Snagged interprets the new landscape of the US-Mexico border zone, and how these changes affect both nations. It is comprised of two parts. Fence Ditch Repeat is set of diagrams, drawings and maps documenting the history of changes to the border landscape, both physical and legal, and contemporary landscape effects of border hardening. The Flying Ditch is a sculptural installation distilling and articulating the material and ambient qualities of borderland space.
Site El Paso-Ciudad Juárez | Program Rubin Center, University of Texas at El Paso | With Alan Smart
The landscape of US/Mexico borderlands is a text that reveals conflict in the relationship between the two nations and the global economy. The border zone is a series of exchange points between the nations. The series of paired cities along its length serve as both points of mixing and points of tension. Things and systems that historically crossed the border—capital, goods, water, workers, students, wildlife and livestock—have responded to the current border conditions by improvising new practices and strategies, from the absurd to the deadpan, to the tragic and transcendental.
In the early 21st century, the US federal government has made capital investments to secure the border. Large scale changes to the landscape of the US-Mexico border include new fences, surveillance systems, modernized ports of entry, plus a tripling of the border patrol workforce. Most large-scale federal landscape projects support the free flow of goods or energy: the Interstate Highway System, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Mississippi River Navigation System. Conversely, investments in US-Mexico borderlands stop, or at least slow, the goods and people from moving between the countries. This landscape has a fraught identity; as heroic as the aforementioned continental landscape projects, it stands as a leviathan monument to a failure of political imagination.
In the summer of 2009 we began research on the landscape and politics of the US-Mexico borderlands. We visited El Paso and Ciudad Juárez with Knowlton and UTEP students, seeking the “unusual and exemplary” moments that defined the harsh landscape. We studied the history of cultural production surrounding the border, and began a series of models highlighting the stark material conditions of the border zone. We discussed ways to interpret this complex landscape, Its technology and ambient qualities. We settled on dividing the project—Snagged—into literal and abstract components, that eventually became Fence Ditch Repeat, a series of mappings documenting border conditions; and The Flying Ditch, a sculptural installation.
DRYING IT OUT
In the drawings of Fence Ditch Repeat we sought to dry out our depiction of borderland conditions. Much borderland artwork is visceral, emotional, a response to the militarization, violence and division of what was once a shared landscape of exchange. We focused our efforts on a literal interpretation the borderland’s design, the dimensions and materials, the setbacks and zones defining the tactical space and specific hardware of the landscape. The drawings simply catalog the border elements, the fence-ditch-repeat sectional permutations of fencing, smuggling tunnels, surveillance and canals. We created a time line of US-Mexico immigration relations as manifest at the border; and two detailed maps of the region, one depicting the twinned cities and transportation networks along the length of the shared border, and another focused on El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
On a return flight to CLUI Wendover, Smart and I continued sketching ideas for the installation. We sought a work that was harsh yet permeable, something that could trap and display what was snagged inside. At some point, angel wings appeared on a sketch of the ditch profile. A flying ditch. Absurd and inscrutable. We sketched an extruded ditch section, the length of the gallery, suspended from the ceiling. At Wendover we drew plans and elevations of the scheme. In Ohio, we worked with fabricator Justin Braun and made mockups of ditch sections in different materials. Our in-house attempts to form the gabion were unsatisfactory. A gabion fabricator in Northern California offered to bend the eight-gauge wire gabion mesh to our specifications. The Flying Ditch was in production.
LEARNING AT 1:1
We originally discussed “stuffing” the gabion mesh with objects found along the border. After gathering samples of borderland materials such as e-waste and cotton bolls, were not convinced we could stuff the work with requisite elan in time for the opening. As we lifted and hung the ditch from airline cables, it hovered gracefully in the volume of the gallery, charging the surrounding void. It was obvious that stuffing the ditch would mute the transcendent qualities of the work. Yet the work was missing a counter-gesture, an element that could trigger material dialog and oscillation.