Echolocation

The experience of the border at the edges of the Korean Demilitarized Zone is, at first glance, structured as a performative event of looking. Panoramic windows display a vast horizon of rolling hills and mountains. Ultra-zoom binoculars transport the gaze to distant points on the landscape, a view that is poor in resolution and stability but evoking proximity. The disconnect between the macro and micro of the terrain is so vast that the two are practically irreconcilable.

The encounter with the rich fauna of the

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a testament to the flourishing nature, is disorienting too, off-kilter, as creatures come taxidermied and inhabit fluorescent halls. Our eyes cannot locate this border.

At the Cheorwon Peace Observatory near the

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I watched as groups of silver-haired tourists in bright sporty clothing approached the wall of windows that frame the expanse onto the North.

Where is the North?

How do you use these binoculars?

I can’t see anything!

“Not seeing anything intelligible is the new normal,” artist-philosopher Hito Steyerl explains in a discussion on human perception and its failures in the face of machinic modes of data transmission. These rituals of seeing at the border might be imagined similarly. Facilitated by the development of security tourism and the construction of observatories along the southern boundary of the

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seeing operates within a logic, an optical machinery, an apparatus that structures the visual. Sound, by contrast, can relate to the border in a way that eludes the burden of these optics. Loudspeaker broadcasts from north to south and south to north resonate through the border zone, producing a distinctive sonic environment that is voluminous, expanding and contracting as it crescendoes and decrescendoes. World news, K-pop, military marches, weather updates, propagandistic proclamations, and songs of love, longing, and loss echo across the

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reverberating anywhere from ten to twenty-four kilometers beyond the thirty-eighth parallel, depending on topography, weather patterns, and the time of day. As a modality that adds volumetric dimension to the structures of the visible, linear, demarcated

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sound is a key facet of border experience in that it announces the moving body of the border. Its sonic contours are sinuous, swelling with song on clear nights and retracting into silence with the rains while ridges and valleys scatter sound waves and folds produce echo chambers, bringing to mind Franck Billé’s (2018) suggestion of a more sensuous and synesthetic engagement with borders.

In Yangjiri, a small village about five kilometers south of the

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I held an art and research residency with the Real DMZ Project in the fall of 2016. This is when vibrations first entered my work. It started as a feeling of being nestled, almost sequestered between fog, moonlight, and mountain ranges. I could not see the border, but could place myself in its geography if I listened for echoes beyond it.

Gunshots and the rhythms of target practice formed the left frontier of the village, an undefined somewhere, which marked a boundary with the Sixth Infantry Division’s military base. On the other side, toward the mountain on the right, ballads about the Leader’s endless love for the people flowed through the terrain. In this sounded environment, I came to inhabit an everyday in an absent/present relation with the border. Sometimes the village sounded like a distant war zone. At other times, it resounded thick and close, as if the house behind mine was being bombed. On particularly clear nights, songs from the North filled the night, seeping through windows, percolating in bedrooms, forming dream images, and lingering in my room until dawn. During the Lunar New Year celebrations, the other side was distinct in only its silence.

The border is a powerful entity and has a way of drawing you in, J. P. Sniadecki explained when describing his film El Mar La Mar, a portrait in motion of border crossers in the Sonoran Desert. This force, this work of borders, is what Sarah Green (2012, 574) would call “borderness.” If there is such a thing as border buzz, this village was enveloped by it.

The Zen concepts of the hearing eye and the seeing ear, as encountered in Trinh Minh-ha’s writing and filmmaking, are instructive here. Trinh (2014) writes of the “boundary event,” asking what else can be made visible when the eye hears, what else might be made audible when the ear sees. This points to transcendence—transcending the natural function of the eye and ear, transcending the binaries of sight and sound, vision and visibility, sound and audibility toward an approach of the “barely” (see Trinh 2016, 133). The idea of echolocation is also about a barely, a nearly. The fundamental principle is attunement to sound, making sense of one’s surroundings through sound. But the kind of location it enables is not about cartographic coordinates of the

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or precision or identification of the exact line that divides. Instead, it is a process of negotiating uncertainty in location, listening for reverberations and traces of echoes, and looking again at the thing that escapes us.

References

Billé, Franck. 2018. “Skinworlds: Borders, Haptics, Topologies.” Environment and Planning D 36, no. 1: 60–77.

Green, Sarah. 2012. “A Sense of Border.” In A Companion to Border Studies, edited by Thomas M. Wilson and Hastings Donnan, 573–92. Malden, Mass.: Wiley.

Trinh T. Minh-ha. 2014. Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism, and the Boundary Event. New York: Routledge.

_____. 2016. “The Image and the Void.” Journal of Visual Culture 15, no. 1: 131–40.