I love to climb mountains. Be it by foot or on a bicycle. There is something to it, but don‘t ask why. It‘s not about the physical challenge, though that‘s definitely a part of it as well, it‘s about exploring the surroundings, the world we live in, and – maybe – finding a broader perspective, catching a view beyond the day-to-day horizon.
Right now, I am climbing up Otay Mountain by bike. Clashing tribes of native Americans used to meet on its summit to smoke peace pipes and settle their disputes here. Winding my way up over a well-maintained gravel road, the only breathing creatures I meet are about a dozen of Border Patrol Cars. Otay mountain, as part of the Ysidro Mountain area, sits right next to the United States-Mexican border, overlooking Tijuana‘s sprawling suburbs and the border fence that cuts like a straight line through the Otay Valley, keeping Mexico from spilling into the United States.
From a distance, I can also spot Donald‘s border wall prototypes. Eight wall pieces by different potential contractors stand, 30 feet (10 meters) tall, in line next to each other like sculptures in a gallery. “I thought about Stonehenge. It’s so strong.” Christoph Büchel, a Swiss art-provocateur, said.1 Mr. Büchel launched an initiative to declare these prototypes as land art, and a National Monument. “When you look at it here, and you see everything, it’s quite a strong conceptual impact. Visually it is really striking. That’s why this should be preserved because it talks so much about our history.”3 He also organizes prototype tours. Slightly different tours to those artificial stone pieces are provided by a Tijuana based travel agency under the title “Against the Wall – a border proximity pilgrimage.”4
I just look at it from afar like a bird. It‘s worth recognizing that in all the political discussions about US president Donald‘s border wall project the question is not about whether to fortify its borders or not. The question is on how and how much money is supposed to do the job. The question is, whether the US should build a solid concrete wall 10m high (depending on whom you ask, cost estimations range from 12 and 70 billion USD) or whether a simple double fence it enough. It’s also worth noting that about 650 miles (1050 km) are already fenced off. The state of California, a fierce opponent of Donald‘s wall project, has a steel fence in place since the early 1990ies.
The Mexican photographer Pablo Lopes Luz captured stunning aerial images of the US-Mexican border in his “Frontera (Border)” series. They feature beautiful landscape photography revealing the border as a “scar in the topography of the region inscribed by man.”5 Watching these images on display in San Diego, as well as coming back again and again to the live impressions of the fence from the mountains of Jacumba or Ysidro or the beach of Tijuana, I cannot help but feel a visual reminiscence of the Great Wall of China. But it‘s not just a visual reminder.
The Great Wall of China is recognized as one of the most impressive architectural feats in history. Is it a coincidence that this remarkable amount of energy and money went into designing and building a structure to keep people out? The Wall of China might have the melancholy of ancient history attached. But it is precisely this ancient and medieval mindset that is having a comeback today. “We may live in an era of globalization, but much of the world is increasingly focused on limiting the free movement of people.”6
Another flashback, beaming back into medieval times: The absurdity of separation walls really hit me ten years earlier. I was visiting Rachel‘s Tomb. It is not only the third holiest site of Judaism, but it is also considered sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The entrance is heavily fortified. The Israeli West Bank barrier was built around the tomb, separating it from the rest of Bethlehem with a series of huge concrete barriers. With the privileges of a Western European passport, I could drive in between walls and visit the tomb. With the privileges of a Western European passport, I could also drive through Israel to Hebron, pass through a checkpoint to Palestinian territory after playing soccer with Palestinian kids, take a shared taxi to Bethlehem and then walk through fortified checkpoints and barriers back to Israel.
I remember a scene walking through Hebron H2 with an Israeli activist and a Palestinian resident. A military patrol stopped us, asking for papers, followed by the question: What religion we have? What an odd question for security control. Reluctantly I identified as a Christian (although I left that club as soon as I was old enough). The soldiers seemed baffled when noticing a Jew, Muslim and Christian could walk around together, obviously enjoying each other‘s company.
There is a reason to build walls; They are deemed to be effective. Terrorist attacks in Israel declined from 73 before building the Westbank Barrier to just nine after completion of the first continuous segments.7 Apprehensions along the San Diego border region with Mexico secured by a security fence are said to have dropped from 202,000 in 1992 to 9,000 in 1994.8 Of course, we don‘t talk about the price, both in human and environmental costs, that come with these barriers.
Growing up in Europe at a time where walls and borders fell, I might have been led into false optimism. Whereas the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall which were crushed in my childhood, were primarily designed to keep people in, and in line, today’s walls are built to keep people out. And they are not only built in the US or in Israel, they are built in Europe as well. The EU has long fortified its borders around Spain‘s enclaves in Northern Africa. For most of Europe, the Mediterranean Sea serves as a natural barrier where thousands of refugees drown each year. But today Europe‘s nation-states start to isolate themselves again, with Austria fencing parts of its border to Slovenia, Hungary fortifying its borders towards Serbia and Croatia. The British financed a barrier in the French port Calais. Bulgaria is walling of Turkey, Norway fencing of Russia. Germany deals with Turkey, paying lots of money to keep the refugees there. Turkey – in return – is building barriers along its borders to Syria and Iran.
Zoom out worldwide: India fenced off its borders to Bangladesh, Ecuador is building a wall along Peru9. The list goes on.
Back to Donald‘s wall and Büchel’s artistic provocation. “I understand the idea behind the project, but I worry that it implies that Donald’s wall is somehow unique,” said Jones, professor of Geography, at the University of Hawai’i and author of Violent Borders and Border Walls, “The reality is that there are already almost 70 border walls around the world that force migrants to take ever more dangerous routes to cross borders.”10
There is a reason to build walls: It keeps them out. Ultimately these walls are built so that we can keep living our lifestyle and they die.
The question is, why does the art stop here at this relatively minor provocation? Why not build The Great American Wall? As an art piece. As a vast sculpture, a monument and legacy for future generations of humanity. Long after the collapse of this civilization, when surviving bands of homo sapiens set up about to start a new civilization, maybe it will remind them of their failing ancestors, how we were exploiting each other, driving us apart and destroying the very planet we live and depend upon.
But then it is likely, at least a few – if not a majority – of competitive humans will keep pushing and repeating the same mistakes over again, and they will build a theme park and tourist industry along these strange ancient architectural leftovers.
I did my own visual investigation into US-Mexican border, pulling it into a straight line. For a full preliminary overview see: http://m.ash.to/border-us-mex
1 Los Angeles Times, Is it inspired or irresponsible to call Donald’s border wall prototypes ‘art’? http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-christoph-buchel-border-wall-prototype-20180208-story.html
3 New York Times, Is Donald, Wall-Builder-in-Chief, a Conceptual Artist? https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/arts/design/is-donald-trump-wall-builder-in-chief-a-conceptual-artist.html
6 Reece Jones, Violent Borders. Refugees and the Right to Move, Verso
9 The Guardian, ‘Donald-style’ border wall between Ecuador and Peru causes fierce dispute, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/20/ecuador-peru-border-wall-dispute-trump-wall
10 The Guardian, Should Donald’s border wall prototypes be considered art? https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/12/should-donald-trumps-border-wall-prototypes-be-considered-art
Also published on Medium.