curated harvest of art science māyā
Photo Credit: David Connolly

Photo Credit: David Connolly


By David Connolly

Disembarking after a long international flight, I enter the terminal bleary-eyed; a familiar routine undertaken many times before. The customs gate routine is the same, passports and documents in hand as I approach the end of the line. The customs official gestures at me to cross the line and approach his station, where I duly hand my documents over to him. The official peers over his glasses to and the verification instructions commence, the testament to my authenticity: photograph taken, three fingers placed in a biometric machine, followed by questions as to the purpose of my visit. He glances up at me again, looks back at his monitor, and types at the keyboard… Waiting… Limbo land.


Another official appears behind the man and after a few minutes asks me to come with him. Although not alarmed, I feel unease as I’m led into a brightly lit white room with three immigration officials sitting down waiting for me. Questions ensue: Why are you visiting the US? Where do you live? You’re Australian, why do you live in Argentina? Why do you keep going back and forth from Argentina to the US?


I tell them I live in Buenos Aires for work, I travel to the US often for business. I renew my visa in Uruguay every three months for work, cos it’s easier. One official takes the lead and reiterates my travel history; Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, China, Europe, UK, Mexico, Uruguay, the list goes on. After four hours an official leads me into another, whiter       



On the 26th of January 2003, a Canadian citizen we shall call Ms Cruz was detained and questioned by US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. After extensive questioning Cruz was deported to India. After returning from India, Cruz was scheduled to take a connecting flight from Chicago to Toronto. On arrival in Chicago, she was met with the scrutiny of a US Customs official who deemed her Canadian passport problematic and claimed that it contained unspecified chemicals. 


Cruz provided numerous identity documents for the INS officials, including her Province of Ontario driver’s license, Ontario health card and a letter of employment from her employer, which she had in her possession at the time.


Officials told Cruz that her passport was forged. In this case, Cruz was subject to the customs officer’s “nationalizing gaze” that rendered her ‘non Canadian.’ In the newspaper Toronto Star, Cruz stated that she was given two options, to be sent to India or to prison. To make matters more tenuous her repeated requests for contact with Canadian consulate officials were dismissed out of hand.


The INS solution to the issue was to cut up her passport and stamp it for “expedited removal.” An expedited removal order, once ordered by a customs official cannot be reversed or contested. Cruz was placed on a Kuwaiti Airlines flight to India and was eventually issued an emergency passport from the Canadian consulate in Dubai on the first stop over on her way to India.


   Photo Credit: David Connolly


  1. Officials in Dubai authenticated her previously defaced passport. Finding that it was not counterfeit or altered but was indeed genuine, Cruz’s ordeal was championed by New York Democratic Congressman Joseph Crowley who wrote a letter to then US Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge about Cruz’ ordeal, requesting an explanation for the situation. The response from the Department of Homeland Security read as follows: “Color of skin is not the issue. The issue at hand is the document,“ and “what she perceives as abuse was mistaken for her own malfeasance in attempting to enter with an altered document.” 1


When Canada’s former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Denis Coderre set in motion a national debate on the introduction of identity cards to be supplied to all Canadian citizens, he noted that identity has taken on heightened prominence since the events of 11 September 2001. He indicated that debating an identity card would provide the opportunity “to clarify what it means to be a citizen, a Canadian” (2003). Speaking about identity, Coderre stated:


As a matter of fact, if I can quote James Baldwin, the US author from Harlem who was a tremendous activist, he said, “an identity is questioned only when it is menaced,” and that’s it. I believe the time has come to decide what to believe as to what an identity is and how we can protect it.


Identification documents serve as pivotal technology in the contemporary management of human mobility and security applications, in particular those that are state sanctioned. Identification documents, such as photo enhanced credit cards and passports not only codify gender, race and often citizenship, but they also help to organize understandings of security, the nation, its material and discursive borders. The instigating identity practice, also leads to the failure of race as a codifier to recognize individuals within that system, as was evident in Ms. Cruz’s case by her miscategorization of her race as Arabic, when in fact Ms. Cruz is Indian.




How is biometric defined? Is it the measurement and analysis of unique physical or behavioral characteristics such as fingerprint or voice patterns, especially as a means of verifying personal identity? By digitized code I am referring to the possibilities of identification that are said to come with certain biometric technologies, where algorithms are the computational means through which the body, or more specifically parts and pieces of it, are mathematically coded as data, making for unique templates for computers to then sort by relying on a searchable database or to verify the identity of the bearer of the document within which the metric is encoded.


Popular biometric surveillance technologies include iris and retinal scans, hand geometry, fingerprint data, facial patterns, and gait recognition. In simple terms, biometrics is a technology of measuring the living body. The application of this technology is in the verification and identification practices that enable the body to function as evidence. Identities, in these digitizing instances, must also be thought through their construction and understood.


The notion of a body made out of place, or made insecure, is useful when concerning moments of contact enacted at international border crossings as well as spaces of the internal borders of the state, such as the voting booth, and other sites and moments where biometric identification is required to speak the truth of and for supposed muted bodies. The muted bodies are forced to speak, forced to act, testify against themselves within institutional sites. These sites and moments necessitate insecurity, where “ the body is surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty.”


In 2011, I embarked on a research based project titled 17 º 42’ 0” N - 97 º 49’ 0” W 41º 5’ 0” N - 87 º 39’ 0” W. The installation addresses my friend Jimmy Salazar’s experience while being transported in the trunk of a 1973 Chevy Malibu car and walking under darkness in the desert, often relying solely on hearing to have an understanding of his co-ordinates. This work is my third collaboration with Salazar concerning his experiences of crossing the Mexican/US border, a journey that began as a 18 year old man and two subsequent crossings of the Mexican/US border illegally.


In this work a viewer enters a 60ft passageway, one sees long-range sensors and through his/her movement, sound is triggered from horn speakers. Each speaker emits a different audio channel. The channels include Salazar speaking about sensory limitation – not being able to see while being illegally transported over the Mexican/US border. Tracking beeps are interspersed with environmental tracks of wind, gas pumps, and other related noises.


Salazar’s body was physically hidden from view, cocooned in darkness in the trunk of a car, waiting to be discovered. Like some illegal immigrants crossing borders, Salazar’s body was in constant uncertainty, unable to speak from fear of discovery. By being a muted body, physically and verbally through fear of detection, was for Salazar a quiet act of resistance. To speak is to be heard. To be heard is to be discovered. Discovery is the antithesis of illegal border crossing.




Canada’s former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Denis Coderre stated: “The notion of ‘being Canadian’ and the rights of mobility that come with such status is understood as being dubious and evolving.” For Coderre, the ability to sustain confidence in “being Canadian,” particularly during the crossing of international borders, is dependent on the “integrity” of documentation. Coderre understands biometric technology as a technique to respond to in his own words: “racial profiling and stuff like that.” Coderre implies a certain neutrality with technologies and their applications; however, the customs officials who verify documents and who “see if the thumbprint fits” may not always be as objective as Coderre purported these technologies to be, and in this way enable digital epidermalization by way of these technologies.


The disembodied gaze of surveillance technologies works as a way of nationalizing and racializing, particularly when race is codified by way of country code, offering up a geopolitics of race, or when facial recognition technology is calibrated to only select types from within specifications of race and gender groupings. The use of surveillance technologies in this regard leads to questions concerning the idea that gender and race can be specified, and also, how transgendered people fit into this algorithmic equation. The premise of these technologies that categories of gender identity are clearcut. These technologies reinforce traditional gendered arrangements of power and authority.


How does race operate in biometrics? Through an algorithmic code, biometric information is said not to be information about the person. The function of the individual is still within the parameters of algorithmic code that has been placed open them by power and authority. Historically, surveillance technologies such as 19th Century photography signal how such technologies have been deployed in methods where disciplinary power is used to organize individuals into racialized categories.  


How do we interpret the body once it is transformed into code? What are the fundamental presumptions with surveillance technologies, such as passports, facial recognition software or fingerprint technology? There is a certain belief that technologies are flawless objective systems and machines with mathematical accuracy, without error and bias from digital analysts who calibrate and set parameters for profiling. Verification machines now do the work of sorting identity documents previously held by people; these machines are designed and operated by humans to classify real people. It is through human processing and classifying that the digitized, biometric body is visible.


The border is a highly charged space, particularly the line you cross before profiling begins. Enacted international border crossings forces the traveller to speak the truth through rites and rituals. A perfect example is the ritual for all border crossings to fill out customs forms declare goods and nationality and follow strict protocol. The rite of confession and the directives in screening zones, from signage asking passengers to suppress humor, demanding travellers to purge themselves of liquids, gels and other prohibited items, overseen by color-coded surveillance technologies that disclose power structures at the border. For Ms Cruz, the border was not a space of transit but a space of eradication under the nationalizing gaze of the border control official. This case reveals how agents of processes (in this case, the border services officers) can mediate the application of surveillance technologies in racially specific ways.


Would a biometric passport make one more secure, more trusted and less suspicious? Would it challenge the power of the border guard or would it further extenuate racialization at the border? Policy and industry standards and specifications provides government bodies a means to fabricate the idea that certain surveillance technologies are completely neutral regarding race and other categories of determination. Examining biometric practices and surveillance invites us to understand the social relations and prevailing discourses that are part of the enabling conditions of certain technologies. It is at the border of the epidermal and digital – a site where certain bodies are cast out - that a biometric discourse can take place. It is precisely this casting out that provokes such discourse and rethinking to see our linked subjectivity as nonnegotiable, or, as Fanon puts it: “One right alone: that of demanding human behavior from the other.”