November 13–24, 2019
El Paso, Texas, U.S.A. and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico
Seen from afar, beams of light interrupted the night sky on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border wall (El Paso/Ciudad Juárez). As a group of IAIA students and faculty approached Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s most recent participatory art installation, Border Tuner (Sintonizador Fronterizo), they pondered the space being occupied and its people.
Following that night’s opening provocation, cumbia music on either side radiated through the region. Those dancing lifted earth from the ground, creating oscillating dirt waves amidst the beams of light that carried to the other side, just a few yards south. After, braceros and their families spoke to the exploitation and abuses they endured and continue to fight against.
Being present with the other participant—on the other side of the border—you witness one another.
Similar in manner to his 2008 installation, Voz Alta (Loud Voice), this project, Border Tuner, brings voice and person to the forefront. The installation operates by acknowledging an existing transmission of voices across a physical border. As one approaches the searchlights—three situated on either side of the border wall—they flicker. On each is a podium containing a microphone and circular tuner. At the turn of the dial, the lights move independently of one another, and as they do, they intersect, creating channels for conversation on either side of the wall. Being present with the other participant—on the other side of the border—you witness one another.
Students who partook laughed with those across the imposed border, were thanked for being present even if there were linguistic barriers, and shared common thoughts on society’s blindness to global political warfare. An immediate response to Lozano-Hemmer’s installation is feel-good, for most. That was the preliminary students’ reaction, but there are multiple concepts that beg further questioning to understand the complexity. The spectacle of illuminating the area challenges the conventions of art production and consumption. How does participatory art highlight present and historical conversations? A student remarked they needed to be present to hold space and acknowledge the issues at hand. Through creating these conditions, Lozano-Hemmer has made us responsible, whether we choose to engage or not.