Despite being visible across a wide expanse of desert, for many newcomers to border country the steel fence that separates the United States from Mexico is an apparition—an unsightly phenomenon sprung up from the earth without warning. But truth be told, despite the otherworldly rhetoric frequently imputed to the borderlands, there is no ghostly presence here. What can be found here instead, quite literally and materially, are the Machiavellian games of state powers splicing the land and the people into experimental oddities that, were they to be left alone, would cook up their own mundane versions of the strange (as people here have done for generations). The power that wills the fence into being is the same power that hails us to submit to a higher order of things, so to speak—a vision of the world as a place where things stay in their place.
Yet, there is no denying it: the border stages a drama with highly melodramatic appeal. Many of the local folks are quick to note the absurdity of the geopolitical setup: for people who became bi-national by decree of war and livetheir daily existences “contaminated” by bi-national interactions, the orderly and sanitary aspirations of the fence make no sense. Neither does it make sense to label as disorderly “the way things are done around here.” The favored North American discourse of site bifurcation—the idea that “on the other side” bodies, cars, objects, and houses reproduce infinitely while resisting the “discipline” of advanced capitalism’s efficiency, law and order, strategic planning, and muted colors—has become increasingly irrelevant. Neoliberal contamination has upstaged the pictorial dividend of day-trips to the curio shops across the line. Border tourism is dead; globalization killed it.
On a short fragment of this fence—running from the port-of-entry station towards the northwestern edge of the twin towns of Ambos Nogales—three artists from Sonora and Arizona have installed public works of art on the Mexican side of the fence. The works of Alfred Quiroz, Guadalupe Serrano, and Alberto Morackis transform a simple piece of metal into an outlandish and outlawed visual archive that disputes the fence’s alleged rationality. Functioning partly as art canvass and partly as scandalous tabloid, through the works of these artists the border fence acquires a newfound power of enunciation.But don’t expect the works on display to thunder over all other social and political discourses important to this region. As works of art, these interventions speak with a strange combination of assertiveness and subtlety, almost as if their creators were simultaneously idealistic and cautious about their faith in the power of art to influence social outcomes.Although the artworks inch forward invitations for civic engagement, their delivery is remarkably unpretentious. To be effective, artistic representations hinge necessarily on the ability to circulate symbolic capital. In the borderlands, this can be a tall order. As it is, the zone is already layered to a certain degree with symbolic excess. Many writers have pondered the border mythology. In the end, it boils down to this: nothing is quite what it seems. There’s always something more underneath the surface of everything. Therefore, social messaging in these parts can turn out to be more complicated than is often assumed. Luis Alberto Urrea writes about “the dastardliness of Mexico that grows into popular myth in our imaginations.” When I first read Urrea’s 1993 text Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, I had to look up the word dastard. The dictionary wasn’t much help: the word is synonymous with both coward and daredevil, gutless and hero. But taken within a larger context, I came to understand Urrea’s deployment of the word as a tactic of border-writing itself, a displacement of meaning that resists easy characterization. Urrea seeks another drift: he wants to evoke that quality of border life that many others have noted—the recalcitrant otherly story behind the assembly-line industries, the statistics, the duty-free shopping, and the postmodern metaphors. It is a little bit of this and a little bit of that—a “typical” border reality that is atypical everywhere else (or used to be; now that the economy and taste are global, things may be more border-like everywhere, but this should not be a foregone conclusion) […]