Border Crossings: From Palestine to MexicoNovember 10, 2016
As a naturalized citizen, I have crossed international borders as an immigrant and a traveler. My passport verifies my citizenship, tracks my travel, and, as an American, grants me a largely unfettered freedom of movement around the world. For many of us, economic and time constraints may prevent travel, but for others—regardless of their merit, character, or intentions—their very citizenship is an obstacle to entering some countries. While the world’s increasing interconnectedness is widely celebrated, many countries have responded with strict immigration limits, bureaucratic hurdles, or the construction of physical walls.
Palestine’s status as a partially recognized or disputed country is subject to external governments that, in addition to other powers, can regulate the flow of people within the region and further abroad. Through performance and sculpture, artist Khaled Jarrar investigates the ways that passports and borders separate, define, and limit us. Provocatively, the artist also creates ways to transgress borders, breaking them down from the larger geopolitical apparatus into individually manageable acts. Emerging out of his own experience in Palestine, Jarrar’s practice has expanded to internationally site-specific projects that address global issues of migration and our shared concerns and struggles.
In 2011, as a part of his ongoing project Live and Work, the artist began State of Palestine. Standing in the central Ramallah bus station, Jarrar invited passersby to have their passports marked with his own custom-designed stamp. Formatted like many other national stamps, the artist’s graphic symbol features a sunbird (the national bird) next to a small bunch of flowers. In protest against the refusal of countries to recognize Palestine as a formal nation,1 Jarrar emblazons his stamp with “State of Palestine” in English and Arabic.2 Arriving at the bus depot, many travelers have already been through Israeli security checkpoints, where they have had their passports stamped and scrutinized. Considering the ubiquity of checkpoints in the region, going through another one may seem almost laughable, especially one operated by a single man without the formalities of a military bureaucracy. With his stamp and performance, Jarrar mirrors state functions in a place whose status as a partially autonomous country is evident in the regulation of its borders.
The walls that divide Palestine and Israel are not only a geopolitical debate, but directly affect the daily lives of the inhabitants on both sides. The wall separates families and friends and creates obstacles in the flow of goods and services that maintain daily existence. Jarrar documents State of Palestine along with other related materials on his Live and Work Facebook page, where he explains that this project was “inspired by this dream of mine, of living a normal life in a normal country, like a normal human being. Justice for Palestine!”3 The artist positions justice and normalcy as being in the realm of the nation—all of which are features that, to the artist, Palestine currently lacks. In an interview with Creative Time,4 Jarrar explains that
once I was climbing the wall to go to the beach—because the beach in Tel Aviv is very close to where I live. When the weather is good, I can see the sea—but I can’t go there. So I needed to climb the wall and risk my life just to go to the beach to have a swim. [...] it’s not about whether it’s worth risking for that day at the beach. It’s about the fact that I want to do it; I want to take the risk and enjoy my time on the beach.5
As the wall intrudes upon the activities of normal daily life, it provokes questions about the autonomy of individual citizens where restrictions on the freedom of movement are manifested in one’s choice, normalcy, and daily life.
In a place where everyday life may involve crossing an international border, this division also complicates Palestinian citizens’ ability to travel further abroad. When invited to participate in the exhibition Here and Elsewhere at the New Museum in 2014,6 Jarrar needed to obtain a U.S. travel visa, which required that he undergo an interview at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. The U.S. does not have a consulate in Palestine because it does not recognize Palestine as a state. Since Jerusalem is located in Israel, he needed to get permission from the Israeli Army to cross from Palestine. While Jarrar was not granted permission to enter Israel and crossed the wall illegally, he did obtain a U.S. visa.7 Jarrar had planned on flying from Amman, Jordan, to New York, but first had to first cross the Israeli border, where he was informed that he was banned from traveling for two months by the Israeli Army for “security reasons.” Jarrar did not make it to the opening of the New Museum’s show or to his artist talk.8 Palestine’s contested statehood presents obstacles for those wishing to travel outside the region, where Israel regulates who can conduct business with foreign countries, and specifically with U.S. and Israeli allies.
Those who participate in Jarrar’s project also put themselves under the scrutiny of foreign countries and their border controls. Participants have been denied entrance into Israel, sent back to their home countries, and had their Israeli passports canceled due to the unofficial stamp.9 Because passports aggregate one’s past travels, Jarrar’s seemingly simple gesture has real-world consequences that extend into the future.
While walls between Eastern and Western Europe have fallen, international migration controls remain steadfast and have tightened. Expanding his practice from his home base, Jarrar has performed Stamp of Palestine in other countries. For the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, the artist stamped passports at the now defunct Checkpoint Charlie.10 Additionally, on International Migrants Day in 2011, he participated in Immigrant Movement International,11 an ongoing project initiated by Tania Bruguera and co-presented by Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art. For this event, Jarrar stamped passports in Rome in conjunction with over 200 artist interventions in locations as disperse as St. Petersburg, Mexico City, Chicago, and more.12 While Jarrar’s work is fueled by his own experience in Palestine, he also speaks to the international community of Palestinians living as refugees and the plight of global migrants.
Complementing his passport project, in Jarrar’s Upcycle the Wall (2016), he chipped away at the concrete wall that divides Israel and Palestine. He then reconstituted this cement and cast it into an olive-tree stump, a ping-pong ball and rackets, and a soccer ball and pair of cleats. In a similar manner, Jarrar has recently turned his attention to the U.S.–Mexico border as part of CULTURUNNERS, an international consortium of over fifty artists who traveled by bus for more than 13,000 miles and through twenty-five U.S. states as part of a three-year tour.13 For what was originally titled No Man’s Land, but which local residents are calling Khaled’s Ladder, Jarrar pried off a portion of the U.S.–Mexico fence and reconstituted it into a ladder. Jarrar installed his work between the border and a municipal playground in Franja del Rio, Juarez, Mexico. As a hopeful expression, the massive ladder dwarfs the foreboding border, which in this area stands as a chain-link fence. The ladder also echoes the nearby playground’s soccer posts, where simple metal structures define goals and boundaries through play. In removing a minor amount of concrete and several fence posts, Jarrar has taken on individually manageable acts that modestly weaken the border walls between countries. As these materials are transformed, obstacles become metaphors for playful exchange and circumvention.
Along highly surveilled and policed borders, irregular activities become immediately suspicious. When visiting the border to plan Khaled’s Ladder, Jarrar spent time inspecting the fence, pondering it, and talking to collaborators about the logistics of his project. The accompanying film,14 directed by João Inada, chronicles the project and shows how Mexican border agents were alerted by Jarrar’s process of inquiry, even possibly summoning a helicopter in response. In Jarrar’s Creative Time interview, the artist recounts his encounters with U.S. and Mexican border agents. Jarrar explains how, upon seeing his Palestinian stamp, Mexican agents questioned whether it was real and informed him that, “You are not allowed to make fake stamps in a passport.” Jarrar responded, “Yeah, but this is an art project!”15 This exchange reveals how the artist’s project provokes questions about the space between fake and real, and art and life. While the film suggests that Jarrar’s encounter with the border agents ended hospitably, this is unfortunately rare, as global border control frequently results in casualties and detentions. The film attests to art’s ability to occasionally create dialogue between seemingly opposed positions. Jarrar explains that
I do it in the name of art, and I like how art gives us all this freedom and space to practice our creativity on the ground, not just on paper. This is how we can raise the questions and tell the stories that lead to solutions that will allow us to go beyond borders.16
In this realm of the creative, Jarrar’s “fake” stamp transgresses physical borders to provoke questions in the context of everyday life and people.
Jarrar’s interventionist sculptures and performances interrupt state mechanisms, passports, and fences to provoke questions about how nations regulate the flow of people. Those of us with passports possess documents that testify to the journeys that we’ve undertaken personally, our geopolitical contexts, and the imagined possibilities in the freedom of movement. Journeys are not only about epic travels, but as Jarrar has expressed, they are sometimes about living a “normal” life. As larger geopolitical issues are debated between international politicians, Jarrar uses art to enact seemingly small gestures that empower himself as an individual, resulting in a dialogue with the everyday. Moreover, he connects what might seem like distant and abstract Middle Eastern geopolitics to historical structures and current debates about European and American border controls. When the Berlin Wall came down, everyone seemed optimistic that the end of the Cold War would unite the world. However, today we find ourselves with discussions of more walls and tighter immigration controls. While borders between the U.S. and Mexico, and Israel and Palestine, remain heavily militarized, many European countries have recently or are planning to erect walls.17 But walls can and will be physically or imaginatively circumvented, sometimes through the provocative gestures of artists.