Rafal Milach’s book triptych interrogates three border walls and the architecture of propaganda

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Milach ruminates on the significance of three fortified borders – the US-Mexico wall, Hungarian border fence and Berlin Wall – and why their physical and symbolic gesture is pertinent today

“Attention. Attention. I am warning you that you are at the Hungarian border. If you damage the fence, cross illegally, or attempt to cross, it is counted to be a crime.“

Pre-recorded and played on a loop, these are the words that greeted Polish photographer Rafal Milach as he approached the Hungary-Serbia border. Constructed in 2015 during the European migrant crisis, it became a pillar of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s far-right, anti-migrant regime. Morphing from four-metre-tall electrified fences, to bundles of barbed wire tossed through woodlands and along kerbsides, the fence stretches a total length of 523 kilometres along the country’s border with Serbia and Croatia.

This fluctuating structure is part of the focus of Milach’s new book triptych, I Am Warning You, an architectural survey of three borders: the US-Mexico wall, the Hungarian border fence, and the Berlin Wall. The project is the most recent output of Milach’s 10-year investigation into propaganda mechanisms, a follow-up to Refusal, which explored propaganda mechanisms in post-Soviet territories. When Milach exhibited Refusal at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, as part of the 2018 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition, the photographer sensed that the work and the political systems it interrogated were being interpreted as exclusive to post-Soviet regions. With his latest project, it was important to move away from these ideas.

“[The walls are] just a figure of propaganda, the geography doesn’t matter so much,“ he says. “It is not my intention to analyse the historical complexities relating to the border issues of America, or the transformation of Germany. This was an opportunity to tell a different story, about how certain architecture is involved in propaganda.”

Improvised shelter by the US-Mexico border wall; Tijuana, Mexico, May 2019.

Milach’s questioning of the purpose and effect of such imposing structures began in May 2019, at the westernmost edge of the US-Mexico border, where a wall of 15-metre-high steel bollards separates San Diego from Tijuana. Before Donald Trump took office, the border was mostly made up of old helicopter landing panels from Vietnam; rebuilding this fence into a so-called “big, beautiful wall“ played a key role in Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

In May 2018, a rather dystopian public exhibition, led by non-profit art organisation MAGA (an echo of Trump’s Make America Great Again election campaign) presented eight wall prototypes commissioned by the US government. The installation, set up just north of the San Diego border, had been dismantled by the time Milach visited, but what remained was a partially censored, 200-page homeland security report outlining the government’s testing methods in choosing a suitable wall.

This “absurd gesture“, to release a public yet obscured document, provided a crucial turning point in the development of Milach’s project. “I decided to reflect on it,“ he explains. “How could I fill in this empty space? What had homeland security been doing to pass these new prototypes? What were the materials, what were the structures and strategies to test it?“

“Trump’s initiative was to strengthen the wall, to make the wall bigger. He moved the understanding of this particular architecture from being a ’fence’ to a ’wall’”

The first book in the trio, titled #13767 after the executive order that decreed the wall into being, combines images of the border landscape and its surrounding communities, layered over excerpts from the censored document. “It is about building an associative cloud of certain imagery that could have been used,“ explains Milach. “Trump’s initiative was to strengthen the wall, to make the wall bigger.“ And in part, he succeeded: “He moved the understanding of this particular architecture from being a ’fence’ to a ’wall’.“ Impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful: these are all words that Trump used to describe it.

But what became apparent to Milach, as he photographed the gargantuan fortress and the people who lived either side of it, was its dysfunctionality. “It is very intimidating when you’re next to it,“ says Milach. However, there are gaps where vast swathes of land are separated by a short fence, or no fence at all. For the photographer, the wall functions more as a monument, a type of architecture that represents a set of ideals, intending to oppress and intimidate.

International border guard training organised by Hungarian police and military forces; Veszprém, Hungary, October 2019.
Border fence between Hungary and Serbia; Gara, Hungary, October 2019.

The American wall has a clear symbolic purpose, with an ominous physicality. The Hungarian border, on the other hand, provoked an entirely different response. “The Hungarian fence seems to be more temporary, a more fragile structure,“ says Milach, referring to its shifting form, from electrified fences and manned watchtowers, to bundles of barbed wire rolling through the countryside.

“It is consumed and dominated by a very beautiful landscape. There was a cognitive conflict, because I found myself in a pristine landscape, with a militaristic architecture of control.“ The corresponding book ruminates on this dichotomy, highlighting a clash between the extreme surveillance mechanisms and the serenity of the nature that surrounds it. While the US-Mexico leg of Milach’s project is speculative, the Hungarian chapter more directly confronts the purpose of the wall. “The border stopped a migration flow into Hungary, but it didn’t stop the migration wave, the wave just went elsewhere,“ says Milach. “There was no traffic, at least when I was there. If there is no one wanting to cross the border, is it relevant to keep it?“

“We live in a divided environment. Walls are a physical representation, or the most obvious representation, of that. It’s the easiest symbol of division”

The third book in Milach’s trilogy, Death Strip – named after the militarised strip of land between two parts of the Berlin Wall – proposes a different set of questions entirely. What happens to a wall that fails? How is the collapse of a political system reflected in its physical manifestations? Does a wall’s symbolic existence diminish with its fading physicality? For Milach, his Berlin Wall project came as a “surprise“.

At the end of 2019, Milach was on assignment in the German capital, documenting remnants of the wall on the 30th anniversary of its fall. “I realised that the place where the wall is most physically present is on the internet,“ he says. Online, remnants of the concrete wall, adorned in patches of colourful graffiti, can be bought for as little as two, and up to a few thousand euros. Milach layers photos of these relics against snapshots of present-day Berlin, “Imposing an internet representation of the wall over what physically remains“.

For Milach, these relics represent the enduring effects that the wall continues to impose on individual lives. The actual architecture ceases to exist, but the memory and representation of these oppressive structures can have a lasting effect.

A set of tools found at the flea market by the Mexico-US border wall; Tijuana, Mexico, May 2019.
Piece of the Berlin Wall, priced €3, acquired at the Mauerpark flea market at the former ‘death strip’; Berlin, October 2019.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, during an era defined by global militarised segregation, there were only four physical walls that existed to demarcate borders in Europe. Today, however, there are close to 30. “Europe is getting fortified more and more. It’s going to collapse at some point, but before that, I think even more walls will be built,“ says Milach. “We live in a divided environment. Walls are a physical representation, or the most obvious representation, of that. It’s the easiest symbol of division.“

Looking back through history, human civilisations have been building walls to keep others out for centuries. In AD 122, Hadrian’s Wall was constructed to protect the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, and in 221 BC, the Great Wall of China began to take shape, shielding Imperial China from nomadic tribes in the north.

Far from declining, wall-building is experiencing a renaissance in modern times. But rather than being built primarily for defence purposes, nowadays walls are constructed with the promise of preventing immigration, terrorism, or the flow of illegal drugs. An important question that Milach raises is whether they are effective in doing so, and if not, what purpose they serve. “We should be alert, and we should constantly observe these areas,“ he says. Reversing the watchful gaze of authorities, from being observed to observing them, can be a powerful gesture, and, “I want to make the lives of these oppressive structures as hard as possible“.

I Am Warning You by Rafal Milach is published by GOST.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.