It all began when artist Hillary Mushkin’s roof in Echo Park needed to be fixed, and the builder she contracted had mysteriously disappeared. It turns out that he was detained for six weeks even though he had a green card. “I'm an American citizen. I was born here. These are the laws of my country, and I don't know or understand anything about them,” said Mushkin. “It was disturbing to me that I did not understand that that was possible.”
This incident started Mushkin down the rabbit hole of border law, where she discovered the 100-mile border zone, an area all around the United States (swallowing up whole states like Florida and Michigan) where federal law permits U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents can “enter private property, set up highway checkpoints; stop, question and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations — and can even use race and ethnicity as factors to do so.”
The revelation so disturbed Mushkin that it catalyzed her “Three Border Ecologies” project. “My project is focused on the concept of visualizing that hundred-mile inland border. What it actually looks like, where it is, and how we can sort of recognize something which isn't actually just a line that you could build on because it’s such a gigantic, not specific place,” says Mushkin.
She brought activists Ricardo Favela and Lilian Serrano of Alianza Comunitaria and artists together in three selected border locations to actually view the range of locations that sits uncomfortably within this border zone and to draw what they saw.
There were no protest signs in sight, but nevertheless Mushkin’s work was powerful in that it asked people to sit, to stay and to contemplate. “My thinking is that drawing as a single artist onsite in these places doesn't really have the same power as it does when there are multiple people who are looking at a place together. We are in a sense sort of acting as a community who is witnessing and trying to record our observations about these sites and about this border ecology.”
Listen the thoughts of a few of the participating artists below:
Hillary Mushkin: visual artist and professor
At the Cleghorn Lake Wilderness area, I was thinking in particular about two different points of inspiration. One is an atlas that I was looking at earlier this year that was made by mapmakers who were on the U.S. Mexico Boundary Commission. In the 19th century, there was a group of surveyors who had to go to the U.S.-Mexico borderline to actually figure out where it was on the ground.
And there's a huge beautiful atlas that was published around 1857 and it is a lot of tiny black lines patterns, super sort of detailed old map that shows the topography patterns of flora along this region. And there was not really any signs of cities or communities that were built environments in the way that we think of them now, but mostly I was thinking about how this borderline is drawn as a straight line through this very sort of organic forms that represent the natural environment and how the monuments that actually were placed to mark where the borderline is on the ground were drawn in this atlas as these little squares on this straight borderline. So these are the only points in this otherwise organic map that are very geometric. So I was thinking a lot about that contrast between the organic and the geometric, representing the organic space that we live in and the more rectilinear shape of the law.
And I was also thinking in terms of color about this book that a friend of mine found, which is a book of rubbings by Max Ernst that was done in the early 20th century. It’s a beautiful book that was moldy and was on sale for a ridiculously low price. And it has a purple mold on the paper and the purple mold is gorgeous. He reprinted it with this purple mold markings on it and actually ended up making that into an artwork.
And I was thinking about how the purple mold has these splotches and it shows the passage of time and how the organisms are taking over these pages in a way that is sort of at the one hand considered out of control and like a problem. “Oh no! That's destroying the Max Ernst book!” And on the other hand is in itself something that's entirely different and special and beautiful on its own. And that really made me think about these contrasts between where we try to regulate and put something down on paper that is supposed to be fixed and how organic changes maybe make something else that's also beautiful.
At the San Clemente border patrol station, we were standing at the San Onofre State beach. I was really interested in the water itself and in the sort of flow of the waves and how the idea of the border is something where maybe we try to make a straight borderline. But in fact, there is something about it which is much more amorphous and organic and it cannot be contained in that way.
And in fact, when we think about the hundred-mile border zone, that is in fact the motivation for that law in the first place is that people move beyond whatever that exact line is. And the Department of Homeland Security needs to be able to legally go into whatever amorphous places and pick people up. So I was interested in the, these sort of flows of water and one of the drawings that I made has — on one side of it is a white space that has something that looks like a color key like that you might see on a, on a map and I think it says something like, uh, do not travel beyond this point. And then on the right side is a kind of a more of a landscape picture and it has these flows of water and there's a lot of blooms of pigment that are blending into each other that are supposed to represent the waves.
But this is also literally the border because it is the ocean and it's also one of the borders of the United States. And people don't think of it as a border because people usually are thinking of land borders like right at the border of U.S. and Mexico or the Canadian border.
Gloria Lee: architect
What I drew was a series of fences and it relates to what I was feeling about how little I was seeing of the kind of discrimination that was happening right around me. When we were walking around, I noticed that there were just these fencing. These existed everywhere, invisibly.
If you were Ricardo [of Alianza Comunitaria], you had to pass those fences and only you would be allowed to pass across and then that they ran laterally, you know, east, west, not so north south. He was talking about how most of his travel was from east to west. There's like no end to it then. I kept just turning my head to capture different parts of the fence and it was continuous and I kept drawing and I turned the paper to the other side to continue to draw because my perspective and view was limited, so then I would just shift and then shift, and I came back until I hit the other fence.
My second drawing, basically it was an abstraction of the site plan. So it's an aerial view of the fields and then the lines represent the movement of the people who constantly have to evade where the checkpoints might be. You might be going from one point to another, but then all of a sudden you get a text saying something's happening there, so go north. Then you have to completely change your route. You’re kinda zigzagging across to just get your work done, just to go to [a] grocery store and get some bread. I was just kind of overlaying the movement of the people in order to kind of survive and the idyllic setting that we were in.
The experience has changed me in participating and paying attention to what's going on now more closely, more critically with some knowledge and experience, you know, what's happening with all the detention facilities and the children and stories of many Ricardos out there. I feel like it's something that we need to talk about and give voice to and acknowledge.
Thomas Zummer: independent scholar, writer, artist and curator
That curious disposition of sitting out in a field or on a beach with a pen or pencil, paintbrush in hand. It really opens up the possibilities for what one might work (on). In some cases, it's purely imaginary in other cases, literally fixed to what one sees. For me, I did a little bit of all of it. In one of the drawings you see my partner Leslie, who had climbed up on a ladder to get a better view of the facility and she's making a drawing of the facility from that point of view. I did a very quick sketch of her sitting at top of the ladder, which I thought was a nice kind of documentary of the documentary.
There's one drawing I did of where I chose out specific formal elements. There are certain structures of the built environment that are repeated. For example, a pre-stressed concrete element, a column or a circular element that is essentially a kind of warning buoy for aircraft, things like that. So if you abstract and pull out of the scene, those things, you get a kind of — another kind of mapping of that built environment. It's sort of like connect the dots. You pull those things out and um, they give an indication of what's there, sometimes more pointedly than a more naturalistic drawing, which is after all a facility that has, you might say somewhat camouflaged.
Nikko Mueller, artist and professor
I went to the Oak Grove camp ground site where we observed an area that's right near one of the typical checkpoints that the border patrol maintains. To me it was the representation out of all the sites that Border Ecologies was looking at. This was the place that was very much folded into the basic fabric of American living. It wasn't this empty desert wilderness space and it wasn't the coastal space right along a major freeway and a big obvious border checkpoint. This was a kind of anywhere place.
For me, I was interested in having that kind of vague sense of space. And so I was using these kind of washy watercolors to represent that. And the only thing that's really sort of pinned down is this very uniform faceless set of structures.
I also drew barbed wire. It’s a major thing for the American west and for the definition of control and the enforcement of a border. The barbed wire is both such a mean-looking thing with its sharp little probes in it and also there's this kind of lyrical, gestural quality to these wires that kind of spiral and wind around especially as they age. And so I was interested in something like that, looking at this form that is obvious and present all over the place, but oftentimes overlooked. That is both harsh and all about delineation, while at the same time it kind of evokes a sense of free flowing natural movement or something.
I went to the San Clemente border inspection station. We were able to observe this structure that was part of the kind of the permanent checkpoint. What I was struck by was how strict and angular and crisp this structure was. How these ideas of control and strength or power were so kind of obvious in this structure. And were such a contrast to the kind of invisibility of the border at the previous location.
In thinking about how the border is felt and experienced by different groups of people and in different ways, I, I really wanted to make a drawing of this structure that emphasized the precision, the engineering, the control of one's movement around this. I made the whole drawing using a ruler. You know, no line was drawn naturally or with my own mark or hand showing up. I wanted to have every mark that I made be something that was ordered, controlled, ruled.
Top Image: "Three Border Ecologies" artwork | Lena Martinez Miller