March 24, 2013

[originally published in Desert Storm 2003]

Nicholas Beuret

When I think of the Woomera detention centre, I think of history books full of pictures of little fortified villages – the old armed city-states. The Woomera detention centre is all dust, tin sheds, riot cops and razor wire, but it still looks like an armed enclave, a roman camp. When we breached the layers of fences last Easter, it felt like puncturing the border of a small nation. And in a way we did – the Woomera detention centre fence line is a border line.

“In ancient warfare, defense was not speeding up but slowing down. The preparation for war was the wall, the rampart, the fortress.”
Virilio, Pure War

The Woomera detention centre fence line stops the free movement of people [though, its not so much the “free movement of people” as the forced movement of people…]. But it also stops more than that. At the fence, information stops, recognition stops, and the lines of who is and who is not fully ‘human’ is clearly demarked.

The reasons for the border are many – from a resurgence in populist rhetoric as a political response to increasing national economic inequity and social insecurity, to its role in global capitalism and imperialism, through to the maintenance of the myth of ‘Australian sovereignty’. Regardless of the reasons, in the end the border must be marked out, and it must be defended.

Guards, trenches, patrol boats, armies…all of these are but one aspect of the defense of borders. It must be guarded against more than just the movement of people. The movement of information must also be controlled. People must be stopped from communicating freely across the fence line, and from allowing themselves to be recognised by those on the other side.

If we are concerned with pulling down the fence and erasing the border, then one aspect of our attacks on its structure must be against the ‘line of silence’ – we must hack the border.

Borderhack technology has a long history – but the creation and implementation of a tactical media Borderhack technology is still a new and on-going project. At the Australian, European and USA-Mexico border camps, there have been numerous media borderhack technologies invented – from the quiet and simple to the highly technological and complex. But I want to focus on one of the most recent camps – the woomera2002 camp in South Australia.

The simplest borderhacks at woomera2002 were the acts of going to the fence and making visual and audio contact with the detainees [either through ‘flag & noise’ actions when we could not get close to the final fence line, to conversations and exchanges at the final fence line]. But this is only a temporary breach of the fence. It does not seriously constitute a ‘tearing down’ of the line of silence. The impact is largely limited to the participants, and there are few possibilities for it to have an impact outside of the immediate area.

The passing of notes, children’s stories, and objects from within the camp to people outside is a stronger tactic – the objects, notes and pictures can be taken from the site and deployed widely across both the country and the globe, either through traditional media [a limited option] or through alternative channels [the net, community and alternative radio, newspapers, magazines, etc]. Interviews with detainees [either video, audio or print] taken at wooemra2002 by independent media makers work in much the same way.

Some humanity and agency can be restored through these ‘joint’ actions – some ‘noise’ makes it through the ‘line of silence’. But there are also limits imposed by the ‘form’ of the hack – limits of circulation, on the ability to produce and propagate, on the ability for people to ‘participate’ in the hack – they do not leave the traditional media format of story-teller & audience. It must be remembered that silence does not just mean stopping the flow of information across the border, but also stopping the people on either side from even attempting to speak to each other at all: propagating a myth of isolation and alienation. If the story-teller & audience remains intact, if a ‘conversation’ cannot start, the border will never be fully torn down.

A hack that tried to breach both aspects of the ‘silence’ of the border at woomera2002 was the set-up of a ‘desert.indymedia’. Indymedia is a global network of independent news websites built around an open publishing system. This system allows anyone with net access to publish a story, photo, audio piece or video clip straight to the website without anyone having to approved or authorise the publication through a simple form [not too dissimilar to a web email account form like Hotmail]. It is an attempt to built a media that dissolves the story-teller & audience divide – everyone is a journalist, everyone is a participant.

Desert.indymedia consisted of several components. Apart from the Indymedia website [the melbourne.indymedia site was used for woomera2002], a media-lab was set up – computers, power supplies, noticeboards, re-chargers, etc – in the back of a truck in the woomera2002 camp. This gave people the opportunity to write up their own stories, edit their photos or audio pieces, and save them to disk for uploading to the Indymedia website [we used a secure upload station in a near-by town for uploading to, and maintaining the Indymedia website]. The desert.indymedia collective also organised several ‘media convergence’s’ – meetings where people who planned on ‘covering’ woomera2002 as independent media makers could meet, swap information and ideas, and network. The final aspects of desert.indymedia consisted of: the publicising of both desert.indymedia’s resources and the idea of open publishing to the rest of the camp [done through the daily spokescouncils out there, and in materials circulated prior to the camp]; a Melbourne based Indymedia crew that would help to maintain the site; and the cooperation of the global network in “getting the stories out there”.

The set-up of a desert.indymedia meant that people could actively participate in the breaching of the ‘line of silence’ – through personal accounts, photos, interviews with detainees [as well as posts by detainees themselves], as well as through networking this information around the globe through the Indymedia network [the Indymedia network usually receives around 400,000 unique visitors a week to its sites, though during protests the numbers can reach over 1.5 million]. A media-lab inside a protest camp was never going to be enough though. It could take stories from the other side of the fence and send them out around the world, but it couldn’t include the detainees directly in the process of publication [interviews with escaped detainees were uploaded, as were hand written notes et al, but no detainee actually typed a story into a computer and published themselves]. Another technology was needed to breach the fence. Computers couldn’t pass through the fence line, but phone calls could.

The detainees have limited access to phones within the detention centres. This is still one of the few methods available for getting their voices heard on ‘the other side’. Desert.indymedia decided to make use of this and set up a phone patch for Indymedia called PIMP[Phone IndyMedia Patch]. The phone patch allowed anyone with a phone to call a computer ‘answering machine’ and leave a message. This message was then converted to an mp3 and automatically uploaded to the Indymedia website. The patch was used by people both inside and outside of the camps over the Easter period. We managed to get the phone number for the patch into several camps, including Woomera detention centre. The only detainees who used the system at the time of the camp though were some detainees at the WA Port Headland detention centre. We still considered the system successful regardless. It broadened the range of access points to publishing on the Indymedia website [so it is no longer necessary to even know how to use a computer to publish on Indymedia], and allowed detainees to publish directly onto the Indymedia site. That said, obviously more has to be done to ‘disperse’ the concepts of Indymedia and the phone patch out to a broader audience including the detainees, and to publicise the access details more broadly.

Borderhack technologies – from handwritten notes through to the PIMP system, constitute an attempt to open up a space for collective struggle across the detention centre borderline. The various defenses of the borderline – razor wire and guards, the enforced silence and invisibility of the detainees, the myths that stop recognition through the fence – must all be attacked if the borders are to be erased. To breach the line with our voices, and to make it possible to listen to those on the other side is essential. To fashion spaces where people can actively create their own voices, where there is the possibility of conversation between separated peoples, this is the space where both the recognition of a common humanity and a collective struggle against the borders starts.

Tags: , , , , ,