Betwixt and Between: Displacement and Liminality in Laura Waddington’s Border

Marion HohlfeldtInterventions Journal, Volume 02, Issue 01: Borders and the Global Contemporary January 2013, New York.

By Marion Hohlfeldt
We can’t literally go home again.
–Stuart Hall

As sociologists Riccardo Bocco and Daniel Meier1 remind us, the notion of a border does not conform to a simple definition: it indicates an unstable zone that is conceptually, physically, and even legally indeterminate. The border produces dreams of transition, of instigating the very forms of transgression that its physical delimitation restrains. An uncertain space between territories, the border is the line beyond which “elsewhere” begins—to perhaps become “nowhere” through perpetual displacement and exile. So long as the gap between the West and the rest commands the global imagination, the dominant recognition patterns of otherness prevail within a conception of a world that remains secure.

Mass tourism, mass immigration, and globalized consumption have eroded the distinction between those who visit the world and those who make up the decorative backdrop of their travels. As Stuart Hall described, “We’ve never seen such unplanned movement of people across the globe as we are seeing now. Some of it is driven by civil war; some of it is driven by poverty; a large amount of it is driven by underdevelopment, but a lot of it is just driven by ‘Well, I don’t know if I should just live the rest of my life where I was born.’”2 This accelerated movement touches all socio-economic strata of the population; however, the logic of globalized mobility (free trade, capital flows, and information flux) does not necessarily comprise the free migration of people. As Ken Loach has eloquently demonstrated in his film It’s a Free World, a quota of illegal immigrants serves to maintain pressure on the local workforce. However, while the legal workforce tends to be sedentary, a large number of nomadic workers work under precarious conditions. This is the hypocrisy of selective immigration. “Migration,” Hall writes, “is the joker in the pack of globalization. It is both part of globalization and what unhinges globalization from below. That is because it creates movement, fluidity and lack of control exactly at the point where globalization would like to constrain and control global movement.”3

If migration has always raised questions about the rights of citizens, it has likewise challenged the conception and representation of territories and borderlines. Traditional cartography cannot represent migratory states of existence. Hall explains that geography must thus be conceived similarly to culture—as a plural construct: “Pluralisation is one effect of understanding [geographies] as discursively constructed spaces and not literally permanent.”4 Whereas geography, according to French geographer Yves Lacoste, serves primarily to “make war” (faire la guerre),5 within the field of cultural studies, geographies—in its plural form—is a means of “decolonizing the mind.”6 If conventional geography does indeed produce military action, and if the mental representations linked to it are mainly constructed by dominant societies, we must readily recognize the need for artistic positions that create alter-narratives in a guerrilla response to mainstream discourse. Popular narratives are increasingly formalized and disseminated through the professional channels of marketing and advertising, enabling these stories to saturate our cultural imaginary. Though these narratives are highly questionable, they are rarely questioned. We must consider strategies to combat these forces—tactics that will grant us, if not a ceasefire, then a moment of critical hesitation.  Mobility must be re-imagined beyond movement—as a paradigm shift, which deconstructs accepted conceptual frameworks and produces new imagery rooted in alter-narratives. Mobility thus becomes both the condition and the subject of artistic positions, in which pluralization opens up articulations of space and time.

British artist Laura Waddington’s 2004 video Border offers a productive investigation of mobility. It is a complex examination of what constitutes a border today. In 2002, Waddington spent several months with Afghan and Iraqi refugees in the vicinity of Sangatte, a former refugee camp in Calais, France, filming those trying by any available means to cross the Chunnel7 into the United Kingdom. Filmed at night with a small video camera, using only ambient light, the video reveals the clandestine plight of illegal immigrants.8 Waddington recorded groups of men in the fields and wastelands alongside main access routes (road and rail), demonstrating the brutal contrast between man and machine. Facing cars, trucks, and trains, these determined men endangered their lives for what they had once imagined to be a better life. Waddington’s video foregrounds the conditions of human mobility. Her use of slowed images poetically underscores the perilous months-long migration through different countries—weeks of anxious waiting and hiding. This mode of immigration violently contrasts the comfortable journeys of those who are passing by legally in cars or high-speed trains. “For the refugees,” Waddington explains, “these car headlights represented the people of France, with whom they had very little or no contact […] There is a big contrast between the refugees, who are always walking, and the lights of the cars constantly rushing past.”9  Their wandering and waiting, however, also produces a contradictory space, whereby illegal occupation confronts domestic settlement. Waddington follows the refugees’ nightly attempts to leave the country—their continual search for the right moment for crossing. As the video’s voiceover informs the viewer, the majority of the migrants were continually arrested and brought back to the camp in the early hours of morning. This game of hide-and-seek continued for months; some migrants were injured and others died. Over the course of the filming, Waddington spent weeks living with the refugees, capturing images that function at once as individual portraits of courage as well as a reminder of our common humanity.

The Sangatte camp, built to house 200 people, was closed in 2002, at which point 1,600 refugees lived there. According to the Red Cross, over 67, 000 people had passed through the camp between October 1999 and December 2002; yet, the tragedies that took place there were all but absent from European consciousness. Though not explicitly concealed, the conditions of the camp were not widely discussed. It was not until the camp was dismantled that media began to address what had taken place there.10 “The reality of poverty, war and chaos,” Belgian thinkers Michiel Dehaene and Lieven De Cauter note, “is not represented [in the Western imagination], it is ‘unimaginable.’ This is an infra-reality, _where extremes are related: the more this _infra-reality is gaining, the more we retreat into a hyper-reality, as Baudrillard said.”11 Infra-real places such as the Sangatte camp are the hidden face of the global landscape. With the dissolution of borders, they tend to enter into our popular consciousness as simulacra of the real, as the real itself is ‘unimagined,’ in spite of many films that question the human capacity to receive the Other.12 According to the theorization of Giorgio Agamben, the camp exemplifies the reduction of life to ‘biopolitics’—the homo sacer, reduced to ‘bare life’ and thus deprived of rights. The camp — situated outside the nomos — constitutes the nomos of the modern, for the camp is the space that is opened in a state of exception. Agamben asserts, “The camp, which is now securely lodged within the city’s interior, is the new biopolitical nomos of the planet.”13  While prison is an extension of the law, the camp exists outside the juridical conception of crime. It is a space within which rights are suspended: it is the space of the banished.

Sangatte is no different from other buffer zones—from the zones d’attentes in airports, where the rejected wait before being deported. The exceptional conditions of these zones effectively suspend life; they produce a space that is ‘betwixt and between.’ Though they thwart the movement of immigration, the seemingly static space produced is in fact highly precarious, invoking Victor Turner’s theorization of the liminal stage in rites of passage. Liminality, Turner explains, occurs at the threshold of transition, during which a person “becomes structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible.’” He or she possesses nothing, “neither status […] nor rank […] nothing to stand structurally out from their peers.” Liminal individuals are “neither here nor there, they are in-between, between the positions assigned and established by law, customs, conventions, and cults.”14 The inherent liminality of passage thus grants a socially and structurally ambivalent status. Waddington’s Border performs an aesthetic translation of this liminal space.

Waddington’s meeting with the migrants of the Sangatte camp and her denunciation of the inhumane situation turns into an alter-narrative that captures the dignity of men. The video’s spoken narrative carries its images, supplementing what the camera cannot or does not want to record. The complex interaction among images—at times frozen, sometimes blurred—pushes the perception of the visible towards abstraction, while the voice takes over, supplying the details. As Jacques Rancière writes: “Images of art are operations that produce a deviation, a dissimilarity. Words describe what the eye could see or express what it will never see […]. This means two things. Firstly, images of art are inherently dissimilarities. Secondly, the image is not exclusive to the visible. There exists that which is visible but does not make an image, there are images that are made up entirely of words. [… Here] the image enacts the relationship between the sayable and the visible, an interaction that plays simultaneously on their similarity and their dissimilarity.”15 The image immediately presents its alternative reality; its construction makes its otherness tangible. The image not only captures a reality, but also produces one. The work of art is not simply shown or said, but is a complex montage situated between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’.16 Border shows the in-between as the human condition in an inhumane environment.

Ethnologist Michel Agier explains, “The social and racial fragmentation that subdivides ghettos, […] the worlds of desolation formed by the construction of walls, fences and by the invention of permanent borders … this is the experience shared by all in one place or another in the world today: a fence, a camp, expulsion […] In this way of life, the camp is the in-between, the zone d’attente of the banished, the unthinkable and unwanted, the corridor of the Moors.”17 Paradoxically, this experience, though ubiquitous, is difficult to capture. Waddington captures clandestine images, an unimaginable infra-reality, and makes them visible within the constructed environment of her film. At points, the images are suspended, like time itself, so that the temporality of the camp becomes nothing but an ongoing present.

In this enduring present, it is the narration more than the images that carries the viewer forward. The images remain suspended, dissolved by extreme zooms, as color and time are pushed towards abstraction. This treatment of the image as well as the video’s spatial projection heighten the viewer’s immersion. The becoming of color, this transformation of recognizable pictures into purely visual images, produces an overexposure to the real and gives a new dimension to the political tragedy that has taken place here. In her beautiful text “Abdullah and the Fireflies,” Laura Waddington shares her experience of reading Georges Didi-Huberman’s book Survivance des Lucioles, in which he portrays the war of light between “the ferocious projectors of the society of control versus the glimmers of Pasolini’s disappearing fireflies.”18 The book ends with a description of Border and the violent glare of police torches and helicopter beams, pointing their spotlights on men hiding in the fields. The light that shone on the refugees and the artist was so harsh, she explains, that it burnt the pixels of her camera, producing tiny flickering light-spots on her images, which the artist later corrected one by one.

In Border, this violent light is contrasted with the story of a Kurdish boy dancing in the wind, unseen by the police, in the sheltering darkness. As Didi-Huberman writes: “The most ‘obscure’ inner experience can appear as a glimmer to others from the moment it finds its just form of construction, narration, transmission.” The condition of the migrants in Border is condensed into a narrative that itself oscillates between absence and presence, darkness and light, neither completely there nor here. The manner in which Border is presented and constructed rejects ‘live’ capture and simple documentary in order to reveal another mode of disseminating reality—image. As a work of art, producing contextual shifts in view, these images of displacement “cannot be separated from cultural interaction and cause us to reassess the basic notions of identity.”19 Identity, however, Stuart Hall recalls, is “not only Being but is Becoming,”20 a becoming that oscillates between territories and temporalities. We understand that the border is both concrete and abstract, a line to be crossed as well as a moving space. We are aware that the fireflies still exist—even here—that they surround us and become visible if we pay attention, if we shut down the burning lights of control. The torches and beams are eluded, in effect, by the fireflies that flicker like the surviving spark of an alter-space and a counter-power.

“Betwixt and Between: Displacement and Liminality in Laura Waddington’s Border” by Marion Hohlfeldt, Interventions Journal, Volume 02, Issue 01: Borders and the Global Contemporary, January 2013, New York


Laura Waddington,
 Abdullah and the Fireflies: On reading Survivance des Lucioles

The author would like to thank Laura Waddington and Colette Bernard for their generous help.


1 Riccardo Bocco and Daniel Meier, “Penser la notion de frontière au Moyen-Orient”, in A conrario, vol. 3, n° 2, (2005), 5.

2 Stuart Hall, “The World with Itself,” in Radio Temporaire, ed. Zeigam Azizov, (Magasin: Grenoble, 2002), 409.

3 Ibid., 110.

4 Ibid., 114.

5 Yves Lacoste, La géographie, ça sert d’abord à faire la guerre (Paris: F. Maspero, 1976). Lacoste initiated the inclusion of notions of territoriality and mental representation within the concept of geography, as ideas, perception, collective imagination all contribute to the conception of space.

6 Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, Decolonizing the Mind, (London: J. Currey; Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya; Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1986), 12.: “Since culture does not just reflect the world in images but actually through those very images conditions a child to see that world in a certain way, the colonial child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as seen and defined by or reflected in the culture of the language of imposition.”

7 The Chunnel, or Channel Tunnel is a 50.5-kilometre (31.4 mi) undersea rail tunnel linking Folkestone, Kent (UK) with Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais (northern France).

8 Laura Waddington, Interview by Fillipo Del Lucchese, “Une frontière à deux vitesses,”  JGCinema : Cinema e Globalizzione, February 2005,

9 Ibid.

10 The Sangatte camp has since been the topic of several films; for example, Welcome, directed by Philippe Lioret, (Paris: Mars Distribution, 2009).

11 Lieven De Cauter and Michiel Dehaene, “L’archipel et le lieu du ban. Tableau de la ville désastre,” in Airs de Paris, Christine Macel and Daniel Birnbaum, (Editions du centre Pompidou: Paris, 2007), 145.. Translated from French by the author.

12 On the human capacity to receive the Other, see Jacques Derrida, L’autre cap, (Ed. du Minuit: Paris, 1991), p. 33: “[…] l’injonction nous divise en effet, elle nous met toujours en faute ou en défaut car elle dédouble le il faut : il faut se faire les gardiens d’une idée de l’Europe, d’une différence de l’Europe mais d’une Europe qui consiste précisément à ne pas se fermer sur sa propre identité et à s’avancer exemplairement vers ce qui n’est pas elle, vers l’autre du cap ou le cap de l’autre, voire, et c’est peut-être tout autre chose, l’autre du cap qui serait l’au-delà de cette tradition moderne, une autre structure de bord, un autre rivage.” I am thinking here of such films as Welcome, Illegal, Babel, and Terraferma.

13 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, (Giulo Einaudi Editore: Milan,1995), 99.  He continues: “The camp as dislocating localization is the hidden matrix of the politics in which we are still living, and it is this structure of the camp that we must learn to recognize in all its metamorphoses into the zones d’attentes of our airports and certain outskirts of our cities. The camp is the fourth, inseparable element that has now added itself to – and so broken – the old trinity composed of the state, the nation (birth), and land.”

14 Victor W. Turner, “Betwixt and Between : The Liminal Period”  in Rites de Passage, in The Forest of Symbols : Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY, 1967), 97. See also: Victor W. Turner, “Liminality and Communitas,”  in The Ritual Process : Structure and Anti-Structure (Aldine Publishing Co: Chicago, 1969).

15 Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image (Verso: London, 2007), translated from the French edition by the author: “Les images d’art sont des opérations qui produisent un écart, une dissemblance. Des mots décrivent ce que l’œil pourrait voir ou expriment ce qu’il ne verra jamais […]. Cela veut dire deux choses. Premièrement les images d’art sont, en tant que telles, des dissemblances. Deuxièmement l’image n’est pas une exclusivité du visible. Il y a du visible qui ne fait pas image, il y a des images qui sont toutes en mots. […] Ici, l’image met en scène un rapport du dicible au visible, un rapport qui joue en même temps sur leur analogie et sur leur dissemblance.”

16 See Barabara J. Scheuermann, “Show and Tell – Einige Überlegungen zum Erzählerischen in zeitbasierten Kunstwerken,” in Talking Pictures. Theatralität in zeitgenössischen Film- und Videoarbeiten, ed. Doris Krystof and Barbara J. Scheuermann (Cologne: DuMont, 2007), 159-161. Scheuermann here distinguishes between the story-telling (telling) and staged representation (showing).

17 Michel Agier, “Le ban-lieu du monde. Marges, solitudes et communautés de l’instant,” in Airs de Paris, op. cit., p. 180, translated from French by the author: “Les fragmentations sociales et raciales qui découpent en autant de ghettos […] les univers de désolation formés par l’édification des murs, des barrières et par l’invention permanente des frontières… telle est l’expérience partagée par tous dans un lieu ou un autre du monde aujourd’hui: une barrière, un camp, une expulsion […] Dans ce mode de vie-là, le camp est le sas, la zone d’attente des expulsables, des impensables et indésirables, le couloir des Maures.” Here, Agier exploits the homonyms Maure (Moor) and mort (death) — le couloir de la mort is the French term for death row.

18 Laura Waddington, “Abdullah and the Fireflies: On reading Georges Huberman’s ‘Survivance des Lucioles,’” in Engramma Review, 84 (October 2010), with fragments of her video Border: See original Engramma article with video excerpts of Border.

19 Maria Antonieta Transforini, “Partantes et revenantes. Artistes contemporaines entre lieux et diasporas culturelles,” (Presentation,  Arts et Territoires Symposium, GDR Opus (CNRS) and Shadye (EHESS), Veuille Charité, Marseille, 2006) translated from French by the author: “[…] toujours inséparable de l’interaction culturelle et imposent de remettre au travail les notions ordinaires d’identité..”

20 Stuart Hall, “Creolié and the Process of Creolization,” in Creolité and Creolisation. Documenta 11 Platform 3, ed. O. Enwezor, I. Basualdo, U. Meta-Bauer (Hatje Cantz: Ostfildern, 2003), 188.

Marion Hohlfeldt is a lecturer in art history at the University of Rennes, France. She is also Director of Galerie Art & Essai.