ART21

S10 E3 | FULL EPISODE

Borderlands

Set in the region between the United States and Mexico—long a site of political conflict, social struggle, and intense creative ferment—four artists respond to one of the most divisive moments in the history of this area.

Featuring artists Tanya Aguiñiga, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Richard Misrach, and Postcommodity.

AIRED: October 02, 2020 | 0:55:20
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TRANSCRIPT

♪uplifting music

♪lively strings

- [Rafael] Someone said that art, it's the only profession that

you could, you know, play like a kid when you're

a grown 52-year-old.

- [Kade] It's looking pretty good out here.

- [Cristóbal] It's looking good.

This could be our, uh, opportunity.

- [Kade] Yeah, I think this is it.

- Um, we're starting the lights today.

- [man over radio] Okay, cool.

We're ready.

- [Rafael] Okay, copy.

- [Richard] Just follow me and I'll let you know if I see a

snake.

- [man] Okay.

- [Richard] On first look, a lot of my work could look like it's

documentary or social documentary.

But I go to great lengths to make them really transcend just

being a mere fact.

[shutter click]

I want to make them so beautiful that you have

to look and think about them.

To really slow down and consider and just think...

"This doesn't look right.

Is-- is it right?"

♪Spanish-language music playing from radio♪

- [Tanya] I grew up in Tijuana on the border with San Diego.

I would cross the border everyday to go to school

in the US.

As a child, I was constantly being marked by my border

identity.

Not belonging to anybody, not belonging to,

like, the US or Mexico.

- [Tanya] A lot of my work is about visibility and is about

more representation and having more people see themselves or

their struggles mirrored.

I think the Borderlands mean, like,

really opposing things to people.

For a lot of us that have grown up there and kind of seen the

effects of living next to the border on the Mexican side,

I kind of experienced it a lot as a place of death.

Like, a desecration of land.

As a place that divides families.

As a place that, sadly, a lot of people perish at 'cause of

their thought of the Borderlands as being a place of hope.

Like, the Promised Land.

This place where you make a migration north and you end up

in this place that is more beautiful than anything you've

ever imagined.

But for the most part, people kind of get smacked with just

the reality of the border wall.

♪melancholic music

And I think that constant influx of

new groups of people coming into the border makes the Borderlands

a really experimental place for how societies

can recreate themselves.

[electrical hum]

- [Richard] I think photography is a magical,

powerful medium.

We all take pictures of our loved ones and vacations and

things like that.

But then, when you use it in a way that transcends that level,

it does bear witness like no other medium.

Over the years, I've photographed many different

kinds of cultural activities where nature and culture

collide.

♪delicate piano

It wasn't until I worked in the open

American desert that I felt like I found my niche.

In a funny way, our culture stands out in very clear relief

in the desert.

I discovered things like military bombing ranges...

the nuclear test site...

space shuttle landings...

man-made fires...

man-made floods.

I started working on these projects of just photographing

the landscapes with traces of human civilization in it.

I was constantly reconciling this idea of the beauty of the

place and ugliness exists side-by-side

in the American desert West.

To me, that was a part of America that anything that

showed up there told you about larger American issues,

and global ones, for that matter.

[blast]

Essentially, what I'd do over the years is I'd just

travel the American desert and wander around and look for new

projects, new ideas.

And I just saw this photograph of this blue barrel and the blue

flag in the middle of nowhere.

I just photographed it.

I didn't even know what it was.

It wasn't until many years later I learned that different

humanitarian groups would put water out for migrants coming

across the border.

I decided to do a whole series of them.

And I would find these in every state.

You know, California, Arizona, New Mexico,

and Texas.

So this photograph was the first one that gave me the idea that

kind of became the Border Cantos.

♪melancholic music

So I spent the next five years traveling along the US-Mexico

border from the coast where the wall goes into the

ocean all the way to the Texas Gulf of Mexico.

One of the things I've learned from this series is that until

you go see this place yourself, you have no idea what's really

going on there.

- [Kade] When I look at the Borderlands,

I see a-- a clear demarcation of colonization.

That's the underlining meaning of that border.

♪wistful music

Postcommodity was founded as an interdisciplinary indigenous

artist collective.

We've got to start including an indigenous worldview in

relationship to the border.

- [Cristóbal] The idea of the balloons is to intersect the

US-Mexico border that signified a suturing or connecting

of the Americas together.

- [Kade] In indigenous cultures, this eye means an open eye,

an eye that's aware, an eye that's knowledgeable,

but also an eye that is accountable.

- And these are places where indigenous children from all

throughout Latin America have journeyed to on their own in

search of some kind of safety, only to find themselves

imprisoned...

in some of the most unsafe spaces on Earth.

- Fully-dehumanized.

- Fully-dehumanized.

Just-- just like our ancestors.

This work is testimony that indigenous people presupposed

this hard-edged border.

Suturing is remembering.

- [Kade] And healing.

- [Cristóbal] And reasserting...

one's place on the land.

The idea that you can take a site of contest,

conflict, and controversy and reimagine it into a place of

curiosity, where people can sense the world and share those

experiences with one another,

that's what overrides that baser hunger for justice.

[paper bags crinkling]

♪ethereal music

- [Rafael] Many of my works involve this process of taking,

a portrait of a participant,

for example, like, of their face or their fingerprint or their

heartbeat...

[heartbeat]

and then making it into a landscape.

Because it's beautiful to see your heartbeat,

but it's more beautiful to see it in relationship to all these

others.

That's the kind of complexity that I'm interested in evoking.

♪ominous music

- [Rafael] We're living in a society where these technologies

are inescapable.

In the context of the border, having surveillance systems or

the searchlights of the Border Patrol choppers looking for

migrants.

A lot of the work that I do with technology is a perversion,

a perversion of their original intent to create critical or

poetic responses.

I'm a Mexican immigrant in Canada,

but when I would hear the Trump Administration talk about

Mexicans being rapists, using Mexicans as this escape valve

for all this hatred, you feel that,

you feel that personally.

Now, more than ever, when this nationalism's come in,

is when art is required.

It is required to establish dialogue,

to ask questions, to bring people together,

you know?

And it sound a little bit naive, but in the history of art,

it's always been the case.

And I felt, "Okay, this is time to come up with a work that can

make a contribution in the area."

- [Rafael] Oh, that's cool.

- [Rafael] The work that I'm doing now,

"Border Tuner," which present this continuous symbolic bridge

across El Paso into Juarez using searchlights,

not to look for individuals, but rather,

to look for relationships between individuals.

♪bittersweet music

♪ambient music

- [Tanya] When I started thinking about a new project,

I just kept thinking about, like,

the heaviness of bearing witness to these really horrible things

on the border.

I wanted to make a piece to physically expel these things

that I had unearthed and this scar that I,

you know, keep digging open and digging open.

The glass pieces make up a suit.

The headpiece is inspired by Mesoamerican imagery.

The huarache is designed to fail,

so it's designed so that as I walk in it,

um, it starts to-- to break.

When I was little, I never knew that art was a career path.

I never knew that that was something that you could really

do. [laughs]

It wasn't until I was in community college and I met

my mentor, Michael Schnorr, who was one of the original founders

of the Border Art Workshop.

Michael had been working to make a stance against Operation

Gatekeeper.

- We are a nation of immigrants and we should all be proud

of it.

But we're also a nation of laws.

- [Tanya] Operation Gatekeeper was the strategic reinforcement

of the US-Mexico border.

- We're beginning to see a movement of the traffic away

from the urban area itself out to the perimeter.

That is our objective here.

- [Tanya] And it forced migrants to cross through the desert,

rather than jumping across and running through residential

areas.

The first year that they enacted Operation Gatekeeper,

more people died crossing the border than the entire 75 years

of Border Patrol history.

♪mournful music

Michael was showing us how people were

using art to make political statements to change society,

but then also talking about the physical space of the border as,

like, a theater for discussion.

I started thinking more about taking back the fence and

changing it from being a space of pain and trauma into a

generative place that we could reclaim.

♪soft acoustic guitar

After I left San Diego/Tijuana for a

long time, I thought about how to help shape the narrative

about the border that was currently happening during the

2016 election.

So I founded AMBOS, which stands for Art Made Between Opposite

Sides.

[clang]

[clang]

[clang]

- [Tanya] I wanted to work collaboratively with other

people using the border as a starting point for that

conversation.

And we did a project called "The Border Quipu."

- The Andean Pre-Colombian system of the quipu were calendars,

counting system, language.

But I wanted to use it to visualize our connection to each

other, reporting our, like, daily migrations to the north,

and also physically represent the bodies of all the people

that participated in the project.

"What are your thoughts when you cross this border?"

"Sometimes, I think about how much time I spend here,

or if my son will have to do this too."

We ended up having close to 10,000 people participate in

"The Border Quipu."

That taught me so much about the vastness of our community on the

border, but also the many ways that governments -- not just in

US and Mexico but, you know, all over -- have failed to protect

people.

♪bittersweet music

- [Richard] When you look at the border wall in Tijuana on the

Mexico side, people are partying,

they're-- they're swimming, they're building sand castles,

they're having barbecues, they're just very festive.

And on the US side, nobody uses this beautiful beach.

So there was a lot of irony in-- in this photograph for me.

It looks like a prison cell, but,

um, we're on the wrong side of the wall or the prison cell.

When I first started making serious photographs,

I wasn't thinking about social documentary or political work.

But because I was exposed to everything around me,

in the late '60s, the whole world was just going wild

with politics.

I saw this kind of idea of taking these tools,

this language of fine art photography,

and applying it to the street.

I lived in Berkeley right off of Telegraph Avenue.

One night, I got my camera and my tripod that I used for

landscape work and then I just started photographing people.

♪crunchy guitar riff

And I began the "Telegraph 3 AM" project that way.

But once the book came out, I started realizing that I thought

I was gonna change the world with this work by showing people

things that they hadn't seen before,

but in fact, it just helped my career.

That just felt-- that felt wrong.

♪tense delicate music

After "Telegraph 3 AM," when I was

kind of disillusioned with my own work,

I said, "I'm not gonna photograph people."

And I was looking kind of in search of the miraculous.

Rather than thinking about the political world,

I wanted to go and remove myself from it all and just go on

this-- this journey.

I just got this idea one night: cactus were these mystical

forms in the desert and that I was gonna go and photograph it.

And I started photographing at night and experimenting.

- Not yet, but soon.

- [Richard] I really liked working at night.

It gave me a fresh language that very few people had ever used in

photography.

That was that moment.

That was it.

I'm getting chills, actually.

For me, that became a place where my mind just--

just took off.

I had fallen in love with the desert.

But I was in my mid-20s.

I didn't know, at that point, that I would ever be thinking

about the political consequences of the desert.

And then, some years later, I'm back in that same territory but

looking at border issues, issues that were facing and threatening

the very same landscape.

The desert was a vast stage where everything that happened

there kind of projects onto the rest of America.

♪wistful music

♪ambient music

- [Cristóbal] I grew up in North Central New Mexico.

More specifically, the upper Rio Grande Valley,

which is a high desert.

My primary discourse is in the land itself.

And so, being away from the Borderlands is being diasporic.

And it's hard to be diasporic in the world.

- Wow, it's pretty sick to watch.

- [laughs] Yeah.

- You know, it's like a little dance.

♪delicate music

- We're in the middle of one of the largest migrations of

peoples from the south to the north.

Here, in Chicago, there are currently over 750,000 people in

the county who are of Mexican descent,

and that number is growing, will continue to grow.

So the expectation is that the landscape is gonna be

transformed culturally, politically,

socially.

We wanted to build a piece to mark that time

that this transformation is happening,

this migration is happening.

- [Lekha] Any second now.

I feel like someone's gonna wave the checkered flag.

- [Lekha] 10 years ago, I met these guys at the Arizona State

University Art Museum.

They had a slab of the concrete floor cut

and mounted on a pedestal.

[electrical hum]

And then they suspended a microphone over the

earth beneath and had a speaker with a native Pee Posh ceremony

being played at a very low volume,

so as you walked in, you weren't sort of struck by the sound

until you got a little big closer.

[electrical humming, soft chanting]

The project was very related to the land,

literally, beneath the museum and that was

burial, um, grounds.

They seemed to always be able to find something very interesting

about the site where they were working.

Considering what's been going on on the border,

I was really interested to see what they might think about in

the context of Chicago, now all of us being sort of away from

the border.

♪hopeful music

- Throughout all of Latin America,

you often times will find these columns that are projecting off

the rooftops of homes.

And a lot of times, people who are not from Latin America

misinterpret the meaning of those columns.

They think that the-- the homes aren't finished.

- [Cristóbal] What the columns often signify is a pragmatic

approach to growth.

As the family expands, the home expands.

And so the house is always growing,

always emergent.

- This piece in the skyline that surrounds it,

it's a way to acknowledge a very strong Mexican cultural

tradition being established here in Chicago.

- [Cristóbal] That's why art is so useful:

because it's non-didactic.

It's more of an opportunity to dance...

as opposed to...

uh, having to engage in...

some form of-- of war.

[gunshots and shouting over speaker]

- "Voz Alta" was a work in Mexico City to commemorate the 40th

anniversary of the massacre of students in Tlatelolco Plaza.

We set up a megaphone that converted people's voices into

light, so these very powerful searchlights would come flashing

to the Minstry of Foreign Affairs.

[typing]

- [Rafael] Now, speaking without leaning.

- Hi, this is a test.

- Okay, now lean.

- And now it sounds better.

- Creating a platform for people to self-represent,

for their voice to be visible,

is a fundamental part of what I'm doing politically.

- [man] That's what we had before--

- [Rafael] Oh, I see.

- [man] So 0.001.

- Whoa.

- [man] So go to .1.

- If I'm crossing somebody else's lights,

automatically, the computer opens a bidirectional channel of

communication.

So now, you can hear me and I can hear you.

- [Rafael] Whereas "Vox Alta" was more about speaking to the

heavens, "Border Tuner" is about speaking to another person,

establishing these new connections to create community.

♪folksy Spanish-language music

- I like to take people up to this lookout because it's one of

the places where you can really get a sense of how the two

cities fit together.

So should we get out and have a look around?

- [Rafael] Yeah, let's do it.

- [Kerry] Juarez and El Paso together make up the largest

bi-national metropolis in the western hemisphere.

So that's the border that you're seeing there.

It's this big, wide stretch, like,

running through.

And from here, you can see our site also.

So you can see Bowie High School,

and just across the trees are-- are the Chamizal,

which was a bi-national park at one point.

It's a particularly integrated place.

More than 65 percent of the people in both cities have

immediate family in the other city,

so--

- [Rafael] 65 percent?

- [Kerry] 65 percent.

- [Rafael] I love when you have a pre-established

notion of what you're gonna see and it's wrong.

I learned that you can't make an artwork about the wall.

People there are sick of the wall.

They want to talk about the ways in which the two societies

interpenetrate.

To create an artwork for listening is really what the

project became.

♪soft suspenseful music

- Jeffrey, you can run the streaming interface in here,

is that true?

- I can run it over here, yes.

- [Rafael] Oh, this is really good, then.

Livestream.

- So I can see here all of the different attributes of that

station, whether I need to ignite the light or-- or things

like that.

- Okay.

- [Rafael] Hey, Jeffrey?

For fun, let's start the lights early.

- Going into performance mode.

- Here we go, lights up.

Boom.

Whoa.

Whoa.

♪ambient music

- [Edgar over loudspeaker] Thanks for joining us.

[speaking in Spanish].

Starting now, the lights are interactive,

so anyone who wants to try them out,

come on in.

- You wanna try moving the lights?

All the way over there.

There, you can stop right there and say hello.

- [Salvador over loudspeaker] Hello?

Hola?

- Salvador.

- [man over loudspeaker] Salvador?

- [Salvador] Sí.

- [Edgar] Rafael has mentioned that he was not here to create

connections, he was here to highlight the connections that

were already in place.

But I don't think that's the case.

I really feel like there were, like,

some interesting connections created in between both

communities.

- [Rafael] There's a lot of people who live in El Paso who

have never been to Mexico, or vice versa,

because there is this kind of dehumanization of what is going

on there.

But when you speak one-to-one with someone, it completely

changes your perception.

- If we don't see people apprehended and brought back to

their countries, if we see these massive caravans coming up,

we're gonna tariff the cars again.

If that doesn't work, we're gonna close the border.

But I think that'll work.

That's massive numbers of dollars,

so...

And so they can learn how to-- how to take care of their

friends, just like you learned, right?

- Mm-hm.

- After having a child, I now think about the world you leave

to somebody else.

- [speaking in Spanish].

You can keep it in there.

- [Tanya] I have a responsibility now beyond a responsibility to

myself.

Knowing that has really affected the work that I do,

thinking about how to be more empathetic and thinking about

what it means to be part of a community.

- The glass performance piece--

- Mm-hm.

- The date is already set for when I'm doing

the performance.

We need to talk about all of the physical training required to

carry-- [laughing] all of the--

- [woman] Thrilled.

- Yeah, to carry all of the glass.

♪wistful music

- After "The Border Quipu," I kept thinking of carrying this,

like, open scar [sighs] from the border with me,

like, everywhere I go and having my whole life shaped by it.

- Do we have the third one, or should we just try it with two?

- [Tanya] All of this, like, heavy memory.

What do you do with it and how do you process it?

How does the body, like, you know,

deal with it?

- Okay.

- 'Cause I gotta fix the belt.

- [Tanya] The piece is called "Metabolizing the Border."

I wanted to make a piece that would force my body to deal with

the border through all of the five sense.

So you're forced to see through the fence only.

You're forced to breathe through the fence only.

You're forced to hear through particles of the border fence.

- Okay.

- [woman] You good?

- Yeah.

- You can't escape the border.

I'm going to be walking back and forth along the border on the US

side wearing all of these glass pieces.

In a lot of the work that I do, I engage communities.

But this piece, it's a personal piece that

I want to do for myself.

- Okay.

- [Tanya] I'm excited to do the performance and to see how I

feel after.

I don't know if, in the end, it'll be something that's

cathartic to put out there what I have been carrying invisibly.

- [Tanya] I wanna see the pictures.

- Yeah.

- [Tanya] It looks like a really weird-ass

alien baby señora.

- [laughs] Yeah.

- Okay.

I'm like... [inhales deeply] anxious.

I'm nervous about the, like, physical demand on my body,

and I'm nervous about, like, the emotional demand.

Um...

but yeah.

- If you look out in the distance there,

you can see the end of the wall.

So we're-- it's gonna take a little while to drive there,

but we're on our way.

The wall's end.

It just stops abruptly.

And there's not a Border Patrol agent in sight.

♪suspenseful strings

There's only 680 miles of actual wall along the 2,000-mile

border, and they generally put them in areas that are

densely-populated.

And the idea is, is that if they push people out to the ends,

it would be so dangerous for them to cross into wilderness

area that they would die, so they would-- it would be so

dangerous they-- people wouldn't go,

it would discourage people from actually going across the

border.

That didn't work.

In fact, many people-- more people have died since they

built these walls with these ends.

♪melancholic piano

It's a beautiful landscape here.

It's just kind of remarkable how lovely and lyrical the landscape

is and...

um, it's-- it's weird to have the-- the wall just kind

of....breaking it up.

It seems sinister.

♪threatening drone

When I first met Guillermo,

he was performing an instrument that he had created that he had

made out of objects found on the border.

I had just photographed the effigies along the border and a

light went off.

I went, "Oh my God, this could be a great collaboration.

[thud]

[pluck]

[scrape]

- [Guillermo] It's interesting, because we have the-- the same

aesthetic and the same way to approach the border issues.

If you see art of the border, sometimes,

it's about taking certain political view about it.

But, uh, our work is more about opening spaces,

it's about absence.

People is not there, you know?

It's just the evidence of what happens,

what keeps happening.

♪wistful strings

- [Richard] You take a minute and stop and think about this

crucifix that you find.

Why is that there?

What were they running from?

Each one evokes its own story.

I wanted them to be like scenes of the crime.

So I would photograph them often just with my cell phone.

Straight-on, just like evidence.

And then Guillermo turned them into instruments.

- [Guillermo] The ways in which music heals in Mesoamerican

cultures,

you find an object that has a connection to a person

and you make an instrument out of that

and you heal with that.

Art is many things, but one of the things that art does is

it opens imagination and it opens-- it opens new ways of

seeing things or hearing things.

It's very important to see in new ways,

because if not, we're stuck with the same all the time.

- [Richard] The wall has become this dark symbol,

like a barricade that keeps people out.

Where the Statue of Liberty is a monument to positive American

values, the border wall is an anti-monument;

its exact opposite.

All my photographs are about America,

and that's both the challenges that it faces,

but also, its beauties:

its exquisite land, its exquisite country.

And the future of the country depends a lot on how we think

about places like this.

- [Edgar] The border is a place where we go through a lot of

difficult stuff, but we learn how to deal with it.

I've learned to compare people here like desert plants.

They live in the harshest conditions.

But once they bloom, they're one of the most beautiful plants.

And I feel like that's how humans are here.

We're super resilient.

♪hopeful music

- [speaking in Spanish]!

[cheers]

[cheers and applause]

- [Kerry] This idea of, like, to love your neighbor or to be kind

to the people who are around you,

I think most Americans do that quite well when someone's

actually standing in front of their face.

But the problem is that we don't have a handle about how to be

human at at global scale.

Here in a place like Juarez and El Paso,

you see the actual real effects on human lives,

the connections behind the goods that we buy,

the connections behind our foreign policy in other places.

All of that comes to a head right here at the

US-Mexico border, where you actually can look

face-to-face at the other human being.

- Party to people, are you coming to party?

Guys, there's Mexicans trying to communicate.

You must touch this.

So, you put your hands on it.

The one on the right is the Mexican heartbeat,

the one on the left is the one from me.

And what I feel in my hands is the heartbeat of the person on

the other side.

Quick, put your hands!

- That is so weird!

- [Rafael] So now, you feel their heartbeat.

And they feel yours.

- Ah!

- The beauty of us working together...

it-- it's incredibly powerful.

Salud!

- [Cristóbal] We feel that, in order to have a world,

we need to divide ourselves from one another.

But it's that love we get to experience,

often times when we're making art together,

that sort of restored, in a lot of ways,

our faith in humanity.

- [Rafael] There's a lot of artists who want to create

artificial realities that then we can go and dream inside of,

where all of a sudden, you can be other than yourself and just

kind of experience, like, a field of butterflies.

Well, this doesn't really work in the real world.

At this time, it's kind of like the Zapatistas say,

you know?

"We're not asking you to dream.

We're asking you to wake up."

♪soft suspenseful music

- [President Trump over radio] Right now,

you have another caravan forming and it's gonna be the biggest

one yet.

We stopped the last one.

Do you see what's going on in Tijuana?

They couldn't get through because...

- [woman] Did you sleep okay?

- It was really hard to fall asleep.

- [President Trump over radio] We need a very strong structure.

- [Richard] History does tend to repeat itself.

It's really hard to know 20 years from now what will we--

we have learned and what will we do differently.

But I do believe that by making formally beautiful pictures of

this, no matter what, this work will stand as a record for this

moment.

And hopefully, it will be something that will inform

people in the future.

[shutter click]

- Help me pull this part up a little bit more.

- [Tanya] There is a really, incredibly pertinent need for us

to keep talking about the border and to keep exploring what the

border is and what the border can do to a person's body.

[glass dragging on stone]

[glass breaking]

♪dramatic strings

[overlapping voices] Can I stop?

When can I stop?

Would I make it?

Would I make it if I had to...

like, make that journey and if I had to be lost in the desert for

two weeks?

Could I make it?

Okay, like, you have enough on you.

Like, we don't have to try to put more on you.

[glass dragging on stone]

[heartbeat]

- [Cristóbal] It's a heavy burden.

We're artists and we're trying to sense the world...

and learn from it...

and through our idiosyncratic lens....

share it back out with the world.

Well...

here's our lens.

Take a look at the world through it and...

tell us what you think.

- Just don't...

walk away from it prematurely.

Just give it time.

- Give it a chance.

- Mm-hm.

Just give it some time.

- ♪singing in Spanish♪

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