In June 2017, six artists took out their watercolor sets, pencils and sketch pads, and began to record their observations of the Frontex Situation Center, the primary border surveillance center of the EU border protection agency, in Warsaw. We were part of Incendiary Traces (incendiarytraces.org), a collective art, research and media initiative started by Hillary Mushkin that visits military bases, para-military government agencies and their contractors to explore the diverse ways they remotely visualize spaces of international conflict. Frontex is headquartered in a new international business district in Warsaw, Poland. Housed in a contemporary glass and steel skyscraper complex known as the Warsaw Spire, its neighbors include an international real estate investment firm, Samsung research and development, and the Hilton Hotel conference center. Within its corporate interior, bathed in harsh bright white light, lies the Frontex Situation Centre, the agency’s central control room, where agents at workstations envision the EU border beyond. Their work is challenging, not only because of the Situations Centre’s distance from the Mediterranean but, more generally, because of the border’s murky status as both a political concept and a physical area. The boundaries of nations, international alliances and international law crisscross in the sea, while political alliances and international agencies join forces to surveil and mobilize in areas far beyond the often ambiguous EU borders.
Frontex uses a military-style command and control system to collect and share border surveillance data in near-real time from a wide range of government agencies within and outside of the EU. Surveillance comes from observations on the ground, the water and in the air. The goal is to gain “situational awareness” in order to control the observed area. While Frontex agents in the Warsaw control room render “security alerts” as abstract data points on maps, the agency projects a public view of itself as an on-the-ground humanitarian rescue agency. Its press office provides heroic images of field patrol and maritime rescue missions. Men in weatherproof uniforms and sturdy-looking boats extend life vests to men, women and children in everyday clothing and overflowing small vessels. The maritime images are most striking because the water and the sky are so placeless. The people are in a sea of blue, literally and figuratively. With no markers, they could be in any large body of water, close to land or far from it. The circumstances surrounding their situations—including where they are, where they came from and where they are going—are unclear, though certainly critical for everyone pictured. The people in the conference rooms and control room at Frontex’s headquarters, too, are in a placeless setting that could be in nearly any international city.
Where is the EU border? As much as it is defined and mapped through politics, laws and agreements, it exists where it operates – in addition to the vessels in the sea, it includes the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, the European Space Agency satellite control rooms in Italy, their satellites in space and the objects of their gaze, located in Niger and viewed by Frontex agents in Warsaw. Together, these places comprise a complex border ecology.
Following our visit to Frontex in Warsaw, Incendiary Traces traveled to Athens to sketch outside the headquarters of the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Greek paramilitary government agency responsible for Greece’s sea border surveillance and a key affiliate of Frontex. As it happened, our view from a bus stop nearby had been occupied by hundreds of refugee tents several months earlier. Inside the building is a control room where Greek agents share surveillance data with Frontex in Warsaw.
Sketching at these sites, we position drawing as a collective visual practice parallel to the para-military's, while highlighting human observation, interpretation and gesture. Our deliberately imprecise and messy drawing tools and techniques contrast with the apparent accuracy of digital visualization, highlighting the fundamentally incomplete, ephemeral nature of all observation, regardless of technology. The resulting work is shown in table-top displays of sketches, ephemera, photos and explanatory texts. In contrast to an abstract view of international land and sea borders from a control room or a limited single perspective from the ground, our collected sketches and other visually artifacts present a materially textured, human scale “situational awareness”.
Artists in Warsaw: Daria Infanti, Natalia Kulka, Michał Murawski, Hillary Mushkin, Dorota Podlaska, and Zuza Ziółkowska/Hercberg; in Athens: Maayan Amir, Sofia Bempeza, Sofia Dona, Hillary Mushkin and Ruti Sela. Many thanks to Beata Sosnowska for help organizing in Warsaw.