Topological ‘Border’ Walls in Indian Visual Art
di Alessandra Marino

In the panorama of critical studies on globalization, the often-underlined aspect of growing interconnectedness, enhancing transnational movements of people, goods and information, is counteracted by a renewed interest in limits and borders. The intensification of global movements is intertwined with a revived ideology of neat divisions or a ‘desire for walls’, as Wendy Brown puts it in her work on Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010).1 This revival of seemingly anachronistic methods of seeking security, in the age of immaterial threats, is exemplified by the division between US and Mexico as well as Israel and Palestine, by the proposal of building one between India and Pakistan, or in the urban texture of Padua (Italy), in Via Anelli, to segregate the ‘migrants’. This interest in building or reshaping institutionalized, walled frontiers, Brown suggests, reveals the performative quality of the display of power; even though they do not fulfill any defensive function, walls theatrically re-assert state or federal sovereignty.

On the other hand, the proliferation of borders has recently taken place in more forms than one and the traditional idea of border-lines has been complicated by studies on detention centres strategically located in Europe or by Eyal Weizman’s work on Israeli colonial architecture.2 They suggest reconsidering fenced divisions with a multi-scalar frame of reference and invite to reflect anew on the status of contemporary walls.

A shift in theory comes from reconfiguring border-walls, not merely as topographic lines designing the margins of the states but, following Sandro Mezzadra, as ‘zones of tension and conflict, partition and connection, traversing and barricading, life and death’.3 These zones actualize the network of power relations that intervene in their construction, exposing the conjunction between political, economic, environmental and juridical factors constituting them. Even when they seem to re-propose the anachronism of immovable fences, new border walls concretize a map of power that cannot be conceived as fixed and stable.

Taking into account these works’ invitation to mobilize the concept of border walls and paying attention to artistic representations of the border, this article deals with art works performing this passage from line to zone, or reconfiguring the line as a relational network. I suggest that looking at borders as topological spaces can shed new light on art projects from India and Pakistan that do not address them only as signifiers of cut but as complex, networked structures. Referring in particular to the installations Untitled 2005-2006 and Here There is no Border (2005-2006) by Indian artist Shilpa Gupta, I explore how art can activate a process of change by operating through the linking quality of frontiers. The idea of network here stresses the relational ontology surfacing through the experience of art works.

Looking at extensive borders through the lens of topology allows us to reconsider them as zones of intensity, populated by virtual forces of deformation that make them appear always ‘in becoming’ absorbed in occupying its field of potential’.4 Artistic frontiers produce variations to concrete, geometric forms and catalyse the experiential potential of ‘contact zones’; they capture the audience in the experience of geographic, affective and poetic passages enhancing practices of individuation.

In 2000 Shilpa Gupta was one of the founders and coordinators, with Huma Mulji, of an art project called Aar-Paar. Connecting practitioners from India and Pakistan, this platform of artistic exchange propelled the production of various works reflecting on the material, social, imaginative power of the frontier dividing the two countries. The double connotation of Aar-Paar, meaning both ‘this side and that side’ and ‘[pierced] through and through’, expresses the existence of an open wound created with the splitting of the Indian territory that followed Independence. Various artists contributed to this project rethinking the connection between public art and public space; among them there were Imran Qureshi, Jitish Kallat, Kausik Mukhapadhya, Roohi Ahmed, Sharmila Samant, Sumaira Tazeen and Nalini Malani. In the first phase of this initiative, interestingly, artists used emails and digital media to exchange their works and relied on each other’s collaboration to print and hang the created images and posters at the other side of the border. Digital media bypassed the physicality of the political separation to present art as an ongoing, perpetual experiment of border crossing.

One of the works Gupta created for this project is Blame, which undertook various transformations during the last years, to become an interactive performance and an installation exhibited in Singapore in 2011. In its 2002 realization, Blame was a poster printed in red ink on a white background, where the image of a bottle of crimson liquid, looking like blood, was accompanied by a slogan presenting a dark satire on the rhetoric of violence that joins and divides India and Pakistan. The poster invited the spread of a feeling of blame against other people’s ‘religion and nationality’ and was hung on the city walls of Mumbai and Karachi. Intervening on public walls, Blame inaugurates an experiment of reconfiguration of the wall, touching upon a theme that becomes central in the installation Here There is No Border and then finds an interesting expression in the multimedia production Untitled 2005-2006, which evokes and recreates the experience of living in ‘border-spaces’.

With Here There is No Border, Gupta reconfigures liminal spaces using adhesive strips printed with the slogan giving the title to her artwork: the tape is either stuck walls and gates, virtually juxtaposing new divisions on the existing ones, or is used to draw figures that traditionally convey a sense of security, like houses and flags. The constructed borders become the outlines of the images shaped, but the phrase printed on them, ‘Here There is No Border’, denies the enactment of such a delimiting and regulating function. The identification of borderlines with removable margins puts into question the sense of reassurance conveyed by the intimate space of the house and the nation.

Moreover, the outlines of house doors and windows drawn on museum walls ignite a reflection on partitioning walls not as flat, bi-dimensional surfaces, but as dimensions opening towards new configurations. Gupta’s act of sketching thresholds on the dividing surface interrogates the traditional concept of space based on Euclidean geometry. The neat division between interiority and exteriority established by borderlines, when these are conceived in a Euclidean framework, gives shape to modern conceptions of national territories as homogeneous enclosures. The geometrical designation of the space of national belonging is fundamental for imperial as well as nationalistic enterprises sustaining fictional accounts of a pure origin.

Gupta’s art mobilizes this notion of space promoting, in the contingency of the artistic encounter, a ‘topological’ interpretation of the border between India and Pakistan. A ‘topological space – writes Deleuze – establishes a contact between the Outside and the Inside, the most distant and the most deep’.5 Topology disregards distance and it defines a space of co-existence where interiorities and exteriorities are not pre-given and difference is constructed only relationally. Taking a cue from there, once the ‘inside’ appears as constituted by the folding of the ‘outside’, ‘border walls’ do not merely appear as physical lines, but as ‘multidimentional’ surfaces involved in an ongoing process of transformation.

A striking example of this effort is the installation Untitled 2005-2006. Inspired by a trip in Kashmir, the work stimulates the audience to experience life in this militarized border zone by creating a virtual relation with it. Five interactive screens inserted in museum walls become the locus of a virtual trip and multiple encounters; the affective flow crossing the interface involves the audience in movement and change stimulating processes of subjectivation. By presenting this video-installation, I stress how it enables what I call ‘the becoming boundary’ of the museum wall. Here the word boundary is preferable to ‘border’ since, as will become clearer later, it can overshadow the sense of sharp cut embedded in the second term.

Going back to the form of the installation, for Untitled 2005-2006 Gupta builds a room in the museum room. The audience moves around the newly-built enclosed space where five interactive screens are inserted and feels driven to look through them. The screens appear like windows, but instead of giving access to a vision of inner spaces, the monitors transmit flows of images and sounds weaving a non-consequential discourse on the social, geographical and affective –scapes of the Kashmiri borderland.

The screens use the possibilities provided by new media to stress the permeable and unstable state of the frontier. They function like windows, not only since they open the walls onto a view, but because they become the place where different spheres get into contact. The monitors create spatial proximity by stimulating the public involved in the artwork to virtually interact with unknown subjects and places. Windows initiate a transformation of subjects into ‘open monads’. Following Maurizio Lazzarato’s reading of the nineteenth century sociologist Gabriel Tarde, open monads are not enclosed or external to each other, like Leibnizian monads, but have windows and doors allowing their inter-connectedness. This relational mode triggers the actualization of possible worlds.

In Untitled 2005-2006 a first ‘window’, or monitor, shows the Kashmiri border-scape as captured during a taxi ride. The beautiful panorama in motion, visible from a car window, is constantly disturbed by the hardly perceivable presence of military figures, whose dark and ghostly appearance clashes with the green and yellow of cultivated fields. The soldiers’ presence, though so intrusively keeping towns and villages under siege, is only openly visible when the spectator acts on the video and stops the loop touching the interactive screen. Through the stills, one can focus on these figures and perceive the shape of guns and weapons before the journey starts again. The artist’s voice-over questions the taxi-driver about the land being crossed: ‘does it belong to India or Pakistan?’ This troubling question on the property of the land and reverberates as an interrogation for the audience on their own localization; the space in topographic terms becomes a matter of doubt.

With the wall becoming the frame of a ‘window’ looking onto a natural view, the dimension of the museum itself is captured in a new time/space. As Brian Massumi would remind us: ‘normally a view is thought in geometric terms, as a perspective defined by the breadth and depth of a vision: a viewpoint for a Cartesian subject’.6 Here, on the contrary, the windows present a space with a higher dimensionality, since the force of attraction released through the ‘call for interaction’ and enacted by the digital medium counts as a further dimension. Through the insertion of videos and touch screens, the surface of the museum wall turns into a ‘dimension itself’, a ‘manifold’, whose self-activity and heterogeneity contrasts ‘the inertness and homogeneity of the Euclidean matrix’.7 The installation becomes a topos where geometric distance is abolished and the audience crossing the borderland between India and Pakistan partecipates in a process of subjectivation mobilising their identity.

The active digital video and the wall, so far appearing just as the ‘frame’ of the screen, become a bridge crossed by relational forces. This ‘museum room with a view’, constantly reconfigured by the audience’s interaction, is a manifesto against the homogeneity of Euclidean space. The retained heterogeneity between the levels in contact exposes a function of the screen that can be described, borrowing Massumi’s words, as ‘disjunctive connectivity’. The spectator is ‘sucked into experiencing a movement that isn’t quite his, but doesn’t feel totally outside himself’.8 This movement emerging through an affective contact with the film allows the emergence of a ‘cinematic uncanny’, since ‘familiar’ and ‘un-familiar’ spaces appear like two sides of the same coin.

The sensuous virtual interaction involves touch and sight both separately and together, since what is called into play is the ‘haptic’ visuality of border scenes.9 In haptic visuality, the eyes function like organs of touch, brushing up against the skin of the film. Through this combination of tactile and kinesthetic functions, the viewer experiences a visual-touch that takes place both on the surface of and inside his/her own body. A twist in the perception results from a material contact between perceiver and perceived: windows appear as openings on audio-visual-emotional –scapes that can be touched with all the senses. This trans-sensorial affection produced can re-map the space.

The second screen is shaped like a shattered window, whose glass pieces and residues making up its beautiful structure have fallen apart to be dispersed at the margins of the display. By dragging the pieces back in place using the touch screen, the puzzle of a beautifully carved decorative window can be reconstructed. The balance does not last for long; when the picture is back together, a bomb explodes smashing the window once again.

The involvement of the audience in sustaining or challenging the apparent structure of the artwork becomes more and more intense and is performed through the body. With the fingers moving on the display, the process of subjectivation that art stimulates takes place on the very edge of this topological surface, where every singularity lives on the limit of its own membrane.10 On the surface of the ‘wall’, joint and reciprocal transformations occur and, as the trip in the Kashmiri land plays out or the bomb blasts, the ‘here and now’ of the artistic experience co-exists with other chronotopes.

This affective, tactile experience also engulfs the adjacent screen where the experience of alienation and solidarity appears more clearly. On the other side of the display looking like a hazy window, the spectators can see a finger pressing against the glass. It slowly writes letters, as if in a game for children, and a childlike voice invites to do the same, giving directions on how to touch the screen. ‘Left, Right, make a Dash. Left Left Right Right Right Left Left. A for Army’ – somebody says – while the game originates a feeling of uneasiness. The anonimous finger and the spectator’s finger write together an alphabet of war zones: letters, like atoms, construct the fabric of this shared reality of death. They built up a language where single letters are charged with a terrifying power: ‘B for bomb. C for curfew. D for death. E for explosion. F for fear. G for garden. G for grave. H for hospital. I for Identity Card. J for jail. K for kalashnikov. L for Land of Free Kashmir. M for militant. N for NTR – Nothing To Report. O for obituary. P for Papa 2. Q for questioning. R for rape. S for scar. T for television. U for utopia. V for VDC – Village Defense Committee. W for widow – half widow. X for X-ray. Y for Yes Sir! Z for Z-Security’. Two aporias emerge: the ‘security’ border-zone proves to be ‘insecure’,  and the walls appear both as barriers and as areas of contact, of touch.

Through the interactive screens, while the specular image across the monitor reveals the permeability of frontiers and separations, ‘touch’ performs a change in self-perception and, as a result of that, a shift in thinking about space. As Erin Manning points out in Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty (2007): ‘Touch is not a bordered practice: we know our bodies to exist always outside of their skins, beyond ourselves, in the excess of three-dimensionality’.11 Touch permits to think beyond the rhetoric of the bordered-self, in that it produces a ‘third space’ challenging the limits of self and otherness;12 it exposes phenomenological existence as taking place on and over the edge. Touch questions the crystallization of identity and dismembers the completeness of the Cartesian Subject to cast it into a trajectory of variation, where the body appears as the ‘embodiment of a diverging chronotope to become other than that of the nation state’s solitary space of confinement’.13

The focus on the act of touching in Untitled 2005-2006 opens the geometric concept of space to the plurality of corporeal experiences. It confront the topographical impasse that sees space shrinking within the strict configurations allowed by the state while, on the other hand, it grows through bodily movements. The wall itself is inscribed in this a process of reconfiguration. The flow of images and touch activating embodied encounters mobilize the surface of the wall and open its structure towards the potential of the unknown. The surface of the wall gains multidimensionality when it appears like a threshold, where the inside and the outside coexist and cannot be divided. The topological frontier created through art is irreducible to the monodimensional mark of a line or to the three-dimensional structure of a wall: on this threshold, every point can be a place of re-articulation of an old knowledge.

In Gupta’s work, the presence of the wall does not comply with any narrative of cut; instead, it witnesses a major departure from the idea of interruption to begin a process of overcoming Euclidean linearity. The wall does not simply connect or divide: it is a surface constantly ‘remapped’ in a relational continuum which has the unexpected and interesting effect of highlighting that the state of being ‘bound’ is already inscribed in the word ‘bound-ary’.



1W. Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books, 2010
2 E. Weizman, Hollow Land, London, Verso, 2007
3 S. Mezzadra and B. Nielsen, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor, 2008, online:
4 B. Massumi, Introduction. Concrete Is as Concrete Doesn’t, in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham, Duke University Press, 2002, p.7.
5 G. Deleuze, Foucault, London and New York, Continuum, [1986] 1999, p.110
6 Idem
7 B. Massumi, Interface and Active Space. Human-Machine Design, “Proceedings of the Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art”, Montreal, 1995, p.7, online:
8B. Massumi and T. Dove, The Interface and I. A Conversation between Toni Dove and Brian Massumi, Artbyte: The Magazine of Digital Arts, vol. 1, no. 6, 1999, pp. 30-37. In the same interview Massumi adds: ‘It seems to me that the virtual is that slipperiness of experience. It has to do with the relation and what happens in between. This makes virtuality a dimension of everyday reality that the work is bringing out and expressing more directly’.
9 See also L. Marks, The Skin of Film, Duke U.P., Durham and London, 2000.
10 The screen itself, as a membrane, catalyzes the process that Massumi calls tunneling: ‘Tunneling cuts directly into the fabric of local space, presenting perceptions originating at a distance. The perceptual cut-ins irrupt locally producing a fusional tension between the close at hand and the far removed. As the distant cuts in, the local folds out…’ B. Massumi, Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible, Architectural Design, vol. 68, no. 5/6, May-June 1998, p. 21. This two-way dynamic takes place on the surface of the wall.
11 E. Manning, Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, p.51
12 ibid, p.52
13 ibid, p.63