Damn Magazine: Cogs and Spanners
Book review by Leopold Lambert published in Damn Magazine 65.
The System of Systems is an independent project exploring technology and bureaucracy in the asylum-seeking process in Europe. It’s not a deliberately benign description, and much more than a conversation opener on a ‘knotty subject’. Offering alternative viewpoints, its research is a collaborative effort that involves a range of practitioners, collectively unravelling questions such as: What policies are we voting for as citizens of European countries, and what is our relationship to the issue?
In May 2017, a group exhibition entitled The System of Systems went on display for three weeks at Grace gallery in Athens. Curated by Rebecca Glyn-Blanco, Maria McLintock and Danae Papazymouri, the photographic, cartographic and artistic work exhibit- ed intended to ‘interrogate how political powers in Europe are using technologies in bureaucratic systems to determine the fate of asylum seekers.’ Two months later, the three curators released a book of the same name, featuring the contributions of 18 artists, architects, activists and thinkers (some of whom also contributed to the exhibition), which further examine the questions that the project raises.
The book opens with a preface that introduces the reader to the role played by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, more commonly known as Frontex. It is an increasingly empowered division of the EU in the militarisation of its external borders, which was widely reported to have received a 54% increase in its 2016 budget. The system of systems that gives it name to both the exhibition and the book refers to a quote by British journalist and historian, Frances Stonor-Saunders. In her 2016 lecture and essay Where on Earth are you?, she reflects on the role played by Frontex generally, and its information management and surveillance division Eurosur in particular – the latter, even referring to its roadmap for a ‘system of systems’ in official briefings. Stonor-Saunders also describes militarised European borders in places like Melilla or Ceuta, and seeing ‘the technologies of a medieval siege repurposed for the Technicum. This medieval modernism is born of a fatal resolve to keep the outsider out, to separate the verified from the unverified.’
With this in mind, the book’s three divisions into Language, Territory and Agency, are useful to understand the multilayered dimension of state technologies to subdue asylum seekers into their politically-driven administrative processes. For instance, Language shows how what is usually not understood as a technological form can be transformed into one when it is hyper-rationalised in order to make it fit the format of a binary administrative system. Not only that, it can also be used to determine the truthfulness of asylum seekers’ narratives, as Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Rebecca Glyn- Blanco and Danae Papazymouri’s respective contributions illustrate well.
Territory mobilises architecture as an essential technology of control of bodies. There is, of course, the architecture of the administrative detention centres described by Melanie Friend (Dover), James Bridle (Heathrow), and Nana Varveropoulou (Middlesex). Their archipelago of these enclaves of exclusions within the European Union and elsewhere (in their externalised forms), are indeed explicit about their violence on bodies that only retrieve movement in perilous escape or tragic deportations. Yet, beyond the malevolence of the European states towards asylum seekers, the essay written by Andrew Herscher aptly invites us to consider the good intentions of architects designing camps and dwellings in the humanitarian context, as another source of violence in the absolute lack of agency they provide to the bodies they host.
Agency, therefore, allows the book not to fall in the same trap, as it dedicates a significant part to the small spanners placed in the machinery of the system of systems. There is the agency of asylum seekers themselves, who do not hesitate sometimes in taking back control of their bodies by burning their fingerprints. This drastic action is outlined in Ayesha Hameed’s text, and is way to avoid ‘Dublinisation’ – the Dublin Regulation forces asylum claims to be processed in the first European country where the identification of a person has been made, thus enabling the deportation of many asylum-seekers back to Greece or Italy. There is also the agency of European citizens and organisations that take the matter into their own hands, proposing ‘alternatives, rather than solutions’, as Nasim Lomani explains to Maria McLintock about the City Plaza hotel in Athens. Occupied by activists and asylum seekers since April 2016, it has become a reference of urban hospitality and self-empowerment.
The book ends with an evocative story told by James Bridle about his artistic project Flag for No Nation. In a surprising turn, he first invites the reader to reflect on an event that occurred in 1973 in space. Describing the somewhat makeshift repair of the first US space station by astronaut Paul Weitz, he directs his narrative to the object that allowed the success of this space tinkering: the NASA-designed gold blanket that was later commercialised as a mass-produced object, optimising its conservation of body heat in relation to its extreme thinness. This blanket, used by many displaced people in their crossing of lands and seas, manifests the contrast in the use of technology between billion-dollar state-funded exploration of space to the situations of mere survival against life-threatening obstacles, implemented by the same states to fortify their borders and national identities. The gold blanket, used as a flag precariously held by a simple piece of wood, ends the book – it is an appropriately poetic response to the rational cogs of the system of systems.