNA have turned ‘traitor’ (as research published in 2010 by UCL’s Cancer Institute confirmed). The idealised Corps, Britain’s body politic, was, following the assumed name of the self-appointed ‘liberator’, in need of being ‘freed’ by means of an eradication procedure consistent with particular medical discourses: blasted or cut out.

Cox was born within her parliamentary constituency, in Batley, though her early career as a Brussels-based MEP adviser and in various roles for Oxfam, including head of its international humanitarian campaigns in New York, led her to be an advocate for disadvantaged groups in Afghanistan, Darfur, Palestine and Gaza. Cox’s first speech in the House of Commons in June 2015 celebrated her constituency’s ethnic diversity and she became founding chair of the ‘All Party Parliamentary Friends of Syria’ group supporting refugees as well as working on The Geography of Anti-Muslim Hatred, which investigated incidents of Islamophobia. Cox was a prominent remain supporter. On 15 June she tweeted a photograph of herself holding aloft an ‘IN’ flag in a boat with her husband and two children joining a large protest on the Thames against Farage’s Brexit flotilla of Union Jack- festooned fishing boats urging Parliament to ‘take back control of British waters’. In Corps étranger the sound of Hatoum’s beating heart accompanies the video of an endoscopic camera exploring the orifices – from mouth to anus – and interior territory of her Palestinian body, naturalised British, projected onto the floor. In a 1998 BOMB interview with Janine Antoni, Hatoum declared: ‘You can walk all over it. It’s debased, deconstructed, objectified. On the other hand it’s the fearsome body of the woman as constructed by society.’ Standing on the perimeter of the circular video image, the viewing subject feels as though ‘at the edge of an abyss that threatens to engulf you. It activates all sorts of fears and insecurities about the devouring womb, the vagina dentata, the castration complex.’

In discussing Lars Laumann’s Kari & Knut, 2010 (AM344), I argued that representations and metaphors of nationhood (eg Britishness), which are dependent upon the culture industries, feed on the rhetoric of mythical values (eg nostalgia for a lost empire or an imagined homogeneous community of the past) to induce anxiety and arouse fear of an imaginary ‘other’. Laumann’s video explores how an individual’s fear or hatred of a controlling outside ‘other’ (eg the EU) can manifest as many things – because of the pervasive force of ideological hegemony – that may be impossible to be rid of. What individuals are really afraid of is the controlling ‘other’ inside them. Interior fear and anxiety about what lies out there beyond hearth and home can be projected onto a harsh metaphorical landscape populated by mythical figures of terror and betrayal (eg negative representations of the EU). Out of metaphor come myths that do an individual’s thinking for them through substitution, remaking, reconfiguring and re-sculpting. Representation engages, works on the mind and activates all sorts of fears and insecurities as demonstrated by Hatoum’s reading of Corps étranger in Freudian and feminist terms. Male anxiety about being engulfed, ‘the devouring womb, the vagina dentata, the castration complex’, often, in the words of Barbara Johnson from her 1995 essay ‘Muteness Envy’, involves a ‘male appropriation of female muteness as aesthetic trophy accompanied by an elision of sexual violence’.

An extraneous object or matter entering bodies by design includes endoscopic medical procedures, torture techniques or sensuous pleasure. Hatoum describes the camera’s journey through her relaxed interior, facilitated by an injected serum that is also used ‘in torture to make you talk’, as ‘disgusting and disquieting in places, yet fascinating and sensuous at the same time’ (AM396). As the camera enters Hatoum and passes her tongue there is a strong similarity with the image of Jacques-André Boiffard’s Mouth, which accompanied Georges Batialle’s written entry of the same name in his ‘Critical Dictionary’, published in Documents no.5 (second year), 1930. Bataille sought to remind readers of basic animal drives in humans and their rituals – connecting awe and terror in human sacrifice, the abattoir or a child’s act of mutilating an insect – arguing that ‘on important occasions human life is still bestially concentrated in the mouth’. For him, ‘terror and atrocious suffering turn the mouth into the organ of rending screams’, whereas the look of the face with a closed mouth is ‘as beautiful as a safe’. Further, in 1937, in his journal Acéphale, with André Masson’s allegorical image of a headless man on the cover, Bataille argued that the human head, emphasising rationalism and order, leads to repression and totalitarianism as in fascist Nazi Germany. Significantly, Hatoum’s head in Corps étranger is not explicitly manifest. It is partially recorded as a series of surface traces and orifices providing entry into the ‘disgusting and disquieting’ elements of the body, which Bataille argued were corrective sources of knowledge and experience. Physical impulses in a human can be liberated ‘in at least two different ways, in the brain or in the mouth, but as soon as these impulses become violent, he [sic] is obliged to resort to the bestial way of liberating them’.

As a metaphor of surveillance, which was a major theme in Hatoum’s early performances, the presence of the endoscopic camera within her body represents both pervasive power by agents of order and repression – nowhere is safe, no place for ‘invisibility’ – and those agents’ control over what can be hidden, made invisible. Invisibility and state apparatuses are also central to Paglen’s practice, as they are to Hito Steyerl’s (Interview AM375), both of whom ask how to make visual what cannot be seen, from covert military operations to the way sites of control or ideological messages hide within plain sight.

Passive acceptance of such processes and a lack of pedagogic investment in visual skills enables the rhetoric of fear and anxiety to dissemble, to clear from the field of vision actual relations substituted by a fiction manufacturing consent. In the run-up to the EU referendum such manifestations included a young ‘vote leave’ worker ideologically blind even to the evidence of signs next to him recording multi-million pound investment by the EU’s Regional Development Fund in South and West Wales. Imagine, too, ‘vote leave’ students due to embark on an Erasmus exchange, postgraduates working in a university laboratory dependent on EU science grants, PhD students registered in a Peace Studies Department with supervising academics’ major research into the EU’s role in conflict resolution and upholding human rights since the Second World War. Those who campaigned to ‘leave’ the EU to ‘end migration’ appeared blind both to the NHS’s reliance on EU migrant medics and ancillary workers and to expert data from the Office of National Statistics confirming that since 1990 the biggest net migration countries to/from the UK have been India, China and Pakistan, not EU countries. Thousands supported the campaign to ‘leave’ the EU as a rejection of ‘austerity’ even though savage financial cuts, reduced wages and compromised pensions, closure of libraries, galleries and sports centres, growth in insecure zero-hour contracts and a massive increase in social care crises for the elderly were, and are, the direct result of George Osborne’s UK budgets since 2010.

In a 2011 interview, Paglen emphasised his interest in ‘the cultural politics of producing art’ and exploring ‘artworks as congealed social, political, and cultural relations’. This means, for example, collaborating with others to find a secret CIA Black Site, insisting on the right to photograph it ‘and enacting that right. Thus, we have a sort of political performance’. Paglen’s works are different from but related to the political performance of Corps étranger, following on from Hatoum’s 1980s performative critiques Don’t smile, you’re on camera, 1980, Under Siege, 1982, The Negotiating Table, 1983, Roadworks, 1985, and Suspended, 1986. Paglen attempts to examine places, sites and activities that are secret but have profound effects on culture and politics by asking the question of how to ‘engage with, and represent something that I don’t quite understand? The answer often has to do with trying to represent that epistemological-political gap or in-between space, or that moment of incomprehension.’

On the morning of 24 June, in the light of the referendum result, Corps étranger and Paglen’s photographs seemed to me, a UK-born product of a migrant from Ireland and an Italian enforced refugee from Second World War battles in North Africa, even more telling ‘aesthetic’ resources for examining the politics of representation and narratives of nationhood. The frisson they produce reveals the mythical comfort of ‘taking back control’ as a populist submission to being controlled.

Francis Frascina is an art historian and writer.

First published in Art Monthly 399: September 2016.

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