Walls Prevent Intimacy: Polina Teif on Postcommodity
February 7th, 2018
Suzanne Carte: Polina Teif is a multidisciplinary artist, photographer and filmmaker. She received her BFA from the University of Toronto with emphasis on Visual Studies and Semiotics and currently pursuing an MFA in Film Production here at York University with interest in experimental and documentary practices.
She is in her final year, getting ready for the thesis, so I thank you for making time for us. She is going to guide us through the Postcommodity exhibition discussing her own research, which happens on the borders surrounding the Dead Sea.
Polina Teif: I’ve been focusing on the ecology of the Dead Sea borders, Israel, West Bank, and Jordan; how various cultural divisions and borders allow or don’t allow certain aspects of mobility; and how those constructs affect the ecology and the local culture at large.
Reality often stifles a lot of my idealism, and when I was thinking about this talk, I stumbled upon an old random piece of audio that I recorded while I was in New York City, about a year before the US elections. Around that time there was talk about borders and immigration policies in the US. I want to read you a short conversation between two of my friends Vlad Lunin, a photographer and filmmaker, and Shannon Garden-Smith, visual artist.
“This push will happen no matter what because there is so much power in money that they will push for these kinds of border decisions, because borders are artificial creations from the early twenties. They are not real. There were no borders in 1850.”
“Money isn’t real either. “
“No. No. Money is different.”
”Money is useful. Borders are not useful.”
“Borders are useful.”
“Borders create identity and culture. They don’t create countries.”
“And money doesn’t do those things either?”
“No, money is a tool, but it is not the reason it happens. Culture happens by borders.”
This is a loaded text, but maybe it’s something we can meditate on as we are going through the show. Borders are constructs. Perhaps they’re not inherent, but they have an effect and they have a presence, and they both define and limit a space. But they’re also creating a certain friction around that.
Okay, here we go into the space. Follow me. I am the Coyotaje.
The first wall text in this show [Síganme] translates as “Follow Me”. Postcommodity’s Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist work primarily around the US–Mexico border, and perhaps we as Canadians, or in Canada, can think about what the differences are between our US border and Mexico’s US border and that treatment in light of this show.
What happens to a person when they cross or attempt to cross a border? What happens to their agency, identity, and rights when they enter a gray zone between being a citizen of a country and a migrant.
[entering A Very Long Line installation] This is a four channel-installation titled A Very Long Line. It follows the US–Mexico border from Douglas, Arizona, to Agua Prieta, Sonora. It covers 30 miles; we are facing Mexico.
The space can be read as a cell, as confinement. Often when people choose to migrate or leave a space, it is for a particular reason, be it poverty, seeking opportunity, employment, or war.
A couple of questions that I have is do fences keep us out? Or do they keep things in? Do they separate? Or do they, by their presence, define? This kind of comes back to this idea of nationhood or countries being defined by borders or by culture? What purpose does this separation serve? And how does it affect people on both sides differently?
Another thing to consider is that many of the borders both in the US–Canada and US–Mexico cross indigenous land, so what happens to culture when it is divided by an overarching story?
Getting dizzy here.
Suzanne Carte: I know, it happens.
Polina Teif: So now as we’re walking through the space … The directional audio is guiding us deeper into the space. There is a folklore story about the chupacabra, which is a mythological creature … Does it translate as “goat blood sucker?”
Suzanne Carte: Yes, goatsucker.
Polina Teif: This metaphor, in this two-part installation, represents the construct around border patrol when migrants try to evade and border patrol tries to lure and catch the evaders. Border patrol often utilize modes of decoy or deception, such as setting up or using migrants whom they have caught, to lure other individuals to them. So the US border patrol uses the folklore, the language, people’s identity, and tactics against them.
This [referring to projected photo, Es más alcanzable de lo que se imaginaban] is a horse carcass that’s been eaten by dogs in the no-go zone, playing on this idea of the chupacabra. It’s like a coyote dog.
If we put this in light of the recent mass deportation, which has affected a lot of farming and manufacturing in the States, thinking of cattle and labour and perhaps the kind of dehumanization that surrounds them.
As we move through the space, we encounter the chupacabra with its glow-in-the-dark green eyes, night-goggled vision. This creature sees us, and in return we are projected back onto it. We are being surveilled. We are now the subject that was lured and monitored and eventually caught.
What happens to our identity when it is presented through surveillance, or through the kind of framework of vulnerability that is created when we set up borders, which define the rights that the subject or the body has in a particular territory?
There is a really strong play of folklore and myth that is then in very paradoxical ways literally preying upon people.
Suzanne Carte: Can you talk about your own work? What’s your relationship to border transgression or border movements with the construction of your work?
Polina Teif: I worked a lot in Israel and the West Bank. Here’s an anecdote… to travel to the Dead Sea you either have to go through the south side up through Israel or you can go through the West Bank. We were using a GPS service (that did not have a particular political preference) and it brought us right through Jericho which, with an Israeli license plate, is not advisable.
It was fascinating to see only when we got to that city a sign that said “Israelis, beware for your lives.” Realizing that the vehicle we were in identified us as such, we turned around and drove back.
While I was there, I was moving through different modes of transportation: Public transportation, or by foot, or by car. A lot of that experience of going through checkpoints and patrol stations was very smooth for me as a person who looks like a tourist. I travel with very compact gear that allows me to access military bases and areas that are otherwise inaccessible to the public. This is my tactic in terms of mobility.
There is a segment in my work that talks about the checkpoint which is just north of the 1949 treaty line, so technically in the West Bank. It’s a checkpoint run by the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, and just below the checkpoint there’s an area where nomads live in a tent city. It’s open to Palestinians and Jews and tourists and whomever. People’s identity just kind of falls away because it is not particularly governed by anyone. There is very paradoxical notions between “the divide” and life and culture that exists around that spot because it is not claimed by anyone.
In terms of the construct of the Dead Sea, a lot of the reasons for it shrinking is water dams built along the Jordan River. It’s source flows from Syria down between Israel and Jordan through the West Bank. The conflict over the water affects the geography as everybody tries to divert the water in their direction and as a result we have this huge ecological disaster, a disaster of which we’re not fully aware of the total consequences.
In my interviews with people, there is constant deflection to “us and them,” so their notion of space or of a shared resource is limited to where the line goes. That’s the kind of thing that keeps coming out.
When I was reading about that particular checkpoint, news articles kept popping up, and a recent one I read that I thought was really fitting for this exhibition had to do with a decoy. A truck coming from the West Bank to Jerusalem had a painted sign to make it seem like an Israeli number plate, and when the sign was removed it was discovered that it was a Palestinian truck carrying meat that they were going to sell at a market in Jerusalem. Really not a very crazy offence, but this idea of putting on a skin to get past these spaces where suddenly your identity or how you are perceived really matters and defines whether or not you continue or whether you have to be investigated further …
Audience: Your Canadian identity is a bit like that too, right? Because now you’re in the Canadian border you’re protected in a way, and you can move through those spaces easier, as you mentioned.
Polina Teif: Yeah. But that was also a learning experience, because a year after I moved here, in 2008, a couple of my friends said, “Let’s go on a drive to Niagara Falls.” I had never been, so I was pretty excited, and they said, “Oh, we should drive to the States.” I’m like, “Oh. I’m a permanent resident. I’m not sure if I can.” They’re like, “Well, let’s just go. It’s worth a try.”
So we go and obviously I get detained, and the officer asks me “Why are you crossing the border? What are you looking for?” I was explaining my story. I was also really young and impressionable. He explains to me that Canada and the United States are two different countries… and am I aware of that. I say, “I’m aware,” and then they fingerprint me and scan my eye and all of that stuff and send me back. Then I’m on the bridge coming back to Canada and they’re like, “We don’t have your landing papers. We can’t let you back in.” I say…
Audience: Oh my god.
Polina Teif: I say, “Okay, well, they’re at home. What do we do?”
Audience: What happened?
Polina Teif: What do we do? I’m stuck on this bridge, but nobody will let me through or back in. It’s a space where suddenly I have nowhere to go but down the bridge. Eventually I came back through the Canadian side, but I was there for many hours waiting to figure out what they were going to do with me.
So when we talk about borders, there’s always a gradient. It’s not always just a definitive line. In Israel, the borders are patrolled for miles around them, and any kind of activity in and around that is heavily surveilled.
Because in Israel military service is mandatory, a lot of people I know did border patrols. Some of the stories they told me are actually quite romantic, like maybe two teenagers from neighbouring villages wanted to find a place to make out, and they go to this desolate place that ends up being on the border, but nobody quite knows, and then they get caught and investigated and sent home.
I don’t know if anybody has read about the US prototypes? Trump commissioned various companies to send in quotes and install sample prototypes for his Mexico wall. Christof Büchel, a Swiss artist, is trying to get a petition going to have them recognized as a national monument.
It made me think of the wall as symbol. How does that affect or re-traumatize people? It can lead to very oppressive images, or art. It’s complex. In Postcommodity’s work, there is an awareness of how this affects communities and people, and they validate their subjecthood.
Suzanne Carte: Yeah, like with Büchel you have someone who’s coming into the States with zero stakes in the building of the structure. His life is not endangered by the construction of the wall, by the existence of the fence, in that border. He has the ability to come in and out of that space. He is emboldened to come in and name something as land art and then remove himself from the consequences. There’s no violence or oppression that’s happening to himself or his body. Whereas with something like A Very Long Line you have three Indigenous men that are moving along military roads for the course of eight years to do a land-art project and they’re fearful within that space. Having issues like camera equipment — Polina you said yours is quite discreet as a tactic — but you still are capturing the presence of that line. They must have known that at any time they could’ve been pulled over, and detained, and questioned, even as American citizens.
Polina Teif: Seeing A Very Long Line reminded me of when I was driving to the Dead Sea over a period of a few years intermittently—every year or two from 2010. I watched a lot of the construction of the West Bank walls from the start, and then being refined. The walls are getting taller. It is quite unnerving to witness that. On a lot of the routes, when I drive with Israelis, they don’t want to look at it. It’s so present, but they cannot take it in. The have a very hard time taking it in and being like, “Well, this is here,” and what is their role in it. It is quite loaded.
I made a sticker with the text Walls Prevent Intimacy in response to the West Bank. Unfortunately, years later Trump’s wall is now a thing that is being manifest, either as prototypes or in conversation or through legislation and policy, reflecting on this moment and thinking in light of the ongoing refugee crisis and all the people who are caught within no-go zones: What happens to our identity and how do we mediate the nationhood and government as well as this level of humanity, and basic rights, and mobility that we’re all entitled to?
My family emigrated to Israel just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a whole wave to bring more people with Jewish heritage to Israel in the early 90s. After the first Intifada, there was a wave of Eastern Europeans and Ethiopian Jews granted Israeli citizenship. Many of the Ethiopian women who emigrated around this time were forcibly given birth control. This was not the same for the Eastern European women who came at that time. There was a very racialized treatment. Israeli agencies would go to various communities experiencing xenophobia or hate crimes against Jews and lure them in, saying “Your flight will be covered. You’ll get language classes.” They basically help you settle in. Many people who are experiencing poverty or political instability are vulnerable to that.
My parents got on the first direct flight from Belarus to Israel in 1992, with me, and it was the very first direct flight from that airport. The night before, two of the intended passengers of that plane were assassinated. My parents were instructed not to tell anybody they were going out of fear of violence. This was around the time where a lot of people went missing politically because of government change. It was a very hectic time.
Audience: After the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a lot of poverty.
Polina Teif: Yeah. In Russian we call it Perestroika. It’s where they were rebuilding the entire infrastructure, so there was no manufacturing. There was no food in the supermarket. There was nothing to live on. As a child I was affected by radiation in Chernobyl. My parents really wanted to leave out of fear that I was going to consume more contaminated food.
My father had Jewish heritage, hence we had the right to move, and the agent that was responsible for our case ended up scamming my parents. They ended up moving to a new country with very little money to their name. But this idea of displacement and vulnerability is ongoing. This is what we’re experiencing with Syrian refugees.
Over the past few years there’s been a whole new lower class of Sudanese refugees in Israel, and what baffles me is how short-term the collective memory is when it comes to notions of displacement and immigration because I rarely know people who are from here or who do not have that immigration in their heritage.
Suzanne Carte: Thank you for taking us through the exhibition and giving us a personal account of immigration, borders, and making work on the Dead Sea.
Polina Teif: Yeah. Thank you all, and I brought a bunch of stickers if you want, Wall Prevents Intimacy
Suzanne Carte: Postcommodity’s work references that too—the border dissects families; Intimacy becomes stifled.
Polina Teif: Yeah, territory is based on stories, and these stories shift and there is so much overlap. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict arose when the British Mandate defined the borders. Before, there was a lot of coexistence and small conflicts that were based on the reinterpretation of pretty much very similar texts, so if we kind of dig back just a little bit more, there are so many similarities that I always think of notions of sibling rivalry rather than large political rivalries.
I really wanted to finish this talk with a little text if that’s okay.
Audience: I’ll give you some light.
Audience: Let’s move into the light.
Polina Teif: This was inspired by Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. It’s chapter 61 of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Many interpretations are very gendered, but I’ve found a really chill un-gendered one.
A great nation rules by placing itself in a lowly position like the rivers that flow into the low regions of the ocean. Hence, people will naturally be faithful to the country. Mother Nature always stays calm and quiet to overcome the unrest. It takes the lowly position to be in peace. Thus, if a great nation can lower itself to deal with a smaller nation, then it shall win the heart of the people, and the smaller nation will willingly merge with a great nation. If the smaller nation can lower itself to deal with a great nation, then it shall win the trust and be accommodated as part of the great nation. Therefore, we need to take a lowly position to win over or take a lowly position to be accommodated. The great nation only wishes to unite and shelter all the people, while the small nation only wishes to be a part of the nation to serve it. Now that both are granted what they wished for, it is only natural for the ‘Great’ to put itself in a low position.