# THE FUNAMBULIST PAPERS 31 /// Femicide Machine/Backyard by Greg Barton



The 31st episode of the guests writers series is written by Greg Barton, currently curatorial fellow at the storefront for art and architecture. His name might be familiar to the funambulist’s sharpest readers as in last October, I published a short article about the exhibition Ecologias Correlativas that he co-curated with Emma Chammah. His text bases its discourse on the book The Femicide Machine written by Mexican journalist Sergio González Rodríguez  and published at the always excellent semiotext(e) edited by Sylvère Lotringer, Chris Kraus, and Hedi El Kholti.

The Femicide Machine describes the situation in the city of Ciudad Juarez near the American Border and which seems to incarnate an illustrative example of a urban life shaped by the maquiladoras -there is 300 of them in Ciudad Juarez. In this model, women are the primary victims from the collision of geo-political trade agreements and their cryptic version, the narco-industry and its wars. Greg quotes the film Sleep Dealer to evoke the capture of bodies’ energetic production (see previous article) in maquiladoras which correspond to an even more generalized capture in the case of women whose bodies is continuously at work and at risk between labor, rape and murder. In this regard, he also quotes Octavio Paz who wrote that a woman was considered by our world as “an undifferentiated manifestation of life, a channel for the universal appetite.” Just like the raw material they export to Mexico in order to gain it back under the form of merchandise, the United States are both at the source and at the exit of this machine which exploits the Mexican labor energy for its fuel. Those border territories, as places of human, goods and money fluxes, then constitute the ideal scene for other fluxes to plug themselves in the circuit. That is how the subindustries developed and sustain itself through violence on women bodies.

The Funambulist Papers 31 /// Femicide Machine/Backyard

by Greg Barton

1. Book

“In Cidudad Juárez, a territorial power normalized barbarism. This anomalous ecology mutated into a femicide machine: an apparatus that didn’t just create the conditions for the murders of dozens of women and little girls, but developed the institutions that guaranteed impunity for those crimes and even legalized them. A lawless city sponsored by a State in crisis. The facts speak for themselves.” So reads the sobering introductory paragraph of Sergio González Rodríguez’s provocative The Femicide Machine, a recent installment in Semiotext(e)’s Intervention series. The compact primer distills the historical trajectory of entanglement among Mexico, the United States, global economy, and organized crime, delineating the femicide machine’s genesis and current stranglehold. The author’s journalistic credentials prove invaluable as the text slips in and out of straight reportage. In 2009 there were 164 female homicides in Ciudad Juárez — 306 the following year — many by strangulation, stabbing, and gunshots, often involving sexual violence. More than 30,000 have died since the beginning of the war on drug trafficking in 2006, almost a quarter of those deaths occurring in Ciudad Juárez. Often repetitive, urgent, and devastating, The Femicide Machine tells a story of extreme capitalism reshaping territory and a processual state-form fostering utterly inhumane machines.


Ciudad Juárez is many cities, as well as our future city: a theatre for war, a node in the global economy, a convergence of the “plutocratic, corporate, monopolistic, global, speculative, wealth-concentrating, and predatory, founded on military machinations and media control.”[1] González Rodríguez charts the industrial development of Ciudad Juárez, which simultaneously served as the femicide machine’s foundation. What started as a leisure town in the shadow of the United States during prohibition and World War II was rapidly developed by the National Border (1961) and Border Industrialization (1965) programs that propagated maquilas, or manufacturing-assemblies, built with foreign capital and relying on inexpensive labour for operation. As migration exploded, basic infrastructure and health services could not keep pace. The burgeoning outskirts began to dwarf the city-center. In the 1990s almost half of the population used mobile phones (at the time comparable to Europe) versus 15% in the rest of the country. Far removed from central Mexico and the capital, Ciudad Juárez’s ‘abject urbanism’ emerged as a hostile laboratory.

Map of export processing zones in developing countries, 2003

The North American Free Trade Agreement (1994) undoubtedly accelerated asymmetric conditions between Mexico and the US. Along with an unequal distribution of wealth and undervalued labour, lubricated trade laws led to 97% of raw materials being imported tax-free to in-bond plants only to have the product exported back to the US market. Indeed, a frictionless exchange between the two nations ushered in the aforementioned notorious spatial manifestation of corporate control: maquiladoras, vertically-organized industrial parks functioning as containers for a labour pool. González Rodríguez points these out as “bio-political territory par excellence“.[2] As industry restructured public space, its neo-Fordist protocols, automation, and just-in-time production conditioned a nomadic and asocial population, a scenario not too dissimilar from the prosthetic instrumentalism depicted in Mexican science-fiction film, Sleep Dealer (2008). The body is on the verge of being placed under new management. The factory is positioned as the femicide machine’s ‘antechamber’ in a passage borrowing Giorgio Agamben’s description of the ‘camp’: “Inasmuch as its inhabitants have been stripped of every political status and reduced completely to naked life, the camp is also the most absolute biopolitical space that has ever been realized — a space in which power confronts nothing other than pure biological life without any mediation.”[3]

Keller Easterling reminds us that the maquiladoras “organize a form of labour exploitation that is stable and within the law.”[4] In her analysis of special economic zones, Easterling describes a neoliberal culture of multinationals that “prefers to manipulate both state and non-state sovereignty, alternately releasing and laundering their power and identity to create the most advantageous political or economic climate.”[5] Despite its high mobility, capital circulates in the built environment through specific regulations. According to David Harvey, “landed capital often requires heavy support from finance capital and/or the state in order to elaborate and build projects” which “freeze (fine-grained) patterns of uneven geographical development.”[6]

Post-NAFTA, violence multiplied and currency depreciated. Between 2001 and 2003 an estimated 500 maquiladoras shut down, prompting a mass exodus of the work force. The product of corrupted governing forces/economies/politics remains the marginalization of society and institutional degradation. Organized crime grew in parallel to the new markets opening up, its control reaching 71% of national territory. Furthermore, the crime machine diversified its activities and tactics, rendering it difficult to tell where a cartel ends and a bank begins..

Frontispiece of Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine, 1998 / Instructions for Taking Textual Photographs, The Femicide Machine, 2012

The machine-apparatus[7] is distinct from the state and feeds off its support structures as a self-reproducing parasite, encoding and inscribing. González Rodríguez borrows a description from Intervention series #5 (Gerald Raunig: A Thousand Machines) to explicate how the machine “is not limited to managing and striating entities closed off to one another, but opens up to other machines and, together with them, moves machinic assemblages…It depends on external elements in order to be able to exist at all.”[8] Now that the machines are globally and specifically interlinked with the ideology and practices of capitalism, we can be certain that a hyper-rationalized cycle of production and consumption, under the authority of nomadic corporate-military control, will become the guiding dynamic of the day.

The complicity of rotating characters – criminals, police, government officials, and an ‘a-legal old-boy network’ – ensures the femicide machine proliferates in Ciudad Juárez, its vestigial evidence in the streets: strewn mutilated bodies, bullet hole-ridden walls, automobile wrecks, electric fences, missing person ads. The contradictory narratives of violence vary by source, be it the state, academia, international organizations, media or art. Some accounts downplay the gendered element of the murders or point to broader machismo and misogyny in the rest of the country. Others portray the deaths as ‘crimes of passion’ or as the work of a serial killer. González Rodríguez observes, “While drug-related violence can be diffuse in the large cities of consumer nations, it often concentrates at bottlenecks–zones and corridors like Juárez.”[9] Overall, the majority of cases go unsolved and/or unpunished. This amounts to a culture of indifference and an attack on coexistence. When González Rodríguez offers a suite of typologies, the bridge (a valve controlling exchange), the wall (a failed container), and the garbage dump (a developed nation treating a developing nation it shares a border with as a backyard), it is the garbage dump that is the most troubling. Females are re-signified as objects of refuse and discarded accordingly. In 1961 Octavio Paz identified a cultural denial of personal individuality in Mexico, writing, “woman is never herself…She is an undifferentiated manifestation of life, a channel for the universal appetite. In this sense she has no desires of her own.”[10]

Santiago Sierra, Submission (formerly Word of Fire), 2006-2007

2. Exhibition

Many art and architecture practices have negotiated or fetishized the Mexico-US border to differing degrees of success. Past and present initiatives, such as the binational group Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (1984-1997) and Teddy Cruz’s “political equator” research, have operated in and between the two countries with a sensitive inclusivity. The InSite biennial straddling Tijuana and San Diego has commissioned major interventions, including Javier Téllez’s launch of a human cannonball from one side of the border to the other (One Flew Over the Void, 2005) and Francis Alÿs’ journey from Tijuana to San Diego foregoing the Mexico-US border by way of a route around the Pacific Ocean (The Loop, 1997). The absurdity of the latter’s undertaking illustrates its author’s axiom: sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic.

The lone visual artwork referenced in The Femicide Machine, Santiago Sierra’s Sumisión (antes Palabra de Fuego) (2006-2007), involved hiring laborers to dig ‘SUBMISSION’ in Spanish from the earth a couple miles west of Ciudad Juárez. Incidentally, this was not far from the burial site of multiple bodies. The gesture is both an accusation and declaration of the subjugation endemic to the region at every level.[11] The choice of a noun form implies and reflects a constant resignation, acquiescence or inertia. Sierra remains a controversial and divisive artist, due in part to his recurrent strategy of remunerating individuals for exploitative purposes: having women in Brazil tattoo a line across their backs in exchange for heroin, paying Cuban men to masturbate for a camera, and employing a worker to live behind a brick wall construction in the gallery. These humiliating transactions implicate the artist, subject, and viewer, as well as the framework that circulates and ascribes market value to such artwork. Unfortunately, we are left with only more description and more critique.

From March to May, 2012, the New York nonprofit Artists Space hosted Radical Localism, which presented work from and affiliated with a community media center on the Mexico-US border, Mexicali Rose. Organized by Semiotext(e) co-editor and writer Chris Kraus, with an accompanying symposium, the exhibition showed Mexicali Rose (founded in 2006 by Marco Vera) as a gallery, workshop, cinema club, radio station, but above all, as a reflexive space in the barrio where children and adults could come together in a creative capacity. Working with local youth, encompassing neighborhood kids and transient teenagers drifting between border towns, the center promotes a form of communal learning as an alternative assembly to the various machines. The space catalyzes a regional and local intensity and gallery openings frequently turn into block parties. Born out of necessity and a pedagogic impetus, Mexicali Rose demonstrates a potent example of the new ways we might organize ourselves.

3. Symposium

A symposium, “The City Machine and its Streets – Anomalous Ecologies,” co-presented The Femicide Machine and Radical Localism: Art, Video and Culture from Pueblo Nuevo’s Mexicali Rose concurrent with the exhibition. The humble event brought together journalists Sergio Haro, Sergio González Rodríguez, and Ben Ehrenreich, and screened documentary and experimental films from Mexicali Rose youth and artist-mentors. According to González Rodríguez,  we need to to make inroads in education and information. Likewise, Marco Vera notes that it is easier to critique the media than to create a viable alternative. A bridge, a wall, a garbage dump beget a book, an exhibition, a symposium. If The Femicide Machine personifies a para-state acting as a criminal or sociopath, we can imagine instead more productive professional or behavioural possibilities. Similarly, we might reconceive each side of the border modifying itself and the other as a lovers’ quarrel. Ultimately, the transborder displays ‘temporalities,’ ‘configurations,’ and ’emergent mutations.’ What is needed is still the most elusive of all things to conjure, since this circumstance of resistance requires that the unspeakable be spoken and that the impossible be done. Lest we forget the machine’s integrity is “complemented by the human element that devised it, keeps it running, and at some point, can destroy it.”[12]  \

N.B.: This text incorporates three or four sentences from Critical Art Ensemble, Flesh Machine (Autonomedia, 1998) share alike
[1] Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2012), p12.
[2] Ibid, p29.
[3] Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p40.
[4] Keller Easterling, “The Zone” in Visionary Power – Producing the Contemporary City, exhibition catalogue, 24 May-2 September 2007, the Berlage Institute, Rotterdam, p76.
[5] Ibid, p81.
[6] David Harvey, Spaces of neoliberalization: towards a theory of uneven geographical development (Hettner-Lecture: ‪Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005), p78.
[7] Brian Holmes applies Michel Foucault’s definition of the ‘apparatus’ to financial markets, writing, “The apparatus is the ‘system of relations’ that knits together a set of seemingly unrelated elements: ‘a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions.’” Brian Holmes, “Profanity and the Financial Markets: A User’s Guide to Closing the Casino,” dOCUMENTA (13) 100 Notes-100 Thoughts No.064, Hatje Cantz Verlag Press, 2012, p8.
[8] Gerald Raunig, A Thousand Machines (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2010), p33.
[9] González Rodríguez, p.70.
[10] Octavio Paz, “Mexican Masks,” The Labyrinth of Solitude trans. Lysander Kemp (New York: Grove Press, 1985), p37.
[11] see Kelly Baum, “Santiago Sierra: How to Do Things with Words,” Art Journal, Winter 2010.
[12] González Ramírez, p.32.

Femicide Machine/Backyard by Greg Barton