Essay written in response to Liminal States by Sophie Mallett and Emma Letizia Jones, for Tetralogy, catalogue of CAA_16 at the Royal College of Art, London 2016


Liminal States, by Sophie Mallett and Emma Letizia Jones (2016) as it was developed for 16/CCA Curating Contemporary Art, MA graduate projects, at the Royal College of Art invites us to contemplate the sound and architecture of a place as expressions of its purpose and definition. The work, an interactive audio-visual installation, produces from words, texts, images and sounds, projected and broadcast, a sonic architecture that beckons us to live inside it in order to question bodily the legitimacy of borders and the ownership of territory in the face of a global capitalism that ignores both.

Between an architectural imagination and an auditory fact-finding Liminal States captures Melilla, the officially autonomous Spanish city at the northern coast of Morocco, which for its part considers it unlawfully occupied territory, and reframes it along the lines of what it encloses and what it keeps out. Footage filmed and recorded on a recent field trip to the city serve as the base material from which the complex and multi-layered reality and the diverging viewpoints onto Melilla’s geographical and political constitution are being made available in the gallery.

In many ways the work is a documentary rather than an artwork. But it is a documentary deliberately disguised as an artwork, borrowing from the inherent ambiguity of art the permission to fragment and to narrate without a sure reception. The installation collates and brings together the stuff of this city, its sounds and images, and the socio-political facts that hold meaning and even political persuasion, none of which it gives to you, however, without your own candid and reciprocal investment. The piece makes you work for it, walk for it, and involves you physically in the experience of what its definition and purpose might be. And thus it brings you into the bind between those trying to illegally enter the small enclave and its EU status from Africa and Asia, protected by three layers of barbed fences, no-man’s-land and heavy border controls; those who live within the enclave to ensure its trade and uphold its status; and those who pay for barbed wire, border control and ultimately for the tax avoidance its territory facilitates through their own taxes.

To grasp those diverging and contradictory and yet bizarrely inter-reliant interests we must walk through the installation and move physically as well as intellectually through the conflicting positions to reach empathy rather than judgment. And that is where we are back in the realm of art rather than documentary. It is not the movement of the work, its images or sounds, but my movement or stasis within it that defines the work as a work of art whose responsibility is not with what I know and what my political affiliation might be, but how I live inside the lines drawn in the material expressions that represent migration, belonging and flight.

The work consists of five screens suspended from the ceiling, and framed in white picture frames that dissect the room, which impedes their simultaneous appreciation and forces us into a mobile and a consequential view. Small handheld portable radios are arranged on a wooden shelf on the side. We are helpfully encouraged to pick one up, and immediately start searching for a signal emitting from two radio transmitters placed on opposite ends of the work. And so we move between fragmented views and unstable signals, working partial impressions into fabricated wholes that weave a geographical and a political imagination of a place whose totality will forever depend on our interpretation and point of view: where we stand on the lines drawn between Europe and the African continent, between trade and taxes, between fixed belonging and a transitional existence.

The images projected are at once touristic and banal: palm trees, beaches, historical buildings and beautiful avenues; and utterly shocking: huge perimeter fencing, bright night time surveillance, people the size of ants scaling walls and palisades; and then, out to sea again, where freight ships bring cargo to an off-shore land. The sounds are factual, informative but also potentially inaccessible unless I catch their wave. The fuzzy radio reception breaks the voice and gives us snippets only that force me to take a position, to seek the right place vis-à-vis the transmission so I might hear about Melilla’s historical development, territorial disputes, anti-immigration activities and trade arrangements.

In this first-time collaboration the sound artist Mallett and the architect Jones work through a reversal of disciplinary expectations: Jones’ approach to architecture questions the stability of the built environment while Mallett’s work with radio transmitters arrests the ephemeral fluidity of sound. Their visual engagement with Melilla focuses on invisible relationships, transient behaviour and unseen rituals. It expands conventional notions of architecture to include visible and invisible infrastructures of division, technologies of protection, and the efforts of breaching those, from both sides. At the same time their work employs the ephemeral material and unseen processes of radio transmission to give visibility and stability to borders, fences, lines and lives.

The images slip away over the corner of the angled screens, I have to walk after them, compile them, and can never make them add up. By contrast the sound affords continuity, however vague. The FM signal creates ephemeral territories and invisible zones within which I have to stand still. When we catch a clear reception the FM radio-handset tells us about the political status and economic reality of Melilla. It gives us sonic access to its place and circumstance. However, depending on my movements and that of other people the signal scrambles. It is distorted by the density of my body and the presence of others moving within the space of the work, as well as by the screens and the walls. Anything can block my reception of the broadcast. The radios give access and deny access to information about the city, and make apparent the subjectivity of free movement and the power of its obstruction.

In the context of 16/CCA Curating Contemporary Art, this unreliable signal hints moreover at the obstacles produced by other works and other voices, impeding and interrupting the unhindered reception of a singular piece. The work is part of a group show of four projects, whose association is the curating course at the Royal College of Art and whose commonality is a stated interest in sound as well as the actual and conceptual architecture of the institution which gives the show its definition and purpose. Lines abound: visible lines, conceptual lines, architectural lines and invisible lines, which are at times crossed and ignored but within which we are asked to move to see and hear the works. As a result we get fragments and overlaps, elements that rest on, shrink and expand in relation to the material and concepts of other works, bound together by the necessity of their shared context. The college itself becomes a territory of disputes, accommodation and cross fertilisation; producing fault lines of tastes and opinions, sounds and images, which serves this piece by Mallett and Jones as a particularly poignant setting.

The emphasis on sound by this year’s curation graduates makes visible and tenders as a central concern what no doubt showed itself before, but what might have remained unheard, which is the notion of collaboration and the sharing of space and ideas between projects and people when consensus is not reached but established through what the work does: not as a consensus of curation but of the material thus put on show. This consensus is contingent and uncontrollable, the serendipity of a group show, which produces useful tensions between authority and influence that reflect back onto the work and create a multiplicity of view points.

On the threshold of works and their presentation, the authority of the artist and that of the curator converge and vocabularies collide to create the ambiguity that is the work in its own authority. The art world too is a land of borders and demarcations, some visible, some invisible, depending on who you are; and it too reverses material certainties and ephemeral ambiguities and thus what we thought we saw becomes a faint sound that we need to tune into, detune, retune, to find a voice and a code that we can communicate with.

Thresholds denote at once the beginning of the inside and the beginning of the outside, without a given designation. They define a point of view and introduce an indexical order in relation to which the idea of actuality is merely the location of our own experience and legitimacy. Indexical realities defer the notion of migration and belonging onto the authority of the bodies or goods moving through and standing still rather than onto the actuality of territory, national borders and maps. The place hardly exists; it is the movement through it that defines its reality. The fluidity or fixity of those moving through or those who cannot move depends on their place in this indexical order of migration.

The curatorial sense of the whole show, its flow, stasis and fragmentation, stresses the significance of movement and non-movement that at once opens and reinforces the borders and territories of each work. In this regard it is fortuitous that I encounter Liminal States immediately to the left of the entrance hall. Placed there, at what is ostensibly the first threshold of the exhibition, the practical necessity between my movements and non-movements, the way I trace the lines made by its sound and images and how I live inside Mallett and Jones’ work, produces a useful sensibility for my contemplation of the other projects in the exhibition. Their work’s implicit demand for participation and the enforced relationship between movement and stasis set the tone and expectation for the rest of the show.

This condition of reciprocity and participation seems a useful attitude through which to hear, for example, the blind sides and the quiet zones in which Florian Hecker’s Modulator (2012) meets Mark Fell’s Two Opposing Spectra (2015) in the room directly below. Such a sensibility also re-frames the occasional bleed of Hecker and Fell’s at times loud and high-pitched compositions into other spaces, not as the invasion of an unwanted element, but as an invisible migration into an occupied territory that is defined rather than threatened by those infringements exactly.

The sonic migration, which unseen makes a space at the edge between works, does not produce an autonomous place but an undefined state that exists through my involvement in the works. It is a liminal space, fragile and full of doubt, I am not sure whether I hear the outside or the inside. I am listening to a contingent composition that is hardly there, I am.

And so the representation of migration and settlement, via scrambled sounds and incomplete images, makes audible the thresholds of artistic practice and curation. Sound foregrounds the inefficiency of borders and denies the curator the ease of distinction and separation. The threshold of a sonic work loses its ability to describe beginning and end, and instead comes to determine everything: inside and out.

In sound, thresholds become open borders however much fencing you put up. That is the curatorial challenge and the artists’ conceptual interest. If you wish to keep the two apart, the threshold, the ‘no-work’s-land’, has to become ever wider and ever more fortified to stop the sound bleeding through: to maintain the freedom within the barbed wire, which produces an aesthetic as well as a political contradiction.

The transgressions and inter-reliant character between the works in the show echo the liminal spaces between Morocco and Melilla: the constantly growing and ever more protected trench that defines the political reality of the Spanish enclave. The strip of indeterminate land, protected by three rows of fencing, motion sensors and surveillance technology, describes the claustrophobia of Melilla’s contradictory freedom and tautological enclosedness. It highlights the political and social absurdity of staying there, on a small bay, away from home and yet its outpost, which needs protecting from the land that geologically at least it seems to belong to. And represents the self-made paradox of abuse and retribution that currently echoes throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The occupation and the resulting need for fencing signals a desperate tautology between two sides that all is invested in to keep apart, and yet their closeness is what makes each what it is. It signifies a symbiotic relationship of inside and out without which neither would exist, but that both lament. It is insidious and claustrophobic, un-scalable and insurmountable. This claustrophobic state is made material in the maybe rather too small screens that hang in deliberately heavy frames. Aesthetic decisions which give the sense that nothing can be done apart from building ever more fences, while forgetting why we are keeping people out and what we are staying in for.

There is intent, political intent that has fragmented its own signal, broken its own threshold to make us experience rather than know the contradiction between my freedom and your equality. Is it a matter of degree or of absolutes? Who pays for the fence, who builds the fence, who scales the fence, and who profits from the fence?

The work opens many ethical, socio-political and also aesthetic questions. It does not answer any. Instead it layers complex inter-relations, leading us inescapably into something that, although produced by our participation, we cannot grasp, since as we move the signal fades and as we stand still the images become disconnected.