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international bordercamp strasbourg

No Border Camp Strasbourg: a report

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11.Aug.02 - this report about the noborder camp was first posted on the nettime-l mailing list

I. A Backgrounder

The "No Border" camps (like the one at Strasbourg) are events that grow out of the activities of the No Border Network, ( an alliance of activists and organizations engaged in campaigning against tightening border controls, increasing persecution of emigrants and border crossers, and the buidling up of what can be best described as the "Fortress Europe/Australia/America" phenomenon. The campaign consists of anti -deportation activities like the by now well known "Lufthansa Deportation Class" campaign by 'Kein Mensch Ist Illegal' (No One is Illegal) in Germany, the 'Sans Papiers' (Without Papers) movement in France and the more recent D.Sec as well as a host of other initiatives by, activist groups, civil liberty organizations, and individuals.

The political cultures and traditions that the No Border Network embodies, are as diverse as the 'multitudes' that inhabit it, but they visibly include anarchists, radical feminist, liberterian communists, greens, immigrant organizations, civil liberties groups, tactical media initiative like some Indymedia groups as well as un-affiliated, even a-political, individual dissidents. The network does not describe itself as a movement, it has no central committee or caucus, and is marked by a very alive tradition of internal debate, disagreement and a refusal to abide by any demands for what in left circles worldwide, is known as "Unity in Struggle", and which, in reality is the subordination of all opinions to the demands of the central party line.

The No Border camp at Strasbourg is the largest even of its kind so far, and housed approximately 3000 people in a very hospitable and convivial atmosphere. Previous camps have occurred at the German-Polish border, the German-Ukrainian border, the Spain-Morocco border, and the US-Mexican border. The recent campaings against the detention of immigrants at Woomera in Australia is also inspired in many ways by the No Border Camps.

This much by way of a bare context to the camp. I arrived on the late afternoon of the 21st of July along with Florian Scheider, Geert Lovink and Manse Jacobi at the Strasbourg border camp. And I was in the camp till late on the night of the 23rd of July.

Florian and Geert had been actively involved in several no border camps before, and it was good to get a sense from them about how the No Border Camps have evolved, from a gathering of two to three hundred German acitvists in the late nineties, into a temporary autonomous zone that brought together two to three thousand people from all over Europe, and some from Australia, North America and Asia.

Florian spoke of both the excitement of seeing the whole phenomenon of the No Border camp grow, as a dynamic, organic entitiy, and also of the frustrations of having to re-invent the process of discussion and organization, as people new to the network arrived at the camp and brought with them their varied energies, momentums and proclivities. While there was a sense of a loss of the intimacy of the earlier gatherings, it was more than made up for by the enormous energy that this camp was clearly able to mobilize and sustain.

In Geert's posting (which I had forwarded earlier to this list), the vital role that a new sensibility of the politics of communication, and its role in building this network is evident. He traced, with some pride, the expansion of the communicative capacity of the network, from one laptop computer, to a well kitted out wireless internet infrastructure, an independent transmitter and a camp radio, and the expanding base of the Indymedia and open publishing tendencies that broadcast the camp to the world. I saw Geert at his happiest in the radio tent, a hive of transmissions, where radical techies from all over would congregate to record, transmit and inscribe the camp on the airwaves.

Manse, who has been actively involved in the setting up of aspects of the Indymedia system, had interesting things to say about the possibilities opened up by the open publishing protocol,and how the networking possibilities popularized by it was one of the factors that went into the making of the organizational infrastructure that made events like the No Border camp possible. All this made for interesting discussions as preparation for our arrival into the camp itself.

In a sense, the background to the No Border Camp events lie in the mass participation in the anti capialist actions of the late nineties, starting from the June 18th 'reclaimation of London' in 1999, moving on to the mass protests of Prague, Gothenburg, Seattle and Genoa which had effectively radicalized a new generation of people, who were no longer content with reforms of the system, or 'greater democracy' or 'green' Capitalism, but were expressing their total sense of alienation from the institutions of the state and the market. Their protests were also not so much on 'behalf' of the oppressed in other spaces, say in that fictional space called the 'Third World', as about their own lives and oppressions.

(Where is the Third World, I have often wondered, in the HLM suburbs (banlieus) of Paris, where second generation unemployed white kids and newly proletarianized Maghrebians live the good life of contemporary capitalism in decrepit housing estates, or in the slums and shanty towns of Delhi, or in both, and if it is in both, then what sense does it make to speak of a "third" world, as opposed to 'one' world and nothing else to win, and nothing to lose). In identifying the system of borders and border controls, and the 'frontierization' of all urban spaces in Europe, these protesters were turning the terms of debate around into a territory in which they were themsevles visible as 'outsiders' in fortress Europe. As objects in the database, who could be legal or illegal depending on the terms that the state system employed to characterize the notions of legality in physical space. This meant that potentially, this culture of dissent was one of the first to postulate a unity not based on sympathy with the oppressed 'other' , but on the actual possibility of solidarity based on the conditions that acted in uniform ways across the globe as Capital consolidated itself globally. In other words, or as one of the favourite slogans of the no border activists put it, "Our resistance is as transnational as Capital".

Combined with this was a new energy of communicative practices and tactical media actions that originated in and around the Hybrid Media Lounge at Documenta X in 1997. It is important to recognize, for instance, that the Kein Mensch Ist Illegal campaign, was born in that environment, and was one of the most significant energies that fed into the anti border mobilizations of the later years.

II. The Camp

The first sight that greets you as you cross the Pont d'Europe bridge, between France and Germany, is a colourful array of tent on the right (French) bank of the Rhine. This was the campsite. As you entered, there were a series of improvised but elegant Geodesic Dome frames made out of cheap and easily awailable wooden rods and pegs. These Domes housed, information centres, a welcome point (where you were given basic directions, and orientations), and spaces where people could put up posters, banners etc. There was also a tent for a round the clock legal team (in case of arrests or legal problems) and a full time medical team. The camp itself was organized in "Barrios", or 'neighbourhoods' each housing approximately 400-500 people. Thus, there was a Marburg Barrio, Barcelona Barrio, a Brandenburg Barrio and so on. There was also a 'Womens Only' quarter, for women who wanted to live in a space where there were no men around. Elsewhere in the camp, women and men, and children of all ages, and of assorted nationalities, mingled and lived together in an atmosphere that seemed easy, non threatening, and refreshingly free of any rancour. Though some women stayed in the women only zone, the majority of women stayed in the mixed barrios. There was also a special area for children and their friends and parents to play in, and several people volunteered to play and organize a series of fun activities, with the kids.

I chose to stay with friends I knew, in the Brandenburg Barrio, which also called itself the "Black-Silver" Barrio, although it carried a big nice red flag, with a black star in the centre. Everywhere, black and red flags (the striking colours of the anarchist tradition) fluttered over cheerful pink, blue, purple, green and mauve tents - giving the whole camp the happily hybrid atmosphere of a cross between a political gathering and a carnival. (And that is the best kind of political gathering, imho !)

The Barrios were organized around kitchens, which offered free, wholesome but simple (mainly vegetarian, except for the Maghrebian kitchen of the French Sans Papiers, which also offered delicious north african meat dishes) food, for which you had to queue up. Dinner, was a time that you could run into old friends, or make new ones, in the queue. Each day, there were a series of planned actions, (demonstrations in the city centre, events in the depressed suburbs of Strasbourg, mainly populated by migrants) and meetings, discussions and workshops. At night, after dinner, there were usually lectures, or public discussions, or screenings in one of the two big workshop tents.

For a detailed description of how life on an everyday level at the camp was organized see the camp manual at (it makes for fascinating reading on how 'organized' an well designed a space with an anarchist space has to be if it has to be functional, free and friendly !)

I have already mentioned the Indymedia Tent (with public internet access) and he Radio Tent, which were the communciative hubs of the camp. There was also the Publix Theatre Caravan bus, which was a mobile tactical media double decker bus, that had come all the way from Vienna, and which was like a tactical media centre on the move, with facilities for video screenings, intenet access and streaming, and which would tour the neighbourhoods and suburbs of Strasbourg, and during demonstrations, as a very active outreach arm of the campaign.

The presense of the media and technology at the camp remained a subject of much debate within the camp itself. From the very beginning, there was an active "Anti-Technology" cafe, which was the focus of anti media, anti techie, currents in the camp. There was a great deal of debate on whether the mainstream media and the alternative media were the one and the same thing, whether media personnel should at all be allowed into the camp or not, and how the media spaces shoud be (self) governed.

An interesting instance of the kinds of conflicts that these debates generated, was the unilateral decision by some people within the radical/lesbian feminist sorority at the camp that the radio tent be a "Women Only" space, during the hours that they would be broadcasting their radio programme on the camp radio station. This naturally led to some tensions, with techies (both men and women) insisting that this was a violation of their rights to be and work in a space that they were primarily responsible for. After a few days of what seemed like an impossible standoff, a compromise was reached, the (male) techies decided to observe the radical/lesbian feminist radio programme transmission hour as a 'time for silence ', meaning they agreed to remain absolutely silent in the tent, while the radical lesbian feminists were present for their radio programme.

This solution worked out perfectly. The radical lesbian feminists got their radio programme on the camp radio, and the (male) techies, stayed on in the radio tent. I point to this little tussle, because it seems to me a very interesting example of how a non hierarchical political culture can deal with the fact of internal differences. Of course, it took a few days, and a lot of energy was spent discussing things, but a solution was found in the end. Similar disputes, even on day to day matters like whehter or not a group could or could not set up a non profit beer bar on the camp grounds, or how to deal with instances of sexism on the camp were arrived at on a daily basis at inter barrio meetings, which were daily instances of the everyday political culture of grassroots anarchism.

The overall security of the camp was the responsbility of the 'Big Bertha' node, which consisted of rotating personnel who basically moved around the camp making sure that everybody felt safe and secure in a non coercive way, they were armed only with torches and walkie talkies, and were trained in the practical aspects of non violent conflict resolution. It was also their job to alert the camp in the event of any police presence. The Big Bertha team, like the medical, legal, techie, media and kitchen teams, were composed of volunteers, and had to report the inter barrio assembl. None of these teams acted as power centres, in fact they coud not do so, as they were made up of rotating members. Apart form these there were 'Affinity Groups' - the radical lesbian feminists were one such group, the techies were another informal affinity group and so on. The inter barrio assembly met each morning after local barrio meetings. Barrios sent delegates selected to the inter barrio meetings (these could be recalled, and were not 'representatives' in the sense in which we normally understand 'political representation') all disputes, were discussed openly and at great length, and there was no attempt to force majority decisions, or forced consensus. All decisions were publicly posted at info points in each barrio and in public spaces in the camp. The camp was not chaotic, not a series of random meetings, not made up of vague drifters who had nothing else to do.

Just to give you an instance of how organized it actually was - the diversity of languages spoken at the camp was transformed from being a problem into an advantage by sheer organization and co ordinated effort. At the radio and info tents, there were charts outlining peoples (volunteers) names, the languages they spoke and the times that they would be avaiable each day for interpreting and translations. This menat that no text, no communique, no interview, no discussion need remain untranslated. Working translations were arrived at , expeditiously, and no group felt left out because it did not speak a particular language.

I found this particularly remarkable, as I am used to the linguistic tyranny of Hindi and English in a great deal of the alternative political culture in India. As far as i could get a sense of what is going on, it was my distinct impression that a similar level of co ordination was also visible in the voluntary distribution of kitchen and cleaning up duties, construction, maintainance, public relations and technical infrastructure maintaniance. If anything, this microcosmic model of a 'functioning anarchy' was an instance of how the actions and energies of the 'multitudes' might translate into concrete realities on a day to day basis in a possible future away from Capitalism.

Of course there were matters of serious disputes, like one on the presence and persistence of an anti semitic thread in the European left that took advantage of the condemnation of the Israeli states' actions in the occupied Palestinian territories. This was a theme on which I heard many conflicting points of view.

There were also practical issues of great concern and gravity, that were the subject of endless debate and discussion - how not to succumb to police provocation, how to interface more actively with the people of Strasbourg, and how to plan an effective action agaist the Schengen Information System, which was the key action planned for the end of the week.

III. Information and Politics : The SIS system and the No Border Camp

The Schengen Information System (SIS) is the central database that tracks migrants, refugees, travellers, asylum seekers and others who come to Europe. It s electronic monitoing apparatus, has turned all of the towns, cities and country side of the Schengen states (France, Germany, Italy, the Benelux states) into one vast border zone that carries with it the illusion of the 'vanishing border'. It is true, that once you enter, say, France, you can pass seemingly effortlessly into any other Schengen state. But what lies behind this apparent ease of movement (if you have the right papers) is the fact that the entire area is now one big networked border check post, and you can be tracked, traced, and checked, anywhere. In Germany, for instance, severely repressive laws, that restrict the movements of those who have sought asylum are in existence, and the German government (SPD and Greens) is arguing for making this a Europe wide system. The UK is calling for punitive actions against those parts of the world where illegal emigrants originate from. The databases at the heart of fortress Europe are the neural network which will make these measures possible. One of the most interesting groups of people that I came across at the no border camp at strasbourg, was the group that called itself D.Sec (


D.Sec or 'Database System to Enforce Control' can also be understood as "Deformed Security"

Here I would like to give you an extended quote from the d.sec website.

"...d.sec is about reflecting the mechanisms of repression/control in the fields of free movement and free communication, the experiences of electronic and physical bordercrossing. An attempt to integrate cyber-activism and taking the streets, and find the relations between social and technical skills. The wider objective is to give momentum to an ongoing exploration of technical potentials in the resistance against the border regime.

d.sec relies on the diversity of people who will be present at the Strasbourg border camp. Some of the activists will be web designers and editors, sys-ads, videomakers, code-writers, translators. Some earn a living with this "immaterial labour", some just use it in their political work. Others focus on the streets. Others have experience with borders and migration.

d.sec is meant to become an open structure where activists, anti-racists, migrants, hackers, teccies, artists and many more put their knowledges and practices into self-organised interaction. A space to discuss and network, for skill sharing and and collaborative knowledge production. A laboratory to try out ways to hack the streets and reclaim cyberspace with crowds in pink and silver; experiment with virtual identities, linux and open-source products; explore the embodyment of technology, learn about the meanings of physical and virtual bordercrossing."

In conversations with some of the people of this group, what I found most interesting was their very concrete understanding of the fact that the freedom of movement and freedom of information are related things. That the immigration systems databse was a border control system, and hacking the database was as much about freeing information as it was about helping people move by letting them know how much they were being watched, how and my mind, this is one of the cleares instances of political hacking that I know, and it is not about a "Denial of Service"attack, or about some kind of cyber graffiti or website defacement. It is far more fundamental than these kinds of actions that are basically designed as being more or less effective spectacles in cyberspace. d.Sec is about getting to the core of the "politics" of information systems, and that is why I think it breaks significant new ground in the tactical media milieu.

Althoug I was not present for the d.sec groups action at the SIS headquarters in the suburbs of Strasbourg, (it happenned after I left) I think it bears some reflection, and I quote again from the diary entry of this action on one of the Indymedia sites allied with the Strasbourg No Border Camp.

Shutting Down the SIS ; Researchers Hack the SIS system

"...On friday 26th a team of researchers from strasbourg nsv research(noborder sillicon valley) came to Strasbourg Neuhof, where the Schengen Information System (SiS) is located. It was the aim of a working group to develope a system to make the data stored in the Schengen Information System accessable for everybody. Accompanied by a french television team and several journalist, the team dig a hole next to the street which is going to the SIS. The work of the group soon got the attention of the police, obviously not understanding what was going on and suprised by the massive gathering of press people.

Based on information of a resaerchers group who visited the SIS location some days before, a cable was taken out of the ground and connected to a notebook. After booting the system and logging in on the SIS system, the user rights of the schengen data were changed (chmod 777*) so from now on everybody is able to access his/her own data stored in the schengen system, of course also change or delete data as needed. After that then the noborder plugin was installed (apt-get install noborder) to enable access from everywhere whitout limitation.

The communication protokoll was changed to TCP/IP for easy internet (webbased-)access. A easy to use webportal will be installed soon. Now the system was shutdown for a complete reboot and made ready for a free-communication compiling..."

Here was an event complete with its own dramaturgy and theatre, 'researchers' dressed in orange and white lab technicians garb, complete with accessible high tech, but easy to use, and inexpensive tools (laptops, digi cams and mobile phones) technical competence of a high order, a clear political objective - (freeing the database) and an utterly confused police which could make no sense of a group of silent, serious looking technicians who seemed to raise no slogans, make no disturbance, speak in no "language of protest" that they could recognize.

V. Maps of Power

Another interesting project that I saw was a take away print broadsheet called "Refuse the Biopolice : A Cartography of Contemporary Control Systems a fascinating diagrammic representation of the links between corporate and financial power, state interests, military apparatuses, foundations, wealthy families, and networks of surviellance that spanned the globe. This was a project conceived by a Strasbourg based group called the Universite Tangente (Tangential University?) in collaboration with, which is a collective of artists and researchers who produce a variety of imaginative interpretations through texts, maps and diagrams of the realities of contemporary life. Information, both as an aesthetic category, and as a subject of politics is central to their work. The boradsheet was produced by them in collaboration with Syndicat Potentiel and Bureau d'Etudes (Strasbourg)

VI. Freedom of Movement, Freedom for Information

It was in some ways quite fitting that this recognition of the very political fact of information, of the drawing of links between the freeing of information, and the breaking of borders was taking place at Strasbourg. Strasbourg was the place where Gutenberg pioneered the printing press. And there is a statue commemorating his "freeing of information"close to the city centre. In an earlier visit to Strasbourg some years ago, I was pleased to discover, at the base of this memorial to Gutenberg, a series of bronze plaques, other pioneers of free speech, the printed word and the freedom of expression and information. Amongst this is depicted (Along with the thinkers of the enlightenment, the statesmen of the American revolution, and anti slavery activists) a figure of Ram Mohan Roy (misspelt as Rah Mohan Roy), radical theologian, an early enthusiast of the printing press, liberal thinker and founder of the reformist sect called the Brahmo Samaj in nineteenth century India. Ram Mohan Roy, in the last phase of his life, spent some years in Europe, in England. During this time, he expressed a desire to vist France, to facilitate the people of France on the occasion of an anniversary of the revolution of 1789. He was however, asked to procure a visa by the French authorities. Much incensed by this, "uncivilised" demand, he wrote an eloquent and furious letter, in which he implied that the visa, was a violation of the principles of liberty (of movement), of equality (amongst peoples) and the possibility of fraternity (because it effectively prevented people from fraternizing). I am not sure about this, but my hunch is that this is probably the first recorded protest against visas and border controls in the world.

By a strange (or not so strange) twist of history. The demonstration that passed the tiny, barely noticable bas relief figure of Ram Mohan Roy in Strasbourg, was echoing his anger, almost two centuries later. What was remarkable was the fact that they like him, (and perhaps like Gutenberg before him) were equally aware of the fact that the control over information is one of the keys to the hold that power has over people, and that their protest was as much against border controls in physical space as it was against borders in virtual space. This again made me think that it is meaningless to single out the internet as 'New Media'. In its own time, the Printing Press was as much 'new' or 'tactical' media as the internet and computers are today. And just as the explosion of 'illicit', subversive, dissident, anti clerical or even ribald literature that accompanied the proliferation of printing presses in the late eighteenth century prior to and during the revolution of 1789, creating a critical mass of free thinking, so too, the tactical media initiatives of our times could be contributing to a new critical mass of the freedom of thought in our times. The fact that the database was at the heart of power, makes it impossible to think of a technological articulation of info politics as being always radical. It is as central to power as it is to those who oppose power. To either romanticize new technologies of information and communication as being the standard bearers of the coming revolution, or to paint them in the dystopic colours of state and political control is to forget the fact that it is what we 'do' with information that makes it political, this way or that. The computer can be the appliance of the border guard, and it can be the instrument of the border crosser, a lot depends on who uses, which software to which end, how, and why.

For me, the border camp at Strasbourg was about this reality in action, of the hacker, the border crosser, the police man and the guardian of the database stading and facing each other, inaugurating a new moment (amongs many other such moments) in the struggle for freedom in the world today.

VII. On the Streets, in Cyberspace

It was this combination of the strength of tactical media actions, along with highly charged street protests - like the march to the European Palace of Justice and the Council of Europe Buildings, or in the central square of Strasbourg, which combined radical giant puppets, cheerleaders, spray painters, a mobile poster and sticker pasting unit, a very enthusiastic Samba band, flag bearers and camera wielding people who did counter surveillance videos of polic presence, that lent the whole camp and its activities a decided edge. Of course, the police waited and watched in the first few days, and then got into a heavily reprssive mode later, with arrests, raids, tear gas sprays and baton charges (all these happenned in the last few days, after I left) but I think that camp was able to make its presence felt in many significant ways. It was the intersection of a new information and tactical media presence with a street smart culture of political presence. By focusing on the Schengen Information System it was able to develop a sophisticated response to the necessity of treating information as one of the key questions of political power in the contemporary world. And on the sidelines of the camp, just before I left to catch a train in the middle of the night, in a discussion on tactical media and politics, that brought together people from Central, Western and Eastern Europe, North America, Australia, the Middle East (both Arab and Israeli), and South Asia, the proposal for the 'Last International' was quietly mooted, and slipped easily into discussion. I like this phrase, it has an irony (based on its reference to all the previous internationals and their tragic destinies) and a certain urgency. This phrase, which some of us at Sarai have used casually in conversation, which re-appeared again at the Make World Conference in Munich last year, and which made its presence felt in a quiet way at the Strasbourg No Border Camp, is an idea whose time has come. Increasingly, I think that the time we inhabit is indeed the moment of the 'Last International'. Of making the resistance to capital as agile, as transnational and as mobile as capital itself. As I left Strasbourg, crossing borders, physically and metaphorically, I could not but help carrying with me the slogan that I often heard at demonstrations, or saw pasted on leaflets all over Strasbourg - "No Borders, No Nations, Stop Deportations".

VII. Flying Home

On the flight back home, I saw a line of light on the ground as the airplane that I was in flew into the airspace of the Republic of India. This line of light was the electrified, fortified fence that marked the western borders of the Republic of India. On either siders of this border were arrayed the men who constitiuted the single largest military mobilization since the second world war.As we crossed this pretty line of light, the captain announced that it was forbidden to take pictures or make videos as we crossed into the airspace of the Republic of India. Once again, the border control and the control over informations seemed to intersect with uncanny precision. I thought of the possibility of a No Border Camp somewhere on this electrified, illuminated fault line, and quietly put that thought away, at least for the moment, as I began filling in the dis-embarkation card, spelling out my name, date of birth, and that thing which I have never understood called 'nationality' in block letters, in preparation for the immigration control officer at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. The chant, "No Borders, No Nations, Stop Deportations", still rang in my head, persistently.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta