Utrecht University Humanities Graduate Conference

Panel 4: Arts and Semiotics

Panel 4: Arts and Semiotics

Chair:        Rosemarie Buikema

Time:         15:45 – 17:15

Location:   Drift 21, room 1.05


Of Green Lines: Francis Alÿs and the Border between Violence and Gesture

Christian Sancto, RMA in Media, Art and Performance Studies, Utrecht University



Keywords: border, violence, gesture, Giorgio Agamben, Francis Alÿs


This paper explores the relations between geopolitical borders, legal violence, and artistic gesture in Francis Alÿs’s video artwork The Green Line (2004). The video documents Alÿs’s two-day walk across Jerusalem, in which he used a leaking tin of green paint to trace a line on the ground as he walked. His route followed the green line drawn on a map of Jerusalem at the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1949, which demarcated the new borders of Israel and Palestine. Alÿs’s transformative iteration of the 1949 line calls for the two green lines to be considered in relation to each other. In this paper, I consider this relation through the notion of ‘pure means’, as elaborated by Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben.

In his “Critique of Violence” Benjamin proposes that each act of law is an act of violence. Such violence takes place in the realm of ‘pure means’ and is thereby separated from any possible justification in relation to ends. Agamben repurposes the term ‘pure means’ from Benjamin’s essay to describe the logic of gesture. In Agamben’s definition, gestures are acts separated from ends or purposes, in particular the end of communicating definite facts or information. As such, gestures too are a form of ‘pure means’—a form that, for Agamben, comes to structure the sphere of ethical and political life. I argue that The Green Line, as both a gesture (an action separated from an end) and an invocation of an instance of legal violence, occupies a space between these two notions of pure means: between violence and gesture. As such, Alÿs’s work suggests that an act of legal violence—in this case the instantiation of a geopolitical border—can, perhaps, also contain the possibility of manifesting ethical and political life.


Walter Benjamin’s Dialectics of Shock and Redemption in Contemporary Moving Images concerning Migration

Àger P. Casanovas, MA in Philosophy, University College London


Keywords: Walter Benjamin, rootlessness, migration, return, philosophy of art.


How is ‘migration’ used in the context of artistic practices? How can contemporary artists be committed to the humanitarian crisis of our century? While it is grotesque to ‘play the game of the refugee’, artists are at the same time engaged with their political environment and in some way or another they reflect the Zeitgeist of their world. The question emerges about whether or not artists should explicitly deal with the new form of subjectivity that our current borders are shaping – and if they should, how should they do it without distorting the testimony of the real-life refugees and immigrants who inhabit this subjectivity? Many questions about whose story it is to tell and how the narrative should be constructed arise from this problem. The aim of this paper is to show how Walter Benjamin’s dialectics of the return, can help us in addressing these questions from the paradigm of a redemption that is brought about by a perceptual shock. Recent artistic pieces that deal with the topic of boundaries and the otherness introduced by the figure of the immigrant or refugee, as well as the configuration of a new form of being in the world that is characterized by its rootlessness, will be analyzed under the light of Benjamin’s approach.to My analysis will focus on Happy End (2017) by M. Haneke and Human Flow (2017) by Ai Wei Wei.


From the Island to the Border. The Problematization of Space in Contemporary Dystopian Fiction

Marc Villanueva Mir, MA in Applied Theatre Studies, Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen


Keywords: dystopia, utopia, literary genres, border, spatial turn, cultural studies, chronotope


This paper aims to offer a renewed perspective on the topic of dystopian fiction, by focusing on its treatment of space and on how this is problematized. The origins and transformations of the dystopian genre are outlined from a genealogical standpoint (Jean-Marie Schaeffer) and related to the dialectics between utopian and dystopian discourse, which is understood as one of the most relevant keys to the interpretation of the formal evolution and meaning of contemporary dystopian works. Using Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope and Lotman’s concept of the spatial model, the paper proposes an approach to utopian literature from the model of the island, and to dystopian fiction from the one of the border. Dystopian fiction is therefore regarded as a critical response to the border that used to be invisible and never thematized in utopian literature, by turning the whole world into an endless border which is understood as a space of exception and lack of rights. The models of the island and the border are applied to a comparative commentary between several literary and audiovisual utopian and dystopian works. The paper focuses on the treatment and political meaning of the space in three contemporary dystopian works: High-Rise (J. G. Ballard), Soumission (Michel Houellebecq), and the series The Walking Dead (Frank Darabont). In all these cases, we find an interweaving of islands and borders that was not present in previous dystopian fictions. These dialectics are analyzed in order to translate the spatial conflicts they address into a wider question about nowadays problems regarding borders and governability, security as a contemporary utopia, and the community as a new agent in front of the failure of the states.


Opening the Borders of Narrative Structure: Migration and Complexity in Interactive Documentary Media

Yotam Shibolet, RMA in Media, Art and Performance Studies, Utrecht University


Keywords: interactive digital narrative, agency, complexity, branching choice structure, interactive documentary storytelling


Western society’s response to immigration issues exposed severe difficulties in navigating the complexity of a world more interwoven than perhaps ever before. This mingling of cultures, perspectives and ways-of- knowing blurs the borders that divided our territories and discourse into easily graspable structures. The ‘crisis’ evoked by this reality is partially a narrative crisis: we do not know how to form stories that properly mediate such complexity. Established modes of news and documentary media seem to struggle at representing this multi-layered landscape.

Digital media, envisioned as a haven of accessibility and multiplicity, is having quite the opposite effect on the contemporary public sphere. Invisible borders such as ‘filter bubbles’, algorithmic news-content filtering, and 140-key limits are all biased towards familiar, inflammatory and\or superficial narratives. Simultaneously, digital media offers a transition into different, interactive structures of storytelling, that breach the borders of classic linear forms and may therefore be better suited to represent complexity. In this scope, my paper analyzes interactive documentaries (such as Refugee Republic, The Last Hijack and Did Evil Win?) that discuss immigration. I examine how I-docs channel the three main qualities of interactive media, according to Janet Murray – immersion, agency and transformation – to achieve the documentary goal of “making powerful truth claims about reality” (Nichols). I conclude that works focused on providing a branching or varied perspective on the topic are better suited for this goal than those focused on maximizing empathy and pertaining to “put us in the others’ shoes”.