Jill Marie Holslin, essay and photographs
English translation. Originally published in Spanish as “Hackeo de la Frontera: un desafío de la cultura del espectáculo.” Revista Espiral no. 70 (September 2020).
Jill Holslin is a visual artist and researcher based in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Testing Trump’s Wall was a collaborative art and activism intervention by Jill Marie Holslin of San Diego State University, San Diego’s Overpass Light Brigade, Andrew Sturm of University of California, San Diego.
Hacking the border
On Saturday, November 18, 2017 at dusk, we hacked the border. From our position on the Mexican side of the international border–in the Las Torres neighborhood of Tijuana–we projected light graffiti across the international border into the United States, and onto the eight prototypes of President Donald Trump’s newly envisioned 30-foot high border wall. We were a group of artists and activists, and our performative action was intended as an intervention in the 150-foot no-man’s land of the international border, and to participate in the absurd political theatre of Trump’s wall.
From the Mexican side of the border, we used a theatre lamp to project messages and images onto Trump’s 30-foot high concrete slabs. The messages we projected–“refugees welcome here” and “no one is illegal”–are iconic as the values that our nation ostensibly exists to defend: the rule of law, the welcoming of refugees, the values of human rights. Other designs played with the construction of illegality and criminality that is associated with border crossing: one design showed a man climbing the wall while the message read “¡Llégale!” or “Come on in” while the double “l” and exclamation points created a visual pun on “illegal.” A giant ladder and a figure of a luche libre mask playfully deflated the rhetoric of power expressed in the massive 30-foot concrete prototype border walls.
The position from which we projected, in Mexico, reflected
the literal expulsion of dissenting voices in US political discourse: the public
was not allowed to express this critique in the United States at the prototype
site. About four square miles of the prototype site was fenced off by the San
Diego Sheriff’s Department in anticipation of public protests that might have
interrupted the construction, and the public is to this day not allowed to
approach the site without permission and a border patrol guide. Like the refugees
and immigrants that our messages referred to, American values are now under
threat of expulsion by a government and border security apparatus that plays on
fear and xenophobia and operates under the assumption that might makes right.
As a spectacle, and as political theatre, the Trump border wall prototypes were in many ways the perfect symbol of a presidency that operates through drama and distraction to turn the American public into passive spectators. Our action entered into the spectacle, using theatre to problematize and reconfigure the relations of power that the Trump administration has used to divide the populace and to brutalize and silence his critics.
Our playful gesture participated in the spectacle of the official construction and testing of the border wall prototypes. Our action was intended to reveal the prototype project for what it was–political theatre. We used artistic form and content to drive this point home. We used light projections, drawing upon the work of feminist contemporary artists Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer and their use of advertising aesthetics and messaging in public space. Situated on the site of most costly international border infrastructure in the world, our intervention clarified the contradictions of border militarization: multibillion dollar expenditures on materials, construction, the latest surveillance technology could be defeated by the simplicity of light waves passing effortlessly through the atmosphere. Visually and conceptually, our piece evokes Alfredo Jaar’s “The Cloud,” in which one thousand white balloons were released over the US-Mexico border in Playas de Tijuana/San Diego in memory of the migrants who had died in the previous 10 years attempting to cross the border. Likewise, the piece reverses the power dynamics of the “Light Up the Border” protests of the early 1990s, when anti-immigrant protesters in San Diego County used the headlights from their cars to illuminate the Mexican side of the border an effort to expose border crossers.1 Our project used light to expose the border as an apparatus of state power, and we used the machinery of the theatre–a theatre lamp and light projection–to show that our voices and gestures as artists are constituted within the very same political machinery that tries (but fails) to silence us.
Art in the Enforcement Zone
As a site-specific art intervention, our project was
formally determined and directed by the space in which the light graffiti was projected.
In fact, the space itself was the whole point. By definition, site-specific art
challenges our conventional ideas of what art is. Art’s “attachment to the
actuality of the site,” notes Miwon Kwon, presents new imperatives, one of
the most important, the question of how art makes meaning, “to relocate
meaning from within the art object to the contingencies of its context” (Kwon
12). As Kwon goes on to say, a dominant
trend in site-specific art over the past twenty years has been the emergence of
art practices that engage with the outside world and with everyday life, in
pursuit of “a critique of culture that is inclusive of nonart spaces,
nonart institutions and nonart issues (blurring the division between art and
nonart, in fact)” (24). It is worth
considering then what kind of space we are dealing with in the border
enforcement zone and how art interventions make meaning at the border.
Political philosopher Chantal Mouffe defines the public space as “the battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation” (Mouffe 10). A brief survey of projects in the US-Mexico border region over the past century illustrates an antagonism between the nation-state and related nationalist, identitarian projects and capitalist globalization and open markets; the one relying on a logic of enclosure, the other demanding the elimination of all state-imposed barriers to capitalist expansion.
The US-Mexico border, coded and recoded over the past century in film, landscape painting, and public policy as an Edenic space of great natural wonders, as Indian country, as the privileged site of freedom and westward expansion, was recoded after 9/11 as a region of national security interest. The actual facts about national security at the border have done little to contain the influence of hawkish political leaders who have pushed the militarization of the border since the 1980s. And the fact that there has never been an actual terrorist threat to the US coming from its southern neighbor has little bearing on the new logic of the border: nations are defined by borders; therefore, it stands to reason that barriers be erected to reinforce them.
The project of border militarization would appear to come into direct conflict with the demands of globalization and logic of neoliberalism, whose project is to disembed capital from the restraints of state interventions. The construction of the US-Mexico border wall was initiated in 1994 in conjunction with NAFTA, and as such forms part of the project of neoliberalism, a system that promotes harmonious economic relations between different nations. As David Harvey reminds us, neoliberalism “holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market” (Harvey 3). Under neoliberalism problems are resolved through contracts, lawsuits, and legal actions, not with walls and boundaries.
A casual glance at the news will tell us that walls don’t actually prevent migrants from crossing international borders. According to the United Nations, in 2019 the number of international migrants in reached 272 million, or 3.5% of the world population, “a continuing upward trend” (United Nations). And yet, walls proliferate worldwide. And so, what do governments want? Why this irrational focus on border enforcement? In fact, borders and border walls work as a very necessary part of this neoliberal logic.
Under neoliberalism, walls and boundaries function as a control valve: The United States doesn’t really want to keep out migrants and refugees. Rather, the state wants to let everyone enter under certain conditions. The official border–Ports of Entry, customs in airports, the border wall–all make the point of entry very clear, a specific site at which each individual will be subjected to a system of classification.
In other words, border subjects are not born, but made. As the authors of Border as Method note, “First, borders are at once spaces of control and spaces of excess, at once sites for the restriction of mobility and sites of struggle. Second, borders are social institutions involved in producing the very conditions for governance and governmentality. Borders seek to produce governable mobile subjects from ungovernable flows” (Mezzadra and Neilsen 183).
The result is a process of sorting, putting in order, a system of classification that criminalizes some, privileges others, takes away the rights of some, turns others into workers, turns others into wards of the state. But it leaves no one in limbo.
Thus, these are the contradictions and the historical contingencies that shape the space of the US-Mexico border and determine the meaning of our intervention.
Performing in the security theatre
The ideological project of neoliberalism is to promote a certain kind of consensus–to win our consent by naturalizing these exploitative conditions and systemic inequalities. Corporate capitalism produces a smooth image of the frictionless movement of goods and capital upon which we come to depend for our sense of security and well-being. According to Mouffe, critical artistic practices can play an important role in subverting the dominant hegemony, “visualizing that which is repressed and destroyed by the consensus of post-political democracy” (13).
What contemporary popular discourse makes visible is the function of the wall as a symbol of hate, a barrier, a means to prevent crossing. But what remains repressed are the governmental logics of management, classification, criminalization of migrants, and our own spectatorship in these processes. Our intervention at the border hoped to make these repressed practices more visible and turn spectators into active participants in the democratic process.
The border wall forms part of a system that has both symbolic and real effects. There are two consequences of this: First, the creation and proliferation of physical barriers, as well as symbolic and legal restrictions: new classifications of persons, new migration statuses, for the regulation and classification of the movement of all of us. The border is inscribed in the bodies of migrants just as it is in all of us. We carry the border with us in our papers, in our passports, the visa, our documents. Second, the government also wants to govern all of us, as citizens, as potential suspects, but also as spectators in everything that is happening in the border region.
Thus, the border wall has a symbolic function–to produce “security theatre.” It is a stage, a theatre, a space that generates images, narratives, and spectacles that make visible and justify the classifications that are used by the government. As political scientist Peter Andreas notes, border theatre is very effective at producing spectators that become part of an overall culture of border enforcement. “Alarming images of a border out of control can fuel public anxiety; reassuring images of a border under control can reduce such anxiety. Depending on where along the border one chooses to look, both images are readily available…These images and messages are part of a public performance for which the border functions as a kind of political stage” (Andreas 12).
Sites like the border wall and the spectacle of the construction and testing of Trump’s border wall prototypes produce a constellation of images and narratives about the alleged “dangerousness” of the border that are constantly replayed in the media. Through the clear identification and demarcation of the space of the border, the Trump administration has turned the American people into a massive audience for the staging of the border as a violent, lawless space.
Likewise, the enforcement zone and border infrastructure function to eliminate the ambiguities of the border. The space of the border, once an open meadow strewn with wild flowers in the spring, is now a space that is neatly diagramed and packaged for the public as an “enforcement zone.” The border enforcement zone looks like an objective, scientifically measured space, patrolled and surveilled by border patrol. The space is ideal for staging the spectacle of pursuit, apprehension and punishment of any migrant who “crosses the line” and enters this zone. The material practices of border patrol activities lend a semblance of objectivity to the notion of “illegality.” And as anthropologist Nicolas de Genova has noted, this stage is a way of winning the tacit consent of the spectator for these operations. “The border is ‘the exemplary theatre for staging the spectacle of the “illegal alien” that the law produces.’”
This border spectacle requires an audience, an ideal passive observer. As Trump manipulates the public with distraction and drama, he slowly converts us all into passive spectators.
The logic of our artistic gesture emerged out of these conditions: we wanted to reveal the spectacle for what it is, and offer a new position for the audience to participate in an active way. Because we created a stage and we made the stage visible, the audience could identify with us, the artists, revealing and contesting the government’s staging. The arbitrariness of these positions becomes clear, and opens up the possibility for audiences to take up new positions in a truly democratic process.
—Jill Marie Holslin, Tijuana, Baja California, 2020
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