September 27, 2013
Karl Ingar Roys’ Caminata Nocturna documents both the flight and pursuit of illegal economic migrants across the Mexico-U.S border. Or at least that’s what it initially appears to document. In actuality, the video depicts a facsimile of such events, a tourist sideshow put on by the inhabitants of the town of Alberto 2000 kilometres from the border. This adventure holiday allows mainly Mexican tourists to experience and enjoy-since tourism is always about an attempt at happiness- something like an illegal border crossing into the United States. The simulation of migrating hopes and fears in Alberto began July 2004 as part of the Parque EcoAlberto, a holiday ‘eco-park’ established with financing from the Mexican State. The dual screens of Caminata Nocturna present sharply edited fragments of bodies running or pushing stealthily forward, police trucks screeching down roads and the barked bureaucratic speech of border lockdown amidst a night bisected by the converging torch light tunnels of flight and pursuit. One screen is panic and the other screen is pursuit. And finally, there’s an abrupt bringing together, dual images of a circle of cop cars and running bodies abruptly immobilised, kneeling and lying on the ground as police regulate and question them. Then, the chase in the video begins again with a more elongated but no less frantic temporality, as it must every evening on the U.S-Mexico border in a repetition of desperate economic migration and disciplinary praxis.
Caminata Nocturna ends with Roys slowly approaching and eventually standing in front of a parked police truck that endlessly repeats the automatized statements of the law against economic migrants. An image of deadlock, stasis, entropy and fright that suggests a certain impotence of politically engaged artistic practices against the forces of capitalism. However, if art cannot be an emancipatory politics it can be transitive to such, opening up and investigating a problematic such as economic migration in a way that at least makes it visible as a problem of capitalism. That Roys redoubles this tourist simulation as a video installation productively problematises the role of politically engaged art; a tension emerges between distance and proximity, engagement and representation that’s always present but often unacknowledged in such work. In underlining it’s own status as representation, Caminata Nocturna insists that art is never commensurable with it’s object and through this gap is capable of raising questions beyond the immediately grotesque phenomena of an illegal migration play camp.
An initial question is how to cut through the doubling and redoubling of performative migratory misery and state control that the video presents us with. What place does Caminata Nocturna attempt to show? The video reiterates the name of the tourist trek and the term Caminata Nocturna is suggestive in this act. ‘Caminata’ means a walk or hike and ‘Nocturna’ is the same as nocturnal, it’s sibling in English, as in to be of the night. The night in Caminata Nocturna has an accentuated physicality to it and if completely abstracted from it’s socio-economic and political content, the video could be viewed as a formal exercise in the iterations of darkness and attempts to precariously illuminate actions within it. Caminata Nocturna plays with darkness and light constantly, with the pretend figures of ‘migrants’ and ‘police’ sliding in and out of vision, a sudden burst of surveillance infrared revealing a line of walkers in the desert, with figures otherwise threatened with a submersion in darkness. This relative, always slightly compromised, opacity to vision might be seen as analogous to the necessarily clandestine forms illegal economic migration takes.[N] And it also suggests another relatively opaque operation: in much political ‘debate’ a structural necessity for capitalism is hysterically repackaged as a crime while an unlicensed labour market is created that also benefits capital.
It’s worth emphasising that the night in Caminata Nocturna isn’t simply a metaphor. The depiction of it carries a particular affective charge-dread, hysteria and confusion-and the camera presents this from within as the artist is embedded in the travails of both ‘migrants’ and ‘police’. Watching the dual screens the spectator is definitively suspended in a confusing space without co-ordinates, a confusion mirrored by the nervous panic-motion of the camera. This site, suspended between chaotic images of economic and state violence, heavily mediated but of seemingly real time import mirrors a more general condition within contemporary capitalism. Locating the viewer at this point of confusion-between the simulated fear and aggression of the dual screens- mirrors the difficulty within contemporary culture and politics to cognitively map the contours of the spectacular, image laden capitalist present.
Embedding the spectator between the dual screens and actively embracing the difficulties of representing a facet of capitalist economics-such as illegal migration-ensues that Roys foregrounds this question in the work. However, Caminata Nocturna doesn’t just attempt to offer a simple representation. The video re-presents the tourist trek as ambiguously real and it’s only towards the end that doubts as to its veracity as an actual case of chase and capture begin to surface. In this way Roys cuts up the night that economic migration and state control constitute and constructs out of it a fictional topography. In this Caminata Nocturna works as a map or diagram that folds back into itself an outside composed of both the capitalist image-world and vital, all too real, questions of political sovereignty, economic exploitation and subjectivity. In as much as the video is about the trials of economic migration within global capitalism-labour necessarily following the flows of capital at the risk of severe penalties-it is also about the very dissimulation into experiential facsimile and images played out in Caminata Nocturna.
The elements of this topography can be mapped point by point as a disruption of what Ranciere has termed the ‘distribution of the sensible’, the way that the world and people are divided up by a ‘police order’ that allocates, includes and excludes according to class, race, gender, etc. ‘Police’ in this sense should be understood as not just the immediately repressive apparatus that bears that name but discourses, ways of acting and forms of structuring perception that ensure certain parts of the social order are visible or invisible. The map that Caminata Nocturna traces is centred upon the dual facing screens with the spectator in the border between them. This border is the central horizontal axis upon the map the video forms. The division of the screens is redolent of the US-Mexico border, much of which is bisected by a fence that at certain crossing points is composed of doubled and tripled metal walls, surveillance cameras and ground sensors. But, just as the border itself remains permeable, the fortified sections giving way to stretches of barbed wire or the desolate expanse of the desert, the screens division is less a sign of the distinctness of subjects, experience and phenomena within the contemporary capitalist spectacle than of their crossing over or threshold quality.
The distribution of the sensible as it applies to illegal economic migration is quite simple: a binary split between migrants and legitimate citizens maintained by the ‘police order’, a particular structuring of (in)visibility. Migrant workers are everywhere but nowhere to be seen until the mask of illegality is inscribed upon them by the ‘police order’. The border/threshold at the centre of Caminata Nocturna both by its nature and in the way Roys re-presents it upsets this neat distinction. To elaborate upon this it’s necessary to place Caminata Nocturna within a wider visual economy. For instance, viewing a promotional video for the Parque EcoAlberto it’s striking how nocturnal images of simulated pursuit and expulsion are surrounded by and segue into the other attractions of a holiday. The footage of the tourist ‘Caminata’ is sandwiched between images of swimming pools, comfortable hostel beds, wilderness sport and kayaking down the river. The images of balaclava-clad men shouting, flashing police lights, frantic night pursuit and bodies pressed in (pretend) subjection to the ground or with hands clasped behind their heads, don’t so much incongruously erupt into the screen as drift past, submerged into the soundtrack of identikit techno like an uncomfortable guest at a party. However, in accounts of the Caminata local participants sincerely emphasize that it exists to highlight the plight of migrants and the difficulties of a border crossing many of them have actually endured. It’s tempting to see in the Caminata a relatively collective, performative act of memory for the suffering of the border crossing and an actively enacted memorial to the unknown migrant. As one of the participants says in a documentary upon it, the aim is to ‘Raise consciousness about the suffering of the migrant’. And the snatches of scripted casual racism the ‘cops’ utter in Caminata Nocturna suggest this is not without it’s own, probably well earned, critical acuity towards the malign combination of racist politics and economics present in the management of illegal migration. Just as war memorials are ambiguously situated between ornate mourning and celebration, the Caminata itself is suspended between well-meaning intentions and the tourist industry.
Caminata Nocturna re-presents the primary indistinction of both the image world of capitalism-the border between educative images of human rights import and an immersive banality-and the structure of a contemporary political sovereignty wherein ‘human rights’ can be readily suspended when they conflict with the control of labour. Rather than just a somewhat grotesque novelty the depiction of the tourist-migrant in Caminata Nocturna suggests something much more fundamental in this topography of the present. Bisecting the border/threshold is a line composed of the figure of the legitimate citizen-this time posing as a tourist- and the economic migrant. In re-presenting the tourist as migrant Roys problematises the binary split between legitimacy and illegitimacy that the ‘police order’ is formed around. The video underlines how ambiguously situated any seemingly stable subject is, tourist/migrant being not so much binary opposites as forms of life produced within the same model of capitalist governmentality. That is, the video doesn’t only document the vaguely discomforting image of tourists pretending to be migrants but underlines how the tourist (as legal, consuming and when not on holiday producing citizen) is always already potentially subject to similar strictures as the illegal migrant within the wider bio-political management of life. While Caminata Nocturna might easily be situated within artistic attempts to bring to light human rights abuse Roys decision to document an uneasy moment when the horrors associated with illegal migration are playfully formalised for tourists makes explicit the contradictory valency of such rights in the present. What this reveals is that whether as migrant worker or tourist, or simply as worker/ consumer, the structural logics of state and capital reproduce an undifferentiated subject-albeit always already striated by class, race and gender- that can be put to work, rendered surplus or subjected to the dictates of sovereignty and capitalist economy.
In making visible this aspect of capitalist governmentality Caminata Nocturna constructs a counter-fiction to the truths of the ‘police order’. A more ambiguous gesture than either simple denunciation or a populist embrace of performative simulation as ‘activism’, Roys’ art practice uses the very falseness of the tourist Caminata as a critical tool. Rather than attempt the impossible task of representing the real of repressive migratory politics Roys twists an already given facsimile into something more disruptive. There’s a certain risk attached to this since this disruption-necessarily contained within the work and within the gallery- always threatens to itself become a spectacular reflection. This is avoided through the doubling of the equivocation between real/ unreal, via blankly representing the chase and capture in a rush of almost real time images, hence both bringing to light and cutting through the primary indistinction of the hyper-mediated spectacle the tourist experience is an element within. Roys constructs a narrative of chase and capture in Caminata Nocturna that in presenting itself as cinema verite documentary plays with it’s own status as the fiction of a fiction. Thus the supposed truthfulness of the documentary, and by extension much media coverage, is collapsed back into its status as being an assemblage of available materials. More than this, a fiction such as Caminata Nocturna succeeds in reassembling these materials in a way that allows different orders of (in)visibility to emerge.
Within this topographical fiction Roys’ usage of the camera is subtly subversive. Surveillance, or being ‘caught’ as an image more generally, is usually a way of quantifying, enumerating and setting in place identity. In the video bodies are tracked and broken up by the technology of the camera, glimpsed in pockets of light, this body here being illegal, this one here being responsible for policing the border. This recalls the ‘police’ function of the camera and in this sense the camera is the ‘police’, while also recalling the representations of mass media and state that fix a particular body as a statistic cued into economic flow charts of illegal migration or crime data. But Caminata Nocturna also inverts the abstraction of the image through it’s more intimate perspective from a head held digital camera, constantly moving from ground to feet to migrant/police/night, and also through the way the soundtrack of hurried breathing and scuffling movement underlines both a panic and restores an agency to the illegal movement of bodies. The camera in this case is used to work against both its complicity in the apparatuses of control and to institute a sense that economic migrants are not just passive data to be reconciled on a spreadsheet. In this formal iteration of images Caminata Nocturna is a counter-apparatus, opposing it’s own visual sensibility to more authoritarian applications of the camera and the image.
However, this possibly emancipatory usage of the camera is held in tension with a sense that its ubiquity might also be deadening. The shots where different figures are suddenly lit up and frozen by the flash of a photograph point towards how difficult it is to avoid overt aestheticisation in artistic documentation. Or for that matter the ubiquitous everyday snapshot that captures a particular moment via digital technology and has long surpassed it’s tourist origins. There’s a discomfort with this in Caminata Nocturna that-by virtue of its form-reiterates how inescapable such mediation is in the present while simultaneously transmitting an intense awareness that the image, whether ‘artistic’ or ‘tourist’, threatens to subsume the bodily experience it documents. This is most apparent in how Caminata Nocturna circles around its own usage of the technology of self-mediation, the head mounted digital camera standing in for the mobile phone camera and other forms of immediate documentation. Often, the video seems to be asking whether this multiplication of images does not in itself obscure more than it reveals. If the ‘police’ can be a camera then so can the tourist, reflecting back to the self the images of landscapes, laughter and on occasion atrocity.
Caminata Nocturna makes explicit the link between a contemporary aesthetic of the security state-uniformed control, kneeling ‘others’, efficient containment-and entertainment. The images this aesthetic is based upon, whether relayed through reality television cop shows and Hollywood, news media or Guanatamo Bay referencing fashion shoots, are implicit to the Caminata. In a way the latter is an archetype of what has been identified as ‘dark tourism’, the exhibiting of sites of atrocity as museums or even performance. If tourism has always been about selling a dream image of fulfilment in a place that is always a non-place, as in not connected to everyday cares, then the Caminata is a dystopian consummation of tourism as a performative punishment park.  Roys’ succeeds in mapping the wider ramifications of this becoming indistinct of entertainment and dread as a component in a capitalist spectacle. Formally, the fictional topography of Caminata Nocturna has a deceptive simplicity: the border/ threshold as a horizontal line in the centre, a line of the subjective figures of tourist/ migrant police vertically in the middle, all diagonally transversed by a critical art practice constantly attempting to disrupt a distribution of the sensible that threatens to absorb art as another form of spectacle. Perhaps the most disturbing moment in Caminata Nocturna occurs towards the end when smiling tourist-migrants are sound tracked on another screen by other participants singing the Mexican national anthem while holding the national flag. The songs lyrics hold forth a desire for national unity forged in blood and conflict but the tragic quality that emerges is how such national communities are complicit in maintaining border control. And while Caminata Nocturna is very much concerned with the politics of the image, it’s worth ending with the undoubted reality that underlies this map:
‘Oscar was not a man to hang around. Within days he’d joined a party of migrants, led by a coyote, or paid guide, on a venture into the Sonoran Desert. It was a three-day walk from the frontier to their pick-up point. He was flayed below the knees by cacti and when his shoes came to pieces – the shoes he’d been given in prison in Arizona – he walked the last day barefoot over red rock, a coarse oxidised sandstone. In Tucson he discovered that the soles of each foot had become a single blister, from ball to heel, like a gel pack. He was deported again… ‘
Karl Ingar Röys is a Norwegian artist based in Berlin, Germany. His educational background is in Law studies at the University of Tromsö, Norway and Critical Fine Art Practice from Central Saint Martins College of Art in London, UK. A nomadic lifestyle has led to an extensive international activity where he has exhibited his work in prominent galleries and institutions all over the world. His artistic strategies are based in project-related experiments on image/film/video/symbols as subjective controlled conveyable instruments where contextual and narrative structures are reorganized in order to investigate underlying means of interest. The emphasis is put on deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning in a predetermined or institutionalized context where he explore and exploit the relationship between politics, economy and art.
 Fredric Jameson argues for the need for a ‘cognitive mapping’ of the unrepresentable totality of contemporary capitalism through art. See Jameson, Fredric, “Cognitive Mapping”. Nelson, C, Grossberg, L. (eds.). Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. University of Illinois Press, 1990: 347-60
 La Caminata, Director: Jamie Meltzer, 2009.
 Peter Watkins’ 1971 film Punishment Park is a satire upon the security state wherein political radicals in the U.S are pursued and disciplined by police and National Guard in the desert. It’s indicative that what was once satire, shot in a mock documentary style, is now available in a far milder form for an actual tourist to experience in the ‘Caminata’.
 Jeremy Harding, ‘The Deaths Map: At the Mexican Border’, London Review of Books, Vol.23, No. 20, 2011.
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