Breaking Borders

I wondered what one experiences 

when one crosses the border.

What does one feel? What does one think?

Ryszard Kapuścinski, Travels with Herodotus, 2008.

We are currently living in a ‘globalized’ era where all subjects are increasingly embedded in global ‘mediascapes’1, with the formation of ‘transnational’ subjectivities. More specifically, during the recent events related to the pandemic was evident the increase of inequalities and disparities between the developed part and the poor of the world. The consequent global crisis, the rising use of digital technologies and their impact on the social and ecological system clearly highlighted the differences and contradictions that are representing this globalised world.

However, what it means exactly ‘globalization’ and what it implies? For most of us, globalisation is an obvious and indisputable fact that distinguishes the postmodern world, an unavoidable and irreversible process that involves us all indiscriminately. This interdependence represents mutual support and a reliant social condition as the 14th Dalai Lama describes: ‘As human beings, we all share the same sorrows, the same hopes, the same potential. The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us how interdependent we are: what happens to one person can soon affect many others, even on the far side of our planet.’2 But then globalisation means also division more than unit among various segments of the populations due to an unequal distribution of goods that causes the main stratifying factor of our postmodern times. We are one way or another all involved in this globalisation process whether we belong to global or local groups. The fundamental distinction between those social categories is given by mobility, the freedom of movement and access to technology. Technology is indeed one of those distinctive elements that differentiates one group from another, and it is helping globalised people to stay connected, come over the distances and have a life rich with many opportunities. In the case of locals, technology is not present in their lives and there are no chances to improve them. 

Nicola Anthony, An Anthology of Displacement, 2019. Glass vessels, gold leaf, clock mechanisms, texts, mixed media, 130 x 30 x 50 cm (variable). Ph credit and courtesy the artist.

Further to this point, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman described this current century as the one that should be remembered as the Great War of Independence from Space. The ‘time and space compression introduces new freedom from territorial constraints, increased flexibility and mobility that are the most coveted stratifying factors. This means that natural and artificial borders of territorial units are more flexible than in the past for many global travellers, but what we are still missing is a cosmopolite conscience as announced in 1922 by the sociologist William F. Ogburn in his book Social Change. This current cultural delay is ignoring the social changes in place and the consequent needs to have an equal and inclusive cosmopolitan vision to manage the otherness, the fading of national borders and, the osmotic and universal interdependence. Instead, what we are assisting nowadays is still a disparity between who enjoys the new freedom of movement with no restrictions and others – for the most part migrants and asylum seekers barely with a few recognised rights – which are not allowed to stay put because devoid of visa or other identification documents. This represents a new socioeconomic stratification where mobility – real or virtual is practically almost the same today – is the centre of this consumer society and immobility is considered in a globalisation context the new poverty. The consequence is that for inhabitants of the first world state borders are levelled down, as they are dismantled for the world’s commodities, capital and finances. For the inhabitant of the second world, the walls built of immigration controls, of residence laws grow taller and they are increasingly marginalised and forgotten. 

Trudi van der Elsen, Drift, 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 120x180cm. Ph credit and courtesy the artist.

Although what we are looking at today is just a progressive ‘end of geography’3 since distance no longer matters, we are not yet acting to include sociocultural and all-embracing changes. The industrial progress in transports and travels and, foremost, in technology makes the ‘distance’ a social product. Nowadays it is easy to overcome travelling to meet new people and cultures and becoming more and more a postmodern society. However, among all the technical factors that are characterising the recent mobility the transport of information is the one that is playing the greatest role in our society. This new way to communicate was predicted by the philosopher Marshall McLuhan in his essay Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), and his famous quoted ‘the medium is the message’ could be furtherly updated saying that the ‘signifiers’ are now free from the hold of the ‘signifieds’. The new media represents a greater separation and fragmentation of the information movements from those of its vectors, which in turn has allowed the differentiation of information speed. An example are the social networks and their ability to reach and interact with a broad number of viewers. Since the appearance in public in the early ’90s of the computer-served World Wide Web to date, it has created a new notion of ‘travel’ – and of ‘distance’ to be travelled – rendering information instantaneously available throughout the globe. 

Post-human interactions with technology break inevitably borders and improve human connections, social cohesion and flexibility. Nowadays virtual and augmented reality are reshaping the landscape creating a mediascape where we are able to digitally live and recreate our identity, and communicate without physical barriers with others. Internet might be looked like a ‘hyperbole’ and ‘somehow bringing light to the world’4, but the idea of the digital commons as a space for free production and circulation is a simplistic concept, where any common resource is not democratically and equally available and in itself embodies many inequalities. This is the absurdity of hyper-consumerism and ‘fast technology’. The technological annulment of temporal/spatial distances in a consumer society tends actually to polarise the human condition. ‘In fact, globalization is a paradox: while it is very beneficial to a very few, it leaves out or marginalizes two-thirds of the world’s population.’5 We witness today the process of worldwide restratification since technology emancipates certain humans from territorial constraints letting them in the exterritorial cyberspace that augurs unprecedented freedom from physical obstacles and unheard of ability to move and act from distance. In the online world, time and space do not matter anymore and we as players of this world ‘apart’ are mostly acting as little deities that are living in a universe where we live ubiquitously various lives in an ‘absolute present.’6

Vukašin Nedeljković, Kilmacud House DP Centre, Dublin, 2007-present. Colour digital photograph, Dimensions variable. Ph credit and courtesy the artist.

The arts that are often a mirror of the times are progressively becoming easy to access – we could provocatively call them ‘domestic’ – since we can have a virtual walk through the museum or gallery spaces, and enjoying an exhibition located on the other part of the globe comfortably and ‘safely’ staying in our home. The philosopher Paul Valéry in his essay ‘La conquete de l’ubiquité’ envisaged this in the first half of the 20th century. He described and compared the commodity to receive in our homes utilities from afar with almost no effort on our part to the supply of ‘pictures or sound sequences that, at the touch of a button, almost a wave of the hand, arrive and likewise depart.’7 This demonstrates as at any historical period corresponds specific art forms and several artistic expressions related to determinate perception skillset, and the history of art has to go along with the history of gaze for getting a new expression and an appropriate sensorial perception. This means also that the medium has to be updated because ‘in all arts there is a physical component that cannot continue to be considered and treated in the same way as before; no longer can it escape the effects of modern knowledge and modern practice. Neither matter nor space nor time is what, up until twenty years ago, it always was. We must be prepared for such profound changes to alter the entire technological aspect of the arts, influencing invention itself as a result, and eventually, it may be, contriving to alter the very concept of art in the most magical fashion.’8

Bernadette Hopkins, Our Bodies, Their Borders, 2021.
Video frame. Credit Jacqui Devenney Reed and courtesy the artist.

All of this brings us to ask if today we are prepared to deal with the increasing forms of digital art and to virtually interact with the arts. The way in which the arts are performed changed a lot during the last year and the pandemic reinvented at the same time the way how the arts are experienced. This is undoubtedly a transformation and mainly hybridisation of the arts and our social lives that demands to be constantly online. Web 2.0 is going to be more than ever a surrogate for real life, especially during a time when the digital real dominates the daily lives of many of us. Even if we are now trying to re-appropriate our physical lives in the real world, we do not know yet the long-term effects of the pandemic writ large society. But art can assuage some of the frustrations we are probably facing. 

Beata Piekarska-Daly, On the shore, 2021. Video frame [3:11]. Ph credit and courtesy the artist.

A host of platforms have been devised virtual shows that speak to and guide us out of this limbo. Maybe arts have lost definitively their aurea9 –  reiteration and reproduction are causing the presumed loss of authenticity faster than it happened in the past – and their participatory spirit. Digital life has deleted any separation and it has progressively contributed to remove physical borders and break social barriers, but it remains an exclusive private viewing and interaction with the others and the arts.We are mostly digitally sharing images and opinions, but the debates are missing that visceral connection offered by eye contact, smell, warmth and touch. Also, an artwork is a multisensorial experience even if it is for example ‘just a painting’, the digital experience flattens the ‘third spatiality’, it reduces the world only to the visual impression completely missing the texture, the shadows, the smell and so on in order with the sense organs. This disembodied perception is the modern way to look at the world and specifically in this case at the arts. Furthermore, the sense of belonging to be part of an art community or to participate in an exhibition or opening event as part of a social experience is incomparable with the most realistic digital experience. What we need to really experience the arts is the ‘con-text’ of the artwork itself because the human being needs a container (i.e. museums, galleries, etc.), a frame to contextualise the work that it is none other than artistic textuality. On the other end, digital platforms are offering the commodity to visit and explore the arts in high resolution giving us the freedom to navigate and have an immersive vision of the artworks. Besides, this is offering to each one the chance to select and curate our own ‘imaginary exhibition’10 with no physical walls, conceptual barriers or visual borders. 

Certainly, the physical world is now a different place than before, it is definitively more flexible and transient, and we are rediscovering the joy to be physically connected again with the world, but with a better awareness of the digital enables on breaking the conformist borders of the (art)world.


This research and project was made possible thanks to the GOMA residencies programme ‘Emerging Curator Award 2021‘ and The Arts Council of Ireland ‘Agility Award 2021’.