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Protest at the Edge of Borderlessness

February 03, 2017

“The end result is not so much a neutralization of placefulness but rather a monumental (or antimonumental) hyperinscription, a total architecture withdrawn from the public city and bound by its own structural borders, gates, walls, and skins, introverted from its immediate environment so as better to connect to external planetary economies on its own terms. Enclaves inside of enclaves digest one another all the way down.”

-Benjamin Bratton

Werner Herzog, replying to an interview question about his fascination with certain places in America, once explained that “in the United States, I feel these focal points, these knots, where everything seems to converge,” like Wall Street or San Quentin. Last Saturday, a paved enclave outside of JFK’s Terminal 4, sandwiched between a parking lot, a parking garage, and a roadway, became one of those focal points. A week prior, we had been protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration in city centers and public squares. Now we were protesting at airports. We rode monorails and paid for expensive parking so we could crowd ourselves into the normally unnoticed nooks and crannies of infrastructural junkspace and, from these newly significant spaces, shout down the executive order that had precipitated sudden detentions and deportations behind the glimmering facades of those same airports.

The axis between the protest sites of two weeks ago and last week—between the city center and the airport—is the vector of urbanization’s past hundred years, an invisible wire between two poorly connected points that hums with the tension of societal cognitive dissonance. This axis, usually 10-20 miles long, is the symbolic distance between a persistent myth that downtown is still the center of urban life, and the reality that airports secretly are. In most cities, downtown and the airport are the two focal points of employment, human activity, and local transportation, but one has surpassed the other, if not according to these local variables than by the flows of people, money, and culture most visible at a wider angle. Losing airport connectivity often hurts a city more than losing its downtown.


   Delta Terminal 4 (source)

The JFK protest last Saturday, indeed, felt like it was happening on the doorstep of the globalized world. We were shouting into a glowing portal that stood ready to carry any of us to Dubai and Singapore with magical speed if we stepped inside. The areas where the protests happened occupied the border between two spatial realities, as Christopher Hawthorne described, “not inside the terminals but just outside them, along the narrow strips of land where the contemporary airport meets the contemporary city.” The cosmopolitanism and borderlessness on which Trumpism has declared war means that major international airports in America’s global cities—particularly the edge spaces Hawthorne describes—form a crucial front in that war, if one has to pick a physical boundary.

Hawthorne and others see airports as promising sites for future protest activity, but if this is true, it’s because of what airports symbolize more than their suitability as that kind of public space. In fact, the opposite is probably true: The airport, especially its post-2001 version, marks the full maturation of a new type of urbanism, a hyper-controlled surveillance/consumption space that has spilled outward into other parts of cities where it’s less necessary. Shopping malls have historically been bad places to protest; airports are usually worse. The fact that mass protests happened at airports last week is the exception that proves this: The demonstrations’ tightly-controlled procession, with walls of riot police standing by, was enabled by the same discretion that enables customs agents to search and detain with such impunity. Unlike so many other historical demonstrations, these protests felt like they were “allowed” to happen more than they felt like the exercise of a right to space that the public owns. If this description doesn’t even seem strange it’s because the same logic of discretionary control has come to pervade so many other aspects of contemporary urban life, including that of the public square (“I don’t care about privacy because I’ve got nothing to hide”).


In a sense, the airportization underway today is a more insidious kind of Haussmannization, in which large swaths of Paris were demolished in the 1800s and rebuilt to make the city more legible and less susceptible to revolutionary unrest, complete with boulevards wide enough to accommodate faster military movement. Compared to Haussmann’s project, the creep of airport urbanism proceeded not by demolition or visible, monumental replacement, nor with a statement of purpose, but instead by the construction of a parallel built environment outside of the historic city. This “total architecture withdrawn from the public city,” as Benjamin Bratton characterizes it, eventually managed to overcode more traditional city space as well.

Borders have somehow attained new symbolic importance in the increasingly borderless world we all inhabit, which is why last week’s airport protests matter so much. Twenty-five years after Deleuze described the “ultrarapid forms of free-floating” control that have largely replaced enclosure-based power systems, we see a similar dissolution at other scales, with nation-states’ influence eroded by networked tribes, digital swarms, and global city-states that transact with one another more than with their own hinterlands. Air travel is the physical foundation of this cultural reality and airports are the beachheads of the post-enclosure world where last weekend we literally stood at the edge: increasingly free from borders, but inside new enclaves we still can’t see.