We tend to think of maps as precise depictions of space. Lines mark borders, marking territories in a seemingly logical and scientific way. In reality, maps are not static; borders remain fluid. Yet the legal and regulatory frameworks that divide nations remain rigid. Maps are not impartial representations; they inherently carry biases that tend to benefit those in positions of power. In the 1990s there was a controversy among cartographers about the traditional Mercator world map which massively underrepresents the size of the Global South (particularly Africa) because it was designed for the needs of 16th century European explorers.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan tackles the absurd qualities of borders. In 45th Parallel, the “four-hundred square metre anomaly” – namely The Haskell Free Library and Opera House which sits on crossroads of the Canada-United States border, at Derby Line, Vermont, and Quebec – is his subject. Shot to camera inside the Library and Opera House, the short film comprises a monologue delivered by filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel who performs a situated testimony. The narration tells of porous borders and rigid laws delivered in a building that inhabits a borderline. 45th Parallel not only reveals the vulnerabilities and injustices ingrained within border systems but also invites us to reflect on the broader implications of these issues in a global context.
At Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery in the former Georgian library space adjacent to the University’s Law library, 45th Parallel opens with a narration to the Library and Opera House as location to gun smuggling operations in 2011; a loophole for criminal activity in a highly militarised border. In this library, you can enter both Canada and the US through the very same door. There are no passport checks but a US border officer always remains stationed outside the building in a running vehicle, perpetually vigilant. The border cannot be crossed. Though, inside the library, it is as though the border does not exist; except as a demarcated black line on the wooden floor. In 2017, following the enactment of Executive Order 13769, commonly referred to as the "Muslim ban" under President Donald Trump, the site – with its administrative uncertainty – created a meeting space for those affected by the ban to reunite with their loved ones.
Later, Fleifel gives testimony to the cross-border shooting that took place at the border between El Paso and Ciudad Júarez in 2010. An unarmed Mexican boy Sergio Adrian Hernández Güereca was shot and killed by US border agent Jesus Mesa. “Did the bullet bring US constitutional rights, or did Hernández’s rights, unlike the bullet, stop at the border?” Fleifel asks. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Mesa, who was standing three inches behind the US border even though the firearm was held by his extended arm in Mexico. Hernández was killed in Mexico, and therefore the border agent could not be prosecuted in the US. Mesa did not face criminal charges. If Mesa had been found guilty, Judge Edith Jones feared the deliberation and arbitration of the killing of more than 40,000 people committed by US drones.
As with many Hamdan works, 45th Parallel utilises aesthetic language to open up new dialogues or ways of thinking that perhaps could not be presented in a courtroom, inviting audiences to question established beliefs, examine power structures, confront societal injustices, and contemplate the intricacies of the human condition. As the film unravels, the notion of the black border line becomes looser. The painted theatre curtains of picturesque landscapes: from the Grand Canal in Venice from the turn of the 20th century; a 1920 painting by British artist Richard Carline (1898–1980) of an aerial view of Damascus; and finally a depiction of the concrete channel in El Paso-Juárez where the 2010 cross-border shooting took place, are present in the gallery space. The border is not a line, rather a richly layered historical space that has the capacity to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers. 45th Parallel successfully does so too, crossing boundaries that extend beyond legal boundaries.
By examining incidents that have unfolded on different borders, such as the Canadian-American border, the Mexican-American border, and across the Atlantic in the Middle East, Hamdan unravels the complex dynamics surrounding surveillance, visibility, and the manipulation of movement between nations. The arrangement of the exhibition space at Talbot Rice aligns with the cross-border theatre: while the chairs reside in the United States, the stage finds itself in Canada.
Fleifel’s monologue is accompanied by the floating, monotonous sounds of the pedal steel, an instrument that has the “capacity to break your heart.”. There's an impending sense of danger, yet it feels entirely senseless at the same time. The work beckons us to question the very foundations of our global society. Should we not challenge the necessity of borders, those man-made lines that segregate us? With meticulous attention to detail, Hamdan explores the nature and fragility of borders, delving into the intricate web of control and restriction that governs geopolitical divisions. In 45th Parallel, Hamdan skillfully weaves together narratives and personal accounts that shed light on the experiences and challenges faced by individuals navigating these border zones.