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Playing Global (re)Entry: Migration, Surveillance, and Digital Artmaking

BY MOHAMADREZA BABAEE THE JOURNAL OF AMERICAN DRAMA AND THEATRE VOLUME 35, NUMBER 2 (SPRING 2023) ISNN 2376-4236 ©2023 BY MARTIN E. SEGAL THEATRE CENTER


fig. 1: The installation room for Global (re)Entry. 2D game and multimedia installation. “Unforgetting” exhibition, University of California, Santa Cruz, Apr. 2022. Photo by author.

“Have you ever held a grenade in your hands?”


The participants read on a monitor screen in a room with a view of the Pacific Ocean (fig. 1). A projector screen obstructs the view and displays the live footage of the participants from a bird’s-eye angle. With white walls, a desk, a chair, and a desktop computer and monitor, the room seems desolate. An ambient soundtrack is playing in the background, projecting various sounds that travelers usually hear in any US airport: the occasional announcements, suitcases being dragged on smooth floors, the beeping sound of various scanning machines, and the occasional roarings of airplanes taking off. If the participants sit behind the computer long enough, they could hear the ambient soundtrack of the airport fading into distant notes of a piano playing in an empty alley, birds chirping in a dim forest, and raindrops falling onto thirsty leaves. The question on the screen remains visible until the participants decide to use a “Cosmic” tool to change it. If they click on the cosmic tool icon on the right side of the screen, hover the mouse over the question, and hold down left-click, the question visually morphs into the same text, with one important difference (fig. 2): “Have you ever held a kitten in your hands?”


fig. 2: The redesigned immigration form question. Global (re)Entry, 2D game and multimedia installation.

And such is the core mechanic in Global (re)Entry, a video game-multimedia installation that gives the participants an opportunity to rewrite the racially presumptuous questions that immigrants need to answer in their change-of-status petition forms and in-person interviews.[1] Made in collaboration with recent University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) alumni,[2] the project was first on display as a part of “Unforgetting,” an MFA exhibition of digital arts and new media projects on display at UCSC from Apr. 22nd to May 1st, 2022. The different projects—ranging from video games to multimedia performances—seek to address the common themes of lost histories, hidden realities, and haunting. “The artists,” writes Yolande Harris, an artist-scholar and the exhibition’s curator, “are questioning and actively participating in the destruction of old systems of oppression by imagining new systems in their place.”[3] The system in question in Global (re)Entry is the US immigration system, particularly the process through which an immigrant can petition for residency in the US. While the legal pathway to becoming a permanent resident remains a privileged route to which many undocumented immigrants have no access, Global (re)Entry aims to point out the deficiency and impracticality of legal procedures in the US immigration system built upon historical prejudice and racial bias.

In Global (re)Entry, I take a critical and parodic look at the Global Entry program designed by the US Customs and Border Protection agency. Similar to other Trusted Traveler programs, Global Entry allows “low-risk” US citizens and permanent residents to use an automated machine to receive their clearance for crossing international borders. The conditions through which Global Entry considers a traveler as low risk are not disclosed publicly and are open to interpretation and bias. My project borrows textual and visual assets from the US Department of Homeland Security’s (and the associated agencies’) online documents to simulate and repurpose the traveler screening program. The player needs to answer several questions in the game to receive their travel clearance card. However, their resistance to participating in state-sponsored security theatres unlocks a new gameplay branch that leads the player to a utopian way of reimagining the US immigration system. While players can play the game to learn more about unfair border control strategies and oppressive state policies targeting immigrants, they can also creatively redesign discriminatory US immigration forms and generate pro-immigrant, antiracist manifestos. Before discussing the conceptual development of Global (re)Entry in relation to my performance background, I need to elaborate on why I am discussing this project in the special issue of a theatre and performance studies journal. This issue invites reflections on new work development with attention to how theatre artists respond to the realities of the ongoing global pandemic. I designed Global (re)Entry as a playful digital intervention into discriminatory US border politics. Although the project represents my training as an artist in experimental game design, my current work is in continuation of my years-long practice as a theatre director. I started my journey as an artist by designing, directing, and supporting experimental theatre and performance pieces about the memories that immigrants leave behind, the human impact of financial sanctions on Iran, diasporic experiences of queer people of color, and fearmongering and Islamaphobia that ensued after the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11th, 2001. Over time, I moved away from traditional understandings of theatre to embrace postdramatic and multimedia ways of staging diverse immigrant experiences. Digital mediums and technologies play a central role in my recent projects, but I need to clarify that this digital turn in my practice is not an inevitable assimilation into the techno-utopian rhetorics hailed by megacorporate amalgamations around the country (and the world). Instead, I embraced digital methods of representation and creative intervention as I became increasingly weary of the limited access a live performance space offers to the audience. How could I make more performances about/for immigrants and refugees while many of them did not have the privilege of being in the performance space? The shortcomings of designing a performance around the physical notion of space led me to adapt digital forms of communication, representation, and intervention. Without a doubt, going through a global pandemic, which severely reduced social gatherings, contributed an additional layer to my rationale for opting for a digital sense of performance space as a site of potentials apt for facilitating human-computer interactions.[4] Global (re)Entry represents my investment in interactive digital art as a conditionally more accessible medium[5] while remaining strongly tethered to my experience as a performance maker and scholar.[6] In the following pages, I offer a brief description of Global (re)Entry as a collaborative work of art inspired by my learnings in performance theory. That is not to say that I consider the project a performance piece. Rather, I want to delineate my conceptual itinerary to clarify the significance of performance discourses in my current new work development in digital arts and new media. I am less concerned with disciplinary demarcations and more with the value of interdisciplinary creative production.

The initial idea for Global (re)Entry arose from a simple question: What is a utopian vision of the US immigration system? José Esteban Muñoz’s foundational study of utopias informs my investment in utopian art making. Writing on the contemporary politics of queer of color identity formation, Muñoz believes that minoritarian individuals should imagine their lives beyond what he calls the “quagmire of the present.” It is the present-focused thinking that, according to Muñoz, stops the oppressed from imagining a better future outside the contemporary tyranny of systems. Muñoz proposes a “utopian modality” in which feelings, thoughts, and actions follow a utopian function for “fragmenting darkness” and illuminating a “world that should be, that could be, and that will be.”[7] Muñoz dismisses abstract ideas of utopia as they remain dormant in the realm of fantasy. Instead, he calls for concrete conditions of utopia that can invoke a “not-yet-conscious” potentiality, presenting the collective wish of a group that looks back at the “no-longer-conscious” past and renders hopeful “potential blueprints of a world not quite here, a horizon of possibility.”[8] Inspired by such ideas, I approached several immigrants of color that I knew personally and asked them about their utopian visions of the US immigration system. They all expressed a wish to replace the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with a network of support that facilitates border crossing, not border policing. Concomitant to their utopian thinking was a wish for educating more US citizens about the gross flaws in the legal pathway to becoming a resident and the mental, emotional, and material toll the process could take. Global (re)Entry gives the participants an opportunity to take a critical look at the US immigration system and creatively redesign it in utopian ways. Therefore, the project represents what Claudia Costa Pederson calls “utopian ludology,” a critical-creative perspective that considers games as “places of the radical imagination,” sites that take playfulness as “enabling interactions that afford the necessary freedom to generate new kinds of thinking, feeling, and empowerment to concretize a future that dominant culture renders unthinkable.”[9] Games imbued by concrete ideas of utopia, Pederson asserts, can be “tools of persuasion,” which “open up the question of alternatives” and “reject the mimetic ideals… and commodity models of the video game industry.”[10] While I hesitate to label Global (re)Entry as merely a “persuasive game,” I am inspired by persuasive game designers who use video games for “cultural and social change” and “do so in recognition of the persuasive power of the medium, which is based on its appeal to fantasy and imagination.”[11]

Utopian survival strategies of the queer of color, as theorized by Muñoz, shaped how I approached making the game. I could certainly try to make a live performance piece about border crossing (something that I had done in the past), but I could not comfortably make art for immigrants, fully knowing that many of them could not cross the myriad of borders to partake in the privilege of live physical co-presence. I remain cognizant of the ongoing debates in the field as to what constitutes liveness, namely Philip Auslander’s provocative assertion that live experiences are culturally and historically codified in relation to technological changes.[12] But if we allow ourselves to decenter our scholarly polemics in favor of making room for lived experiences of those with less transnational mobility, the question at hand might become as simple as who is in the room and who is not. As I mentioned before, digital liveness and digital spaces continue to be subject to the same question, as not everyone has equal access to entering a digital room, but I take the odds of more people worldwide having access to the internet to download a small-size, low-tech video game over US government easing up on admitting more immigrants to the country. fig. 3: Screenshot from a cutscene inside the game. Global (re)Entry. 2D game and multimedia installation.In addition to queer of color critique, I also used critical discussions of border surveillance to design Global (re)Entry. While I borrowed from scholars in different humanities fields, performance theory continued to play an essential role in my development process. Trusted traveler programs such as Global Entry are ostensibly designed to facilitate easier border crossing experiences, but in fact, they are just a ruse for easy screening of travelers and separating them into potential suspects and trustworthy users.[13] Since Homeland Security agencies are exempt from racial profiling rules,[14] race plays a vital role in designing and implementing border surveillance strategies. Writing on the surveillance of Blackness in the US, Simon Browne uses “racializing surveillance” as a term to describe systematic moments “when enactments of surveillance reify boundaries along racial lines, thereby reifying race, and where the outcome of this is often discriminatory and violent treatment.”[15] Browne contends that racializing surveillance is a “technology of social control” and suggests “how things get ordered racially by way of surveillance depends on space and time and is subject to change, but most often upholds negating strategies that first accompanied European colonial expansion and transatlantic slavery that sought to structure social relations and institutions in ways that privilege whiteness.”[16] Expanding her analysis into the racialized practices of surveillance at US airports, Browne uses the concept of “racial baggage” to identify situations in which certain acts and certain looks at the airport weigh down some travelers, while others travel lightly.”[17] Trusted traveler programs, Browne continues, are clear evidence of how racializing surveillance is practiced at airports to identify, separate, pat down, and investigate the racial baggage some travelers carry across borders.[18] In the racializing matrix of airports, questions of privacy become contested. The state watches travelers, but in that watching, not all travelers are equally suspect. As Jasbir Puar delineates, “the right to privacy is not even on the radar screen for many sectors of society, unfathomable for whom being surveilled is a way of life…the private is a racialized and nationalized construct, insofar as it is granted not only to heterosexuals but to certain citizens and withheld from many others and from noncitizens.”[19] Furthermore, Puar uses the Foucauldian notion of panopticon to suggest that the ever present surveillance technologies throughout borderlands forcefully encourage self-regulation of a sort that is “less an internalization of norms and more about constant monitoring of oneself and others, watching, waiting, listening, ordering, positioning, calculating.”[20] Performance, communication, and feminist studies scholar Rachel Hall similarly focuses on the notion of self-regulation at airports to frame airport security as a “collaborative cultural performance” that requires some passengers to continuously perform “voluntary transparency.”[21] Transparency, in Hall’s critical opinion, is a privilege, the “new white,” that if performed successfully, will grant the traveler with a moment of innocence.[22] However, Hall continues, not all travelers are given equal access to such privilege; within the post-9/11 context, military and security experts design “mediated spectacles of diabolical opacity” to produce “the stubbornly noncompliant, noncitizen suspects in the war on terror.”[23]

In sum, there is a clear connection between how the state surveils populations and creates racial categories. Surveillance at airports is a racializing act that seeks to produce transparent travelers and suspect figures of the national adversary. The ubiquitous implementation of surveillance technologies at airports regulates self-monitoring practices requiring travelers to disclose their information voluntarily. Those who successfully perform their transparency might achieve a temporary moment of innocence, but travelers with racial baggage need to struggle against a racist state that considers them likely perpetrators of violence. Global (re)Entry fictionally simulates and repurposes the Global Entry trusted traveling program to (on top of encouraging utopian thinking) draw attention to intrusive methodologies that the Homeland Security agencies incorporate to produce prejudiced surveillance data, specifically about immigrants of color. The game starts as an invitation for voluntary performances of transparency, as theorized by Hall. The participants are asked to submit to an intrusive screening process requiring their biometric data. However, in line with the utopian performance-making rhetorics that undergird the projects, participants can refuse to perform transparency and, as such, unlock an alternative gameplay path that leads to creatively redesigning discriminatory US immigration forms.

I use digital technologies and mediums to create interactive art about marginalized experiences. I cautiously navigate this path and remain vigilant about digital accessibility limitations, particularly in the global south. The new projects I develop represent my increasing interest in digital arts and new media. I, however, continue to also identify as a performance maker, an artist of color whose creative journey demonstrates an intertwined and growing web of performance and game design skills. As long as the adapted medium and methodology can empower me in my commitment to increasing representations of immigrants of color, the new work development process personally remains a dynamic terminology applicable to all artmaking practices.

In Global (re)Entry, I follow an artistic mission that draws from the power of representation to enable utopian thinking as a necessary first step toward creating change in society. The utopian thinking that Global (re)Entry encourages is my intervention in the ongoing ostracization, surveillance, deportation, incarceration, and murdering of immigrants that state forces commit at US borders. In the face of such destructive realities, my project does not call for neoliberal reformations of the US immigration system. Instead, Global (re)Entry dares to ask the participants to muster the radical audacity, subversive creativity, and insurgent hopes necessary for entirely disabling a killing machine cloaked as the US immigration system.


About The Author

Mohamadreza Babaee is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance at Indiana University, Bloomington. Their interdisciplinary scholarship and transmedia practice primarily focus on issues of migration and surveillance, particularly in connection to the Middle Eastern and Iranian diasporas in the US. Their first manuscript project, tentatively titled Modded Diasporas: Performing Iranian Identity, combines performance studies and critical game theory to explore how Iranian immigrants modify the circumstances of their systematic oppression to turn them into empowering opportunities, tools, and mediums.

[1] You can play Global (re)Entry at https://www.mbabaee.com/global-re-entry. [2] Music and sound by Madeline Doss, 2D art and UI by Fion Kwok, and Unity programming by Avery Weibel. [3] “Digital Arts and New Media | MFA Program at University of California, Santa Cruz,” accessed January 9, 2023, https://danmmfa.ucsc.edu/. [4] Nadja Masura, Digital Theatre: The Making and Meaning of Live Mediated Performance, US & UK 1990-2020, Palgrave Studies in Performance and Technology (Springer International Publishing, 2020), 42. [5] I acknowledge that access to digital technology remains unequal, particularly in Global South. Steven Dixon, for example, writes that even though new digital technology and internet revolutionized performance forms across the US in the 90s, such revolution was absent or less tangible in other parts of the world with less to no resources for building the digital infrastructure that the new digital age demanded. For more, look at Steve Dixon, Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015). [6] Although the project was originally presented as a multimedia installation, it is available online to players around the world. [7] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia (New York University Press, 2009), 1. [8] Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 22, 25, 97. [9] Claudia Costa Pederson, Gaming Utopia: Ludic Worlds in Art, Design, and Media (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021), 6. [10] Pederson, Gaming Utopia, 184. [11] Pederson, 222. [12] While Auslander initially made this comment in Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (1999), he later revisited his argument to clarify that he does not believe technologies (vs. the people) to be the determining agent in what is live. For more, look at Auslander, Philip. “Digital Liveness: A Historico-Philosophical Perspective.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 34, no. 3 (2012): 3–11. [13] See Matthew Longo, The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security, and the Citizen after 9/11 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). [14] See Nicole Nguyen, Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). [15] Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015), 8. [16] Browne, Dark Matters, 16, 17. [17] Browne, 132. [18] Browne, 135. [19] Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, 10th ed. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 125. [20] Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, 156. [21] Rachel Hall, The Transparent Traveler: The Performance and Culture of Airport Security (Duke University Press, 2015), 12. [22] Hall, The Transparent Traveler, 14. [23] Hall, 46.


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