The Image as Common Good: on Laura Waddington’s Border

Paweł Mościcki, Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz“Widok. Teorie i praktyki kultury wizualnej14,” 2016 (publ. Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Polish Culture, Foundation for Visual Culture, Poland).

By Paweł Mościcki

Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz

Visible, audible, this
growing tentword


Paul Celan1

Once, when commenting on Bertolt Brecht’s poetry, Walter Benjamin said, that “the man who fights for the exploited class is a refugee in his own country.”2 The close link between this particular sentence and the fate and work of the author of The Threepenny Novel cannot be denied, especially given the fact that it’s later somewhat confirmed through additional details: “For the intelligent Communist, the final five years of his political work in the Weimar Republic signified a crypto-emigration. Brecht experienced those years as such. […] Crypto-emigration was a preliminary form of actual emigration; it was also a preliminary form of underground political activity.”3 This is Benjamin’s interpretation of a line from the poem that opens Brecht’s Reader for Those who Live in Cities: “Cover your tracks!” The complex tangle of the fight for the exploited class and the condition of exile far exceeds, however, the historical context of the commentary, precisely defining the stakes and the sphere of influence surrounding every artist trying to find their own critical language.

We cannot subvert existing social hierarchies and question the distribution of privilege, dignity, and power without risking our own standing in said hierarchies, thus sentencing ourselves, to some degree at least, to crypto-emigration. However, under no circumstances should we—and this is absolutely fundamental for understanding both Benjamin’s intentions and the persistent validity of his claims—equate crypto-emigration with inner emigration, the latter an evasion, a shunning of politics. This is the reason why crypto-emigration is considered a creative effort, this is why it can serve as a precursor to both genuine exile and stepping outside the rule of law, its secret does not lie in resignation but rather underground struggle, opposition against the very rules of symbolic communication, and therefore against the foundations of every social system. This is the vantage point from which an artist can observe society like a refugee and—without truly being one—transform its language in the most radical ways possible.

This complex relationship between crypto-migration, genuine migration, and the search for a more radical form of artistic protest is well known to Laura Waddington. Born in 1970, this British artist has explored all of the aspects of the experience described by Benjamin, albeit probably in a slightly less dramatic form. Her visual and social sensitivity, however, were definitely shaped by her eight-year illegal stay in the United States—a sojourn during which she could not travel or work in any official capacity.4 Throughout her stay she led a fairly bohemian life and ran in New York’s art circles and only a failed attempt to cross the US-Canadian border made her realize the breadth of violence that undocumented migrants are exposed to.5 As she sat in a cell with other illegal migrants and exiles who failed to scale the high walls of state bureaucracy and immigration policy, her views on the rules binding Western societies started to shift, as did her intentions to bring the injustices she witnessed to light.

In Waddington’s case—in contrast to Brecht—physical migration was a precursor to something we may call the migration of empathy or actually crypto-migration. This entails making the artistic, ethical, and political choice to exercise a gaze devoid of cinematic tropes prevalent in mainstream productions and transcend the classic limitations of the documentary genre. All these efforts are supposed to allow the artist to penetrate a world that the citizens of most democratic states, enjoying the full spectrum of their civil rights and liberties, would find completely abstract, or a world that can be accessed only after one has been subjected to screening by the most intense vetting measures. In Waddington’s case, these two aspects of migration—the real and the metaphorical—produce a peculiar artistic synthesis that compels her to “portray external social phenomena as personal experience,”6 and thus practice subtle rebellion at the intersection of the public and the intimate.

The Event of Filming

Paradoxically, for a filmmaker, being there can—under certain circumstances—entail genuine crypto-migration, while persisting in that place may serve as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the rules in force there. As an artist, Waddington is “always precisely There, crossing all those land and seascapes, often for weeks and months, becoming one with the moment, place and time, savouring its particular flavour.”7 She penetrates space even when she isn’t fully in control of the coordinates or isn’t even fully present in it. As a filmmaker, she is characterized by her readiness to cast aside earlier assumptions, prejudices, and aesthetic tropes in favor of a comprehensive commitment to the incidental nature of situations, even if that results in an “overexposure to the real,”8 threatening to undo the image like an over-sensitive film could be burned by the sun.

In Border (2004), her most well known work, Waddington depicts the surroundings of the erstwhile refugee camp in Sangatte, near Calais. Waddington, instead of portraying the lives of migrants living in a government-sanctioned Red Cross camp, decided to use her film to focus on what the refugees’ existence looked like outside the wire. For months she wandered with them in the wilderness they had to cross to reach the English Channel, hop on a train or stow away on a truck heading for one of the ferry terminals and over to the UK. Accompanying them on their dangerous journey required not only a lot of fortitude and tenacity but also a very small, handy camera that could shoot in low-light conditions. The success of the migrants’ flight depended, to a significant extent, on whether they managed to remain undetected by searchlights—big and small—used by the border patrols. Already at the outset, the artist rejects the privilege of remaining an uninvolved observer interested only in capturing the suffering of people who have no rights. The film seems to equate to some degree the clandestine act of capturing footage and the condition of the migrants hiding in the bushes and trying—against the rule of law and the whims of uncaring fate — to reach the heavenly shores of England.

Filming on the run, in the dark, causes the artistic gesture to lose its supposed autonomy, becoming a byproduct of instinctive action undertaken in times of crisis. The artist deliberately chose the area around the Sangatte camp—which is not featured on any official maps and never featured in any news reports. It was the most dangerous route for the migrants, and not even smugglers had any degree of control over it. That was where one could find the lowest of the low among the migrants, the poorest ones who couldn’t even scrape together the money to buy a spot on a smuggler’s truck or boat. It was the lowest circle of the hell around Calais, the last refuge of those whom war and the emigration hit the hardest, the ones who never had any money to begin with (because they were either forced to flee without taking anything with them or they were already poor in their homelands) or who were stripped of it during their westward trek.9

Exposing the camera and the artist’s own gaze to the real dynamic of that place produced Border’s stunning visual effects. “I felt as if my camera was Sangatte’s co-conspirator,” Waddington says. Keeping the migrants company in their bizarre suspension[?], their journey, consisting mostly of waiting and hiding, Waddington managed to capture the chaos and the horror of their experience, as well as its unique, peculiar beauty. As noticed by Mari Laanemets, “Waddington portrays migration as a specific experience of mobility, a counterpoint to the enthusiastic aestheticisation of nomadism in contemporary society.”10 If the movie’s visuals are stunning, it is not because they conceal any injustice from its audience, but rather precisely because they are the product of a total, uncompromising exposure to its effects.

As it conspires with Sangatte’s dramatic surroundings, Waddington’s camera stays close to her own body, losing its supposed objectivity and producing images stemming directly from the conditions of specific individuals: “For I was filming with the shutter wide open, to compensate for the lack of light in the fields, and this produced images, which were stuttered and blurred, and sensitive to the slightest movement of my hand. If I breathed too heavily, shivered or trembled, the blur in an image would become too great, and the refugees would dissolve, like ghosts, into the reeds and bushes.”11 In those long hours spent hiding with migrants in the meadows, the artist not only felt responsible for the aesthetics of her work, she also saw it as an extension of the relationship between the camera and her body and between herself and the refugees. Ultimately, the smallest shudder of her body could determine the very visibility of the oppressed.

Border does not feature any wide shots that would allow the audience to easily, languidly take in the surroundings. There are no panoramas, no establishing shots. From the very beginning we are dumped in the middle of a dark field, the dark figures of migrants scurrying about stealthily through the meadows, outlined against bushes swaying gently in the wind. The image is grainy, as if projected onto concrete or gravel. We’re lost, like the migrants we are watching, unable take a long, steady look at the details even though individual sequences unfold slowly, majestically even. The events recorded in the footage are not more important than the act of recording itself, and the less some of the frames say, the more they draw the audience’s attention towards the act of speaking itself and its circumstances.12 What the film captures best is the very moment of shooting footage, the conditions in which it is captured, rather than anything that might be named or imposed from above, as if it existed independent of the circumstances. Paradoxically, the limitations that Waddington had to work within opened her visuals up to the possibility of a more direct communication of experience, especially in comparison with means offered by traditional documentaries. As noted by Georges Didi-Huberman, the “open image therefore designates less a given category of images than a privileged moment, an image event where the aspectual organization of semblance deeply tears itself apart.”13 The images in Waddington’s film are not only open, they themselves serve as openers, because their imperfection both reveals part of the social and political history of migration that was previously unexplored and mostly unavailable, and it broadens the very category of the image and the field of its aesthetic and ethical influence. In this sense, the open image is simultaneously also a gesture performed in the real world, rather than merely its mediated view.

Laura Waddington’s film is an excellent example of how the close proximity of the image to reality does not have to be constrained by the necessity of its mimetic imitation. On the contrary, Border reconstitutes the veracity of the distorted image, its cognitive and political value. As the artist herself has said, “There, my understanding of what constitutes a true image of reality completely changed, and I have never looked at images, or reality, in the same way again. Where the only available light was that of distant car headlights, far off street lamps, and police torches, I constantly brushed up against the limits of what my small video camera could capture.”14 The effectiveness of the distorted visuals stems from the fact that Waddington makes no attempt to portray the situation in Sangatte in an objective, detached manner, nor does she try to deliver a transparent, clear portrait of a “refugee,” whatever that would mean. She has a different objective: to portray—even through distortion, defocusing, and disintegration—the experience of those who try, day after day, to penetrate a closed border and escape from omnipresent state surveillance and state violence, regardless of the odds.15 Solidarity with an anonymous crowd of wanderers requires an open, unconstrained gaze, the latter often leading to quite surprising visual effects.

The Visible, the Invisible, the Opaque

The visibility of refugees is not a purely aesthetic problem, nor one defined solely by formal decisions undertaken by individual refugees. For undocumented migrants, remaining invisible to the all-seeing eye of state surveillance and law enforcement decides their survival and the possibility of continuing their journey. It is precisely because of their passage through the territories of countries they have no records in, that they have become such highly important figures in contemporary political discourse. Alain Badiou claims that this paradoxical sans-papiers status opens political thinking up to a universalist dimension: they are the figures representing those on the sidelines of the system and, simultaneously, as those who should have rights, they reveal the most important elements of that system. This is why solidarity with the refugees may be an event that serves—following Badiou’s theory of politics—as a necessary jumping-off point for a truly universal procedure of truth.16

In contrast to the French philosopher’s emphatic vision, it is not easy to find a compelling political and ethical answer to the paradoxical identity of the refugee, because it is never limited to the relationship between being visible and invisible to the authorities. The consequences of this situation have been explored by a number of scholars, including Sadri Khiari, who has pointed out that refugees can de facto remain invisible even after they are given their rights.

The illegal immigrant does not exist at all, because to exist, the immigrant would have to threaten to end his own life. My demise -they say—is proof of my existence. And then they stop eating food. The left sees this as an opportunity to attack the right-wing: “Give them papers so they can eat their fill and wink out of existence!” Because as soon as they get their papers, they are no longer sans-papiers, no longer illegals, and if undocumented illegals don’t exist at all, documented ones don’t exist —just like that.17

It seems that the only way for an undocumented immigrant to materialize in the state records of Western democracies is for them to die—although even that may not change all that much in existing social hierarchies. Even granting an immigrant their own documents, recognizing them as a part of the system, is only a mechanical response by the political order in which fate and the experience of migration—including its entire psychological, moral, social, and political baggage are replaced with an abstract element of administrative thinking. This type of clerical erasure also applies to refugee memory. To better conceal themselves from border patrol personnel—or to avoid deportation when they’re already in law enforcement custody—they often conceal their true identities. Furthermore, every leg of their journey necessitates the erasure of all its prior phases, because they can request asylum only in the first Schengen country that they reach. Even reaching Great Britain, the ultimate terminus of the journey for many, they renounce their Sangatte experiences.18

Thus, maybe the opposition between visibility and invisibility, existing and not existing in the population registers of the authorities, is too general and schematic to do justice to the fates of the migrants. Arguing with Badiou’s political theories, Peter Hallward indicates the necessity of employing much subtler categories.

Practical political work is more often concerned with people or situations that are not so much invisible or unseen as under-seen or mis-seen—oppressed and exploited, rather than simply excluded; they do not count for nothing so much as for very little. This difference involves more than nuance. As several generations of emancipatory thinkers have argued, modern forms of power do not merely exclude or prohibit but rather modulate, guide or enhance behaviour and norms conducive to the status quo.19

It is precisely in this context that Waddington’s artistic practice emerges as supremely important, because it is able, using imagery and visuals, to actively transcend the limitations of political theory itself and thus to reveal the sensual dimension of that which this theory cannot grasp conceptually.

Everything depends of our understanding of the category of representation, in the both aesthetic and political senses. Simply put, the word itself seems to suggest a need to reiterate, redo, a gesture of renewing someone’s presence. We may even go so far as to say that representation is based on transference, translocation, which allows something or someone appearing in a certain place at a certain time to reappear in a wholly different context. If that is so, then we need to acknowledge that representation is impossible when the represented objects cannot be removed from their “natural” surroundings. In other words, a representation of something only offers the object a possibility of a voyage, of creating a safe corridor from one point to another. From this perspective, representation is, to some extent, the polar opposite of illegal immigration—proceeding in the dark, leaving barely any trace, and successful only if the presence of the migrant on the road, in the bushes, or passing across a border, remains undetected and thus does not appear at all.

How, therefore, can representation be of any service to immigrants? Undoubtedly, the contemporary media landscape has made it somewhat repressive. This idea of safe passage, transferring someone’s presence from one place to another, can conceal a basic, even dramatic or lethal immobilization. To represent someone, to take them from one space and present them in another, we need to immobilize them, place their presence in a stable frame—in a truck or boat. Even when shooting a movie, a process traditionally associated with moving images and therefore with movement itself, one may immobilize the characters featured in the film, constrain them with imposed images or categories.

The gaze that Waddington has at her disposal in Border is both instinctive and methodical, open to randomness and self-aware. As Bouchra Khalili has noted, it is

a gaze that encompasses everything in a single gesture. But she does not stop there. She sets about methodically destroying this trembling image: she re-films the images in video, then breaks through the layers to get closer to the consistency of film. There is nothing redemptive in this re-working of texture. It is, in fact, the degrading of the original recording to better reveal the nature of its vision: impure, fragile and haphazard.20

Interestingly, deepening and complicating perception does not serve here to constrain the images inside artistic compositions into something autonomous and self-sustaining, but prepares it to quickly react to the dramatic conditions on the fringes of Sangatte. The breadth of technical and aesthetic transformations is supposed to assist in disarming our own perception, in discarding the preconceptions imposed on us, along with our customs and practices, by the “Globalizorama” — the collection of global rules of representation.

This takes us far from the straightforward opposition between visibility and invisibility, and together with the artist we explore the interval between them, the liminal areas where they coexist. Thus, the dynamics of discovery do not apply here, if by discovery we understand bringing to light what was once concealed, revealing it in the full light of day, and subjecting it to the power of the gaze. We are not dealing in this particular instance, however, with a movie that would seek to unearth what is hidden for its own aggrandizement, for its own lofty and fascinating mystery. The efforts of the refugees to conceal themselves have no deeper, secondary meaning, no invisibility on which to base ethics, metaphysics, or politics. They’re just an attempt to exist below the line of representation, an attempt rich in experience, just as Border is visually rich. As accurately expressed by Eva Kuhn, Waddington managed in Border to “indicate her subject without portraying it. Or, in other words, portrayal is indelibly linked here with concealment, and the artist’s testimony demonstrates the unavailability of the visible.”21 In Border, refugees are always just out of sight: either running from the camera and hiding in the bushes or filmed in close-ups so extreme that they turn their figures into blurred shadows. In a sequence depicting their return to the camp—after an expedition has ended unsuccessfully or when they were caught by law enforcement—a shot is included featuring a group of migrants walking down a road in the shadow of a fence. They walk into the shadow and emerge from it, alternately, as they move between transparent and opaque sections of the frame—their emergence and concealment a reflection of their own experience, alternating between masking and unmasking, appearance and disappearance.

Waddington’s quest, therefore, is part and parcel of the tradition of journeying to distant lands or living among other social classes, which in modern art has often produced an opportunity to not only redefine artistic language itself, but also its relationships with reality. These “short voyages to the land of the people,”22 as Jacques Rancière called them, have sometimes let to sensual microrevolutions, created surprising conglomerates of phrases, images, and thoughts. The director of Border , like Wordsworth, Büchner, or Rilke, as interpreted by the French philosopher, opens himself up to the “unexpected spectacle of other humanity,”23 which requires a comprehensive revision of one’s own customs and well-worn patterns of experience. That’s why it juxtaposes the transparent sloganeering of the media and its cliché-mongering approach to the figure of the refugee with the “presence of human cultures in their solid materiality,”24 by nature alien and difficult to internalize. In Waddington’s movie, the intense presence of refugees seems inversely proportional to the transparency of the image and thus produces an effect of “the palpitation of the visible,”25 a reversal of the hierarchy inscribed into our perception. Bouchra Khalili continued, “the image saturated to the limits of the visible, producing the disconcerting revelation: there is nothing left to see, only pieces to gather. It is, without doubt, what we call a vision of the world, the least obvious but the most painfully contemporary.”26

Rather than operate solely within the confines of the opposition between visibility and invisibility, Waddington decided to explore the territory where the two intersect. This archeology of visibility considers it an unobvious sphere and one that conceals many a secret, rather than merely a record allowing one to mark someone’s presence (or not).

Being close to reality does not necessarily mean submitting it, regardless of the cost, to the unrelenting rigor of truth. Particularly in a situation where—like in Sangatte—all forms of visibility are marked by power and violence. In her films, Waddington leads a “constant moral negotiation with reality. For if the world reveals itself in her videos (and above all the most recent ones) it is less by its unavoidable presence and more in the impossibility of containing it.”27 Contact with reality is guaranteed here not by a clear vision adapted to the customs and expectations of the majority, but by the resistance of matter, the impossibility of subjecting the object to one’s own expectations.28

From the opposition between visibility and invisibility, Laura Waddington draws something else—opacity. Thus, she gives her characters an opportunity to exist in the image in their own right, an opportunity to manifest the fact that they have no rights of their own. Her actions reflect the understanding of opacity presented by Édouard Glissant in his work. “The opaque is not the obscure, though it is possible for it to be so and accepted as such. It is that which cannot be reduced, which is the most perennial guarantee of participation and confluence.”29 Furthermore, according to Glissant—and here, once again, his words echo in Waddington’s actions—“Widespread consent to specific opacities is the most straightforward equivalent of nonbarbarism.”30 The filmmaker, intent on telling a story of the dramatic experience of migration taking place beyond the well-trodden paths of the global spectacle, is no longer facing the choice of whether to pick the visible or the invisible, they now face a different one—opacity or barbarism. And each move they make will take them further and further down one of the two roads.


The images in Border, therefore, are not part of the system of representation, because the artist behind it is perfectly aware of the fact that a complete exposure of the condition and identities of immigrants would be, in essence, an act of policing, reinforcing their humiliation or facilitating their identification and the repressions that would follow. We may say, therefore, that Laura Waddington does not try to portray anything but rather tries to share something, and may even be treating her work as a sort of common good, a space where one can coexist with the oppressed. This transition from representation to sharing is fundamentally important not only from the perspective of aesthetics, which allows for unconstrained meshing between poetic cinema and documentary, but also from an ethical and political standpoint—as a decision to stand with the refugees, rather than only communicate a specific, familiar image of them, one that often confirms the restrictive, if not outright murderous, stereotype.

By participating in the refugee experience, Waddington questions the safe distance separating the audience and the situation that the director found herself in along with the subjects of her documentary.31 The compassion of the viewer is contingent—as it is in narrative cinema—on the preservation of a certain degree of comfort, a minimum of separation between the viewer and the storyline depicted on screen. The projection-identification mechanism is such an effective convention precisely because it never undermines the separateness and neutrality of individual positions.32 Border, however, does not suggest absolute immersion, unlimited access to the experience portrayed in it. On the contrary, it subverts the comfort of looking and leaves the viewer alienated and engulfed in perceptual chaos. Simultaneously it seduces the audience with the aesthetic allure of individual frames and the fragmentary composition of the whole.

Maybe the power of this particular movie stems from the fact that instead of reinforcing the division between the safe position of the viewer and the imposed “elsewhere,” to which the film gives the viewer access, the author pulls us deep into the space of the interval, she forces us to inhabit the area between previously negotiated identities. We can discuss the process from a purely technical standpoint, praising —as Waddington does—“the benefits of a simple camcorder that does not frighten people and allows us to participate in situations that would be impossible to capture with heavy filming equipment and a full crew.”33 This way, filming does not take place in official spaces, ones that would preserve, or even deepen class, ethnic, and cultural division, but rather emerges from the experience of intimacy and mutual dependence. We may very well, following in the footsteps of Marion Holhfeldt, talk about this strategy using the language of ethics: “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.’ Border shows the in-between as the human condition in an inhumane environment.”34 The most important thing about Waddington’s cinematic praxis, however, is its opening up of the space of the interval, permitting an encounter with the material presence of the oppressed of this world to change the very nature of our perception.

In this particular context, it is difficult not to bring up the category of “the distribution of the sensible” (le partage de sensible), developed by Jacques Rancière in order to describe how artistic practice can influence the social and the political.35 According to the French philosopher, the political dimension of art translates into its ability to produce new sorts of connections between images, thoughts, and words, a new constellation of positions, representations, and hierarchies. By changing the configuration of our sensual experience, in the broad sense of the phrase, art also influences what we are capable of experiencing, doing, or even imagining. One of the biggest advantages of Rancière’s vision, widely commented on in critical circles, is how it opens art up to a multitude of arrangements and compositions, none of which have meanings imposed either within the space of the arts themselves or in the social and political spheres.

This dynamic and broad understanding of the relationship between meaning and sensual experience accompanies the writings of a much lesser known writer, but one no less important from the perspective of this paper—Édouard Glissant. The creator of the concept of “creolization,” author of the multi-volume opus Poétique, Glissant also employed the concept of “Relation,” which is very similar to Rancière’s “distribution of the sensible.” Using it, he tried to transcend the stereotypical understanding of the interactions between different cultures, from the perspectives of both colonial history and the postcolonial present. According to him, every form of encounter between separate identities and traditions generates what he called the chaos-world (chaos-monde), that is to say the space of potential experience wherein no rules are in force in an unambiguous and comprehensive manner, thus allowing a multitude of fragmentary and incidental constructions. “In expanse/extension the forms of chaos-monde (the immeasurable intermixing of cultures) are unforeseeable and unforetellable. We have not yet begun to calculate their consequences: the passive adoptions, irrevocable rejections, naive beliefs, parallel lives, and the many forms of confrontation or consent, the many syntheses, surpassings, or returns, the many sudden outbursts of invention, born of impacts and breaking what has produced them, which compose the fluid, turbulent, stubborn, and possibly organized matter of our common destiny.”36

By placing her camera in the midst of the interval, in the liminal, opaque zone, Laura Waddington captures ever newer and more surprising images. Thus, far away from institutionalized socio-political divisions, she attempts to “imagine the unimaginable turbulence of Relation,”37 risking the loss of the clarity of her film and the privileges of her auteur position in the experiment. Glissant’s key diagnosis, which makes his hypotheses as modern and contemporary as Rancière’s, is not based around the meshing of individual identities, but rather the questioning thereof as something imposed once and for all, as units of potential encounter. There is no culture A and culture B that encounter each other and then interact, because no culture is, or ever was, a complete whole. What is possible to observe is the chaos-monde of the constant, continuous mixing of various experiences and traditions, from which we can derive the constantly moving never fully formed “relation identity.” In Glissant’s words, it “is linked not to a creation of the world but to the conscious and contradictory experience of contacts among cultures; [it] is produced in the chaotic network of Relation and not in the hidden violence and filiation; [it] does not devise any legitimacy as its guarantee of entitlement, but circulates, newly extended; does not think of a land as a territory from which to project toward other territories but as a place where one gives oneself with (donne-avec) rather than grasps (com-prendre).”38 The images that we see in Border function as fleeting results of such chaotic and dramatic encounters, wherein externally recognized identities submit to diverse forms of sharing. Thus, a new and wholly original world emerges, a unique assemblage meshing individuals and their backgrounds, and forcing them to be flexible and open to the alien.

Sharing, however, contains a certain ambiguity—of which both Rancière and Glissant are aware—if not an outright contradiction from which the dynamic of all relations stem. It is simultaneously an experience of the communal and an experience of division, of difference. When we share a room and communally experience the same space, we imbue it with a communal character but we simultaneously share it among ourselves, each person taking a portion for themselves. And just as there is no autonomy without a degree of intimacy, so there is no proximity without discrimination, a minimal interval that ensures diversity. This duality was inscribed into the formula defining the Relation as “a synthesis-genesis that is never complete,”39 an incessant interlacing of the processes of integration and separation.

This ambivalence of sharing is reflected in Border —the closer we and the director get to the refugee experience, the less the images have to give us. Entering into a relationship translates into a loss of control and clarity of vision, into turmoil reflected in the blurriness, shakiness, and darkness of the movie’s visuals. Thus, it becomes apparent that something that Glissant termed écart —which translates as “gap,” or “difference”—is a constitutive and requisite element of a close relation. Each cultural mixture, just as every self-definition, is based, in his opinion, on “generative distancing.”40 This, in turn, can lead to an incessant return to “opacities, which produce every exception, are propelled by every divergence.”41 The truth of the dynamic Relation, therefore, does neither lie in unambiguous intimacy (which then changes into fusion) nor in unequivocal division (which threatens absolute alienation), but rather in their mutual suffusion.

This generative distancing, ensuring —paradoxically— the stability and dynamics of relationships, may have a plethora of different dimensions. One important context through which to examine Waddington’s work is undoubtedly the matter of gender differences: in her films, she often shares spaces of a peculiar nature with close-knit groups of men. Thus, she investigates the penetration of such barriers and the tensions this sort of distance may generate. As the artist herself assures, “For sure being a women and moving through that space changes everything, I don’t know if it’s better or worse but you are making a completely different film.”42 This difference and the risks it engendered for the artist as she shot her movies may function as a sort of determinant, defining other aspects of her works. On the one hand, it is one of many deviations in her artistic praxis, while on the other it is—possibly—this particular aspect that moves and marks all the others. As the artist herself said, pondering the female aspect of her work,

Objectivity and neutrality were, I realised, invented by men. A man could sit alone in a public place and watch the world for hours, in its continuity, but a young woman, who tried to do the same, was constantly jolted back to herself by a series of pestering strangers. Her vision was broken into segments, a scene transformed by her presence. To gaze uninterrupted, she had to keep moving or seek out places where the rules and categories of normal life didn’t apply.43

Another incongruence that Waddington invokes in her movies is the gap, an inherent element of the filmic image, which Jacques Rancière considered one of the most important qualities of contemporary cinema, incessantly trying to question and subvert imposed narrative and visual systems. “Thus, we should investigate whether cinema is really a system of irreducible gaps between things that bear the same name, without being members of the same body. In truth, cinema is a multitude of things.”44

In Border, this particular aspect of the interval emerges even in the movement of the image itself (as it does in the motion depicted by the image), which resembles a stutter. Instead of smooth, uninterrupted motions, we get a sort of archaic staccato, an echo of silent movies of old. At the same time—and it is another level of deviation from the norm—these images are filled with delightful colors and quite modern props. Another sort of unrestrained correspondence between different aspects of the filmic image can be found in Border in the relationship between the image and off-screen narration. In some, the images evoke distancing and disorientation and the narrating voice-over introduces a measure of consistency, safety, and may even summon a degree of empathy. For others, it is the narration that is the interrupting factor, breaking the audience’s immersion in the dramatic nature of the events in Sangatte and further producing an effect of alienation.45

The relationship between voice and image reveals another type of interval that permeates Waddington’s film—a temporal interval. Although the visuals emphasize their own embeddedness in the present and their close reliance on its fluctuations, the narrative is recollective and the events from Sangatte appear in the story as a part of the past.46 This sort of gap is in no way a manifestation of the film’s weakness, on the contrary—it complicates its message, emphasizing the associations with cinema’s early years and the archaic nature of displacement in search of refuge. As suggested by Shmuel Trigano in his inquiry into the temporality of the migrant experience, this sort of internal rupture approximates the experience of people who were forced to leave their homes. “There is no direct awareness of exile, because exile itself reveals that we inhabited a place only after we’ve left it. It is in the memory of leaving that leaving manifests itself,”47 he writes. In the experience of migration, the past, the present, and the future lose their autonomy and morph into a sort of “rosette,”48 unfolding in many directions simultaneously. Maybe, then, by introducing this sort of discrepancy between narration and vision, Laura Waddington is saying something important about migration, and about the experience of someone who had to renounce their own secure position in order to shoot the desired footage. To quote Trigano, “the spatial experience, the experience of externality, becomes temporal, typical of internality. That does not mean that the space disappears: it is externalized in exile, dominated by its sensuality, humanized and empowered. External ornamentation becomes an aspect of the interior.”49 Whose internality, however, is given a voice in this assortment of gaps and intervals?

The Communal Gaze

From the very beginning, Laura Waddington has treated her work as an opportunity to look at the world through someone else’s eyes or to notice gazes other than one’s own, these others being in constant conversation with ours.50 Thus, she remains fundamentally faithful to the rules of hospitality formulated by René Schérer, their central figure a replaceability of empowered positions: “one could find oneself in the position currently occupied by the other.”51 Cinematic hospitality, requires one to vacate the position of host and invite the other into one’s space, and it allows one to see the world as a field of necessary negotiations between different points of view; a place that does not belong to anyone and never has.

This openness is given a voice in Waddington’s narration in Border, where amidst the memories of Sangatte we hear a line addressed to the other: “A couple of months later you write to me. You say that sometimes, as you walk down the street, the memories flood back. So you keep walking for the rest of the day. Thinking that maybe you’re just not strong enough. And the people around you don’t know anything. You can’t tell them that you were in Sangatte.” This sudden address to one of the migrants that the director struck up a relationship with after her time in Sangatte, makes the addressee a peculiar partner of the artist; someone she shares a secret with. Similar overtures allow Waddington “to make of the eye an organ dedicated to voyage, to perpetual exile, one that ignores frontiers and encircles the world in an endless trajectory.”52

The images in Border are blurry, on more than one level. This manifests itself most intensely in the sequence taking place in downtown Calais, where a protest against plans to shut down the Sangatte camp is quelled by police. Waddington cuts the music and halts the narrative. She remains, however, with the victims of police brutality, while the camera—itself shaken by a police officer—keeps recording images that keep sliding into abstraction. It seems as if the camera cannot keep up with the events unfolding before it and produces a dramatic procession of moving and screaming specters in its efforts to try and capture the delay (this is the only point in the movie where the sound is purely diegetic).

The sequence bombards us with shaky images and bizarre afterglows, interrupting the smooth filmic representation of movement. Its dynamic reflects the brutality of the police who ruthlessly removed immigrants from the square they were protesting in, beat them, and forced them onto buses and vans that were taking them who knows where. The shaky, blurry figures no longer belong to some mystical netherworld, but to the image’s conditions of visibility, which ultimately are the conditions of its political character. And the scenes unfold in a rather symbolic place: Place du Maréchal Foch in downtown Calais where a monument was erected to commemorate the French citizens murdered or forced out of their homes during the First World War—a place where the state symbolically pays a debt of gratitude to its citizens for their historic sacrifices. Simultaneously, the same state decides to completely ignore the fates of those who today arrive in Calais because they suffer these same acts of violence. This is why standing arm in arm with the refugees, with a small camcorder, serves as a momentous act of defiance and dissent against the immobilization[?] of this particular place in everyday hypocrisy. That is why the refugees from Sangatte may be the last, sometimes barely visible, tremulous figuration of another possible world, a specter of justice that once circulated across Europe and now barely rears its head from beyond the limitations of its new post-political identity.

The images in Border are not merely shaky, they shake us to our very core, they’re pregnant with difficult emotion. Not only does the camera show the migrants in constant motion, its “heavy breath accompanies it as is shakes and shudders in a truly impressive display of empathetic scrambling.”53 This omnipresent movement is decidedly the movement of emotion, and emotion in itself is something that moves, that transcends limitations, penetrates boundaries. Furthermore, to quote Gilles Deleuze: “Emotion does not say ‘I’. You said it yourself: you are beside yourself. Emotion is not the order of the ego but of the event. It is very difficult to grasp an event, but I do not believe that this grasp implies the first person.”54 In one of his many commentaries on these words, Georges Didi-Huberman points out that this movement outside the “ego” is typical of the nature of all emotion, if not outright the very method of its emergence. “Emotion is movement, and thus is action: it is akin to a gesture, simultaneously external and internal, because when an emotion strikes us, our soul is subjected to a shock, it writhes and trembles, our bodies going through processes we didn’t even know existed.”55 Emotions are thus not limited to the “ego,” because they’re events that question the boundaries of the subject itself, torpedo its identity, and penetrate its self. Assigning emotion to an individual subject says nothing of the emotion itself, and bears no testimony to the specific mode of its existence.

Since the shaking and moving images of Border no longer belong to a single subject, no longer say “I,” maybe they are instead an expression of some sort of collective subject, a product of community and the gaze it is entitled to. Here, we should bring up a passage from another French philosopher, Jean-Toussaint Desanti. “It is in the attempt to devise a collective form of expression that the ‘communal gaze’ constitutes itself, or ‘the community which sees,’ or even ‘the We that sees.’ The ‘we,’ however, does not see anything. If I consider ‘we’ to be a separate entity, the ‘we’ does not see anything. Every individual sees. But the communal gaze is nothing but a convergence of individual gazes.”56 The image-sharing that Waddington conjures in her movie is not a communal gaze, an expression of some sort of collective sensibility, but a Relation, ceaselessly restructuring and decompressing, without any superior entity above it that would guarantee its congruence and sense. At the same time, however, these sequences force us to incessantly question the kind of community demanded by both the dramatic condition of the refugees as well as the injustices they constantly suffer and have to endure.

In his commentary on Paul Celan’s Anabasis, Alain Badiou questioned whether it is possible to devise a form of “we” that would not be patterned or modeled after “I,” and, as such, would not imply the categories inscribed in it. Badiou’s attempt to answer that question grows into an epic digression on the different variants of constructing communities devised in the 20th century. Badiou writes:

Thus the century is witness to a profound mutation of the question of ‘we.’ There was the ‘we’ of fraternity, the ‘we’ that in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (published, let us note, at the time that Celan was writing Anabasis) Sartre characterized as terror-fraternity. This is a ‘we’ that has the ‘I’ as its ideal and for which there is no other alterity than that of the adversary. The world is given over to this errant and victorious ‘we.’ Adorned by sumptuous rhetoric, this figure is at work in Saint-John Perse’s nomad adventurer. This ‘we-I’ is valid as such’; it does not not need to receive its destination from elsewhere. In Celan, the ‘we’ is not subject to the ideal of the ‘I,’ because the difference is included within it, as the almost imperceptible call. The ‘we’ enjoys an aleatory dependence on an anabasis that reascends—outside of any pre-existing path—towards this ‘together’ that still harbours alterity.57

The images in Border, pregnant with pathos, shaky and shaking their audience, search for such a new formula of community based around sharing a common space and a gaze that would take the gaze of the other into account. These, as Sergey Eisenstein would say, “inspired images of audiovisual exaltation”58 emerge, therefore, from a place where politics is born, even though it is not called politics and has no representatives.

“The Image as Common Good: on Laura Waddington’s Border” by Paweł Mościcki, Transl. Jan Szelągiewicz, “Widok. Teorie i praktyki kultury wizualnej14,” 2016 (publ. Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Polish Culture, University of Warsaw, Foundation for Visual Culture, Poland)


1 Paul Celan, “Anabasis,” in Paul Celan, Die Gedichte. Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003), 148.

2 Walter Benjamin, “Conversations with Brecht” in Understanding Brecht, transl. Anna Bostock (London: Verso, 2003), 60.

3 Benjamin, “Conversations,” 60.

4 Olaf Möller, “The Days and Years of My Travels,” The 51st Pesaro International Film Festival Catalogue 2005,, accessed January 6, 2017.

5 Laura Waddington, Smash the Border. Interview with Cedric Eltimich, transcript of a radio interview,, accessed January 6, 2017.

6 Oliver Rahayel, “Too Much Beauty (Oberhausen 2005 (1): Filmische »Grenzuberschreitungen« mit Laura Waddington)”; accessed January 6, 2017.

7 Möller, “The Days and Years.”

8 Marion Hohlfeldt, “Betwixt and Between: Displacement and Liminality in Laura Waddington’s ‘Border’”, Interventions Journal 2 no. 1 (2013),, accessed January 7, 2017.

9 see: Laura Waddington, The Two Speeds Frontera. Interview with Filippo Del Lucchese,, accessed January 7, 2017.

10 Mari Laanemets, “Highway, Road, Bus, Embankment. About Laura Waddington’s Film ‘Border’ (2007)”, article=39, accessed January 7, 2017.

11 Laura Waddington, “Scattered Truth,” part 2b (2014),, accessed January 7, 2017

12 This opposition between the recorded event and the event of recording is fundamental for the interpretation of four pictures taken by members of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz in August 1944 offered by Georges Didi-Huberman. See: Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All, trans. S.B. Lillis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). The images from Waddington’s film bear similar marks—obviously, only to a certain extent—a fact that hasn’t escaped some commenting on Border. See: Chari Larsson, “Suspicious Images: Iconophobia and the Ethical Gaze,” M/C Journal 15 no. 1 (2012),, accessed January 7, 2017.

13 Georges Didi-Huberman, L’image ouverte. Motifs de l’incarnation dans les arts visuels (Paris: Gallimard, 2007), 35.

14 Waddington, “Scattered Truth,” part 2b (2014).

15 see: Laanemets, “Highway, Road, Bus,” and Stefania Rimini, “Frammenti di cinema resistente,”, accessed January 7, 2017.

16 see: Alain Badiou, Ethics, trans. P. Hallward (London-New York: Verso, 2013). On Badiou’s theory of politics, see: Alain Badiou, Abrégéde métapolitique (Paris: Seuil, 1998).

17 Sadri Khiari, La contre-révolution coloniale en France. De de Gaulle à Sarkozy (Paris: La fabrique, 2009), 11.

18 Waddington, “Scattered Truth,” part 2b (2014).

19 Peter Hallward, “Order and Event,” New Left Review 10 (2008): 104.

20 Bouchra Khalili, “The Pain of Seeing: The Videos of Laura Waddington,” The 51st Oberhausen Short Film Festival Catalogue 2005,, accessed January 9, 2017.

21 Eva Kuhn, “Border – ein filmisches Gedenken oder die videografischen Spuren von Laura Waddington.”

22 see: Jacques Rancière, Courts voyages au pays du peuple (Paris: Seuil, 1990).

23 ibid., 7.

24 Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997) , 111.

25 Khalili, “The Pain of Seeing.”

26 ibidem.

27 Khalili, “The Pain of Seeing.”

28 Such a definition of the genuine reference of the essay was provided by Theodor W. Adorno, as he claimed that lack of resistance on the part of the object brands ideological discourse in a certain way. See: Theodor W. Adorno, “The Essay as Form”, trans. B. Hullot-Kentor, F. Will, New German Critique, No. 32. (Spring – Summer, 1984), pp. 151-171.

29 Glissant, The Poetics of Relation, 191.

30 ibid., 208-209. On the “right to opacity,” see also: T.J. Demos, The Migrant Image. The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 144-160.

31 see: Larsson, “Suspicious Images”.

32 see: Edgar Morin, Kino i wyobraźnia, trans. K. Eberhardt (Warszawa: PIW, 1975), 116-154. On the subject of the dialectical nexus between “immersion” and “alienation” in the context of Bertolt Brecht’s theories, see: Maurice Blanchot, “L’effet d’étrangeté” in Maurice Blanchot, L’entretien infini (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), 528-540.

33 Laura Waddington, “La voix petite, fragile, inachevée (2006),” in Le cinéma critique. De l’argentique au numérique, voies et formes de l’objection visuele, ed. N. Brenez and B. Jacobs (Paris: Publications de la, 2010),, accessed January 10, 2017.

34 Marion Hohlfeldt, “Betwixt and Between”.

35 see: Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. G. Rockhill (London-New York: Continuum 2004).

36 Glissant, The Poetics of Relation, 138.

37 ibid., 138.

38 ibid., 144.

39 ibid., 174.

40 ibid., 153.

41 ibid., 195.

42 Saskia Walker, “Interview with Laura Waddington,” Revolver 17 (2007)., accessed January 10, 2017.

43 Waddington, “Scattered Truth,” part 2a.

44 Jacques Rancière, Les écarts du cinéma (Paris: La fabrique, 2011), 11-12.

45 Rahayel, “Too Much Beauty”

46 see: Kuhn, “Border – ein filmisches Gedenken”

47 Shmuel Trigano, Le temps de l’exil (Paris: Éditions Payot & Rivages, 2001), 17.

48 ibid., 22.

49 ibid., 22.

50 see: Waddington, “La voix petite”

51 René Schérer, Zeus hospitalier. Éloge de l’hospitalité (1993) (Paris: La Table Ronde, 2005), 66.

52 Khalili, The Pain of Seeing.

53 Rimini, “Frammenti di cinema resistente”

54 Gilles Deleuze, “Painting Sets Writing Aflame,” in Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995 (New York: Columbia University, 2006: 187).

55 Georges Didi-Huberman, Quelle émotion! Quelle émotion? (Paris: Bayard, 2013), 32. See also: Georges Didi-Huberman, Peuples en larmes, peuples en armes. L’oeil de l’histoire 6 (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2016), 46-55.

56 Jean-Toussaint Desanti, “Voir ensemble (2001)” in Voir ensemble. Autour de Jean-Toussaint Desanti, ed. M.J. Mondzain (Paris: Gallimard, 2003), 32.

57 Alain Badiou, The Century (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 96.

58 Siergiej Eisenstein, “Patos” in: Siergiej Eisenstein, Nieobjęta przyroda, trans. M. Kumorek (Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1975), 127.