Mental Border Control

Podcast (English)

Podcast (Dutch)

Since the Iron curtain fell in 1989, new physical borders emerged all over the world. The loss of an old world order sparked new conflict zones. Today building capacity and surveillance technology is so advanced it becomes attractive to Nation States to raise more, longer and stronger walls. What effect do these walls have on our habitat?

Cúcuta is a city on the border between Colombia and Venezuela. This is the place to learn how communities live with a border in their backyards. When the Maduro regime unleashed the migration crisis in 2016, the Mental Border Control, was born as an artistic research project to locate, visualise, and learn from the mental borders of the communities living in Cúcuta.

2017 Fieldwork

The research started in 2017 with the invitation of the “El Pilar” Foundation to establish a context laboratory for the first BIENALSUR ‘Together apart’. The lab had the objective to establish the basis of what will be the Centre for Border Studies in Cúcuta.

As a first stage, the MBC team explored Cúcuta for five weeks asking the question: What is the effect of the border on communities, animals, products and things? Hidden beneath the surface, we discovered how locals have found many ingenious ways to benefit from living on the border. The informal city undermines, penetrates and blooms behind the formal borders. The MBC team interviewd twelve Cúcutanians. Watch the video’s on youtube.

The next step was to dig deeper under the surface to discover how locals have found many ingenious ways to benefit from living on the border. Here are some drawings of typical border jobs. that formally don’t exist.

Venezuelans who flee their country try to bring some assets with them. Since the Bolivar currency lost all value people carry furniture, household equipment and even building materials to the border. To cross the border river you can rent the Bachateros, who carry anything to the other side. The nick name refers to the big ant which is known for it’s strength.
The Coyote is on top of the food chain when it comes down to the risky business of smuggling. The Coyote smuggles people what makes it a very unpredictable job. People can get tired, talk to much or become aggressive on the trails crossing the border. The Coyote needs to know the landscape by heart to travel by night and know the routines of the border control.
Paramilitary groups
The borders are also called ‘Red Zones’. It’s like a weather forecast because the smuggling and human trafficking moves around all the time. The local community knows more or less when and where you should not go. The Paramilitary groups who control the Red zones are inbetween the law and the Contrabandos. Keeping the peace and keep the smuggling traffic up and running.
The Moscas are the flies on the wall on the border. The contrabando gangs sent out the Moscas to be the eyes and ears for a savfe passage over the border. The job is very dangerous because you can encounter an armed response easily.
The border has a long tradition of smuggling. One of the most profitable products is gasoline. Now the borders are closed for cars the gasoline comes in by by cycle through the border river. It’s a risky job because the load is heavy and the border area is full of thief's and police. The Venezuelan gasoline is very popular because it contains led. You drive much more kilometres on one tank compared to the synthetic gasoline. This makes it about four times cheaper than Colombian gasoline. The worst thing that can happen is when the Pimpineros falls in the river and water leaks into the jerrycans.
Alejandria is the beating commercial heart of Cucuta. Hundreds of mobile soap shops creep out of basement every day and hit the streets. The products are sold cheap because shop owners don’t charge VAT. Most of the soap is smuggled in from Venezuela where the prices are fixed, and rebottled into famous brand packages. Every shop has to concure their own spot on the streets. If you don’t show up in time you loose your place. Some shop owners have several market stands and claim whole junctions for their business.

I’m new here in town. Coming from Medelin. We all work for one lady who owns the whole corner. If you don’t show up every day you loose your spot.
Whore war
Since the border is closed in 2015 between Venezuela and Colombia, and the quality of life dropped in Venezuela, the stream of refugees in Cucuta grew. A lot of woman hit the streets in Cucuta. The Whore war, as locals call it, pumped up the competition since Venezuelan woman work much cheaper. The trans whores are also fighting the new comers. The only safe place for them to work are the so called family houses. Brothels run by a “Mother” who takes care of security and rents out rooms. With al the new guys the houses are over crowded and forces people to work the streets.

It always was a dangerous job. You can easily get beaten up. The family houses are the only safe haven. It’s our second home. The new guys keep the rooms occupied because they work and live in the rooms.

Collective Action

As a final result of the context lab we organised a group selfie at the Cristo Rey monument in Cúcuta on the 5th of December 2017. This monument was erected after the city was destroyed by the earthquake of 1875 and commemorates the collective spirit of the cucuteños who rebuilt the city together. At the time of the event, the monument was considered too dangerous to visit. As a symbolic act 115 people from different communities crossed this collective mental border in Cúcuta by making this photo together.

The group selfie under the neglected monument became news. And in 2019 the monument was renovated and upgraded to a touristic viewpoint.

2019 Center for Border Studies

Mental borders affect the quality of the public space. The less people experience the city as an open space, the less there are options for civilised social development. Cúcuta is an extreme example where public space became a battlefield after the influx of the Venesuelan refugees. The refugees are outlaws wandering the streets, the rich withdraw in their gated communities, and all kinds of self interest groups claim their territory with force.

For the second context laboratory, presented at the second Bienal in 2019, the main research question was: How do communities organise their communal space and how do they draw their mental borders in the city that is so hostile? We chose to work with three communities; the Antonia Santos neighbourhood, established in the 1960s by Colombian factory workers who worked just over the border in Venezuela to produce jeans (after Maduro threw them out they started an underground factory in their neighbourhood), the Seis de Reyes settlement, one of the new favela’s built by the new refugees from Venezuela (this unclaimed land just outside of the city gets occupied gradually) and the Las Palmas gated community, a walled neighbourhood built in the 1970s, now in the middle of the conflict zone on the border with Venezuela.

MBC context lab

The MBC context lab was based in the ministry of Culture in Cúcuta. During the Together Apart Bienal 2019 the lab gave room to initiatives from the three communities. A research team of students from three universities (Uniminuto, Francisco José de Paula and Pamplona) set up a field work program in each neighbourhood. Mapping the official borders and matching them with the informal mental borders of the residents by interviewing locals on how the community organised the public space and social care. From these examples the students drafted a strategy on how citizens could generate a public space strong enough to withstand and overcome the mental borders of Cúcuta. The results were presented at the opening of the exhibition.

Centre for Border Studies (CEF)

Through theoretical and artistic field work, The Centre for Border Studies (CEF) shows not only the impact of mental borders, but also how communities work around them. The MBC action research resulted in implementing the conceptual framework of the Centre for Border Studies into the curatorship of the upcoming Bienal.

Location Cucuta, Colombia

Period 2017 – 2019

Artistic team Dan Gamboa Bohórquez, Natalia Castillo, Melle Smets

Juntos Aparte team Alex brahim, Mónica Villamizar, Ledys Soto, Maria José Jaimes, Stephanie quintero, Juan carvajal, Lara Marín, Leonardo Mesa, Javier López

Production manager MBC team Catalina Fuentes

Community leaders Johanna Gutiérrez, Trino Ortega, Gloria de Navas

MBC fieldwork & research team Elkin España, Valeria Polo, Sibia Guerrero, Husein Rodriguez, María Valeria González, Saira Carely Lázaro, Ivana Isabel Sanchez, Hasly Jasneyra Sarmiento, Jorge Niño, Lina Fernanda Guevara, Danny Aldemar Aranzazu, Juan Manuel Mesa, Camilo Andrés Vásquez

Photography Oscar Mesa

Exhibition production Daniel Grimaldos, Rolando Ceròn, Eduardo Sandoval, Mauricio Roso

Special thanks to Sonia Ballesteros, Magda Martinez, Trino Ortega, Carlos Vergel, Erika Ayala, Yanet Sierra, Mayrene Cobaria, Stephanie Sarmiento, Carlos Saladén Vargas

Commisioned by TOGETHER APART takes place within the framework of BIENALSUR program, the first International Biennial of Contemporary Art in South America.

Funding USAID

Partners El Pilar foundation, Uniminuto University, Francisco de Paula Santander University, FESC university, Corporation Cultural Cucuta, Pamplona University