The United States might no longer be the industrial powerhouse it once was, now that so many of its factories lie in rusting ruin, but it remains a powerful exporter, particularly of ideas. Amongst these an old but still powerfully attractive one is the idea of exceptionalism, that a place can exist outside what are held to be the rules or lessons of history. It is an idea that some Americans like to believe their country itself represents, and more recently the prototype of American exceptionalism has seemed to furnish some of the tools required to renew the sort of territorial ethnic nationalism that the United States was once considered an inspiring alternative to.
Innovations across the Atlantic, not least the ascendancy of Donald Trump (although in truth as a much a symptom as a cause) has helped to invigorate the old nationalism that once held sway in Europe with a new fervour and confidence – a confidence that allows belief in the ability of a given nation state to stand outside of the normal rules, and make a success where logic suggests only failure lies. This ethno-exceptionalism empowers nation-states to turns their backs on the world outside their borders, even if this seems to fly in the face of an ever more globalised and interconnected world economy. Echoing the nationalist battle cry of old, their credo might be: ‘If God be with us, how could the markets stand against us’.
Norman Behrendt’s Blueprint 2017-20 (2021) takes aim at the planning for just such a state of ethno-exceptionalism: the British exit from the European Union. Brexit was a political failure on multiple fronts, not least of internal party politics as British national unity and international diplomacy was gambled in a high stakes bet designed to restore Conservative party unity by the then Prime minister David Cameron (who, on finding the wrong numbers come up, resigned and exited stage left whistling a jaunty tune and pursued by a highly paid consultancy). But it has also very fundamentally been a failure of preparation, with a laissez faire approach to planning resulting in negotiating deadlocks, proliferating bureaucracy and mounting costs. The results are far from the heady promises made, to such a degree that recent polls show that even amongst many leave voters there is mounting dissatisfaction and even a desire to turn back the clock.
Ethno-exceptionalism empowers nation-states to turns their backs on the world outside their borders, even if this seems to fly in the face of an ever more globalised and interconnected world economy.
Blueprint 2017-20 looks at the efforts that went into laying the psychological ground work for persuading voters to believe in Brexit as the exception that proves the rule, while also taking a stab at the total lack of preparedness for the concrete political and logistical reality of it. The book consists of images captured from television screens which intermingle like the view of an inveterate channel hopper. Stills from WWII documentaries, snapshots of political campaigns, news reports, and other material, and are in turn interspersed with Behrendt’s own photographs taken from various outer regions of London (which, people often forget in binary domestic debates about north-south divides, significantly include some of the most deprived and pro-leave parts of the United Kingdom).
The assembled images have been carefully printed as cyanotypes in a visual gag referencing the distinct lack of a blueprint for Brexit, a not unsurprising omission both because a departure from the euro bloc was so unprecedented, but compounded (at least if you believe reports) by the scepticism of even some of its most eager advocates that the referendum would actually fall in favour of a leave result. But for Behrendt’s project that bright blue is also a symbolically charged colour, echoing both the background of the European Union flag, where it is supposed to represent truth, and the key colour of the Conservative Party, which in a demonstration of characteristic pragmatism, adopted blue simply because it was the only hue left in Union jack flag apart from the red already synonymous with the international labour movement.
Narratively Blueprint 2017-20 is loose, and despite the implied chronology of the title it jumps around at times rather disconcertingly. It’s a bit of a shattering slideshow of an increasingly shattered country, and in looking at these photographs I found it hard to feel anything at all except just very, very tired. With this in mind it’s perhaps brave and maybe even a little rash to publish a book on Brexit for the same reason that it would be to put out a book on Covid-19. At least in the UK we’re still living through this thing on a daily basis, and for many of us looking at it any more than we already have to is just perhaps still a little too painful. In time though Behrendt’s book will probably gain something more than this weary British viewer found in it today, and for those outside these sallow isles, it stands as a warning.
If Behrendt’s book deals with the abstract implications of this nationalism and the ideas that underpin it, Rafal Milach’s I am Warning You (also 2021) deals with one very concrete reality of them, which is the proliferating border fences in Europe and beyond. The consequences of this infrastructure were played out very visibility in the winter of 2021 as thousands of refugees were marooned on the Belarussian-Polish border, caught between the equally cynical behaviour of both governments, in freezing conditions which led to a number of deaths.
Milach’s book is in fact a triptych of photo publications and a volume of three texts, all contained within a printed cardboard container, each publication focusing on a different border wall and each taking a slightly different approach.
Milach’s book is in fact a triptych of photo publications and a volume of three texts, all contained within a printed cardboard container, each publication focusing on a different border wall and each taking a slightly different approach. The first focuses on the East German border wall known less catchily as the anti-fascist bulwark (antifaschistischer schutzwall), a name belying its actual purpose to contain East Germans tired of the hardships of socialist brotherhood. Alongside fairly familiar imagery of still extant sections of the Berlin Wall, this volume interestingly ruminates on its transformation into tourist site and historical commodity, featuring dozens of images of parts of the wall offered for sale for anything from a few euros to several thousand, as this symbol of the failure of the world’s largest socialist experiment is transformed into an opportunity for the very thing it was supposed to stand against.
The second volume takes us to Hungarian border fence which was constructed from 2015 onwards along its border with Serbia and Croatia in response to the growing number of refugees seeking safety in Europe via an overland route through the Balkans. Here Milach more directly addresses the infrastructure of the fence with photographs which are a calculated mess of barbed wire, cabling, cameras and signs, interspersed with cleaner imagery of military grade hardware and the people and animals set to guard this border. Shot in Milach’s rather signature flash lit, high key style, this almost glossy look lends itself to and highlights the fact that these walls are a huge commercial opportunity, with enormous profit to be made by the private sector from their construction and operation, not least as the new ethnonationalist states of Europe are often themselves in fact so infirm and stripped of the hard power that once typified the nation state, that they must often outsource such activities.
What these two books do rather effectively, is to show two sides of this new ethnonationalism; Behrendt’s, the ideological and rhetorical ground work which must be laid for it through political bombast and mass media, and Milach’s the hard physical structures built on these soft foundations.
The third and by some distance most substantial of the three volumes focuses on the US-Mexico border wall, a persistent American endeavour for almost a century, which has met with varying success. The core of this volume consists of redacted pages from the official evaluation of the various border wall designs that then President Donald Trump was prominently photographed visiting in March 2018. Alongside these blacked out pages are Milach’s photographs of various stretches of the border wall, which is shown to have a changing architectural vernacular as it undulates over the American landscape. If the other two publications had their own absolutely distinct feel, this one draws a little from each, and perhaps because of this and its significantly greater length, feels the less resolved of the two, but perhaps that’s appropriate for a wall which is itself inconsistent, unsettled, and a little convoluted.
What these two books do rather effectively, is to show two sides of this new ethnonationalism; Behrendt’s, the ideological and rhetorical ground work which must be laid for it through political bombast and mass media, and Milach’s the hard physical structures built on these soft foundations. Demolishing the Berlin wall was a vast task, as it will be in time for these new borders when they cease to serve a purpose or come to represent something too hideous to too many people for them to continue to be allowed to remain. But in either case, demolishing the ideological foundations which made them possible in the first place, may be a far more enduring and difficult project.