by Martin Reiche
Defensive architecture such as fortifications or constructions to defend territories can be found almost everywhere. For a lot of people it is a normal part of the city or the rural landscape and, therefore, also of their day-to-day life. This essay tells the story of a section of the razor wire-enforced outer border of the Schengen area that was re-imagined as free telecommunication infrastructure.
The Sotla River, a tributary of the Danube, passes the small Slovenian municipality of Lastnič, for whose inhabitants it marks the border to the neighboring municipality of Krapina-Zagorje in Croatia. What, for a long time, had been a natural “green border” between the two European Union member states, in late 2015, became a symbol of fear of the unknown and a fear of change. Although Croatia is a member state of the EU, it has not signed the Schengen treaty. This means that freedom of movement between the two countries is not legally guaranteed. Slovenia’s border to Croatia is, therefore, a section of the outer border of the Schengen area. As a result, anybody who wants to travel from Croatia to Slovenia needs to hold a valid passport and, for most nationalities, a valid Schengen visa.
In 2015, as a consequence of the so-called “European migrant crisis,” the Slovenian government decided to reinforce its border to neighboring Croatia by erecting a 150km razor wire fence. Officials called it a “technical” barrier and downplayed its impact on the inhabitants of the land, both human and faunal.
The border fence, which was intended as a means of protection against an influx of expected migrants during the time of crisis, was never able to serve its intended purpose. Due to changes in migrant routes, no refugees came through this area, rendering the fence obsolete from the very day it was built. The border fence, however, remained in place and became part of the landscape and of everyday life in Lastnič.
One main goal of a razor wire fence besides providing a physical barrier is to be a deterrent through the imagined physical pain inflicted by the sharp blades cutting through one’s skin and flesh. However, this deterrent works for subjects on both sides of the fence in equal ways. The fence does not only radiate a sense of danger for those excluded by it, but also for those who are included behind it. When the role of the fence as a “physical” barrier becomes obsolete due to having nobody to keep out, its only prevailing property is that of a mental deterrent. Sitting in the middle of a peaceful landscape, the fence’s only function is a showcase of undirected power. The local population becomes the victim. The fence finally achieves its purpose: fear. But, this time, the fear is directed at those included, not those excluded.
In order to exchange or translate the sole prevailing negative aspect of the border fence, one must change the perception of the border as a physical structure. At its heart, a fence is a metal construction that spans a particular distance without interruption. It could also, however, be seen as a very long, unprotected, “metal cable.”
Metal cables have a desirable property: they conduct electrical energy. It is not absurd, therefore, to see the metal razor wire fence as a big conductor sitting in the landscape. In fact, this has a historical predecessor: in the United States of America in the early 1900s barbed wire fences were used as telephone lines in some of the rural areas to which the big telephone companies had not yet expanded their services1Frost, N. (2017). Barbed wire telephone lines brought isolated homesteaders together. atlasobscura.com. Retrieved from: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/barbed-wire-telephonelines-homesteaders-prairie-america-history.. The idea of using the pre-existing fences and re-appropriating them as telephone infrastructure was born out of a demand that could not otherwise be met.
Following the example of the American farmers and re-imagining the already existing as something desirable, we can re-imagine the unwanted, but nevertheless existing, razor wire fence as something a lot more desirable: free telecommunication infrastructure in a rural area.
Razor Wire Modem is the name of the artistic project that, in late 2016, attempted to re-appropriate the reinforced outer border of the Schengen area as pre-installed telecommunication infrastructure. The goal was a simple yet powerful one, to show that something as undesirable as a razor wire border fence has, in its core, everything that is needed to subvert its originally intended purpose into something much more peaceful and desirable: a new and free2 free both as in beer and as in speech. The English adjective free is commonly used in one of two meanings: “for free” (gratis) and “with little or no restriction” (libre). This ambiguity of free can cause issues where the distinction is important, as it often is in dealing with laws concerning the use of information, such as copyright and patents. Richard Stallman summarised the difference in a slogan: “Think free as in free speech, not free beer.” Wikipedia contributors. (2018, December 24). Gratis versus libre. In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gratis_versus_libre medium of communication. The goal was to show that the razor wire fence can, in fact, be used as an electrical conductor in the same way as the American farmers’ barbed wire fences. The only difference was that, instead of using the fence as a telephone line, it was used to transmit digital information between two machines. For a short time in October 2016, the razor wire fence between Lastnič and Krapina-Zagorje became a computer network.
On the technical side, the project was executed using extremely cheap commodity hardware and a few lines of software code. Arduino Nano3Arduino is an open source computer hardware and software company, project, and user community that designs and manufactures single-board microcontrollers and microcontroller kits for building digital devices and interactive objects that can sense and control objects in the physical and digital world. For Arduino Nano see: https://www.arduino.cc/
micro-controller boards equipped with electronic components (transistors, line drivers and line amplifiers), and powered by rechargeable lithium-polymer batteries were programmed to both transmit and receive electrical signals over one of the razor wire rolls. The soil under the fence served as the return line to close the electrical circuit. The micro-controller boards operated as “modems” (hence the project name), connecting the two digital apparatus using the razor wire as a transmission medium.
To prove that the modems actually work as intended, the first data that was transmitted over the razor wire fence during the intervention at the border was a reminder that being allowed to cross country borders is something that, especially in the light of the migrant crisis, should never be taken for granted:
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”
Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights4 UN General Assembly. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights (217 [III] A). Paris. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
Even though the idea that, in an age of ubiquitous wireless communication technology, people would use a sharp-bladed razor wire fence in a poorly-populated area as telecommunication infrastructure seems farcical, the project highlights how defensive structures can sometimes be re-imagined in ways that stand contrary to their original purpose. Nevertheless, the razor wire fence remains a physical manifestation that reinforces the agenda of a group in power and not necessarily the one that is directly affected by the downside of its existence.
The Razor Wire Modem art project is a starting point for evaluating methods of subversion of everyday defensive architecture by means of technology. It is an open invitation to think about, and take action against, unwanted – architectural and other – structures by uncovering their potential for re-appropriation to become something much more inclusive, meaningful, and desirable.
A technical side note: The experiment was conducted on a very short (several meters) part of the actual razor wire border fence. Increasing the distance between the two modems would have led to much higher signal loss, which could have been compensated for with higher transmission voltage and a better modulation technique. Assessing both options was out of the scope of this project.