In a series of lectures and published texts throughout the 1990s, the French philosopher and cultural critic Jacques Derrida explored notions of hospitality , addressing historical and contemporary investigations within both philosophy and postcolonial studies. His interest in the implications of inviting the “stranger” or “foreigner” into one’s home or country was directly tied to contemporary conflicts around immigration in France. He was responding to a moment in which France’s traditional role as a sanctuary state (terre d’asile) was being challenged by a new perception as France as part of Fortress Europe, a continental move to close borders. I am interested in engaging Derrida’s ideas around hospitality as a tool in revisiting the implications of artist Paul Ramírez Jonas’s project for inSITE_05, as it relates to the dynamics of immigration within the San Diego-Tijuana border region.
Mi Casa, Su Casa revolved around the figure of the key: a key as an intimate object, as a potential symbol, and as a linguistic agent. It involved a series of talks by the artist at various communal sites in both San Diego and Tijuana. Intimate and intentionally meandering, these talks included images and narratives related to the artist’s research involving the keys of specific individuals, of varying economic status, operating across both sides of the border. These subjects were mixed with references to art history, rocket science, and examples of how passports, particular nationalities, or skin tone may be understood as “keys” within particular contexts.
The most provocative gesture of the project occurred at the end of each talk. Ramírez Jonas would ask those present to participate in an exchange of copies of their personal keys with other members of the audience. A key maker was present to produce the proposed copies. The artist initiated the process with his own house key, which was given to a volunteering member of the audience, who then had his or her own key reproduced. In a round-robin fashion, an individual’s personal key was exchanged with that of an unknown person.
It is in its multiple gestures toward opening one’s home to a stranger that Mi Casa, Su Casa evokes hospitality and Derrida’s investigations into the relations between “guest” and “host.” The Spanish expression quoted in the project’s title invites the guest to feel comfortable and to consider the host’s home as his or her own. For Derrida, while seeming generous in nature, these interactions always involve a bit of hostility, what he calls “hostipitality,” specifically how one is invited to act as if at home, but forced to remember that this is actually not true, that it is not one’s own home, but that of the host, where one is expected to respect someone else’s property and social norms. Hostility enters Ramírez Jonas’s project within an implied threat—the possibility of the stranger using his or her copy of the key to enter the other’s home unannounced. The project creates an ominous prolongation of the potentiality of this hosting moment and domestic invasion.
While Ramírez Jonas intentionally stretches the meaning of keys, it is important to tie their significance to the specificities of site that informed the project. One’s individual key to access may take on altering forms, but the implied “door” in Mi Casa, Su Casa is that of the U.S.-Mexican border and the complexities involved in crossing from Mexico into the United States. In the project’s central act of exchanging personal keys, there is an implied trust—trust in the other by giving access to one’s home and by metaphorical extension within this geopolitical context in accepting the risks and unknowns involved in opening this border to both legal and illegal immigrants.
Derrida makes a specific distinction between what he describes as unlimited hospitality, which he considered an “impossible ideal,” and conditional hospitality involving customs, social contracts, and laws. Unlimited hospitality would involve the giving freely of one’s home and possessions to the other, without expecting anything in return. It implies an ethical, extreme position, which while understood as ultimately unachievable, is an ideal that Derrida saw as continually informing conditional hospitality, which will always offer less in comparison. The philosopher applied these ideas directly to the nation-state, to how the projected ethics of immigration of many nations purports an extreme generosity, while reality is that it is always conditional, involving quotas or other requirements: particular keys of entry are always present.
Following this line of thought, the United States is understood as a nation that is strongly identified with its myth of unlimited hospitality, yet struggles with the realities of conditional hospitality. Mi Casa, Su Casa evokes both these terms. Within his talks Ramírez Jonas identified the specific character of multiple keys that allow access across the US border, these tools of conditional hospitality. Concurrently, his proposed action of the key exchange implied a letting go of these potential obstacles, blindly allowing access to a stranger in a manner that suggests unlimited hospitality.
The questions raised by this project are currently an even greater source of conflict and contestation fifteen years after Mi Casa, Su Casa. The cross-border fluidity of the key-holders narrated within Ramírez Jonas’ talks is no longer as easy or possible. With the Trump administration’s militarization of the border zone, and with limiting access to the country so central to this president’s political ideology and agenda, it is a moment when all forms of hospitality, sanctuary, and immigrant rights are at risk and highly politicized. Asylum and refugee statuses are currently being severely limited and immigrant families are being separated, with children held in detention camps. The keys of entry to the United States, what constitutes a welcome guest, are continually shifting in character from one day to the next. Additionally important in discussing this border region today, particularly in relation to the recent influx of immigrants from Central America, is that it is no longer a discussion regarding hospitality along one border, but two. Mexican’s southern border now plays an important role in these negotiations and in Mexico’s own changing perspectives on hosting immigrants, while it simultaneously addresses fluctuating access of its own population to and from the United States.
Mi Casa, Su Casa is historically significant in its radically discursive and performative nature and the manner in which it generated it own specific publics, the social beings articulated through the exchanges structured into Ramírez Jonas’s talks. Each of these publics-turned-participants emerged from the experience with the only lasting material evidence of the project, their copy of a brass key. Engraved onto these tiny sculptures were two drawings that together encapsulate the queries of the overall project. One side displayed an individual’s hands with palms open in a vulnerable gesture of both giving and receiving. On the other, two hands were shown placed across the chest, as a symbol of self-protection, holding back, or rejection. In these complex times of isolationist politics, global viruses, and environmental insecurity, the question whether to generously share or to withhold access, to aspire for conditional or unlimited hospitality, is key.