The easiest way to visit the border wall prototypes begins in one of the day lots in Otay Mesa, the little strip of soil sandwiched between the Brown Field Municipal Airport in San Diego and Tijuana’s Aeropuerto Internacional Abelardo L. Rodriguez.
As Michelle—my traveling companion—and I walked the few short blocks to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, I was reminded that the thrashed earth on the other side of the rusted, corrugated fence is also America, one that comes with an accent mark over its middle syllable. Gripping my fairly new and little-used U.S. passport, I reflected on the fact that for me, this short journey is meant to be a smooth one, uncomplicated. Yet it’s not—these days, it can’t be. Maybe I should have scrubbed my social media of any political positions before venturing south.
This is what traveling to Tijuana has been like recently—tinged with a fear of becoming more other, more suspect, than I already am. More queer. More brown. More susceptible to being noticed. When I was a kid my parents would take us to Tijuana to see the dentist, to fill prescriptions more cheaply than we could in our Southeast Los Angeles neighborhood. As the crossing came into view, I felt myself growing closer to my immigrant parents and further than ever from those who live in true precarities of mobility—lifelong friends whose poetry I love, who’ve slammed back tragos with me over heartbreak and hard-won victories, and who wait for news of green cards and amnesty.
The time, the trip shouldn’t—can’t—last more than three hours. I had driven in from Tucson and managed to convince Michelle to join me in a tagged-on visit to Otay Mesa to see the wall prototypes for myself before toasting the aging punks of my youth at a friend’s wedding in San Diego later that afternoon.
Michelle and I walk across the pedestrian bridge and get in the customs line. I photograph everything I see, even the sign that says no photographs allowed. This gets me into trouble: the security guard barks at me to put my phone away. I blush and offer a meek perdón. Te dije, Michelle says, shooting me a look to be careful. I glance down at the passport peeking out of the chest pocket of my denim jacket. I am a citizen playing dumb, I think. A Los Angeles-born Mexican with a Salvadoran mother spending a quiet Saturday morning witnessing the material convergence of art, monument, and xenophobia.
Finally, it is my turn to greet the customs official, an olive-skinned young woman with vermillion-hued highlights that stand out against the olive drab of her uniform. She asks about my intentions in México. I am short and the counter stops at my shoulders. I am honest with her. I want to see the border wall prototypes. She looks me in the eye—really looks me in the eye. Then she studies the rest of my face. My twinkling Muppet eyes and big dumb smile disarm her, as does the brown suede Tejana cowboy hat on my head. I am a neon sign: harmless aging homosexual hipster. She stamps and gives me back my passport.
According to the coordinates on my phone the prototypes were not very far away, less than five minutes up Boulevard de las Bellas Artes, followed by a loop around the maquila zone tucked in the hills behind this section of Tijuana’s main drag. I don’t have an international phone plan, but I figure we’ll stay close enough to the border that I should have service the whole time.
On the other side of the bridge, the taxi drivers are a spectrum of khaki pants and white oxfords, leaning against crumbling concrete façades, drinking coffee and putting out their last cigarettes before the mass of tourists come stumbling through the port of entry ready to make a mess of their México. Michelle and I find an older driver named Manuel who knows exactly where we want to go. He’s intrigued by the two of us: we are older than the average co-ed, plus Michelle’s Spanish is very much reflective of her upbringing in nearby Chula Vista, whereas mine is Salvi sing-song.
We tell him we’re educators. Manuel suddenly turns fatherly and begins to narrate President Trump’s recent visit to the border. Manuel tells us many Tijuanenses were a-flutter in anticipation that He would step foot in their city.
Trump came all this way and didn’t have the guts to face México. But then I remember that we came all this way just to look back into the U.S.
In an August 2016 campaign stop in Phoenix, Arizona, Donald Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for not centering American citizens in her concern that migrant families seeking asylum would be separated at the border. He promised that the United States would be “fair, just, and compassionate to all,” but that the greatest compassion would be reserved for American citizens. That speech is worth revisiting especially since it conjured a future we in the Southwest have started calling “the present,” where thousands of migrant parents have been systemically separated from their children. Trump used the promise of a wall, the denial of these migrant families, as a means to get elected. Over the past two years, the Wall has come to stand in for Trump himself, a metonym for his presidency.
The border wall prototypes made their public debut in October of 2017, with six contractors vying for the job. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol evaluated the designs in five categories: breaching, scaling, constructability, engineering design, and aesthetics. (“The north side of the barrier should be pleasing in color and texture to be consistent with the surrounding area.”)
As I read on, I learn that CBP hired engineers from Johns Hopkins to develop a test to determine which design was most beautiful. As a report from the Government Accountability Office states flatly, “CBP identified three prototypes that ranked highest in terms of attractiveness and participants’ perception of effectiveness.”
I continue to look for more of this inadvertent art writing, and find an ekphrastic AP article: “the models, which cost the government up to $500,000 each, were spaced 30 feet (9.1 meters) apart. Slopes, thickness and curves vary. One has two shades of blue with white trim. The others are gray, tan or brown — in sync with the desert.”
In sync with the desert.
In January 2018, a Swiss artist named Christoph Büchel took advantage of a residency in Los Angeles at a well-known and even better-resourced gallery to take participant-spectators from the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego into Tijuana. The tours were a way for Büchel to spread the gospel of his provocation—that the prototypes be considered seriously as land art; that Donald Trump be considered a conceptual artist. Many decried this plan, not to mention the support he was receiving from the gallery. Both were called tone-deaf and accused of aestheticizing the state violence towards immigrants coming north.
But what Büchel did recalled a tradition of what many artists who come from the East Coast and Europe have done with and to the Western regions of the U.S. Declaring the desert landscape a “nothingness,” ready to be swept into grander aesthetic visions is not a new practice. Maybe Büchel recognized something familiar in the prototypes. He saw the artistic history that informed the way each prototype sat situated between two countries.
That February, I read art critic Carolina Miranda’s article in the LA Times recounting her ride in the Mercedes-Benz van that took her—along with curious spectators, journalists, and one art historian—to witness Büchel’s “intervention.” Donald Trump is a conceptual artist. I’m not surprised to learn that Hauser & Wirth (annual revenues: $225 million) would champion this work.
Büchel—whose previous provocation involved building a mosque inside an unconsecrated Catholic church at the 2015 Venice Bienniale—is barely legible as the author of this spectacle, an artistic sleight of hand hidden behind a gallery website which makes slight mention of his name. An art world so cozy with itself.
I wrote to Miranda asking for more information about the prototypes. She replied quickly, sending me the coordinates.
For the uninitiated, Land Art, a shortened catchphrase for “landscape art,” is any artwork that utilizes natural elements in harmonious congruence with an outdoor location. The process is meant to work within the physical context of environment, which means the work tends to settle itself among the forces that will alter or destroy it. Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s iconic work,uses 7,000 tons of basalt, boulders, mud, and salt crystals mined from the area around Rozel Point on Utah’s Great Salt Lake to form a massive spiral that winds 450 meters out from the lake shore. The ramp that leads to the sculpture is eroding, both by the natural progression of a Salt Lake basin under climate change’s duress, as well as the work’s exposure to people.
I made my own pilgrimage to Spiral Jetty in May 2018, surprised by the level of fanfare present on a Wednesday. The shrieks of aggrieved pre-schoolers filled the otherwise calm environment, where just the right bit of sun pouring through the billowy white clouds would show up red on the lake’s salty water surface.
For fifty years the land art movement has stirred up many an art student to abandon paintbrushes and take up concrete blocks against the art establishment, to stand with these coastal mavericks articulating new, large-scale expressive modalities. In an art school context, stanning for land art has always been seen as a line in the sand, one that states that performance and sculptures standing largely outside of market forces hold faithful to the tenets of artistic freedom. When I worked in an arts institution in San Francisco, colleagues would plan land art road trips, where one could roam freely (at $4 a gallon of gas) through the Southwest in search of Smithson’s ghost. And, more important, behold these Earth Works as they were meant to be experienced—in the vast space of Western landscapes unencumbered by the trappings of modernity.
Art, the land artists contended, could be a liberatory project, one perhaps best exemplified in a series of 1,500 feet long, 50 feet deep, and 30 feet wide trenches in the earthy landscapes of Overton, Nevada. In 1969, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative displaced 240,000 tons of rock, mostly rhyolite and sandstone to compel spectators to consider how art informs our relationship to the land.
Heizer, was born in Berkeley in 1944 to a prominent anthropologist father. This legacy seemed to have influenced the younger Heizer to explore native histories and cultures, seizing on the concept that there is nothing in that part of the Nevada desert except for an invitation to tear into the earth—never mind that this territory was inhabited by Shoshone, Washoe, and Ute Indians before and after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
Situating the border wall prototypes in this history, I think, conjures the anarchy of consequences put forth by history then and policy now. Half a century since Spiral Jetty, maybe it’s time to consider how the architects of Land Art have reproduced a version of Manifest Destiny—one that stretches from the corners of Lower Manhattan to the desert of the Southwest. The wall—in whichever flavor of prototype you imagine it—marks the boundary, the extreme limit, a beyond brutalist demarcation of that tradition. The mere thought of the prototypes allows for the wall’s aestheticized form to emerge not just in the material of the border but in the collective imaginary.
Manuel drives us quickly and then slowly through the Nido de las Aguilas neighborhood, the two gas stations per block indicative of a neighborhood mapped by its proximity to the border, roads pockmarked by huge 18-wheelers carrying their loads to the clamor of consumers poised and ready for product. It is early on a Saturday, so we don’t see the young girls queuing in and out of the maquilas, huge hangar-like buildings surrounded by fences topped with terrifyingly sharp barbed wire coils. The dirt road is parched but along the fences there are gutters of oily colorful prisms glowing in the putrid run-off. In the other direction, a rusted corrugated fence looks puny in comparison with the scale suggested by the prototypes. There is a cloud storm of dust left in our cab ride’s wake. I reach for my red bandana to tie around my neck, mouth and nose for protection against the toxic particulates no doubt catching in the air.
We stop. There are traces of housing along the road, but it’s eerily quiet as we approach the coordinates Miranda gave me. I wait for the dust cloud to pass us before rolling my window down. The open woundedness—Anzaldúa’s apt description of the border—comes to life as we catch sight of the tops of these structures on the other side of the fence. We get out of the car and stand on our tippy toes, trying to look past the corrugated fence and into the country we left behind that morning. I look around to see what can help elevate us. I find an old tractor tire that Michelle holds steady. We three trying for a better, longer look. Then we meet Jorge.
Jorge pops out of his shanty, a short and wiry man in his early thirties, wearing a sunbeaten black baseball cap, a dusty gray t-shirt and loose Levi’s. The cheery smile on his mouth, the familiar lilt reminding me of my aunts in San Salvador. After we tell him why we’re there, he brings out a short, wooden ladder. Gracias, paisano. I tell him my mom is from El Salvador, too, as I offer him some money and a meek smile.
I hold on the top of the border fence, the one initiated in the Clinton-era’s Operation Gatekeeper and secured during the Bush years. It runs along the line through Baja California into the Sea of Cortez, its rusty bars even spill into the Pacific Ocean. I’m trying to tread lightly in hopes the rusty metal digging into the flesh of my hands doesn’t break skin as I stabilize my footing on the ladder.
Once I get a clear sightline of the prototypes I feel the impact of their power immediately, and the ache of my family’s history, of all they risked to arrive and to stay in the U.S., risks echoed in the caravan of migrants seeking asylum today. As structures the prototypes are a chorus of intimidation, shoulder to shoulder, lines so clean and so out of touch with the elements immediately surrounding us. The hues chosen for each prototype make some gesture to the parched terrain—the desert sand and walnut brown—as well as hues of sky and concrete and the shining line where the two meet. These are shades and shapes that invite a sharp contrast to Tijuana’s palette of abject poverty. The prototypes look as though they could cut right through you.
But I can’t flee or fight from the top of this rickety ladder. I stand there and hold my ground and keep my eyes steady and dare to imagine what’s next on the horizon these things obfuscate.
The wall prototypes are just a jaunt away from a regional park that extends about 11 miles inland from the southeastern edge of the salt ponds at the mouth of the river, through the Otay River Valley, to the land surrounding both Lower and Upper Otay Lakes. Taking this all in—the valley, the fences that make accessing the prototypes from the U.S. side impossible, the fence I’m supporting myself on—I suddenly see what the critics saw. Any one of these prototypes could have easily been created by one of the masters of minimalism. Not Donald Trump, but rather Donald Judd.
The original border fence, a sturdy stretch of corrugated metal colorfully graffitied with NO MUROS and HECHO EN MEXICO, becomes a line disappearing into a rising vanishing point into a deeper, more mysterious Mexico. Standing on the arbitrary line itself brings to light the failure of what borders are supposed to do—keep people in and keep people out. (This even though the migrants’ labor, siphoned almost from vein and artery, bodies ghosted away from family and alienated from ancestral land, has led both nations to look the other way, turn away from the border, for so long.) I imagine those who’ve never had anything to risk to get here looking through the fence, watching as bodies were dramatically subjugated into the maquiladoras, a performance of capitalist production and endurance.
There it is—Trump’s “beautiful” Wall. Signed off on, however uneasily, as the land art of a fascist state. As critic Jerry Saltz wrote, like “minimalism, these prototypes are hard-edged geometry and impervious materials brought into the American landscape of the West and arranged to impose order, inspire awe, and try to manage and align mystic political forces.”
Just like the land in Owens Valley, California got caught between policy and prisoners at Manzanar. Just like Heart Mountain outside Ralston, Wyoming. I felt caught in the border’s entropic crosshairs. Here, it is easy to read the markings left on the earth by the necrocapitalist superpowers of the post-NAFTA world. Here are eight examples of what one wall could do to “secure a border.” Eight models for keeping us from each other.
History, I think, as we all stand silent for a moment, is the manual, and Jorge, Manuel, Michelle, myself—we borderland denizens on both sides of this wall—await its future directives. Michelle and I say goodbye to Jorge and Manuel, walk back out through customs and onward to the lot where I parked my truck.
Seeing each prototype, I reflected later, was like going to a trade show for someone’s fixer-upper, a flipped house waiting for its gentrification fence to be painted a tasteful neutral, for its colors to cohere despite its location (but anticipating the value of that location would rise)—would this mythical wall match the sky or usher in a new era of concrete-minded futurity? Or would it be the color of a grassland caught in a perpetual drought? Is this manifestation of power a means to distill into a miniature version to be sold in the living room section of Design Within Reach? Tasteful studio partitions in eight styles? Not when the Trump administration is seeking nearly $18 billion from Congress over the next decade to start extending and reinforcing a border wall with Mexico. Not when Trump is holding 800,000 of the country’s federal workers economically hostage with the longest government shutdown ever. Not when a Democratic House is digging its heels in an attempt to avoid giving in any further to his madness.
Donald Judd’s stated that his artworks derived their meaning from their permanence. No doubt he found the cleanliness of the wide, opened space of Marfa, Texas in line with a vision built on the fealty to “specific objects”—the boxes, the stacks, repeated endlessly. His concrete structures, the ones that dot the landscape of his Chinati Foundation—neighbor the Border Patrol headquarters off the stretch of Highway 90 in and out of Marfa. I’ve been to Marfa and have walked the beaten paths that run parallel to these structures. It’s hard for me to co-sign Judd’s desire for the work to simply be “interesting.” What’s interesting to me, I suppose, is the way history—along with its original inhabitants—is forced off the land, an awareness I’m supposed to check at the door once I put the red Chinati sticker on my lapel.
But then again, a new 30-foot border wall—distilled in equal measure from the design minds of Chinati and Border Patrol agents—sits 60 miles from Marfa in Ojinaga, Chihuahua. That’s close enough for a day trip: another art-tourist destination, perhaps.
The running loop in my head in the days, weeks, months after my visit takes on the aspect of a codependent relationship. Aren’t you tired of an established aesthetic that pulsates well enough through toxic spectacles to occasionally penetrate the discerning sensibilities of American art critics? Haven’t you encountered the difficulty that comes with forging a relationship with art, a bid for rightful representation, time and time again? How many times have you learned and mastered art’s parlances only to be caught off guard by new regimes and attending social conditions that sever you from the language of art in the first place? You accept wild dogs being killed in the Guggenheim or long queues to see Marina render millenials into salty puddles on a concrete MOMA floor. You get called an art-washing vendido. But, you stay. Sometimes you stay and watch your friend’s four-hour durational performance in front of the local county jail, other times you stay in even more precarious terrains, daring to thrive on a land turned state where you are surveilled and further conditioned against your own instinct.
Art is a hostile place.
In its own attempts to build monuments to itself, art literally builds fences. Some of us still make it though, cracking the obstacle course with aplomb either as practitioners or interlocutors. Many don’t. Still, the prototypes were a shock you should have seen coming—their hostility doesn’t exist in a void. It’s there for a reason. And arming itself with the relentless shock of the now is as good a reason for the art world to ride out and leverage the frightening moment trapping us all.
Declaring eight border wall prototypes as land art: an art-bro provocation. A didacticism of trolling or the trolling of didacticism. Still, while these new, insidious monuments rise, older monuments are brought down by individuals working across difference and conceptual execution. Bree Newsome’s act of civil disobedience lit us up when she was arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds. Or Therese Patricia Okoumou’s Statue of Liberty sit-in protesting the separation of migrant families at the border on the 4th of July. Several contemporary city governments eagerly marching towards the progressive horizon do so literally in the middle of the night, disappearing racist statues like in Baltimore, where four Confederate monuments were dismantled a week after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
And yet the wall prototypes were the surprise you didn’t know you needed. A metaphor so brutally obvious. A brutalist movement revived by a populace’s desire for an art inching closer to an open identification with fascism. An antagonized reminder of history repeating all over itself, the border an exhausted hamster wheel, a Sisyphean crossing where migrants are only ever seen as laborers if they are seen at all. What else can we squeeze out of the border? You stop asking yourself how art could be involved in a fascist project. Art has never left its side.
Popula is 100% ad-free, reader-supported journalism accountable only to you. Every dollar of your subscription goes straight to our work. Thank you for supporting Popula.