Border Hack: Challenging Trump’s Spectator Culture

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 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. 

READ ON….  Jill Marie Holslin, essay and photographs  

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