This essay is part of the forum “Investigating Infrastructures”

Sam Cotter, Jersey Barrier, 2016 (installation view).

 

The Jersey Barrier is a squat cast concrete traffic control device, among the most commonly used in an evolutionary chain of concrete dividers. The barrier was developed for the New Jersey State Highway Department in the 1950s and bears its name though it is officially known as a Type C barrier in Canada. Since its first uses for highway lane division the barrier has been deployed in a number of geopolitical contexts to alter spatial fabrics to suit objectives intrinsically linked to territorial domination. Among its many uses, the barriers were strategically placed in cities around the world in the 1980s by American forces as a way of blocking car and truck bombs (and all other traffic) from entering key urban areas following a series of vehicular bombs in Lebanon (they were affectionately nicknamed “Qaddafi blockers” by American soldiers for their effectiveness in this context,) deployed in conflict zones to create blast shields and approximate trench warfare in urban space, (Kamin, 2010: 23; Spencer, 2016) and by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department to surround the Standing Rock camp to regulate the movement of bodies and supplies (Monet, 2017). Approaching infrastructure as a grounds on which systems and objects operate (Larkin, 2013) the sculptural reorientation which the barriers perform on their environment can be seen as a means of dividing and creating spaces to allow for the colonization, demarcation, and/or militarization of space, an infrastructure altering circulation. Their ability to direct and deny movement evince the ways in which making infrastructure visible offers a material manifestation of our current socio-political climate (see Robbins, 2007). The barrier’s ubiquity and banality as a modular spatial modifier lends its use a degree of seeming neutrality that is absent from much of its function.

The security perimeter for the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto was formed from six kilometers of end-to-end Jersey barriers supporting a three-meter-high anti-climb chain link fence. Unlike the police forces present at the summit, which were imported from across the country to supplement Toronto Police Services officers, the perimeter materials came not from public storehouses but instead were contracted to Montreal engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. SNC-Lavalin specializes in large-scale infrastructure projects around the globe including highways, power plants, medical facilities, ports, pipelines, and sites of extraction as well as the production and oversight of arms and military technologies. The company was awarded the contract with an initial budget of over five million dollars but through the design and execution of the perimeter the budget nearly doubled this figure (O’Neil, 2010.)

It seems SNC-Lavalin’s role within the conference was primarily one of logistics, hiring subcontractors capable of providing the banal component parts of the perimeter and integrating them together into a militarized whole. The chain link came from Aurora, Ontario-based scaffolding company Mammoth Erection and the barriers were provided by Gormley, Ontario highway contractor Powell Contracting. Combined, the over 4000 tonnes of concrete and six kilometers of chain link were optimized for both visual and tactical impact in an overt militarization of the city’s core which led many Canadian media outlets to refer to the city as “Fortress Toronto” throughout the summit (see Aulakh, 2010; CBC News, 2010; Godfrey, 2010; National Post, 2010.) This fortification of the city creates a securitization of the area inside of its perimeter while preemptively rendering the sites and bodies outside as “insecure,” a source of potential danger implicitly demanding increased policing (for more on the way infrastructure renders bodies as insecure along lines of race and class (see Dillon and Sze, 2016.)

The contract between Public Works and Government Services Canada and SNC-Lavalin was for the installation and removal of the perimeter with maintenance as necessary during the two-day event. The document gave the RCMP the option to purchase most of the fence components at the summit’s conclusion, but not the barriers used as its base. The omission of the barriers from this section of the contract suggests that they were rented rather than purchased from Powell and likely have a history of usage preceding and surpassing their deployment during the G20 events. Beyond their work with public highway departments, Powell also supplies temporary barriers for large-scale entertainment events including the Canadian National Exhibition and the Honda Indy Toronto (formerly the Molson Indy) racing event. It is likely that the G20 barriers came from this reserve, aligning the event with the spectacle of past uses and implicating the barriers’ future with a latent militarism that exceeds the temporal confines of the G20 Summit.

Like other infrastructures, the barrier exists in a liminal space in which its function is inconspicuous until it is directly encountered as an obstacle to social reproduction. That a barrier—a banal, nearly invisible, backbone of road safety and entertainment events—converts seamlessly into overt fortifications deployed against the general public makes visible the violence of imposed spatial division. The barrier directly arrests movement and denies circulation, making visible what Doreen Massey refers to as “power geometries”: the physical and institutional structures allowing movement and access for some but not for others. On the inside of the fence there is the spatial compression of world leaders discussing those they govern inside anonymous convention center rooms and multinational hotels, on the outside the governed are held static by the fence’s physical structure (See Massey, 1994.)

The preemptive placement of barriers created an exclusion zone in which seemingly altruistic objectives of safety reveal an ideology of territorial domination in which commonplace infrastructure is weaponized into a tool to regulate the movement of bodies, ideas, objects, and capital. This infrastructure serves to both produce and reproduce a larger superstructure, stabilizing one class of actors and destabilizing another, its function is relational and relative to subject position (see Latour, 1991 and Star, 1999). As an infrastructure, it allows world leaders to convene within a strategically confined zone in which the populations surrounding them are precluded from debate, protest and visibility (Lambert, 2012: 12-13.) Though the neutral, pragmatic language used to describe the division of space in the contract between Public Works and SNC conceals, if not denies, the violence of urban militarization, the fence itself, the temporary legal infrastructure (see Marin, 2010; Movement Defense Force Committee, 2011; Renza and Elmer, 2012) used to protect it and provisional prisons used to detain kettled persons make concrete the link between defensible privatized urban spaces and militarized carceral ones. It is an infrastructure directly implicated in the production of justice and retribution based in mistrust.

Much of the Toronto summit focused on combating economic protectionism and barriers to trade during the recession (Canadian Chamber of Commerce, 2010; Wolverson, 2010), but this neoliberal agenda of free circulation of goods and moneys necessitates the suppression and detention of bodies and voices. Mega-events like the G20 Summit become a crucible for viewing the appropriation of space and confinement of bodies necessary to sustain the mobility of capital; the city as a whole, rather than just the conference rooms, becomes an image of global power relations reproducing their violence on a smaller scale and giving material form to its abstraction. Large scale technical, social, and political relationships play out in situ, producing and reproducing the dogma of those in power and increasing inequality among those ostensibly serviced by it.

 

References

Aulakh R (2010) What to expect this weekend in ‘Fortress Toronto.’ Toronto Star, 25 June.

Canadian Chamber of Commerce (2010) The G20 Leaders Summit : Recovery and New Beginnings: Policy Brief. Report for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Dillon L and Sze J (2016) Police Power and Particulate Matters: Environmental Justice and the Spatialities of In/securities in U.S. Cities. English Language Notes 54(2): 13-23.

Godfrey T (2010) Tourists fleeing Fortress Toronto. Toronto Sun, 19 June.

Kamin B (2010) Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a tumultuous age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lamber L (2012) Weaponized Architecture: The impossibility of innocence. New York: Dpr-barcelona.

Larkin B (2013) The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327 – 343.

Latour B (1991) Technology is society made durable. In: Law J (ed) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. London: Routledge, pp. 103-131

Marin, A (2010) “Caught in the act”: investigation into the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services’ conduct in relation to Ontario Regulation 233/10 under the Public Works Protection Act, Toronto: Ombudsman Ontario.

Massey D (1994) Space, Place, and Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Monet J (2017) At Standing Rock, a Fight for Basic Survival. Indian Country Media Network. [Verona, NY] 31 January, 2017. Web.

The Movement Defense Committee (2011) Police Violence and State Repression at the Toronto G20 The Facts. In: Malleson T and Wachsmuth D (Eds) Whose Streets? Toronto: Between the Lines.

O’Neil L (2010) G20 fence costs $9.4M, nearly double original estimate. Toronto Star, 7 July.

Public Works and Government Services Canada (2010) Contract No. EQ403-103327/001/PWL: G20 Security Fence – Toronto, 19 April.

Renzi A and Elmer G (2012) Infrastructure Critical: Sacrifice at Toronto’s G8/G20 Summit, Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Pub.

Robbins B (2007) The Smell of Infrastructure: Notes toward an Archive. boundary 2 34(1): 25-32.

Spencer J (2016) The Most Effective Weapon On The Modern Battlefield Is Concrete. The Modern War Institute at West Point [West Point, NY] 14 November. Web.

Staff (2010) Graphic: Fortress Toronto. National Post, 18 June.

Staff (2010) Fortress Toronto. CBC News, 16 June.

Wolverson R (2010) The G20’s Twenty Agendas. Council on Foreign Relations, 24 June, 2010. Web.

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Sam Cotter is a Toronto-based artist and writer. His writing has appeared in Canadian Art Magazine , C Magazine , Ciel Variable, and Flash Art among other publications. He is represented by Zalucky Contemporary in Toronto. www.samcotter.ca