US-Mexico Borderlands

Historic map of El Paso and Juárez

Shifting path of Rio Grande riverbed

El Paso and Juárez region

Borderland landscape conditions

Borderland landscape conditions


RA002 FENCE DITCH REPEAT unpacked the landscape and cultural geography of the US – Mexico Borderlands. Participants collaborated in creating a series of maps and diagrams illustrating the constructed and ecological conditions of the borderlands, and designed, fabricated and installed a large-scale gallery installation with Tom Leader Studio at the Rubin enter at the University of Texas at El Paso in October of 2009. RA002 was co-led by Alan Smart.

Site El Paso-Ciudad Juárez | Exhibition Center for Land Use Interpretation 2010 | With Alan Smart


Site History
To the east of El Paso, the US-Mexico border follows the channelized Rio Grande River to the Atlantic Ocean; to the west, it follows a line to the Pacific Ocean marked only by obelisks.  Lined with fences and vehicle barriers, the constructed landscape of the borderlands is a manifestation of centuries of shifting relationships between the US and Mexico.

In the early 1900s three quarters of the immigration from Mexico to the United States occurred through points along the border in California. In the following years increased border security and a series of US funded operations resulted in shifting immigration patterns. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)established the border between El Paso and Juárez as the primary point of entry for immigration. In 1993 Operation Hold the Line was put into effect to control and deter the amount of illegal immigrants crossing the border. The Operation was able to decrease the amount of immigration through El Paso by 75%. Following the apparent success of Operation Hold the Line, Operation Gatekeeper was put in effect at the border between San Diego and Tijuana. Enforcement at the border shifts immigration to the more remote and desert regions of Arizona. The harsh conditions of the desert resulted in numerous deaths of immigrants, especially those on foot. Members of Humane Borders, a humanitarian aid organization have installed water stations on key migration routes and published maps in Mexico showing precise locations of migrant deaths.

“…the US-Mexico border has not always existed as a practical reality. On the contrary, it was defined slowly but steadily through a process of social construction”

-Douglass Massey. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors

Provocation: A Line Constructs the Landscape
National borders delineate zones of spatial sovereignty and serve as a boundaries of containment and control, filtration and articulation in a diverse array of interrelated systems. The dynamics of economic, ecological and sociocultural exchange are all mediated, facilitated and troubled by borders. This makes the border an especially rich site for investigation both as a specific place in itself and as an exceptional instance in larger networks. The effects of policy and regulations at the border are not isolated to the movement of human populations. The resulting ecological impacts have altered the movement of animal populations and have contributed to a transformation of the border landscape. Construction of the border fence threatens populations, which need large tracts of land for their survival, such as jaguars, wolves and owls. In addition, the biodiversity in Mexico is in a state of decline due to the depletion of aquifers, channelization of the Rio Grande and increased agricultural and commercial development.

Field Study Program

  • UT El Paso map archives, El Paso
  • Marfa, Texas
  • Vientek wind turbine maquiladora, Juárez Mexico
  • Cotton processing facility, Tornillo, Texas
  • ASARCO smelter, Smelterville, Texas
  • Rio Bosque wetlands preserve, El Paso, Texas
  • Parque El Chamizal, Juárez Mexico

Studio Program
Participants began by investigating the interconnected issues relating to the US/Mexico border including manufacturing and trade, migration, transportation, environmental policy, narcotics trafficking, history, and the spatial and material conditions of the border its crossings. Research was organized by for general themes: critical analyses of mapping and other representational techniques, an understanding of the landscape as cultural geography, a reappraisal of systems theory in the context of open, large scale, natural/technological hybrid systems, and an application of the techniques of relational aesthetics to landscape issues. These studies culminated in a set of graphic documents investigating spatial and material organizations within the “bordershed”.

After the field study program, participants created models and mock-ups of The Flying Ditch, a 36′ long gabion ditch, sourced materials and created shop drawings. The Flying Ditch was installed at the Rubin Center in El Paso in October 2009.

John Also Bennett
Justin Braun

Andrew Brooks
Daniel Dobson
Elizabeth Lagedrost
Brian McVeigh
Susan Noblet
Courtney Keys
Luis Porras
Sara Saliyh

Special thanks to Kate Bonansinga of the Rubin Center and Matthew Coolidge of CLUI. 


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