From Concrete Geographies I

“We thought the network society and informational capitalism was seamless, but we see more of these crude and cruel stitches than before, where the haves and have-nots are brutally kept apart. The walls of Ceuta, Palestine, Tijuana prove that our world is not a smooth corporate network society but a striated space of fortresses, enclaves and capsules"

Lieven de Cauter, A Cyberpunk Landscape: Snapshots of the ‘Mad Max Phase' of Globalization (2008)

The two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa date back to the 15th Century, when Ceuta in 1415 and Melilla in 1497 were seized from Morocco by Portugal and Spain. Ceuta later became Spanish territory on the signing of a treaty with Portugal in 1668. Since the decolonization of Morocco by France and Spain in 1956 and the problematic handing over of the Sahara territories under Spanish rule in 1975, the situation of the two enclaves has remained an unresolved colonial issue. Spain claims that Ceuta and Melilla were never part of the colonial protectorate because they were already an integral part of Spanish territory long before. Morocco, however, insists that the two cities are in Morocco and surrounded by Moroccan territory. This dispute became even more pertinent when Spain entered the EC in 1986 (later EU), making of Ceuta and Melilla the only EU territories outside Europe. Suddenly, these two EU territorial borders in mainland Africa, which had been quite fluid and permeable for decades while they were only national borders, became the most direct way for African migrants to enter the EU without crossing the sea.

The fencing of the two Spanish cities to stop unauthorized crossings into EU territory started in 1993. In 2005 the fences were raised from three to six metres high, and equipped with sound, movement and heat sensors, surveillance cameras and razor wire. This technology allows the Spanish patrols to efficiently monitor each border from a central surveillance room, in contrast to the Moroccan army which, funded by the EU, has set numerous military posts along the fences to invigilate the southern approach to borders it doesn’t even recognize as legitimate, but sees as a residue of colonial impositions.

Ceuta and Melilla are contested territories inscribed with a specific history of military occupation and protected by overtly racialized boundaries. This ‘border of borders’ defines at once a colonial/national boundary between Spain and Morocco, an economic boundary between Europe and Africa, a geopolitical boundary between North and South, and a religious boundary between Christianity and Islam. From the time of the Spanish Reconquista Ceuta and Melilla were mostly military outposts for territorial expansion. Since the creation of the EU, however, they have become militarized borders of contraction*. In its desire to expand to new territories, or to withdraw from them, Western capitalism has always managed to increase the gap between centre and periphery, between affluence and poverty. It has created increasing rates of exclusion, and as a consequence it cannot function without fences. The border fences of Ceuta and Melilla seem to confirm that the utopia of the global village, of a seamless world of shared experiences, equal rights and equal access, is on its way out. Instead, the enclave, the gated space, and the fence are the new archetypes of 21st century architecture and urbanism. A sign that, perhaps, the capitalist modern project has not worked out that well.

The border fence is to the 21st century landscape what bridges, tunnels and railroads were to the landscape of the 19th and 20th centuries. They represented a notion of expanding territories, of movement, trajectories and shifting perspectives. Early landscape photographs were often as much about the public works constructed to traverse the land as they were about a specific geography. But they were also about the reasons and inclinations for travel, what was entailed at the end of the journey: resources, commerce, ancient civilizations, empire... The 21st Century however seems to be more obsessed with enclosing territory, gating communities, fencing cities, with surveillance technologies and razor wire. And as enclaves and fences go, Ceuta and Melilla are paradigms of the new walled city of the future, the neo-medieval 'capsular civilization', simultaneously archaic and hypermodern**. And because they take as a model the prison fence, they mirror the effects of exclusion and seclusion. In the end, we are all gated.

I took these pictures on several walks, from sea to sea, along the whole length of the borders of Ceuta and Melilla. The photographs were taken from the Spanish side looking south towards Morocco, within the limits of authorized proximity to the fences, and authorized photography. I believed that this border territory had to be photographed from public access points, without mediation or intimacy with the institutions that manage it. In this respect, the photographs don't offer unusual vantage points or hidden views, but the quotidian presence that both sides are used to living with. They are mostly open views of this messed up landscape shaped by centuries of disagreement, of mobile borders, relocated defensive lines, divided communities and differential military technologies. As a response to their lack of visibility, I would like these photographs to be statements towards a political cartography of the border fences as the very edge of Europe. Ultimately, the border fences of Ceuta and Melilla are the contemporary public works that can best define, like monuments to inequality, the European landscape of the 21st century.

© Xavier Ribas (2010)


See article by Xavier Ferrer-Gallardo (2006), Theorizing the Spanish-Moroccan Border Reconfiguration: Framing a Process of Geopolitical, Functional and Symbolic Rebordering’, CIBR working papers on border studies CIBR/WP06-1.

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