Art-Power and Border Art

by Renée Marlin-Bennett

Renée Marlin-Bennett                         Johns Hopkins University

Renée Marlin-Bennett is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. She researches global problems, emphasizing questions about the nature of political power, information flows, bodies and emotions, and borders. She has authored books and articles and co-edited volumes on a wide range of topics, from the global political economy of trade, to international relations theory, to the politics of social media. Beginning in 2006, she served in a leadership role for the International Studies Association’s Compendium Project. In 2012 she became a general editor of the project, then published by Wiley Blackwell as International Studies Online. From 2016 through 2019, she was editor-in-chief of the successor publication, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies, published by Oxford University Press. Marlin-Bennett received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her website is


This article explores the power of art to engage the politics of borders. The theoretical focus of the article knits together conceptualizations of power as control of flows of information (“power flow”), of art as a special kind of this power, and of borders. The approach provides a means of interpreting otherwise unobservable instances of power that manifest when art and the artist communicate sensory data and emotional sensations (both forms of information) at and across borders. The moment of art and artist controlling the flow of information is thus powerful, especially as the artist redeploys the border from a thing that obstructs flow to a zone of connection. Art-power, that is, control of the flow of information in the form of art, is especially suited to creating aesthetic engagements with emotion and with ambiguity and indeterminacy in the context of borders. The substantive focus of this article is on four works of art: Borrando La Frontera, a performance piece in which the artist, Ana Teresa Fernández paints a section of the fence at the US-Mexican border sky blue; El otro México, a writing combining poetry and prose by Latinx feminist scholar-activist Gloria Anzaldúa: There Must Be Another Way, a Eurovision entry featuring singers Mira Awad, a Palestinian Israeli, and Noa (Achinoam Nini), a Jewish Israeli; and a graffito attributed to Banksy on the Palestinian side of the Israeli border wall.

Keywords: political power; art power; power flow; information; border art


Innumerable artists have explored the emotional resonances of borders, the places in which one ontology—one state of being—is exchanged for or gives way to or is taken over by another. Border art[2] can also focus on the in-between-ness of the border, the overlaps, and the ambiguities of identity. Borders, as zones of conflict, can become, for the artist as protestor or activist, places for the promotion of peace or of militarism.[3] Borders provide spaces of agency in which many different actors, including the artists and those who experience their art, engage powerfully with the world, a world in which states are normally considered—at least by mainstream International Relations Theory—as the (only) powerful actors. Perhaps the artists’ power is a small thing, inconsequential compared with the munitions of militaries, yet it is powerful nonetheless as it changes the way people understand and feel about political situations. This article explores art-power as practices and relations that engage the politics of borders.

The substantive focus of this article is on four works of art: a performance of painting over (“erasing”) the US–Mexican border fence (Fernandez 2011), a writing combining prose and poetry about that border as a “1,950 mile-long open wound” (Anzaldúa 2007), a Eurovision entry featuring a Palestinian Israeli and a Jewish Israeli singing about the border of conflict between their communities (Eurovision Song Contest 2009), and a graffito attributed to Banksy on the Palestinian side of the Israeli border wall (Ortner and Banksy 2005). Each of these works engages the politics of borders, though their form of art and their precise political messages vary. The theoretical focus of the article knits together conceptualizations of power as control of flows of information (“power flow”), of art as a special kind of this power, and of borders. The approach provides a means of interpreting otherwise unobservable instances of power. The insight developed here sees art and the artist communicating sensory data and emotional sensations (both forms of information) at and across the borders. The moment of art and artist controlling the flow of information is powerful, especially as the artist redeploys the border from a thing that obstructs flow to a zone of connection.

The next section develops the concept of art-power as a special kind of power flow. Art-power, that is, control of the flow of information in the form of art, is especially suited to creating aesthetic engagements with emotion and with ambiguity and indeterminacy in the context of borders. The following section introduces four works of border art as the texts to be interpreted and situates them in relation to each other. The penultimate section provides the interpretation, deploying the concept of art-power for the analysis of the four works of border art. The final section concludes with a summation and a discussion of the usefulness and limitations of the approach. 


How does art work as a political force; that is, how is art powerful in the world? This section proposes a critical understanding of power that can account for the power of—or better: through—art. I will make the argument that it is useful (a pragmatic criterion) to look at power not as something that happens between two actors (A being more powerful than B) or between the system and an actor but to look at power as control of information flow. The flow produces a relation of power and constitutes A and B in that relation.[4] Art is especially suited for establishing a flow of emotional resonances along with the material objects and ideational content. Art-power is thus a special case of power flow. This section builds that argument by first examining power flow in the general case and then moving to the special case of art.

The General Case: Looking at Power from the Perspective of Information Flow

Power is a contentious concept in the social sciences and especially in political science. For political scientists and international studies scholars, the view that power can be understood as an actor’s set of material resources[5] has largely been superseded by a perspective grounded in relationship and behavior. Dahl’s (1957) dictum that power is A being able to get B to do what B would not otherwise want to do[6] is often the explicit or implicit notion of power referred to. One might draw the picture of the usual approach to power this way (Figure 1):

Figure 1. Power, Normal View.

A problem with this model is that A and B are generally assumed to be known political actors before the power relationship is initiated, and the change in behavior is often assumed to be observable.[7] I suggest an alternate view, one that brings the arrow, representing “what is happening in between,” into focus and expands our understanding of power. This focus on the arrow could be drawn as in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Power, Focus on the Arrow.

The arrow can be conceptualized as a flow of information. This requires definitions of both information and flow of information. Albert Borgmann writes of information in terms of a relation that results when

A PERSON is informed by a SIGN about some THING. The PERSON can be thought of as the recipient of information, the listener, the reader, the spectator, or the investigator. The SIGN has been called the signal, the symbol, the vehicle, or the messenger. And the about-some-THING is the message the meaning, the content, the news, the intelligence, of the information (in a narrower and convenient sense) (1999:18).[8]

With this definition, all the communications that we generally think of as information—tweets, speeches, the violation one has committed as shown on the speeding ticket, facts recorded in dusty archives or in the cloud, and the like—are obvious forms of information. Furthermore, it is even possible to consider material things that have tangible form as translatable into information. The tangible is sensible and sometimes cognizable to the person because the body is able to make sense of it.[9] Works of art can have tangible, intangible, or combined forms; they can also be translated into information.

This perspective casts information as fundamental. Humans are, to use Floridi’s (2011) neologism, “inforgs,”—information beings—and we exist within uncountable flows of information that swirl around and through us. Reflecting on this image and power, it is possible to envision relationships in which the A and B of Figure 2 don’t have to be seen and known before information flows. Eventually, A and/or B will come into view, but we can think of them (be they individual inforgs, states, or other kinds of political agents) as emergent, rather than fundamental and prior.

The next step in the argument is to link information flow to power. I suggest that power is instantiated in the ability to control the flow of information. What I call “power flow” is a description of power from an alternate perspective, rather than a better definition of power. Importantly, power as control of information flow is emphatically not a new “kind” of power. That is, it’s not the case that control-of-information-flow power is just one more kind of power such as military power, economic power, or soft power. Consider the analogy of a glass of water. One way to analyze the glass of water would be to focus on the properties of the glass that contains the water. Another way would be to focus on the properties of the water contained in the glass. In both cases, the glass of water is being analyzed, but the change of focus means the analyst uncovers a different set of observations. Shifting from the actor-centric perspective on power to the power flow view similarly allows the analyst to gather different insights. The concept of power flow is useful because with it we can recognize instances of power that could be missed by the actor-centric approach sketched in Figure 1.

To further assess power flow, we can scrutinize the properties of information flow. These include not just the content (or signal—the information itself), but also its velocity (direction and speed) and access to it. An instance of power involves control one or more of these properties, for example changing the content (inserting new information into the flow, for example), slowing or redirecting the flow, or preventing someone from receiving information.

Power flow can be seen in the function of borders.[10] Borders can be physical or ideational structures designed to stop or slow flow across them, but also providing zones of contact and a means of crossing. Borders are used primarily to control velocity and access, and they may be more or less permeable and more or less permanent. Examining the flow of information around and across borders presents a means of assessing power flow.

From the general case of conceptualizing control of flows of information as power flow and theorizing how different properties of information flow can be controlled via borders and other means, we can move to how the special qualities of art present opportunities for instantiating moments of (micro) political power[11] and for artists to emerge as surprising actors in global politics. In other words, when the arrow of power flow contains images, sounds, or other sensations of art, the very nature of the content produces effects that exceed or at least differ from otherwise similar messages that do not engage an aesthetic register. The next section presents a discussion of art-power and the role of borders. The cases of four works of border art are presented and interpreted afterwards.

The Special Case: Art Power

By examining art as sensory-rich and emotional information that moves from the work of art to those who experience it, the power of art can be recognized. The art information moves from the object or performance to the audience—to individuals in the audience and, as the art is experienced with others, to “the audience” as a corporate body. Art comes into view as a surprising, often spectacular event. Neither A (the artist(s)) nor B (the individual observer or collective audience) are fully formed as independent political actors prior to their relationship, which is brought into being through the art. Moreover, art may not change the audience members’ overt behavior; it may, however, force them to feel. The experience of an affective state is a way of being rather than of behaving.

The arrow represents the flow of information (the sense data and emotional information produced by the art). B, when confronted with an artwork, may find the ordinary patterns of “organoleptic experience” (Panagia 2009:40) disrupted and emotions engaged. Artist and Observer/Audience, I suggest, are constituted in relation to each other, because of and out of this flow. The artists become visible as their art draws attention.[12] The artworks are conduits for sensory and emotional information, thereby pushing the artists’ conceptions of the political conditions into the public sphere. Art has an especially close connection to the expression of and transmission of emotion.[13]

Properties of Information Flow for Art

To assess art power, we can look to the properties of information flow and see how art is different from other, perhaps more prosaic forms. For example, the content—i.e., subject matter—of the artwork itself can communicate truth, depicting what exists; it can also communicate fantasies of a possible future or alternate reality. Of particular importance is the emotion and its valance that is communicated by art because art provokes an embodied affective response. The relation between work of art and the audience tasks the audience to recognize feelings that they understand being expressed through the artwork (Barwell 1986).

Art as Content: Emotion

Artworks exceed simpler forms of communicating information in the way in which they are able to engage emotions. Art engages us affectively—that is, it prompts our bodies to feel emotions.[14] We respond emotionally to art unconsciously as well as consciously:

Affect, at its most anthropomorphic, is the name we give to those forces—visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion—that can serve to drive us toward movement, thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us (as if in neutral) across a barely registering accretion of force-relations, or that can even leave us overwhelmed by the world’s apparent intractability (Seigworth and Gregg 2010: Kindle loc. 50).

The aesthetic engagement with art changes our experience of the world. As Panagia writes: “aesthetic experience ungrounds our subjectivity” (2009:28), allowing us (or perhaps requiring us) to think beyond routine notions of worth. Writing not about art but about a much bloodier form of communication, self-sacrifice, Fierke notes that “the material body becomes the embodiment of meaning” that is “laden with emotion.” This emotion “moves out towards a larger audience” and “makes a further link to memory as a reservoir of meaningful emotions and its ‘stickiness’ vis-à-vis different audiences” (2012:80). Art acts similarly on the different audiences, who draw upon “a reservoir of meaningful emotions” to make sense of the portrayed emotions. 

Art as Content: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy

Many works of art are inherently ambiguous or indeterminate, and this, too affects how emotional information is transmitted to the audience. Exactly how depends, in part, on the terms defined. Scholars in several disciplines have written about the distinction between “ambiguity” and “indeterminacy.” For example, Best (2008:363), an International Relations scholar, defines ambiguity as one kind of indeterminacy. Gillon (1990:400), a linguist, defines ambiguity as: “An expression is ambiguous if the expression can accommodate more than one structural analysis”. He gives the example of such a statement: “Chunka hit a man with a stick” (ibid.:407). He defines indeterminacy as “(3) An expression is indeterminate iff there is some property which neither is included in the expression’s connotation nor is a species of any property included in its connotation” (ibid.:397). I will hew more closely to the linguistic definition and try to interpret ambiguity as something having multiple meanings and indeterminacy as something having unspecified, unknown meanings.

Some of the ambiguity and indeterminacy comes from the media of the art itself, as representative art may be less ambiguous and indeterminate than conceptual art. More to the point, though, the ambiguity and indeterminacy come from the constitutive aspects of how symbols are used for specific purposes (Craig 1999:127). Russill provides the pragmatist explanation for this, drawing on the work of William James: there is a fundamental “indeterminacy” in the message sent and the message received. “[C]haracterizing such difficulties as a problem of incommensurability rather than how two minds know one thing will provide a better means of resolving such situations. In fact, we are only led to the latter formulation if we confuse the products of intellectual inquiry for the way the world actually is” (2005:290; see also Craig 2007). Furthermore, neuroscience research has found that complexity, indeterminacy, and ambiguity are associated with a heightened emotional response of the audience to a work (Margulis et al. 2017). 

Velocity and Access to Art: The Role of Borders

Velocity refers to a vector composed of speed and direction. To make sense of the velocity of art as information, we need to think of the art (the content) as moving from one point to another, possibly, but not necessarily, from the artist at the time of the work’s creation to an audience at the time when it is displayed for others. Speed and direction are controlled when someone determines how fast the art is presented to what audience or makes the images. The direction of art can be seen in the way art is presented, to whom it is directed, and its location and path (in the real world and/or online). Velocity has to do, as well, with making the images (or sounds or other sensations) visible (or audible, or sensible) in other ways. The final property, access, looks who is able to (or possibly forced to) experience the art. Access refers to who experiences the art. For example, is a work intended for the public, or is access to it limited by private ownership, high museum fees, or the like?

The presence or absence of borders affects both velocity and access. Velocity is affected because borders impede or redirect flow; access is affected because borders protect from or open up access to the flow. Borders and other boundaries serve as barriers, connections, and conduits. As barriers, they stop flows (of people, of things, less easily of ideas). But boundaries are also the point of contact, drawing different entities together in proximity. As Andrew Abbott (1995) explained, boundaries give that which is bounded its coherence by helping us distinguish who or what is and is not within the bounds.[15] Thus boundaries are implicated in the formation “in the construction of sociospatial identities,” with “boundary narratives and discourse” playing an important role (Newman and Paasi 1998:191).

The special character of art is especially evident when art engages with borders by protesting them, by creating them, by taking them down, or by putting them up. The genre of border art includes works at and about the US–Mexico border (Berelowitz 1997; Bonansinga 2014; Szary 2012) and works that engage with European borders (Pötzsch 2015), as well as other areas. Border art deals with various kinds of boundaries,[16] and the works draw our attention to different ways of problematizing the notion of “border” and the political practices that make and remake borders (“bordering practices”). When artists create border art by doing things such as setting a boundary, crossing it, subverting it, using it to block something, erasing it, and so forth, they are engaging in micropractices of global politics.[17]

In the section that follows, I introduce four works of art that contest borders. Art-power is not directly observable, a difficulty I circumvent by taking an interpretivist approach. The method is justified as part of the “broader body of critical and reflexive work” that theorists have undertaken to “[explore] popular culture and art, enhancing interpretive accounts of international politics” (Moore and Shepherd 2010:300). Interpretive approaches are particularly appropriate for researching the role of emotion in global politics by exploring aesthetic sources (Bleiker and Hutchinson 2008).

Four Works of Art Contesting Borders

Fernandez, Borrando la Frontera (2011); Anzaldúa, El otro México (2007); Nini [Noa][18] and Awad, There Must Be Another Way (Eurovision Song Contest 2009); and Banksy, untitled grafitto (Ortner and Banksy 2005) are, respectively, a performance of painting and an essay and poem, both contesting the US–Mexico border; and the performance of a song and a mural by a famous graffiti artist, both contesting the Israel–Palestine border. The works are done in different media, and the specific nature of the contestations varies. Nevertheless, each of these works of art is an instance of art power, as the art itself (the content), the velocity of the information, and access to the information are manipulated by the artist to make the border a site of political critique. Each of the works tells a story about the border, a story in which negative emotions for current situations hint at potential for transformation for, to use the words of Nini and Awad, “a better way.”

Borrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border)

On a Tuesday in June 2011, artist Ana Teresa Fernández[19] erased the US–Mexican border at Tijuana (see Figure 3). She did so in a black cocktail dress and spike heels, using Martha Stewart Living light blue exterior paint number MSL 5011 (Fernandez 2011; Holslin 2011; Trimble 2015). She had a little help from a couple of friends and in a later similar performance at the Nogales border, help from more friends. With the performance, the physical act of painting and the resulting vista in which the painted barrier seems to disappear into the sky, she is communicating powerfully about this territorial border (US–Mexico). Her attire and persona (climbing the ladder in a cocktail dress and heels) disrupt social boundaries (between men and women, between classes, etc.). Despite the blue paint and transgressive clothing, the border fence still exists. Anyone coming up to it will still see metal bars that (are intended to) limit the flow of migrants into the United States.

The beach beyond the fence is the same as the beach on the other side. By erasing the fence, she makes this sameness come to the fore. The black bars of the unaltered fence separate; the blue bars of the painted fence disappear, showing a unity that is not interrupted by a display of sovereign territoriality. The remaining black fence shows as a scar on the land, as illegitimate when juxtaposed to the smooth progression of sand and sky as seen through the invisible blue bars. On the other hand, the border is still there. Walking up close, the barrier is still a tangible, visible thing that prevents people from crossing. The blue paint that fades into the sky only makes the border look less ominous, and perhaps that is more sinister still: the barrier that cannot be seen is more dangerous than one that can be.

Figure 3. Borrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border). Documentation at Tijuana/San Diego Border. Image by Maria Teresa Fernandez; Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris & artist.

El otro México

The second work, a combination of poem and essay written by Gloria Anzaldúa (1942–2004),[20] also contests the border, in this case with an emphasis on how the border disrupts the artist’s body (and by implicit extension, the bodies of those who share her intersectional identity).

Anzaldúa’s writing mixes art, scholarship, and personal essay as it combines the prose with poetry and English with Spanish. Hybridity and combinations are recurrent themes in her work. While there is an aesthetic sense of the textured language she uses in each form of writing here, the poetry is most evidently “art.” The stanzas of poetry seem to express the excess of feeling in reaction to the prose, feelings that spill over and out of the confines of the essay form into an artistic rendering. The placement of the poetic passages’ words on the page—the visual aspect of the poem—ruptures the rectangular form of the essay and further pushes the emotional content at the reader.

In Anzaldúa’s telling, “the U.S.–Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” The image is of the fencing as it was prior to the installation of more substantial vertical bars. The fence Anzaldúa faces is at once shabbier and sharper, more likely to rip the unwary body. Yet Fernández and Anzaldúa write of this same place where San Diego and Tijuana and the Pacific Ocean meet. Anzaldúa writes of a boundary that starts at that point and gashes the landscape until it comes to another sea in this selection from a book section called “El otro México” [The other Mexico] (2007:24–25).

                        I press my hand to the steel curtain –

       chainlink fence crowned with rolled barbed wire –

rippling from the sea where Tijuana touches San Diego

            unrolling over mountains

                        and plains

                                    and deserts

this “Tortilla Curtain” turning into el río Grande

            flowing down to the flatlands

                        of the Magic Valley of South Texas

            its mouth emptying into the Gulf.

1,950 mile-long open wound

                                    dividing a pueblo, a culture,

                                running down the length of my body,

                                    stalking fence rods in my flesh,

                                    splits me       splits me

                                                me raja                      me raja

                        This is my home

                        this thin edge of


                        But the skin of the earth is seamless.

                        The sea cannot be fenced,

            el mar does not stop at borders.

To show the white man what she thought of his


                        Yemayá blew that wire fence down.

                                    This land was Mexican once,

                                                was Indian always

                                                            and is.

                                                And     will be again.

The imagining of a “Tortilla Curtain” (in scare quotes) reminds the readers that the boundary between the US and Mexico is no less separation than the Iron Curtain between East and West (extant at the time the poem was written). Both curtains have physical manifestations—lines demarcating the end of one country and the beginning of another—but also the intangible distinction between friend and enemy (Schmitt 1996 [1932]). The poem links images of the border to violence. The border causes the wound to the narrator by splitting her skin. The borderlands as wide expansive territory on both sides of the line seem to have been pulled in or constricted. The narrator is reduced to living on the barbed wire. The border is not just artificial (made by human design); it is an unnatural place to live. And yet, for Anzaldúa, the border contains the potential for emancipatory, radical connection despite its violence.

There Must Be Another Way

Figure 4. Mira Awad (on the left) and Noa (Achinoam Nini), 2009 Eurovision Contest. Available online at,noamira121.html (Accessed 14 October 2019). Image credit: Ronen Akerman.

Singers Mira Awad (a Palestinian Israeli) and Achinoam Nini (also known as Noa; a Jewish Israeli of Yemenite background) performed “There Must Be Another Way” in the 2009 Eurovision Contest. Both Awad and Nini are peace activists.[21] The artists (see Figure 4) could be said to resist phenotypical stereotypes: Awad looks more Western, with paler skin and lighter hair than Nini; Nini’s dark skin and hair look more typically Arab than Awad’s.

Their song, co-written with Gil Dor, is a political anthem. The music is lively, and without listening to the words, the listener might imagine it to be just a cheery, tuneful melody. In the video, the singers have jaunty (if awkward) shoulder movements as part of their choreography. Synecdoche seems to be operating in this artistic relation. Awad stands in for at least the category of all Palestinian Israelis, but perhaps for Arabs more generally. The fact that the lyrics do not mention that the women (“sisters” in the lyrics) are citizens of the same country makes it possible for Awad to become the generic Arab. Nini stands in for the category of Israelis. Both stand in for women.

The use of Hebrew, Arabic, and English emphasizes difference and separation (with English, perhaps, being the neutral linguistic ground). Yet the lyrics allow the musicians to cross (or at least pass over) those differences. The words speak of “we” and “us,” walking “hand in hand.” Their onstage performance at the Eurovision Contest itself similarly shows a sisterly affection between the singers. Even calling them Palestinian and Jewish Israelis oversimplifies: as the daughter of Jews from Yemen, Nini is a Mizrachi Jew; her parents speak Arabic. Awad is a Christian (half) Palestinian. The tensions of their identities—Nini is not one of the more dominant Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis and Awad is not one of the more numerous Israeli Muslims—make them unlikely representatives of differences to be overcome. They are, perhaps, most like each other, something heard in their beautifully blended voices.

But the words, some of which are included below (Hebrew and Arabic lyrics in translation), reveal a still sorrowful political present, despite improvements, and the hope for a better future. This is not a happy song.

[In English]

There must be another
Must be another way

[In Hebrew]

Your eyes, sister
Say all that my heart desires
So far, we’ve gone
A long way, a very difficult way, hand in hand

And the tears fall, pour in vain
A pain with no name
We wait
Only for the next day to come

[In Arabic]

Your eyes say
A day will come and all fear will disappear
In your eyes a determination
That there is a possibility
To carry on the way
As long as it may take

For there is no single address for sorrow
I call out to the plains
To the stubborn heavens

[In English]

And when I cry, I cry for both of us
My pain has no name
And when I cry, I cry
To the merciless sky and say
There must be another way

(Nini, et al. 2009 [original lyrics]; Spring 2009 [translation])

There Must Be a Better Way, in the words of Awad, is

not even a song of peace, you know. I want to correct that. It is not a song of peace. I am not singing, oh, hello, shalom, salaam, peace, please let’s love each other, peace shall conquer, no. I’m just saying look at your fellow human being and remember that he’s a fellow human being. That’s all. That’s all. You do not need to be in love with that fellow human being. You do not need to make him your partner nor your friend, nor nothing. Just respect his right for life. That’s it (National Public Radio 2009).

The humble message—“Just respect his life”—has the sort of earnest, heart-tugging political message that is not normally found at the Eurovision Contest, which is more generally known for camp and kitsch. And sequins (Hall 2013). And indeed, the song finished only in 16th place, despite the quality of the artists and the music.

Banksy Mural

The final work is one of the graffiti murals that Banksy painted in on the Palestinian side of the Israeli separation barrier[22] (see Figure 5). In the mural, the boundary fence prevents the children from escaping Palestine and going to the sea. They can look at the serene beach and pretend they are there, but they cannot pass the barrier wall. Banksy, a vocal advocate for Palestinian rights and critic of Israel, would reject Awad and Nini’s message: given the massive reality of separation wall, possibilities of finding “another way” are now only fantasy, he would likely claim. The wall ends the possibility of productive border crossings and, moreover, in Banksy’s words, it “essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison” (Fisher 2017).

In the photograph below, taken by Markus Ortner (Ortner and Banksy 2005), this stasis is shown as the ironic portrayal of a hole in the wall (see also Rokem 2011). The trompe l’oeil view through the wall seems, at least for the moment, real. The eye is indeed fooled by the illusion. But the realism ends abruptly as the eye is drawn to the cartoon characters of the boys with their sand pails and shovels. They cannot go through to that halcyon scene, even though they ought to be on that beach. This scene contrasts with Fernández’s work. When she erases the border, with blue paint, the view is of the actual beach beyond. Without the interruption of the black bars of the unpainted fence, we can see the reality of the beach better. Banksy’s work does not show us the real another side of the barrier. We quickly realize it is fake, despite its illusion.

Figure 5. Photograph of a Banksy Graffiti Artwork by Markus Ortner, 2005. Available online at (Accessed 14 October 2019).

Interpretation: Art-Power against and at Borders

The initial moment of creating the art and communicating it is an act of controlling content and therefore an instance of power. But the work, when in the world, also engages with individual observers and audiences. This section offers an interpretation of these works based on the art power framework. I explore how the flow of information is controlled by examining content (first emotion and then ambiguity and indeterminacy) and velocity and access (affected by and affecting borders and bordering practices).

Content: Emotion

Art power acts on an affective register when it informs about an emotion—an exposition of emotion—or when it evokes emotion in the observer—a sort of forced empathy. Fernández and Nini and Awad provide examples of the former. Their primary aim is to announce their emotions to the viewers and listeners rather than making their audience feel a certain way. Defiance seems to be the main operative emotion that Fernández communicates. The transgressive costume—the little black dress and black stilettos that serve as symbols of female sexuality—combined with paint as a symbol of “laboring” (Holslin 2011) emphasizes the audaciousness of her actions.

Nini and Awad similarly announce their emotional states—caring for each other, feeling great urgency and frustration—through the music, lyrics, and choreography. The musical form itself alerts the listeners to emotions, even if they do not understand all or some of the lyrics. The increase in volume, the use of an insistent repetition (“must be another, must be another”—same lyric, pitches, tempo) tells listeners of urgency and a feeling of importance. The music moves from lower pitch to higher through the verse, staying higher in the chorus; the intensity similarly increases from piano to forte. In the performance at the Eurovision final[23] the choreography further emphasizes the urgency of the music during the chorus when they stride purposefully toward the audience.[24]

Banksy’s and Anzaldúa’s art acts more directly on the observer. Banksy’s graffito immediately evokes an empathetic response from the viewer, making the viewer imagine what it would be like for a child to know that the beach, an idyllic place for play, was so close but beyond reach. The observer, situated with the children on the wrong side of the wall, sees the realist portrayal of the beautiful beach and the cartoon-like portrayal of the children, and is made to feel that the place of the beach is more real than the children. Anzaldúa’s shifts between forms of essay and poem and uses the poetic presentation to engage emotions in the reader. The phrases seem to tumble forward, increasing in pain and harm and the reader feels loss and fright. The second to last line of this passage (“splits me            splits me”) makes the reader feel the fright of the separating of the self into two parts. The following line (“me raja      me raja”) does the same, with the addition of the Spanish speaker feeling the rasping of the “j” behind the palate, which, at least for me, heightens the affective response. The fright is embodied.

Content: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy

Art power also may work through ambiguity and indeterminacy in the production of identity, of self, and others. Fernandez’s art tends to be more indeterminate than ambiguous. Her work provokes the observer to question questions. In making the border fence disappear, what is her intent? Is she seeking to provoke the United States government, or is she trying to entertain her audience? Is her erasure a protest against the ugly aesthetic of the fence as much as it is against US efforts to prevent the flow of migrants? What is the meaning of the black dress?

Anzaldúa, in contrast, provides answers rather than questions, and the answers highlight the ambiguity around her multivalent identity. She portrays herself, spirit and body, as split on the borderline, the artificial separation of Indian land. She was a mestiza, her heritage mixing indigenous Aztec and invader Spanish blood: Her body, by its existence, crossed boundaries. She tries to consolidate and heal that fraught heritage: “We, indias y mestizas, police the Indian in us, brutalize and condemn her … [but t]he spirit of the fire spurs her to fight for her own skin and a piece of ground to stand on, a ground from which to view the world—a perspective, a homeground where she can plumb the rich ancestral roots into her own ample mestiza heart” (Anzaldúa 2007:44–45). Her identity is ambiguous and it is unclear whether exactly how she sees herself. Yet the complicated pronouncement itself is a protest against the requirement that she be put into a single, subaltern category. She invites her audience to join this ambiguity, empowering a community of hybridity.[25]

There is also ambiguous hybridity in Nini and Awad’s performance that is located in embodiment. Because of the way they look and their ability to sing in each other’s language, they embody an ambiguity of identity that challenges the boundary between ethnicities. Their anti-conflict message was unambiguous.

However, Nini and Awad, like Banksy, face indeterminate responses from audiences. They did not necessarily receive the reception they had expected and their art was not necessarily understood with the meaning they had planned. Of course, art need not evoke the expected emotion and/or response from the audience. “It has been rightly observed that that the feelings aroused by sad or happy music are by no means themselves necessarily sad or happy” (Carr 2004:225). Indeed, anger was sometimes the response. A source of source of indeterminacy for Nini and Awad was whether audiences would receive them as singers and peacemakers, or would they be challenged for being unfaithful to their respective “sides” of the conflict? Both happened. They were celebrated by some audiences, and they also faced a public furor in opposition to their performance. The fact of the entry sparked controversy, as political antagonists criticized the artists for, on the one side, the singing with an Arab in Arabic for Israel’s entry and on the other’s, for representing the oppressor at Eurovision (Belkind 2010). Nini was criticized by the Israeli right for her peace activism in a time of terrorist attacks on Israel. (Nini continues to come under fire for her peace activism efforts (Moskovitz 2016)). Awad was criticized for agreeing to represent the State of Israel, especially given the then on-going Israeli military action in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead.

Banksy’s mural similarly carries an unambiguous message and meets with an indeterminate response from audiences. While some have been very moved by his murals in the West Bank, the viewer might immediately shift to a different emotional response, perhaps being annoyed at the implicit assumption in the work that access to the beach is a right. Or the viewer may reject the implicit flattening of a complex political situation. The response seems to depend on whether the observer is Palestinian or not. “To many Palestinians, a structure that has brought pain and suffering to their lives has become, for all practical purposes, a source of excitement and fantasy for tourists staying at the hotel.” Banksy has also been derided for the “Walled Off Hotel” that he built near the separation barrier in Bethlehem. The hotel attracts Western tourists, who enjoy putting graffiti on the wall, an activity that many Palestinians find inappropriate (Ashley 2017). The fact that art does not determine the reaction of the audience adds to its indeterminancy.

We can look at this angry reception to the mural and the singers as instances of the power of the art being opposite the intention of the artists, who wished only to provoke a low stakes sort of momentary empathy in otherwise disinterested third parties. This outcome highlights why it matters to understand agents and subjects in a power relationship—the As and Bs—to be emergent, that is to be formed as a consequence of information flows and how they are controlled. 

Velocity and Access: Borders and Bordering Practices

Each of these works engages, at least in part, with the territoriality of borders, and these territorial borders are being contested because of the way in which they are barriers, connections, and conduits. Fernández and Anzaldúa, whose works contest the US–Mexico border, both address a border that has a feel of permanence. Nini and Awad’s performance and Bansky’s mural both address a border that is not internationally recognized and, indeed is indeterminate. The fact that Banksy’s mural is on the separation barrier links his art to a specific physical boundary, one that may or may not become a recognized interstate territorial border. Nini and Awad’s border is less tangibly geographical than that of the other artists since singers are mobile. They travel around the world, and indeed the particular performance that I have presented was in a sort of global space: the Eurovision Contest. Despite the fact that they are not fixed at the border, the duet, I would assert, is haunted by the territoriality of Palestine and Israel, the presence of contested borders, and the absence of peaceful ones.

Fernández’s optical illusion erasing the border serves to highlight all three of these bordering functions as they relate to the flow of information. Looking at the parts of the border fence that have not been altered by her blue paint, the fence seems massive, dominating what the observer sees. The fence prevents the onlooker from seeing beyond. But when one focuses, instead on the blue section and the optical illusion of its disappearing into the background, the viewer sees the continuity of the landscape as far as the eye (via illusion) sees. The blue boundary provides connection and acts as a conduit for information. The observer sees that the sea, the sand, and the beachgoers are the same. Fernández echoes Anzaldúa’s point: “But the skin of the earth is seamless./The sea cannot be fenced, el mar does not stop at borders.” Both imply that land and people’s identity is similarly seamless.

Anzaldúa expresses the idea of connections at the border, as well. In the poem, Yemayá acts on behalf of the Chicanos by blowing down the fence that was placed at the border by the whites. But Yemayá is African; she is not an Aztec goddess. Slaves from Africa brought the worship of Yemayá to Cuba, and she remains one of the Santería deities. Díaz-Sanchéz suggests that this intentional acknowledgment of Yemayá “proclaims linkages between collective Chicana and Indigenous cultural practices of resistance with African diasporic spirit practices that survived the colonial imposition of Christianity on the Americas” (Díaz-Sánchez 2013:157, emphasis added), The fact of borders links the Chicano/a and the Black because of place within society. And it is not just these two identity groups. Anzaldúa was also a lesbian, which provided another connecting tie:

Being the supreme crossers of cultures, homosexuals have strong bonds with the queer white, Black, Asian, Native American, Latino, and with the queer in Italy, Australia, and the rest of the planet. We come from all colors, all classes, all races, and all time periods. Our role is to link people with each other—the Blacks with Jews with Indians with Asians with whites with extraterrestrials…

The mestizo and the queer exist at this time and point on the evolutionary continuum for a purpose. We are a blending that proves that all blood is intricately woven together and that we are spawned out of similar souls (2007:106–107).

Nini and Awad’s performance was one of the intentional crossings of difficult borders. The women represented their categories of Israeli citizens: Jewish and Palestinian, which exist mostly separately in Israel. Although some Palestinian Israelis and some Jewish Israelis have friendships or other relationships, and although music making between the communities is not unprecedented, the social boundaries are still great. In art power terms, the intercommunal border limits access to information, something that Nini and Awad seek to overcome.

Nini and Awad also engage with language as a boundary—and as a connection. In this case, the distinction between languages provides the boundary. The singers begin together in English, which is used to signal neutrality or universality and the lack of a barrier. Then Nini, the Israeli Jew, begins to sing alone in Hebrew. Hebrew is her language and marks the difference between her and Awad, a Palestinian Israeli. But then Awad joins, singing in Hebrew, as well. After the chorus in English, Awad starts the next verse alone in Arabic, understood as her language. Soon Nini joins in Arabic, as well. Their solos reference how their identities are connected to the differences of language, but their duets show how these languages connect them, as well. Awad’s Hebrew fluency comes from having grown up as a citizen of Israel. Nini’s ability to sing in Arabic may come from her Yemenite Jewish ancestry, or from learning.[26] Our human capacity allows us, with effort, to cross boundaries of the language difference.

Banksy’s wall, however, remains more of a border, even though a hole appears in the wall that might seem to let the children crawl through if only they had a short ladder (Figure 3).

By focusing on the relation of borders to flows in this art, state and other bordering practices come into sharp relief. Fernandez and Banksy both use their art to create an image of breaches of the border. The border, in their rendering, is no longer intact and solid but instead can be breached, at least within the imagination. Anzaldúa shows layers of identity (American, Mexican, and Indian) as existing together at the border. She acknowledges US control (the “white man” who arrogantly put up the fence), yet concludes that “This land was Mexican once/was Indian always/and is/and will be again” (2007:25). Nini and Awad reach across warring identities to call each other “sister” (Eurovision Song Contest 2009), itself ambiguous term. Are they sisters as true friends might be, or does sister mean no more than they are of the same gender and share women’s concerns? 

Synoptic Table

Table 1 presents a summary of the interpretation of these artworks.

Conclusion: Border Art-Power

Border art power is subtle; its reach is limited. Yet it captures how individuals engage in micro-global politics and how those practices change the way people think and feel. An actor-centric approach to power would overlook these practices.

The works of art discussed here can be celebrated as (micro) powerful interventions into the politics of the US–Mexico and Israel–Palestine border, but not always as the artists intended. Fried (1988), for example, emphasizes the relation between painting and beholder, and, though he does not use the language of political power (he is an art critic and historian), his discussion of the beholder might be read in terms of power. Those observing art are “knowing bodies” (Marlin-Bennett 2013) who make judgments about the information they receive and who can take action to control the flow of information (with or without the aesthetic characteristic of art), too. Their reception of the information will depend on their personal experiences, beliefs, and tastes. Some may be deeply affected and empathetically feel the artist’s message; others will react oppositely and reject the artist’s message.

Nevertheless, art-power, despite its complexity, is one answer for what Hutchinson and Bleiker suggest is “[t]he key challenge” for what has been called “the emotional turn” in international relations scholarship: “[H]ow do individual emotions become collective and political?” (2014: 499). They point to representations of emotion as critical to this process (ibid.:505–507). The artworks discussed here are complexly mimetic and aesthetic, and they are instances of art-power. When art challenges borders, it communicates political messages (albeit ambiguously and indeterminately) to audiences. The doing of this—this practice of art at/on/beyond/across/against border—is an instance of power (however small) because it is a means of controlling the flow of information. Emotion is part of that message and it is particularly important, I think, because there is no “rational action” without emotional engagement. Looking at art and borders allows us to confront emotion and power in unexpected ways.

The interpretation presented here is necessarily incomplete because these works have much more in them than can be assessed in an article. Nor can there ever be a definitive, complete exegesis—or would that be desirable. Furthermore, I make no claim about the superiority of power flow and art power when compared to other perspectives on power. My claims are more modest: Art is powerful; this conceptualization of art power suggests how so and why; interpreting border art through the framework of art power uncovers instances of power that are otherwise hidden.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.17


[1] A draft of this paper (with a different title) was presented at the 2016 International Studies Association Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. I am grateful to Yehonatan Abramson for finding a translation of the song, and to him, to Bernadette Wegenstein, and to all the PhD students and colleagues who have not been able to escape my rambling about this. Very special thanks to Margaret Keck and to the PhD students in our seminar on the Politics of Territories and Boundaries (both years) and to my undergraduate students in successive offerings Imagining Borders. I am especially grateful for the close reading, critical intellectual engagement, helpfulness, and time that has been gifted to me by J.P. Singh and Evangelos Chrysagis, the editor and managing editor of this journal, and by the wry anonymous peer reviewer. The remaining insufficiencies of this article are my own darn fault.

[2] The term “border art” is often used to refer to the political art at and about the US–Mexico border, an art movement associated with 1970s Chicano rights movement and the political milieu of 1970s San Diego, California. See Fusco (1989), Berelowitz (1997), Hershberger (2006), and Sheren (2018). This article adopts a broader definition, referring to art at or about any political border (Giudice and Giubilaro 2015; Pötzsch 2015; Schimanski 2015; Szary 2012).

[3] One might argue, though, that art is more commonly used for bellicose ends. The genre of “military music” and its place in the conduct of war would be one obvious example. Herbert and Barlow, who discuss the role of “bands of music” in the British military during the long nineteenth century, suggest that musicians contributed to the war effort through their music, including by playing well-loved tunes “merrily” as the regiment marched into battle (2013:8).

[4] This is highly simplified since in any “field of view” (Onuf 1995) there would likely be multiple arrows and more than two agents.

[5] Morgenthau (Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton 2006 [1948]:122–175), for example, identifies accountable “components” (or “elements”) of national power: geography, natural resources, raw materials, industrial capacity, military preparedness, population, national character, national morale, quality of diplomacy, and quality of government. Tellis (2000) presents a similar toting up of capacities.

[6] Morgenthau also defines power in similar terms—“the power of man over the minds and actions of other men”—but he limits this definition to power exercised by people, as distinct from the power of nations (Morgenthau, Thompson, and Clinton 2006 [1948]:113, further elaborated in pp. 113–121). A more comprehensive definition that incorporates the Dahlian version as well as other approaches to power (referencing Baldwin, Foucault, and Bachrach & Baratz, among others) is offered in an influential article by Barnett and Duvall (2005). They define four ideal types of power: compulsory (the same as the Dahlian version in Figure 1), institutional, structural, and productive. Barnett and Duvall differentiate these power types by reference to two “dimensions”: interaction/constitution and specificity-closeness/diffuseness-distance. I suggest that this important theoretical advance still focuses on A and B and their relationship (and behavior). Further elaboration of that point is beyond the scope of this article.

[7] A more extended derivation of my approach to power can be found in Marlin-Bennett (2013, 2016).

[8] Elsewhere, I have adapted this definition to include actants other than people as possible receivers of information (Marlin-Bennett 2016). Borgmann’s definition, importantly, does not require that message being conveyed be true in order to be information and informative. In contrast, Floridi (2011, 2017) defines information “as syntactically well-formed and meaningful data” or “true semantic content.” This formal definition excludes misinformation and disinformation from being considered a form of information; it further would exclude works of art the category of information. Indeed Floridi (2017) cites Wittgenstein on this point: “‘The way music speaks. Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information’ (Zettel, §160; see Wittgenstein [1981]).”

[9] An extreme case: a bullet piercing the flesh is a message that the body understands as “feel pain and bleed!” See Marlin-Bennett (2013) for a more detailed discussion of the “knowing body” and sense data as information.

[10] Scholarly attention to the interdisciplinary field of border studies has deepened in recent years, with a consequent expansion of the research on borderlands, interstate borders, boundaries, and bordering practices, and the like (examples include Brambilla 2015; Lewis and Wigen 1997; Mignolo 2000; Newman 2006; Newman and Paasi 1998).

[11] Solomon and Steele argue in favor of “new micropolitical insights” in international relations (IR) research. They further argue that “[a]ffect, space and time […] promise to enrich conceptual and empirical research on practices, emotions, and the everyday […] and also hold notable potential for enhancing the field’s understanding of the intimate workings of the key IR concepts of power, identity and change” (2017:269).

[12] Banksy may refuse interviews and not reveal his face to the public, but the appearance of a Banksy grafitto makes his chosen persona visible.

[13] The question of the relation between art and emotion has been the subject of scholarship since the classical period. The history of scholarship on the relationship between art and emotion is described in Neill (2003). Gaut (2005) takes on the issue of knowledge, understood as factual knowledge, and art.

[14] A longer discussion on the distinctions between emotion, affect, and feeling can be found in Hutchison and Bleiker (2014), Shouse (2005), and Cavalcante (2018).

[15] This point is illustrated, albeit in a rather ham-fisted way, in a Star Trek (original series) episode entitled “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” It tells the tale of humanoid aliens who are black on one side of their bodies and white on the other. Which side of the body—left or right—was white or black determined which of the planet’s two warring ethnic groups an individual belonged to. In the episode, the color divide is as meaningful a boundary as any territorial line (Star Trek, 1969).

[16] In English, “boundary” seems to be a more general term than “border,” with the latter term referring to physical boundaries, especially between political entities. One could refer to the boundary between political entities (the boundary between the US and Mexico), but the usage seems a bit forced or possibly the usage is meant to drive our attention to something other than the political-security line between countries, e.g., the actual dirt and structures on either side of that line. Boundaries refer to distinctions between categories of things. For example, Haraway (2006) refers to “the boundary between science fiction and social reality” (ibid.:117), “the boundary between human and animal” (ibid.:119), “the boundary between physical and non-physical” (ibid.:120; see also Abbott 1995.) Nevertheless, it is not unusual for “border” to be used more generally, casually, or critically. Newman (2016) refers to a recent stream of border studies that examines “the social and cultural borderlands which interface between religious and ethnic groups, or economic categories” rather than territorial borders. In a critical vein, Lauro and Embry (2008) refer to borders in relation to zombies. The zombie is “a theoretical model that, like the cyborg, crashes borders. Simultaneously living and dead, subject and object, slave and slave rebellion, the zombie presents a post-human specter informed by the (negative) dialectic of power relations rather than gender” (ibid.:91).

[17] Practices are “organized around shared practical understandings” (Schatzki 2001:3), and when applied to art would include shared practical understandings about the meaning of images, what “counts” as art, and how different kinds of art are produced. Practice turn literature in international relations includes Neumann (2008) and Adler and Pouliot (2011). Cornut (2017) provides an excellent overview of the literature.

[18] Achinoam Nini uses her full name when performing in Israel and a single stage name, Noa, when performing abroad. The Eurovision Contest billing was for “Noa and Mira Awad.”

[19] Ana Teresa Fernández, the artist who created Borrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border), was born in 1981 in Tampico, Mexico and now lives in San Francisco, California. She came to the United States at the age of 11 when her father, a cardiologist, was recruited to practice in San Diego. Fernández earned bachelor and master’s degrees in fine arts at the San Francisco Art Institute. Although her personal story is, in many ways, one of privilege, much of her art speaks out for the less privileged. A conceptual artist, her themes include intersectionality as it connects to personal identity, culture, and public discourse and, perhaps most centrally, the idea of “erasure.” Her media are paint, performance, and video, and “[h]er work illuminates the psychological and physical barriers that define gender, race, and class in Western society and the global south” (Fernandez & TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue, 2017, accompanying text).

[20] Widely recognized for the important contributions of her writings to Chicano/a Studies, Queer Theory, and Feminist Theory and for her political activism, Anzaldúa’s life story began in Raymondville, Texas where her family lived on ranches as farmworkers, including a stint as migrant farmers (Texas Archival Resources Online, n.d.). After receiving her BA degree from Pan-American College, she became a teacher. Following the completion of a master’s degree in English and Education she became a university lecturer, author, and activist. Anzaldua died in 2004 of complications from diabetes.

[21] Awad, on the left, is the daughter of an Arab father (a physician) and a Bulgarian mother. She grew up in an Arab village in Northern Israel and studied contemporary music and jazz at the Rimon School in Israel. She also studied fine arts and English at the University of Haifa, as well as theater at the Body Theater School. Nini was born in Tel Aviv, but was raised from the age of two until 19 in New York City. At 19, she returned to Israel for military service followed by music instruction, also at the Rimon School. More information about Awad and Nini can be found on their official websites: and (Accessed 14 October 2019).

[22] Banksy is a well-known, if anonymous, artist who draws upon his art as a form of activism. Little is known publicly about the author’s life, though he began his career in the 1990s in Bristol, UK (Ellsworth-Jones 2013).

[23] The video can be seen online at (Accessed 20 October 2019).

[24] Numerous studies from different fields have examined the way music evokes emotions in the listener. Two interesting reviews on this topic are Gabrielsson and Lindstrom (2010) and Juslin (2013).

[25] But see Beltran (2004), who suggests that Anzaldúa’s reification of categories undercuts the potential for empowerment through mestizaje.

[26] I was unable to find out how Nini gained her linguistic ability for singing in Arabic and whether she is also proficient more generally in the language.


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