[Guest Post] Barbed Wire: The Colonial Legacy of Design in Postcolonial Times

Words by Ksenija Berk

I am writing this paper from a schizophrenic location behind the barbed wire. No, I am not in occupied territories. There is no war going on around me, and no state of exception has officially been declared. And yet, large amounts of barbed wire are mounted on the southern border between Slovenia and Croatia. As if the situation were not problematic enough, metal doors have been placed on several bridges connecting both countries, ready to be shut any minute. Their purpose, in the words of the politicians, is to ‘keep us safe’ if ‘a large number of refugees would have arrived from the South’.[1] What has actually happened, one might ask, to bring us to this point? Let’s take a look at the course of events that has brought about this situation. Over the years, we have borne witness to the appalling situation of more than six million people being internally displaced, with thousands becoming refugees, mostly due to armed conflicts in the Middle East region (Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan). These refugees have embarked upon impossible journeys and attempts to escape from the places of armed conflict to the promise of asylum and shelter in European Union countries. During these journeys, their lives have been endangered in more ways than we can possibly imagine. At the end of 2013, the world witnessed, for the first time since WW2, more than 50 million people being forcibly displaced.[2] Over 5000 of those lost their lives just in the year 2016 alone, with most perishing in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Several regulatory regimes of bio-politics [3] on the Balkan route were instituted, and discriminatory power-relations established in order to ‘regulate’ the flow of refugees. In 2015, and for the first time since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, walls between European countries started to emerge again. From the dark periods of Europe’s past, harmful and controlling objects and devices, such as barbed wire, have quickly made their way from political talk and history books, back into everyday reality. Barbed wire was first introduced by Hungary in 2015, when it was used on the Hungarian and Serbian border; this approach was adopted, rather quickly, by Slovenia when, in 2016, it decided to mount barbed wire on the southern border with Croatia.

Having read history books in school and listened to the memories of my grandparents, to me barbed wire is a gruesome reminder of human atrocities that should never happen again. While I have witnessed its use in documentary movies and in museums, I never envisioned it in my future. With this said, reality, as is often the case, has proven me wrong. I encountered barbed wire being used as a part of regulatory border control between different European countries years before the existence of the EU and the free border pass. During the bloody dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, barbed wire fell back into use, bringing with it the same kinds of atrocities, which we associate with its use in WWII. The third return of barbed wire happened during a time of peace. Suffice is to say that barbed wire now exists between the countries of the EU, despite numerous protests from civilian groups, loud arguments from Amnesty International, and opposition from the Council of Europe, all of which are against closing the borders to ‘prevent migrant influx’. Indeed, the resurrection of barbed wire as a defence mechanism in times of peace against war refugees in search of asylum, is a schizophrenic-like situation. Indeed, this situation has inevitably drawn my attention to how we understand, or do not understand, design in relation to privilege, oppression, and body politics.

Of particular note at this point are weapons, militant devices and other objects/items of mass control, which have been strategically designed and applied to inflict physical and psychological damage. In fact, evil tools such as these have always been an important aspect of the world of design, but are rarely spoken of or debated. Thus, the question must be asked, what are the mechanisms that enable politicians to use design as a vehicle for discrimination in power relations? In order to enable the process of decolonisation and de-hegemonisation of design, we must first recognise its role in the process. The field of design, for the most part, has seldom addressed the dark side of its practice,[4] namely objects, practices, and strategies used for exercising discrimination, forced-choice situations, mass control, and surveillance. And the re-appearance of barbed-wire, a regulatory tool used by regimes to separate, divide, and inflict direct harm on refugees, is not only an atrocity, but an all-too-familiar autocratic policy par excellence. Following the thoughts of French philosopher Jacques Rancière, I could concur that these sorts of events, to which we have borne witness in the past in Europe, also represent ‘an encounter for re-asking the question on politics and equality’.[5]

I subscribe to the idea of Buckminster Fuller, namely that ‘We cannot change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something we need to build new models that make the old one obsolete’.[6] By building new models, we need to raise awareness of the social, political, cultural and ethical issues of our everyday practices. In light of this, we should address the resurrection of barbed wire within a larger western-colonial matrix of the design profession, and find the courage to expose, analyse and counteract oppressive patterns, practices, and behaviour. Whenever the dark side of design is on the table,[7] we should embrace the fact that it will always give rise to disputes over the means of production, distribution of capital, technological innovations, different ideologies, the nature of human ego, hegemonic practices, and the limitations of our positions. Of particular note here is the barbed wire [8] on the borders between European countries in the year 2017, when no war has been declared, nor any state of exception introduced; this is the real-life embodiment of what Foucault [9] and Agamben [10] defined as biopolitics. The overt violence and ‘segregation capacity’ [11] of barbed wire are inscribed in our colonial history, and ‘patterns of oppression’ [12] are very much part of the systems we belong to. When it was first patented (in France 1880, and 1867 in America) [13] and later introduced by the white settlers in 1880s Northern America, it was seen as a technical innovation – an affordable item ideal for keeping live stock in place. It was not until later on that it was recognised as a tactical tool of bodypolitics imposed on the nomadic life of Native Americans.[14] The uncanny relationship between design practice and the economic, social, and political context is repeatedly blurred by the ideas of technological determinism.[15] A considerable part of the design field, in its social and political naivete, combined with the expedient opportunism of a hegemonic position, fails to acknowledge that it is discrimination and inequality that they are actually exercising through the ideology of greater good. We must also not fail to mention that barbed wire, after its initial use for the ‘control of space’, [16] quickly migrated to warfare. It was first used to serve the vested interests of those wanting to separate and control human bodies in the Franco-Prussian War;[17] this situation continued throughout both world wars, the Cold War, and has persistently endured to the present day. Buckminster Fuller [18] put forth the noble idea that we should try to make the best out of what we have, so as to make society more humane. He was referring not only to the equal distribution of natural resources, but also to developing new modes of living that would respect every individual as a human being. In light of the humanitarian refugee crisis in Europe and the renewed use of barbed wire, designers should be very careful to not fall into the traps of fascist ideology, which calls for finding designs of barbed wire that would be less ‘harmful’ to the human body. Let me be very clear – barbed wire is always, no matter where you stand or what you believe, first and foremost a tool that strips society of all its humanity. Its nature can best be summed up in the words of Oliver Razac, who describes barbed wire as a ‘distinction between those who are allowed to retain humanity and those who are reduced to mere bodies’.[19]

The media is filled with images and footage showing us, on a daily basis, how little human lives are valued and how vested interests are prioritised over humanitarian issues. Design, in this regard, is no different than any other profession, and can successfully mirror problems pertaining to the social reality – in this particular case, how society imposes biopolitics [20] on refugees. The resurrection of barbed wire in times of peace is a good example, and on which can help us rethink the colonial and hegemonic legacy of the design profession; it also gives us a chance to place this legacy under the critical perspective, and view it not only through the lens of ethical possibilities of interference, but also from different socio-political and historical perspectives. In addition to this, it must also be mentioned that barbed wire is a physical manifestation of Marx’s phrase that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, and second as farce. Designed to segregate and dominate, barbed wire is but one of many regulatory mechanisms used by Machiavellian political regimes; it is a tragic, discriminatory instrument of mass control that successfully goes hand in hand with violation of human rights and dehumanisation of society. There is a huge problem, not only in terms of the visible aspects of design, but also in relation to the invisible principles that shape the highly effective politics behind design. Added to this is the farce that we often do not recognise these invisible principles, hence the repetition. However, in those rare moments when we do recognise them, a void or discontinuity suddenly appears, which allows for counter hegemonic interventions and gives rise to emancipatory practices.

  • [1] Laurence Farez, “Amnesty: Slovenia strips refugees of EU and international law protections”, Jurist, January 27, 2017, accessed February 2, 2017,
  • [2] Adrian Edwards, ed. Leo R. Dobbs, “World Refugee Day: Global forced displacement tops 50 million for first time in post-World War II era”, UNHCR, June 20, 2014, accessed January 14, 2017 http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2014/6/53a155bc6/world-refugee-day-global-forced-displacement-tops-50-million-first-time.html
  • [3] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2010).
  • [4] Kjetil Fallan, “Nordic Noir: Deadly Design from the Peacemongering Periphery” Design and Culture. The Journal of the Design Studies Forum, vol. 7 (3), (2015): 377-402. Steven Heller, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State. (Phaidon, 2005).
  • [5] Jacques Rancière, J., Guenoun, S., Kavanagh, J. H. & Lapidus, R, “Jacques Rancière: Literature, Politics, Aesthetics: Approaches to Democratic Disagreement” SubStance, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2000): 3-24, p3.
  • [6] Buckminster Fuller, undated.
  • [7] Paola Antonelli, Design and Violence (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015).
  • [8] Mahmoud Keshavarz, Design-Politics. An Inquiry into Passports, Camps and Borders. Doctoral Dissertation in Interaction Design Dissertation Series: New Media, Public Spheres and Forms of Expression Faculty: Culture and Society Department: School of Arts and Communication, K3 Malmö University, 2016.
  • [9] Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, (2007). Michel Foucault (2010). The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2010).
  • [10] Giorgo Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
  • [11] John Anderson, Understanding Cultural Geography. Places and Traces (London, NY: Routledge, 2010), 107.
  • [12] Allan G. Johnson, Privilege, Power, and Difference (NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006).
  • [13] Alan Krell, The Devil’s Rope. A Cultural History of Barbed Wire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 19.
  • [14] Anderson, Understanding Cultural Geography, 107.
  • [15] Andrew Fennberg, Questioning Technology (London: Routledge, 1999). Larry A. Hickman, John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992).
  • [16] Raquel Vega-Durán, Emigrant Dreams, Immigrant Borders. Migrants, Transnational Encounters, and Identity in Spain (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2016).
  • [17] Vega-Durán, ibid, 71. Oliver Razac, Barbed Wire: A Political History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003), 34.
  • [18] Buckminster Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2008).
  • [19] Oliver Razac, 2003.
  • [20] Patricia Ticineto Clough, Craig Wilse (eds.) Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2011).






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