Written originally on 3.16.13
(1) Two spectres haunt Cd. Juárez; its landscape–the spectres of Security and Eternity.
Charles Bowden: OK, I’ll tell you about the city now. Twenty-five percent of the houses have been abandoned in a city of poverty where housing’s short. They’ve got a bumper crop there now: 10,000 new orphans from the slaughter. Forty percent of the businesses have closed. Thirty to sixty thousand people have fled to the United States. You know, this is a city dying. And I must say, this was the poster child for NAFTA. This was supposed to be — make it all work. It’s a laboratory now created by Dr. Frankenstein. (Goodman & Kouddous, 2010)
(2) During my last visit home, the town I was born and grew up in, I was impressed by a billboard (Fig. I) advertising for the service of personal armed security:
Javier Durán: Discipline and punishment act then as society’s filters that decant layers of ‘irresponsible’ individuals. The system has changed to incorporate the new needs of a post welfare state power. Population control has taken new forms beyond just surveillance on criminality. This political state of permanent exception is tightly linked to the ideology of governance and of security. (2012, p. 3)
(3) The first time I encountered the billboard, I was driving and hardly had a chance to glance at it so careful examination was out of the question, much less any notice of the immediate environment surrounding it; although I am fairly familiar with the area, the minute details escaped me as I had not driven through it in at least a year and a half. From that first encounter, only the general message, the gun and tie stood out.
Walter Benjamin: The street conducts the flâneur into a vanished time. For him, every street is precipitous. It leads downward-if not to the mythical Mothers, then into a past that can be all the more spellbinding because it is not his own, not private. Nevertheless, it always remains the time of a childhood. But why that of the life he has lived? In the asphalt over which he passes, his steps awaken a surprising resonance. The gaslight that streams down on the paving stones throws an equivocal light on this double ground. (1999, p. 416)
(4) The next day, after having lunch with a couple of long-time friends I drove back to the general area where the billboard is located; my friends came with me. On our way there I asked them if they had seen it, one of them said yes but could not remember exactly where it was placed; since I also wasn’t sure, and since we were driving opposite to the direction I had originally encountered it, we were all overly attentive to every billboard as it passed by. Eventually another billboard (Fig. II), one that I had already seen several times all around the city, came up in the horizon; it asks a simple, straightforward question: Eternity, where will you spend it?
-It might be on the back of the eternity one, said my one friend who reported seeing the armed security billboard before.
-It would be awesome if it is, I quickly replied.
-You’re going to milk this aren’t you? said my second friend.
William S. Burroughs: I have described here a number of weapons and tactics in the war game. Weapons that change consciousness could call the war game in question. All games are hostile. Basically there is only one game from here to eternity. Mr Hubbard says that Scientology is a game where everybody wins. There are no games where everybody wins. That’s what games are all about, winning and losing… (2005, p.35)
(5) Both billboards share the same structure. They stand back to back facing opposite directions right in the corner of one of Cd Juárez’ busiest intersections; they safeguard each other from the constant traffic, the onslaught in the most dangerous city in the world. One side promises eternal salvation; the other promises complete protection. Drivers are made conscious on the need for maximum security as they head to work; on their way back home they are promised and assured that even in the face of tragedy salvation is but a matter of choice.
Tiqqun: The warrior is thus condemned to be alone. This leaves him greatly dissatisfied, dissatisfied because he is unable to belong to any community other than the false community, the terrible community, of warriors who have only their solitude in common. Prestige, recognition, glory are less the prerogative of the warrior than the only form of relationship compatible with his solitude. His solitude is at once his salvation and his damnation. (2011, pp. 75-76)
(6) The security side (Fig. I) is visually arresting and somewhat sophisticated. A well-dressed man stands in front of a luxury black car with a machine gun resting diagonally across his chest, with a finger firmly resting on the trigger. He features no head as his body goes on beyond the billboard’s top edge; one, the viewer, understands the man to be whole yet a bit too large to fit in all within frame. The main text is concise and aligns perfectly with the visual image–both formally and semantically–in order to get its message clearly across: protection is within your reach. The secondary text speaks of the service being available all across the country, presumably the country México; since Juárez straddles the MX-US border this means that protection begins (or ends) right where the billboard stands. Lastly, two phone numbers, a web and email address along with a red and yellow logo round up the billboard. Not surprisingly, both the billboard and the viewing experience are dominated by the headless, armed man; the subject is made even more significant by the fact that many of the thousands of victims related to the drug/wars/on-drugs were in fact decapitated and found in public sites, sometimes even busy intersections like the one where the billboard stands.
Linda Nochlin: Most significantly, this iconography is centred about that primal scene of political transgression: the beheading of the king. The tapos of the execution of the monarch, a castration image of unprecedented power and suggestiveness, is central to the Revolutionary discourse of destruction. The wresting of the head from the fleshly embodiment of the State constituted an irreversible enactment of the destruction of the old regime. (1995, p.11)
(7) The eternity side is far less refined. Horizontally and literally divided by ETERNIDAD between heaven and hell. The top half features several groups of individuals dressed in white, surrounded by clouds and engaging in celebratory stances as they enjoy the riches and spoils of everlasting peace while a luxurious golden palace awaits in the background. The bottom half is dominated by deep blacks and reds as isolated and fragmented people exhibit zombie-like characteristics as they obviously endure unimaginable amounts of pain and suffering. In the lowest portion of the canvas a question forces viewers to decide where they would rather spend eternity, while an internet address and a phone number is given so they can perhaps make an informed decision. The overall look of the billboard is quite kitschy and amateurish to the point of being laughable and suitable for a plethora of sarcastic interpretations. It is obvious, didactic and its layout responds to the most basic and dualistic understanding of how good and evil; salvation and damnation; happiness and suffering are situated with respect to each other.
Georges Bataille: Although within the body blood flows in equal quantities from high to low and from low to high, there is a bias in favor of that which elevates itself, and human life is erroneously seen as an elevation. The division of the universe into subterranean hell and perfectly pure heaven is an indelible conception, mud and darkness being the principles of evil as light and celestial space are the principles of good: with their feet in mud but their heads more or less in light, men obstinately imagine a tide that will permanently elevate them, never to return, into pure space. (1985, p.20)
(8) Of course, both outdoor advertisements have been altered significantly. Through the process of documentation they have ceased to be billboards and have taken on the form of spectres haunting Cd. Juárez; its landscape. The spectres present themselves as texts to be read within the horizon of the city offering an intuitive understanding of what it means to experience life in an environment that has become paradigmatic of aggression, fear and danger.
Agelina Russo: Communication research has generally institutionalized qualitative research as scholarship ‘‘that views the empirical dimensions of symbolic interaction as the raw material for documentation and reflection ⁄ s’’ (Lindolf and Taylor 2011, 12). Potentially, these practices can make the world more visible and discussable to its participants (Denzin and Lincoln 2005, 3). (2011, p. 333)
(9) The spectre of security was deliberately shot through a series of metal bars evocative of a prison cell where the viewer might be metaphorically held by the very need for the service advertised; the rods also serve the purpose of further segmenting a billboard that is already centered around a fragmented body, all the while serving as framing devices for particular elements like the tie and machine gun. On the other hand, the eternity spectre is shot against a wide open, blue sky; framed by a single, yellow, metal staff that travels vertically straight out of the picture, echoing the promise of plenitude among the clouds; additionally, the word Express is legible below the billboard commenting even further on the absurdity of offering eternity at 55 kms per hour. Seen side by side (Fig. III), with their contrasting framing and reflexive devices, both spectres can relate to each other in new meaningful and thoughtful ways.
Stephanie Springgay: The body in pieces intimates completeness while simultaneously deconstructing notions of eternity, wholeness, and normativity. Thus seen, the work is designed to educe systems of cataloguing, control, and linearity, which are simultaneously set into motion through a dialogical pull, opening up a space aimed at questioning nature, culture, archive as a repository of different systems of knowledge and understanding (2004, p. 64).
(10) Interestingly enough, both of these spectres, the body in pieces and eternity deconstructed, will remain in place and viable only for as long as their respective backing companies feel it’s beneficial for them to do so. Whether or not the spectres achieve their stated goal of protection and salvation will have no bearing on the decision to keep them intact or to replace them with new spectres that will offer new readings of their own. With local elections coming up fast, I have a pretty good idea of the new spectres that are likely to be in place next time I go back home, the town I was born and grew up in.
Bataille, G. (1985). The Big Toe. Visions of excess: selected writings, 1927-1939 (pp. 20-23). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Stoekl, A (Tr.)
Benjamin, W. (1999). M [The Flâneur]. The arcades project (pp. 416-455). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. Eiland, H. & McLaughlin, K (Tr.) [PDF file]
Burroughs, W. S. (1970). The Electronic Revolution. Internet City: Ubu Classics. (Original work published 2005) [PDF file]
Durán, J. (2012, March 8). Ethical and Bio-Political Dimensions of Migrancy, Life and Death in Mexico’s Southern Border. Talk Series. Lecture conducted from Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies , Chicago. [PDF file]
Goodman, A., & Kouddous, S. A. (2010, April 14). Charles Bowden on “Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields” | Democracy Now!. Democracy Now!. Retrieved March 15, 2013, from http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/14/charles_bowden_murder_city_ciudad_jurez
Nochlin, L. (1995). The body in pieces: the fragment as a metaphor of modernity. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson
Russo, A. (2011). Transformations in Cultural Communication: Social Media, Cultural Exchange, and Creative Connections. Curator: The Museum Journal, 54(3), 327-346. Retrieved March 15, 2013, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2011.00095.x
Springgay, S. (2004). Body as fragment: Art-making, researching, and teaching as a boundary shift. In R.L. Irwin & A. de Cosson (Eds.), a/r/tography: Rendering self through arts-based living inquiry (pp. 60-74). Vancouver, BC: Pacific Educational Press.
Tiqqun (2011). This is not a program. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. (Original work published 2009) Jordan, J. D (Tr.) [PDF File]