Barbed world is a photographic exhibition which shows the well-known artifact, barbed wire, and its use in various location. From Brazil to Italy the piece of this prickling metal is widely used as protection, limitation or warning. Three students from the School of Cultures, Languages and Area at the University Nottingham show us how the presence of barbed wire is being easily overlooked and that this seemingly banal object has a very strong meaning. In the following interview they explain how they get involved in this project and what were the main challenges.
JO: how did the project start and why 3 of you were interested precisely in a barbed wire?
Sia: Everything started around one year ago. Alberto and I had a chat about my thesis, and I mentioned that I was thinking to write my last chapter on barbed wire. Alberto then said you know what Miriam and I have been taking pictures of a barbed wire for the last 2 years, so maybe we can do something together.
JO: Ok, so why then you 2 were taking pictures of a barbed wire?
Miriam: One day Alberto said “Why don’t we start taking pictures of barbed wire?” He just suggested that and then we started to take pictures after choosing a specific mobile application: Retro Camera.
Alberto: Yes, I remember, we were in the Attenborough Nature Reserve and there there are several watch towers to observe birds. We were on our way to the Interpretation Centre and from one of the paths you can see a line of a barbed wire and around 200 hundred meters behind is the watch tower to look at the birds. When you look at it from this specific perspective, you see the barbed wire and the watch tower and it looks like one of the watch towers in a concentration camp. So we thought to take it more seriously and take a picture of this, with a specific filter on the mobile phone, and then we decided to take pictures every time when we came across any piece of a barbed wire and we thought “let’s see what happens in one year time; let’s see how many pictures we are able to take and where”.
JO: But was it just a completely random idea or is it somehow related to your research?
Miriam: My research is about the internal enemy in Brazil, so it is not related with barbed wire itself but it has to do with confinement, with a sort of division between the ones who are enemies and the ones who are not. It is a way of thinking how the State creates an internal enemy, because my work is specifically focused on space and the dimension.
Sia: In my case there is a direct relation with my thesis. My thesis is about theory of materiality and as I have already mentioned, I was looking for an artefact for the last chapter. I have chosen the barbed wire because it is a very interesting artefact that has a political dimension and it is dividing people and spaces. In my thesis I am using three major concepts which are the body, the artefact and the representation of the artefact; and that is why the barbed wire is great as a case study.
Alberto: My research is about the invention of the concentration camp in Cuba in the late 19th century. Barbed wire was used in Cuba to confine civilians and later became the universal symbol of extermination camps. Look for instance at the logo of Amnesty International, there is a candle surrounded by a barbed wire, it represents hope in a context of confinement and oppression, especially for civilians. There are Prisoner of War camps but in Cuba they were mainly used for families, women and children who were confined in specific places with barbed wire. Something very similar happened in British Malaya or during the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya.
Sia: Another interesting thing about barbed wire is that it is a very long lasting material. It has been there for more than 100 years and we are still using it. Also it is very simple and cheap.
Miriam: Yes, and other thing is that it is widespread, but you can barely see it. As a photographer, the difficulty was to try to take a picture of something that you usually don’t pay attention to, and even if you notice it, it is disturbing but at the same time it appears banal. The biggest challenge was to take a picture that would be meaningful and make people reflect about such an unnoticed thing.
JO: So that is the purpose of the exhibition, to make the viewers see things that are usually ignored, unnoticed.
Miriam: Yes, it is such a banal thing, but it has a very strong meaning such as “this is my property, you cannot trespass it, it is dangerous”. You just don’t see it because it is part of everyday life.
Sia: The process of taking these pictures was really interesting, because it gave us the space and time to first notice the barbed wire, and then to question it: why it is used in this place and why it is part of this infrastructure?
Miriam: You take a picture of something that is unnoticed but on the other hand meaningful and then the most difficult thing was to make this picture appealing, appealing in a way that people can notice it, and think about why and where it is actually used.
JO: What were other challenges in the projects? Alberto you mentioned before that in one place it was not allowed to take a picture of a barbed wired. Was it difficult to take picture of barbed wire as part of private and public space?
Miriam: It was more difficult when it was a public space. When we went to private properties and asked if we could take a picture of the barbed wire, the owners were normally quite collaborative. However, sometimes we have been in the middle of the street and a policeman has come to us and asked why we were taking those pictures.
Alberto: Yes, it is quite common to be questioned about why you are taking pictures of a fence with barbed wire. We were questioned by a police officer in Beeston, for instance, and also sometimes by simple passers-by. It is barbed wire that makes the site sensitive, so if you take a picture of that you are somehow adopting a suspicious behaviour.
Miriam: Because it is a sign that you should not trespass it and you should not even look at it.
Alberto: It is complicated if it is for example an industrial area or a estate. You are questioned and people suspect that you plan something illegal. Of course, no-one who would be really planning an kind of robbery would stay in front of a place taking pictures with the mobile in day light. A good example of this is the prison in Nottingham. We wanted to take some pictures of the fence and we asked for permission but they replied that it was a high security prison and they could not allow anyone to take pictures of the perimeter. The funny thing is that you are not allowed to take a picture of that prison, but then you go on Google Street View and there it is, the prison and its surrounds with all sorts of details!
JO: Now a more general question about the presence of the barbed wire. You have travelled through many countries, was there any in which you could see barbed wire very often and one in which you really struggle to find it?
Miriam: In Brazil you can see barbed wire very often. Especially a 2,0 version of a barbed wire which is called razor wire and very often is connected to an electric line.
JO: It was mostly on private properties?
Miriam: Yes, it was more common in private properties. And also in very crowded places, e.g. the city centre of Rio de Janeiro. There is no space for limitation of something, because there is no space whatsoever, but you will find barbed wire there. But I think there was no country where it would be difficult to find it. It is such a widely spread material.
JO: And how e.g. in Belgium, with Brussels, capital of the EU?
Sia: I actually don’t recall us taking any picture in Belgium. I think that is definitely more visible in what we usually call “third world” countries. It can be seen a proto-technology, very simple and very cheap; and that is why it is possibly more visible in those countries. But it is used in post-industrial societies too. Maybe just is less visible here because of the infrastructures.
Miriam: Yes, we have this picture from Brazil, a house that is not protected by an external wall, which is already strange in Brazil. It has a balcony, which is also strange to have a balcony without any protection from the outside. But then the protection is razor barbed wire put all around the balcony. Apart from not being aesthetic at all, t is simply absolutely dangerous for the people that live there, children, etc. You want to have this freedom of having a balcony in a country which has problems with security and then you put this razor wire in your balcony, like “let’s have a balcony that we cannot use”. It was very strange. It is normal to see it on a wall that protects the entire house or the space around the house, but just in a balcony… It was a very powerful image though.
Sia: The balcony is a very good example, because in this case, and on some of the pictures, the viewers will see that the presence of the barbed wire just seems useless. And you question yourself: why did they put it there? And then you can understand that it is more a visual artefact: it is not about the real use of it, it is rather about aesthetics.
JO: Any other extraordinary constructions with barbed wire?
Alberto: In the Peak District e.g. there are old traditional drystone walls to set the field boundaries, but for some reason there is also a barbed wire along the walls. Barbed wire is not even on top of the wall, just running in parallel. It is like the redundancy of creating the limits and boundaries with different materials, maybe because in the short term it is cheaper for the landowners to replace the old stones with barbed wire.
JO: You mention few references of academic work on barbed wire on the website. What do you think is the contribution of the exhibition to the discourse?
Sia: I don’t see the exhibition as an academic work, although it is connected with our respective research projects at Nottingham. It was just a practical idea. It all turns around taking a picture of a mundane, almost invisible object, and then asking questions about what barbed wire is doing there.
The official opening of the exhibition takes place on 02nd of March at the University of Nottingham (between Portland and Trent Building) at 5 pm. Before there will be a round table with academics from different disciplines like archaeology, geography, critical theory or political science, who will discuss historical, aesthetic and political aspects of barbed wire.
The exhibition can be seen by 18th of March and for further details http://barbedworld.org/