AGENCY discusses the U.S.-Mexico border and its summer workshop there

Enrollment Ends May 15

AGENCY discusses the U.S.-Mexico border and its summer workshop there

The Texas Tech University College of Architecture at El Paso (TTU-El Paso) will host a “Border Insecurities Summer Workshop” for students who are interested in emerging conceptions of public space in the borderlands. The program is headquartered in a working train station on the U.S.-Mexico border. Participants will travel to site around the dynamic El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region, including military training environments, simulated logistics cities, testing ranges, detention centers, and military archives, as well as place-specific art installations in Cabinetlandia and Marfa.

Students will investigate emerging “securocratic” territories throughout the southwest, uncovering the effects of military doctrine, security interests, and emerging technologies on the built environment of the borderland. Students will work with Arduino and Raspberry Pi to craft working “hackable infrastructures”— small-scale, built interventions that manifest as wearable technologies or other micro-projects of the students’ designs. A final exhibit is planned in a public space in Ciudad Juárez. The workshop is from June 7-July 7, and the deadline to apply is May 15. Details can be found here.

AN senior editor Matt Shaw sat down with AGENCY leader and TTU-El Paso professor Ersela Kripa to discuss the workshop and the ongoing design discourse surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border, including the upcoming elections and the recent controversies surrounding architects’ roles in the shaping of borders. We had a bit of trouble connecting, because the school is so close to the border that Kripa’s cell phone thinks she is roaming.

Architect’s Newspaper: How did you guys get involved with Texas Tech in El Paso?

Ersela Kripa: Tech’s main campus is in Lubbock, Texas, and the school of architecture launched the satellite school on the border in El Paso about nine years ago. We were traveling in this region for the research we needed to do for our book about border issues and national security issues. We were visiting all of the military simulation sites and crossing the border, and we somehow stumbled upon the school. We moved here in September and we’re writing curriculum rooted in this kind of space.

What is the relationship between the “Border Insecurities Summer Workshop” and TTU-El Paso’s program?

The workshop is an extension of our research, but the program is really interested in supporting it as a forum and a platform for an international conversation here about this border, which is very unique in relationship to other borders. It’s a research and making workshop, but we also want to gather and catalyze the community of thinkers and designers and doers who are already here or working around these kinds of issues. We’re going to work with Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman of the UCSD Cross-Border Initiative, Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao, Chris Taylor of Land Arts of the American West, and Patrick Schaefer of the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness. We’re all already here and looking at the border as a place where the designer has agency. We want to help people be much more in touch with the reality here and more educated about the subject.

The border is this incredibly thick zone, as national security is enabled by infrastructure and logistics that start miles south of the border with the free economic zone and the maquiladoras. And then it ends like 100 miles north of our border, inland of the USA, with border checkpoints because there is so much porosity. Checkpoints for products in Mexico are miles south, in the maquiladora kind of warehouses and distribution centers, so that commerce doesn’t even check at the national borders. As illegal immigration crosses the borders, there is other thermal imaging infrastructure scattered all over the desert. There is this kind of incredible landscape that is a border that could be called a hundred miles thick. It is enabled by these kinds of surveillance technologies and logistics. It is almost a military infrastructure.

How will that play out in the workshop?

In the workshop, we are going to be looking at this kind of technology that enables a securitized, thickened border zone and we’re going to be making very small, wearable technologies that borrow from surveillance language to give agency to the individual again. We have already bought all of the equipment that the students would use, like air quality monitors, touch screens, fingerprint sensors, all of these smaller kind of wearables that can help individuals find anonymity in this very highly surveilled landscape. These hackable infrastructures act as a way to escape the ever-seeing eye of surveillance on the border. For example, at a previous workshop run by my partner Stephen at Washington University-St. Louis, one student made this cooling, plastic wire mask that you can wear on your head, but it runs cooled water around your face so that thermal imaging cannot pick up the characteristics of anyone’s face. So essentially, if you’re moving through these checkpoints, you would just be a headless body in the thermal imaging cameras.

So what can students expect from this workshop?

We have had incredible response. There are some students from France and Syria and Greece who are working on similar kinds of border issues related to the current Syrian refugee crisis, and so if they actually join us, they would learn from how amazingly porous and fluid our border here, but also more generally, how bi-national logistics shape the politics of a border.

For instance, one interesting, amazing thing that’s happening right now is that Mexico is shifting its energy production from coal to natural gas to clean up its air quality. This might seem unrelated, but it’s actually shaping energy production on the U.S. side of the border and so there are pipelines that are being constructed and planned to take natural gas across the border to Mexico. The Trans-Pecos Pipeline is already starting to create a bi-national energy region that is, in essence, borderless. We’re hoping in the workshop to look at energy, military security, and environmental issues. We also want to address ecology: natural ecology but also the economic ecology that can thrive if people understand how this border really works and to not think of it as the first image of the fence or the wall.

How do you address some of those big questions about the U.S.-Mexico border and design’s relationship to politics?

It’s very much appropriate for us to be engaged in the border issue, especially with the current election cycles and the really paranoid rhetoric about walls and immigration. We need to be here and we, as designers, are savvy in hacking power structures. But one type of design or one type of infrastructure can’t possibly solve all the issues of the border. I think our role as designers is to really work with nuances and policies set in place that allow for a border to be controlled in the way that it is and to find ways to hack that. And so, even when we talk about public space, here in El Paso and Juarez, public space doesn’t really make sense as a public park or cafes with outdoor seating. Public space here means spaces of exchange. So there are a lot of transient spaces where families who live on either side of the border meet, such as small markets where people cross back and forth to shop or to exchange money or hire really cheap labor. These logistical spaces are very close to the border.

What are some of the Mexican responses to this discourse?

We go across to Juarez quite a bit, and they seem to be excited that there is another conversation at the school that is completely antithetical to keeping people out. We have students from Juarez who are actually coming here to study with us and so they’re terrified by the elections because they’re hoping they can actually keep coming to the country. I have a student who lives with her mother on the El Paso side of the border, but her father is on the Juarez side of the border because that’s where he can get a job and so families are truly bi-national here. It’s not possible here in El Paso to keep Mexican immigration out, because some people go over there for dinner, and there are a lot of women who come over here for day jobs that people here rely on.

We can allow for the border to be a lot more porous and a lot more humane. That’s what we’re thinking about in our work but also through the workshop: moving product around or moving money around or moving cheap labor around. If we look at those spaces as public spaces, designers would become more relevant on the ground. 

How do you think that we could make it a more humane place to exist?

At the border crossing here, you have to cross a bridge over the river, and we’re in the desert and it’s really, really hot. So when people are lining up to get their passports reviewed and to cross the border, pedestrians are waiting in line next to cars, so exhaust is gathering with these cars waiting to cross. There is a lot of air pollution and really bad air quality, and so we want to address waiting areas and areas of exchange—spaces where people spend most of their time. The border crossing happens in a few seconds once you’re processed, but the waiting on either side needs to be rethought because it’s inconvenient and in the summer, it’s actually unbearable.

There are many leftover spaces in Juarez and in El Paso, like parts of these kind of infrastructural, liminal spaces. So there is a former train station kind of canopy on the Juarez side that we’re looking at occupying through arts events and art galleries. There’s a bus canopy on this side, where we did an installation. The idea is to reoccupy these spaces through low-res technology so that people can come together and use them as public space in different ways.

What did you think of the “Building the Border Wall?” competition and the debate about engaging or not engaging with it?

I would love to engage by re-asking the questions. You know, to design a better border wall, is really simplistic, and I would say, myopic. People who don’t live here think of our border as walls, but we have entire gaps. I mean, we don’t even have walls in most of our borders. It’s just the river that separates the countries. When I ask my students about the border wall, it doesn’t even register to them as a wall because we have so many border crossings. They come from Juarez every day to come to school here with us to broaden the conversation and to locate the designer as a really powerful maker on the ground and to make really good public spaces in the borderland that are very, characteristically and qualitatively very different from other cities.

I would engage with it. I don’t think we should shy away from it, mainly because these things are being built without architects, so we need to be in the conversation. We need to shape it, but I also think we shouldn’t be so simplistic as to piggyback on the catch phrase of border wall. I think we need to bring everyone down here so people can understand that the border here is not a wall. It’s actually El Paso and Juarez, two cities together, and as I mentioned, there’s this 100-mile zone between Mexico and the U.S. where the border is completely fluid, and it moves north and south and it is a lot more porous than people imagine. So we would engage with the competition by re-asking or rewriting the brief and also by really questioning what actually makes the border possible. Maybe the response is not necessarily an architectural design competition, but maybe the response is small interventions against technology, against surveillance, against all of the control and the power structures that control this border. Do you know what I mean? Does that make sense?

Yeah. So is that where the hacking comes in?

Yeah, exactly. We want to give individuals their own agency to act in this region without an architectural master vision. I think it’s smaller but also bigger than that.