Material and Visual Symmetries Across Bordered Spaces

By Rachel Whalen

In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown argues that “the kinds of subjects that the Western nation-state walls would block out are paradoxically produced within by the walls themselves” (41). To Brown, this is “yet another way in which walls inadvertently subvert the distinction between inside and outside that they are intended to mark” (41). While the sovereignty of the nation-state weakens due to forces such as globalized capitalism and neoliberalism, walls paradoxically construct reflective projections of the walled-in and the walled-out subjects (Brown 24). In putting Brown’s theories in conversation with Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, we can attain a larger scope of the striking symmetries between that which is “walled in” and that which is “walled out.” In her visual and material commentaries on globalization, environmental degradation, and neoliberal capitalism, Baichwal demonstrates Brown’s thesis that bordered spaces paradoxically produce symmetrical interiors and exteriors. I strive to demonstrate a synthesis of these two texts in Gated Community 1 and Gated Community 2. 

Baichwal does not shy away from presenting overwhelming visual comparisons between the material landscapes of the Chinese working class and suburban output dominating the United States’ middle-class landscapes. As the screenshots from Manufactured Landscapes demonstrate, the overwhelming and repetitive visual aesthetic of waste and factory labor mimic precisely the visual repetitions of United States suburbia (particularly, in Figures 5, that of a car lot and in Figure 6, the aerial view of a gated community).

While these are only a few examples of the series of overwhelming visual repetitions from Baichwal’s film, they clearly demonstrate her use of visual stimuli – and the intensive, incomprehensible scale of global consumption and waste – to demonstrate the symmetries of the consuming and producing nations (i.e. China and the U.S., respectively). In this case, the “foreign” or “exterior” almost visually equals interior, as demonstrated in a comparison between Figure 5 and Figure 3: both images contain an overwhelming amount of repetitions, so that we are subsumed by the sheer quantity of the repeated pattern. Baichwal also makes a striking commentary on material, as we follow the lifetime of an object first in production in China (i.e. Figure 4), then as the consumer product in the U.S. (Figure 5), and finally as recycled parts back in China (Figures 2 and 3). Baichwal’s film presents a continual, overwhelming repetition of objects, material, and labor in the visual architecture of neoliberalism, such that the visual and material symmetries between the producing and consuming nations are unequivocal.

When we look at the visual homogeneity in these images in comparison to the homogeneity of gated communities in the U.S., we find striking similarities in these repetitions of pattern. In Figure 6, we can see the aerial view of one such gated community in Scottsdale, Arizona:

This photo contains clear resonances with those of Baichwal’s film, in which an oppressive homogeneity dominates the image. Baichwal’s visual and material comparisons between production material and the consumer product can thus be understood relative to Brown’s description of gated communities, as she indicates the trend of an increased amount of gated communities in the Southwest U.S., closer to the Mexico border (19).  As Brown presents gated communities as microcosmic nation-states, she implicates a heightened sense of interiority and exteriority in these bordered spaces, as “Walls built around political entities cannot block out without shutting in, cannot secure without making securitization a way of life, cannot define an external ‘they’ without producing a reactionary ‘we,’ even as they also undermine the basis of that distinction” (Brown 42). Gates and walls generate an interior “we” just as explicitly as they generate an external “they,” and thus both the “we” and “they” are constructed, in part, by the same entity. A visual analysis of Baichwal’s film further heightens the relationship that Brown highlights between interior and exterior: Through a comparative reading of these two texts, we can understand how the walled or bordered nation and/or gated community is superseded by a globalized neoliberal economy, and that while it creates an intensive “we / they” dichotomy and divides “richer from poorer parts of the globe,” it constructs gross and paradoxical symmetries in material and in overwhelming visual homogeneity (Brown 24).

In my paintings, I attempt to demonstrate this relationship between material and homogeneity in representing the gated community as microcosmic of the nation-state. I represent gated communities specifically because they indicate extreme wealth and “othering” within the United States, while they also represent an extreme dichotomy from the laborers and materials upon which they rely, such as those depicted in Baichwal’s film. Both of my paintings mimic aerial views of gated communities: Gated Community 1 demonstrates a series of houses that are quite literally made of the same print. The simplified homogeneity of this painting and the line that cuts through the very houses on the outer edge indicate how borders cut through landscapes. Gated Community 2 speaks more directly to the relationship between material flow and the interior / exterior symmetries. I painted the background of Gated Community 2 as a gradient to contrast the sharp differentiation at the “bordered” community (the red can lids vs. the silver can lids) with the realistic flow of goods and people at the border. In mimicking an aerial view of a gated community with recycled materials, I intend to provide a commentary on how these materials pass in and out of gated communities (or, on a larger level, bordered nations), while the distinction of the “we / they” dichotomy is both constructed (by the red and silver color distinction) and rendered arbitrary (as they are all the same kind of can lid). Creating both of these paintings necessitated a close relationship to material, as I was working in a very physical capacity in carving the lino print and in sewing the can lids onto the canvas. In demonstrating the proliferation of materials and material waste on the scale of gated communities, I attempt to synthesize Brown’s and Baichwal’s symmetries between interior and exterior with respect to globalization and material flow.

That which is “walled out” and that which is “walled in” is, as Brown and Baichwal indicate, are mutually constitutive and visually symmetrical. Following Brown’s analysis of the construction of interior and exterior, Baichwal demonstrates these symmetries in overwhelming repetitive patterns in Manufactured Landscapes. My paintings attempt to mimic these symmetries, simultaneously demonstrating material flow across borders through an aerial view of gated communities. In doing so, I implicate gated communities as microcosmic demonstrations of these paradoxical symmetries.

Works Cited
Baichwal, Jennifer, director. Manufactured Landscapes. Zeitgeist Films, 2006.
Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Brooklyn, NY, Zone Books, 2010.
“Residents Seek Out Scottsdale Gated Communities.” MuHomeGroup, Accessed 16 May 2019.