Artifacts of Self-Determination: The rise of the Raizal
Herman Borrego @ M.Arch Thesis, University of Toronto
After centuries of enforced dependency, the Raizal people seek autonomy and recognition from all formal states. The Raizals — a Creole-speaking people of Afro-Caribbean and British descent — have occupied the Archipelago of San Andres for centuries. Situated at the maritime border between Nicaragua and Colombia, the archipelago is a highly contested territory with a history of conflicts that have caused generations of suffering and displacement for the Raizals. The disrespect for their traditions, harm to their environment, and lack of acknowledgement of their presence have been tolerated for long enough. The rise of an independent nation is unfolding. Through a constellation of fragmented narratives, this project seeks to speculate on the journey of the Raizals as they move towards the realization of their own sovereignty.
Borders, as arbitrated divisions of territories, have been a source of segregation between traditions, legacies, beliefs, and cultures. Yet, these divisions are merely a series of dotted lines illustrated on maps that are established, enforced, and inherited based on complex past events. For the Raizals, the fight between Managua and Bogotá over their territory has created a series of inconvenient divisions in the place that they have always known, related to, and understood. These debates between nations have ignored the fact that the archipelago is a network of islands, banks, cays, and other atolls that act as one connected system. Such divisions limit the movement of the archipelago’s inhabitants — even though the borders are nowhere to be seen, as they run through water. When a border only exists on paper without a tangible physical presence, its perception, existence, and reality become uncertain.
Using the rationale of micronations, the establishment of the Archipelago of San Andres unfolds in a defined, self-proclaimed place whose boundaries, independence and recognition exist as both fact and fiction. Micronations convey narratives of sovereignty that are unacknowledged by formal states, but for the inhabitants that reside within their borders, they are very real. These narratives materialize in the physical world, giving them a presence even for non-believers to see. A micronation is not a place that belongs to its surroundings, but it is nonetheless in the location best-suited to it. It is a response to its inhabitants’ desires for independence, differentiation, and autonomy. Their howls for a recognition of their dissimilarity from their surroundings are translated into symbols that represent their own fictions.
The representations of distinction — the elements for the public eye to see — translate literally to Artifacts of Self-Determination, which are the embodiment of micronations’ fictions transformed into reality. These artifacts include symbolic elements, such as flags, coats of arms, currencies, and postage stamps, which elicit a sense of distinction. These artifacts also manifest themselves as architectural objects, such as monuments, institutional buildings, dwellings, and infrastructure, which represent the fragment narratives of territorial proclamation.
Through iterative graphic explorations, this project aims to question how architectural forms act as a medium through which the physical manifestation of self-determination can be explored for the Raizals. In conjunction with the non-architectural symbolic elements, built structures can be seen, used, and associated with a sense of autonomy and belonging. Various scenarios were interpreted and visually represented to explore the speculative theories surrounding the development of this new nation and the role of built forms as embodiments of self-determination. Using anti-counterfeit hatching techniques, these images intend to represent a sense of authority, which the Raizals might believe in and trust. The drawings, models, and other objects showcase a usable structural system, which signifies an everyday reminder of the Raizals’ presence on land and at sea and opens up the possibility of a sovereign future.
The tangible possibilities of the identifiable symbols, objects and architecture portrayed in this project are responses that confront traditional notions of sovereignty. It is time for the Raizals to claim the Archipelago of San Andres as their own and display their presence for the world to see. This project acts as an agent for the description of the form that self-determination takes for this process, which constitutes the fictions of its existence.
What prompted the project?
This project began by questioning how real or non-real the precepts are that shape our environments, behaviours, and limitations. In particular, I was interested in how borders act as separation mechanisms that, in most cases, do not manifest themselves in physical form and yet cause divisions among people, beliefs, and thoughts. In essence, borders are agreements or rules between two or more parties that are either conciliated or enforced for the establishment of limits between territories. Even when a border only exists on paper, as a dogmatic statement and lacking a physical presence, it has the power to limit our movements, decisions, and surroundings. My point of departure was the production of iterative approaches, mostly through drawing, as a way to feed my thinking process instead of relying solely on more pragmatic research methods to explore the ideas surrounding these precepts. I began to analyse and interpret both how these rules shape humanity and what the role of architecture is in such instances, especially roles that are not self-evident. Eventually, allowing myself to question the systems that we all abide and engage with on a regular basis has helped me to understand a little more about the world in which we live.
What is your opinion on the current state of borders worldwide?
Borders are nothing new, and, in fact, I came to terms with the fact that they make up a part of our complicated past, which we must accept and understand in order to develop solutions for how to handle current issues. These complex dotted lines cannot be treated with a “one solution for all” approach. I do think they are an immediate problem for many, especially the many migrants fleeing their countries, making up the stories we hear every day now. But borders have been the cause of separation of families, communities, and cultures for centuries, not just recently. Their formation has often been arbitrary and has ignored the contexts, traditions, and legacies that they separate. I do not think that borders will ever disappear, and perhaps they shouldn’t. Instead, we must learn how to treat them differently. We must look deeper at the consequences of how we enforce them and how antiquated, or just plain wrong, some of the laws are that try to justify their existence. We need to try to recognize the many factors that have made us come to this point of exclusion, hate, and xenophobic behaviour in order for us to move forward as a global community.
What was your work process in terms of exploration of ideas and project development through mediums as the drawings and video?
The process for this project was very non-linear. I can proudly admit that I more or less finished right where I started — using the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina as the place where everything unfolds. Most of the work created was an exploration of ideas, style, and, perhaps, a search for a feeling that I intended to transmit through different media. It did not matter what format I attempted — video, model, or drawing — I allowed myself to jump between several points of view, different parts of the story, and even different scales and places. I must give a lot of credit to my advisor, John Shnier, who helped me recognise the most valuable points I formed through the journey and guided me to narrow down my approach.
What role does the video play?
The video is an early iteration of my thought process, which made it all the way to the final presentation and was part of the final exhibition. Using a fragmented narrative fictional framework, I compiled the video to explore and try to understand the many non-physical limitations that shape our environment. Intentionally, the narrative does not focus on architecture, but rather it attempts to focus on the representation of the unseen. It intends to look for a description of these precepts, the existence of which I intend to challenge.
Could you expand the technique of anti-counterfeit hatching techniques? How is in this case the medium the message?
Close to the end of my project, I became obsessed with the perception of legitimacy that surrounds our everyday official objects — currency, postage stamps, passports, etc. This perception is so powerful that most of us never question it. We trust the system that has created them and believe in everything that they stand for and represent. Behind this notion of legitimacy, the anti-counterfeit hatch serves as the medium that helps to reinforce the notion of the authoritative message. It was strategic to not only use it in the drawings but also in the artifacts that people can recognize and relate to. Perhaps I just wanted people to question whether some of these artifacts were real or not. Somehow, the medium became a simplification of the many ideas that I had been after since the beginning: to question the legitimacy of the precepts that control us.
What informed the materiality and scale of these artifacts?
One of my favourite parts of the project was when I contacted several rubber stamp companies and they all refused to make a stamp dye with the word “Immigration” on it. The implications of authoritarian legitimacy that this word represents in a stamp is enforced and, in some ways, its use is prohibited by the state for certain applications. At the moment, when this happened, it was very stressful, but I can laugh about it now. Nevertheless, that was the moment I realized I had to make the relatable artifacts as close to real as I could. The architectural models were scaled to the most suitable conditions to make them readable but still relatable to their non-architectural counterparts.
What defined the final format of the exhibition? How did you approach the curatorial aspect of exhibiting of the work within the space?
Our advisor always encouraged us to create immersive experiences, but this was never evident for me until I arranged the exhibition. Although the pillars exposed on the drawings are intended to be more of an abstraction than a resolved element, turning them into the concrete plinths for the exhibition helped me appreciate their function as they helped me organize which elements I chose to be displayed. The plinths became the physical representation of how architectural elements become components of presence in a space. The drawing format and colours used are a celebration of the vibrancy that the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina represent, in their vernacular and elsewhere. I opted to use a poster repetition technique, in which the use of the same image arrayed on a grid allows the intended message to be conveyed and amplified.
What is your take on architecture exhibitions? What are for you examples of successful architecture exhibitions?
They are much harder to prepare than regular architectural presentations. You learn to accept that not every aspect of your project is evident, and people might approach your project as you did not intend it, and that is okay. Like a building, not every aspect and decision should be clear at first. Maybe the curious ones will get most of the experience, but I think that the goal is to at least get the most relevant idea across.
If you ever go to Montreal you cannot miss the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) exhibitions. Last year, I went to the “Besides, History” exhibition, featuring work from Go Hasegawa, Kersten Geers, and David Van Severen — It was a slice.
What would you say is the architects most important tool?
The ability to question it all and not allow constraints limit our work might be our biggest hidden tool. Similar to how a computer program should not limit our design abilities, there are many limitations that come with the profession, which we need to understand and learn how to use them for our benefit.
Are you interested in exploring the notion of border further?
I am very interested in exploring the concept of borders even more, hopefully even get to collaborate on this topic with others. More than ever, this is the moment for all of us to engage on the effects of borders and try to come up with better solutions on how to use them.