Studio Low, Borders as producer of design / 1











Ismaël G. Rifaï / Studio Low








Contents: Ismaël G. Rifaï
Arrangement: Claudine Garcia
Design layout: Good Sessions Studio










 ©Ismaël G. Rifaï. View of the the Industrial area El Tarajal , 2019.





Since the very first civilisation men and women have tried to build barriers around them.

The construction of those structures have made it possible to integrate a notion of authority into a simple line and delimitating human’s power. In this way, borders allowed man to control flux of people and goods.

Nation’s have created their own rules in order to keep their borders ‘’safe’’, using apparatus as passports and visas to regulate flux of people but also taxes to regulate goods importation in order to keep control on their own economy.

Nevertheless, all these precautions do not prevent activities such as smuggling, a practice in which I see an ingenious and bold response to the control in place embodied by passport control and tax regulations.

Smuggling activities transform borders into working spaces for the people living in the area where an economic hotspot is generated.

This trade is generating specific ways of working and developing creatively through a design of necessity and efficiency.



Map of Ceuta/Sebta

Illustration, Ismaël G. Rifaï


Ceuta for the Spanish and Sebta for the Moroccan is a 18.5 km2 Spanish enclave on the African continent. In this space two different cultures are directly confronted, a crossroad of culture and religion, judeo-christian and muslim, affecting people’s way of life. 

To use geographer Bernard Kayser’s expression, the ‘’Mediterranean is a divide’’. It is a geographical divide but also a social and economic divide, as the inequalities are so strong between the two sides of the Mediterranean. What’s making Ceuta so interesting is the fact that no water separates it from Morocco, in contrast to the actual divide between Europe and Africa by the Mediterranean. 

This situation of an European territory on the African continent makes the city a gateway for sub-saharan migrants to reach Europe. From one side, Ceuta is a gate to Africa and from the other, a gate to Europe. Therefore, it’s not simply a division or an entry to a different country, but where continents meet.

There are two decisive phenomenas to understand the nature of relations between countries and populations on both sides of the Ceuta’s border. 
First, the strong social and economic discontinuities and secondly, the history of imperialist domination. Indeed the social discontinuity has been built-up over the course of a history of relationships that has been structured around relationships of domination and dependence.

Colonisation is undoubtedly the strongest expression of this, with conflicts and wars reminding us how much this region is a space of tension.





 ©Ismaël G. Rifaï



The geographical position of Ceuta; of being outside of the Spanish territory and being a port; makes it a free port zone, an area in which imported goods can be held or processed free of customs duties. Meaning there is no Value Added Tax (VAT).

In addition, Morocco; since its independence in1956; has refused to recognize Ceuta as Spanish land. This political stand led to an absence of official customs checkpoint, making goods exported to Morocco not subjected to any taxation.

Nevertheless to prevent the displacement of too big quantities of products the Moroccan law states that only personal items, the one carried on the person can be brought back, by foot. This economic situation transforms Ceuta into a big duty-free city and lead to a creation of a perfect place for the development.

This informal trade has become a source of income for numerous Moroccans who cross the border daily between Morocco and Spain in order to bring back all types of commodities, ranging from electronic to food to blanket. Considering the amount of people working around this informal economy, the way they work, even though informal, is organized.

How people benefit from it, is a system that can be approached as a formal and accepted work structure, the one of the factory. Indeed every morning, thousands of people cross the border like employees cross the factory gate. These workers perform their job, buy, pack merchandise and go again through the gate, a step regulated by the guards of the border.

©Ismaël G. Rifaï


©Ismaël G. Rifaï. Women on their way back to Morocco, 2019.


In order to carry a consequent quantities of items from a point A to point B a scenario identical to a production chain is followed. This zone can be seen as a space mixing spaces where only insiders such as the workers can get in by their knowledge of the place.

One of the main actors of the trade are the carriers called “mule women”, this term reflects the difficulty of the labour they do and that this work was mainly performed by women. It’s a precarious job consisting of walking all day long and carrying 90kg on the back or pushing a trolley.

Those workers were mainly, for a long time, divorced woman or widowed with children in their charge, nevertheless, more and more men are participating in this work. Another important figure of this trade is of course the customs officer (Spanish and Moroccan) who are not directly involved in the items routing, but are here to control and regulate flux of movement across the border.

They also represent a figure of authority who controls the worker, just like the quality control of a production line. Once products are bought, they go into the hands of a new group of workers.

This group is in charge of packaging items as tight as possible, so it will reduce its size. They occupy most of their time manipulating products, and they always achieve the same task. In that sense, they could be defined as the warehouse pickers.


©Ismaël G. Rifaï


A set of rules have been determined by the Spanish authority they adopted through time, to try to regulate the circulation of goods, but also of people.

Why Ceuta’s workers smuggling is interesting it is because in the dispositif by itself they introduced a disruption in a static set of rules. Ivan Illich; an important figure in the criticism of industrial society of the 20th century; have developed the concept of ’counter productivity of tool’.

Counter productivity is the mean by which a fundamentally beneficial process or arrangement is turned into a negative one.

The counter productivity of Ceuta’s border lies on worker’s power to impact a dispositif. Through their acts of smuggling, the border dispositif to regulate goods is jeopardized and counter-productive as it does not achieve its goal anymore. 

We can say that the ‘dispositif’ heavily affects the way people are working, for example, in relation to the weight limitations and mode of transportation. Nevertheless cross borders workers have developed design responses creating a sort of resistance typology.

The work of carrier worker and all other transnational workers involved in this atypical trade are not going to stop.

The situation between Spain and Morocco is not going to be solve soon. 

Through the focus on a specific informal trade, this project aims to question how a designed product is the result of economical, political, individual entanglement. 

The choice of the specific case study of the trade in Ceuta recalls the several links between importation, production, creation, context.

Comparing metaphorically the informality of the workers condition of Ceuta to a factory organisation led me to explore the craftsmanship quality that workers have when packing, repacking, transporting objects.

 ©Ismaël G. Rifaï


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