"Border Arts & Literature" Student Response: "A Wall of Backpacks" by Steve Pelletier

I asked students in my graduate seminar “Border Arts & Literature” to write a brief response to some aspect of State of Exception, ideally focusing on one item from the exhibit, using it as a point of departure for a work of creative nonfiction. Here is one student’s extraordinary response to this simultaneously open-ended and constrained writing prompt. —Amy Sara Carroll, Assistant Professor of American Culture, Latina/o Studies, and English


A Wall of Backpacks

A wall of backpacks. A screen of people talking over one another. Rollingfilm. Glass cases. All this to help raise awareness about undocumented migration—specifically those undocumented peoples who cross the United States-Mexico Border in the Sonora Desert. I feel offended by the wall of backpacks representative of the people who carried them in search of a better life. I am perplexed by the privileging of outside voices being the only ones who actually have words coming out of their mouths. I see the remainders of water bottles, broken apart, caked over with dirt and pebbles. These are placed in a display case. They are placed on velvet. I am disgusted. Here is something that people depended on for life, for strength, and for comfort to get them through their journey. Did it do all of those things for the one who carried it? Did it provide enough life, enough strength, enough comfort to help its owner make it to their destination? Yethere it is on display like a fine Roman antiquity. Like a Grecian urn. Like any other cultural artifact from any other dead society. Only this society isn’t dead…right?

The water bottles make me want to get angry. But I don’t.

I’ve seen many water bottles in this exact same condition. I’ve probably left a few to end up in that condition. I’ve never had to cross the Sonora Desert, but I know what it’s like to live in a Desert.

This is home.    

I have no ounces of water. There’s not a cloud in the sky. The sun shines. You can feel it.

I carried my niece on my back. She was too tired to walk. Thank God she wasn’t in mid-school, yet. She might have been too big for me to carry. My Mom nudged me every now and then saying we should trade off carrying her. I would carry her for twenty minutes, she would carry her for twenty minutes.

Every part of my body is covered. Blue jeans, T-shirt, long-sleeve work shirt over that, baseball cap for my shaved head, and sneakers. The kind that you could walk in for days.

I remember sweating when we started this hike. I can feel the sun, but my body seems no longer to react to it. I can feel the heat coming off every rock and dry part of the ground. When I reach up to brush a tree branch out of the way, occasionally it breaks.

We do this every Fourth of July. We camp for a couple days. We cook. We tell stories around the campfire at night. During the day we walk around the area. We do this for fun.

Someone in their truck had taken us from our camp a mile west to the edge of a wash at the foot of one of the mesas. We hiked through a shaded and cool canon up the mesa. This took about an hour and a half. I expected the truck that brought us to take us back. I had twenty ounces of water in an Aquafina bottle. The hike back to camp was two miles, maybe more. It’s midday.

The ground crunches with every step you take. Pebbles or cracked earth. You don’t want to walk in the red sand. I had ten ounces of water.

Cove, Arizona. It is a picturesque place. Mountains enclose its southern border. High Mesas enclose its western border. High desert keep its northern and eastern borders wide open. The mountains are “small” mountains for the region—somewhere between ten to twelve thousand feet tall. They remain a dark green monument year round thanks to the evergreens that cover every part of them. The Mesas are equally stunning painted in that red sandstone color that can only be described by seeing it. There are patches of green splashed across their surface thanks to bushes and trees that make their homes at the base or in dips and cracks where water is not immediately taken by the sun.

I could finally see our camp. I can smell the nunayskada cooking over the fire. I can hear people laughing. My niece comes to life and wants to be put down. She runs to her Dad’s tent. I find my own tent. There’s a fold up chair in front of it. It’s in the shade.

It’s hot. I know it’s hot. I just don’t feel it. I just want to sit.

My Mom heads for the water pump.

This is home.

"Border Arts & Literature" Student Response: "Spotlight" by Chinyere Uzogara

I asked students in my graduate seminar “Border Arts & Literature” to write a brief response to some aspect of State of Exception, ideally focusing on one item from the exhibit, using it as a point of departure for a work of creative nonfiction. Here is one student’s extraordinary response to this simultaneously open-ended and constrained writing prompt. —Amy Sara Carroll, Assistant Professor of American Culture, Latina/o Studies, and English



I walk into the dark gallery space that seems incredibly small for such a mountainous story, an epic struggle in which the vast majority of American families share a history. The moving projection ushers me in as if from random directions, a wayward wind that casts me on, though the space is eerily still and comfortably warm. Inside there are a just a few stations and places to sit. And what to say about all this? Maybe there’s too much to say. Maybe these things, and the moving images along with them, are all we can bear right now—I don’t know. I sit and stare at this projection, a road that seems to lead nowhere. And I remember many childhood journeys home. It rained a lot, and I did not know the way. The constancy of the border gate, steady as raindrops, frames my thoughts. I look away. It only takes a few things, I guess, an honest few artifacts to lay grounds for conversation, this conversation that may have no end. But what can I say; I’ll never be ready. So here goes.

The stations are few but the backpacks are many. They’re packed in like sardines as if to signal the cramped conditions in which their wearers must have travelled, and perhaps now reside. I scan the rows. Each one seems to represent the community with which its wearer might identify, once arrived. I notice first the mass of ‘no-name’ designs, indecipherable or unrecognizable, perhaps worn by people who are certain of the impermanence of their relationship to this backpack. Then there are the bags for the casual-sports crowd, the many Wilsons and Nikes; the alternative crowd with their tribal designs or hippie looks; the occasional cartoon bags that suggest that kids too walked this path. I’m sure some do. But one toon-movie bag catches my eye and holds my gaze. Its image is caught in a spotlight. And its significance is certainly not lost on me.

Who let them loose?

What is this black bag that seems so familiar? I look closely and see some animals, caught in a beaming spotlight. It’s for Madagascar, the movie. To the side is a caption in German: “Die Tiere Sind Los.” The animals are loose, I say to myself, proud that I can understand the words. How did this bag end up near the border with Mexico, and could its wearer have understood German? Given the economic and social power that Hollywood wields in the world today, it seems a silly question. This bag is ripe for reflection, so I make it my subject. It’s hard to miss the wide eyes that its zoo animals bear—that classic ‘deer in headlights’ look that someone caughtdoing something inappropriate might have. Clockwise from the top is a giraffe, a hippo, four penguins, a lion, and a zebra—just outside the ‘Central Park Zoo’ from which they have escaped. The zoo walls seem just as foreboding as the border walls, to those who might try to traverse them in secret.

Have you seen this movie? Now I haven’t seen the initial installment of Madagascar, but I saw the sequel, Escape 2 Africa. I remember thinking that this movie commented on the immigrant experience of ‘return’ after spending time in ‘the West.’ Even as the movie starts, the itinerants are itching to go back to the New York zoo from which they came—apparently there’s nothing like eating steak that seems so ‘conflict free.’  The first installment, which this bag advertises, is about the animals’ original departure from the confines of the walled home that they have long known[i]. One of them, I discover, sought more room to roam beyond the zoo, and the others followed suit. Then some conscientious activists determined they return to Africa, after which they are shipwrecked to Madagascar. Quite a tale indeed, but also social commentary. When I look up the American caption it reads: “Someone’s got a zoo loose.” Not merely descriptive like its German counterpart, it is a statement that assigns blame. Social commentary, indeed.

Private Property, Private Lives

Hollywood is now our greatest national export. Arguably, immigrants historically match or exceed it in imports. Movies, Madagascar no less, seem to start conversations—global conversations—that few people can finish. Looking at this backpack for holding temporary non-negotiables, I reflect on immigrants who come to this country to continue these conversations while seeking property, yet might lack the language for both. Seeing the German-language caption reminds me that immigrants have many faces and voices, at times like mine. They come at the beckon of conversation-starters like Hollywood, of peddlers of the Dream. And so they travel, strapped with property that holds even-more-private property. In time they make monumental contributions to local and national efforts, helping Americans realize and live their dream of owning greater amounts of property—homes and businesses. Who would argue that such structures are not maintained in part by the affordable labor that immigrants provide?

Who would enjoy getting caught in such a compromising predicament as this bag’s freedom-seeking zoo animals do: on display and way out of place, or on the ‘wrong’ side of a serious debate? Likely, the home owner or entrepreneur who hires undocumented immigrant laborers would not. Their ongoing silence also speaks a truth: that there can be as many sides to an issue as problems and opportunities. Like human beings, no matter their origin animals in the Madagascar series seem to both seek greater room to thrive and greater privacy. Both should feature in conversations on immigration. Besides, why must animals ventriloquize conversations that real people—neighbors, friends, families, citizens— should have, on an issue that affects us all? Alas, fearing the spotlight we leave too many important conversations to Hollywood. And meanwhile I imagine both the employer and laborer muttering:

“Just shine your light elsewhere. I’ll keep on… I’ll keep on.”

—Chinyere Uzogara  

"Border Arts & Literature" Student Response: "Mourning and Exhibition: A Thought Piece on Experiencing Loss in a Museum" by Bonnie Applebeet

I asked students in my graduate seminar “Border Arts & Literature” to write a brief response to some aspect of State of Exception, ideally focusing on one item from the exhibit, using it as a point of departure for a work of creative nonfiction. Here is one student’s extraordinary response to this simultaneously open-ended and constrained writing prompt. —Amy Sara Carroll, Assistant Professor of American Culture, Latina/o Studies, and English


Mourning and Exhibition: A Thought Piece on Experiencing Loss in a Museum

At the opening event for State of Exception: Richard Barnes, Jason De León, Amanda Krugliak, Jason De León talked about the difficult emotions he dealt with while deciding how to display the backpacks that he and his team of researchers found along the U.S. Mexico border. He drew a comparison to the infamous wall of shoes at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. I remember seeing the wall of shoes on my school’s eighth-grade field trip to the U.S. capitol, and after seeing that exhibit, I remember not being able to do or say much else for the rest of the day. Even now the first word that comes to mind as I reflect on that exhibit is “magnitude,” which is a word of size and importance. It is used to measure the brightness of stars and the intensity of earthquakes. It is a word of both earthly power and otherworldliness. Experiences of magnitude prove exceptional to our day-to-day experience. Yet in these two exhibits, the ordinary and the momentous become one and the same. “Day to day” objects become monuments of cavernous sorrow.

 Thinking of the two exhibits together makes an unbearably truthful connection between the Holocaust and the ongoing genocide at the United States - Mexico border. I do not mean for this reflection to be a comparison of the two exhibits, but I do find that tracing the parallels between them helps me to think about differences and similarities in meaning.

Thinking about these spaces as an “exhibit” produces tremendous discomfort for me. Exhibition has connotations of display, and these places of mourning and remembrance accomplish or are meant to accomplish so much more than creating an aesthetic or subjecting bodies to critical views of a far-away audience. There is a large, strange space between “exhibition” and “mourning” that fills me with uncertainty. I choose to think of this space as a quiet, dark place to mourn the dead and ache for the living. It is appropriate that this space is both somehow public and private, for the tragedy the space represents is a collective tragedy. Should another person walk in, we would have to witness one another’s discomfort and sadness. Should I stay in the space alone, I could be witness to my own experience.

The shoes at the U.S. Holocaust museum are displayed behind glass in a big pile meant to resemble the mass “graves” of the death camps. For each shoe, we can imagine a body, then a life preceding the body, and it is in the realization of that lineage that we experience sorrow or mourning. The backpacks in the “State of Exception” project are hung in a small room, on two small walls, and the metaphor of the mass grave could never convey the scale of the landscape on which they were found.

And so, rather than face these objects, would I prefer these backpacks remain in the desert to rot? I could have reached out and touched the backpacks, but I didn’t. The closeness of them parallels the closeness of the tragedies on the border, both spatially and temporally. I felt that by touching a backpack, that I would have touched the face of cruelty. Even looking at them closely filled me with discomfort. Behind that wall is a portal to a hellish experience. No glass protects me from my passive complicity or the materiality of anguish, and you cannot leave this project without the understanding that crossing the dessert is anguish.

There is no one way to mark a grave. There is no one way to mourn. There is no one way to commemorate a life. However it is common practice for people to be buried with their precious belongings. Burying or destroying a body along with possessions is a way of saying: this object is too special, too saturated with meaning beyond daily life or use to continue circulating in the world of the living. These are “grave objects” without a grave.

It is important to remember that we are not certain of the fates of the owners of the backpacks. Perhaps the uncertainty of whether each of these backpacks is an object of life or an object of death can help me rethink the way this memorial wall functions. Is it appropriate for me to mourn? Are the owners laughing somewhere? Eating somewhere? Working somewhere as we stare intently at the stitching on their former belongings? Are their families mourning their deaths? Or are they wondering whether or not there is a death to mourn? Perhaps bringing these objects out of the context of a grave keeps awareness of ongoing tragedy circulating among the living.
—Bonnie Applebeet

photo by Sarah Nesbitt

“Border Arts & Literature” Student Response: “The Fiction of Sense” by Maximillian Alvarez

I asked students in my graduate seminar “Border Arts & Literature” to write a brief response to some aspect of State of Exception, ideally focusing on one item from the exhibit, using it as a point of departure for a work of creative nonfiction. Here is one student’s extraordinary response to this simultaneously open-ended and constrained writing prompt. —Amy Sara Carroll, Assistant Professor of American Culture, Latina/o Studies, and English


The Fiction of Sense

It’s a small room. On two of the walls slow rolling shots of the border play on loop. simultaneous “establishing shots” that the projectors replay over and over and over and over and the border in the shots never ends but the shots of the border never change. Another wall is completely covered by sunbaked backpacks found in the southern Arizonan desert. In a display case an assortment of effects. Some “personal.” a wallet an icon a drawing. Some “impersonal.” packs of pills a cartridge of lighter fluid a Budweiser tall can. The glass over the case makes known an objective of the exhibit. of the research behind it. of the academic landscape in which it’s all coming together. The glass over the case tells your eyes to tell your brain to tell any prejudices you might have that these “objects” are “artifacts.”

On the opening night of the exhibit people mill around the small room. Hands touch chins. Eyes squint and scrutinize. It’s an exhibit after all. A woman walks thoughtfully but not too quickly. the way people expect they’re expected to walk in museums. over to a man and whispers. -­‐ “What do you think?” -­‐ “Well.” he starts. “I’m not sure yet. I’m still trying to make sense of all the things in here.”

This concept of “making” sense has at once relatively obvious but still loaded implications. It signifies a process itself of signifying. a process through which intelligibilities. meanings. about “all the things in here” can be manufactured. synthesized. grafted on. drawn in. A process through which object becomes artifact and artifact becomes signifier. a textual element that in itself. behind display glass. is lifeless. To “make sense” of it is to reanimate dead tissue. to find words. signs. in the ground and attempt to (re)create the voices that spoke them. and to (re)create faces from which the voices came. and to (re)create lives lived and then lost and then left behind only in the forms of backpacks pills lighters bottles toothbrushes. Dead or not. the lives signified by such things are inexistent in this small room. The brochure to the exhibit gives a description of an experiment conducted by Jason De León. placing and observing pig carcasses at various sites “to estimate how quickly human bodies can be disarticulated and consumed” in the desert. Through the signifiers on display here we are presented with a task not only of “making sense.” of creating meaning. but in so doing rearticulating life.

The objective for this assignment. as specified in the prompt. is to write a piece of “creative non-fiction” in response to “all the things in here.” to the State of Exception exhibit itself. But surely we can’t shake the glaring irony of our position as variably constituted subjects. in an institutionally constituted space. refracting the materiality of these signifier-artifacts through innumerable inherited cultural prisms that constitute the making of that subjective thing we call “sense.” In effect. “sense” is a “creative nonfiction.” Creative in the sense that it is always and inevitably mediated by variegated matrices of culture and power. by epistemic constructions of available knowledge and inherited discourses. by ideology and market forces that shape viewers’ eyes and the ways they see and make meaning. Non-fiction in the sense that imaginings of the world. though always subjective. are nonetheless “real.” The binary itself of fiction/non-fiction overlooks the relativity of a history that is less an aggregate material “non-fiction” and wholly contingent on the stories of struggle by which imaginings of the world war with each other. subsume each other. resist. hybridize. resulting in some being materialized as “non-fictions” and relegating others to the immaterial realm of “fictions.” History moves and is moved by the ways it is imagined. by the ways in which competing versions of reality struggle to make as much of the materiality of the world without capitulate to the subjective imaginings of the world within.

When faced with the materiality of these artifacts. however. we’re put in an awkward position. We’re looking directly at material traces of existence. yes. of experience. yes. but we’re also attempting to “make sense” of a room that’s filled at the same time with traces of subjective worlds. individual lives. and also a consumer culture that. in many respects. makes those lives more “real” to us. in a “creative non-fiction” sort of way. On a screen above the glass-covered table of artifacts, a video collage of interviews with Professor Jason De León and some members of his research team fills the room with a polyvocal narrative of reactions to the discoveries of these artifacts in the desert. Over the din of multiple voices overlapping and filling the air of the small room. I hear one researcher mention that her sense of the human pain and fear and struggle of those who have left these artifacts behind was made more “real.” in the sphere of her own life. by the fact that a bottle of Gatorade lying in the desert was the same as the kind that she drinks.

What does it mean then when faces of struggle take a more human shape for us. when we see more of ourselves in them. as a result of shared materials of commercial culture? There are obvious points to consider. Seeing name brands. Nike Fila Addidas. and emblems of an American pop culture industry. Superman Looney Tunes Mickey Mouse. in this context is a direct realization of U.S. corporate and cultural imperialism south of the border. When juxtaposed to the very facts of U.S. immigration policy. the very reasons why this exhibit is here. the materiality of these “shared” cultural commodities gives us a greater intellectual “sense” of injustice. But is that what allows us to feel injustice? Is it simply the same as when we see a dead bird with a stomach exploded. filled with bottle caps? Is our feeling one of mere complicity in the pain of Others? I think it’s something more.

We see a religious icon of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe behind the glass and have been more or less constituted to understand that that is a more direct symbol of “culture.” This icon re-articulates more of the lost flesh. more of the life. that left it behind. more than a backpack with Mickey Mouse on it at least. We see it as more “personal.” having a more present effect on the way someone might imagine the world. But are subjective imaginings of the world less constituted by commercial institutionalization than religion? Is there a way for us. in this room. to translate the “personal” by analyzing the “impersonal”? Perhaps what is needed is a re-evaluation of what we classify as “cultural” in an age of economic globalization. a reimagining of the commercial forces that constitute imagining itself. This is in no way a suggestion to glaze over the irreplaceable contexts of cultural difference that constitute subject-formation. nor is it an attempt to homogenize the tools through which we evaluate those differences. It is rather an attempt to reformulate and deterritorialize the ground on which we. as subjects. stand and from which we attempt to “empathize” and “understand.” “Making sense” is non-fiction inasmuch as it is a process of translation. Thus it is as much a revealing of the objects in which “sense” is read as the subjects by whom “sense” is made. By attempting to temper our reactions to the experiences and lives signified by “all the things in here” with an analysis of how commercialized material culture constitutes our very relations to these artifacts. by asking what the differences and connections are between two very different subjects. in very different worlds. drinking the same kind of bottle of Gatorade. and using that as a platform to analyze both what is shared in that experience and what is so drastically different about them. we can plug into a human symmetry that goes beyond and elicits more than empathy.

—Maximillian Alvarez

Photo by Sarah Nesbitt

Hyperallergic feature article on State of Exception

Jillian Steinhauer’s moving, insightful article about State of Exception. Definitely recommend reading it to the last paragraph…

"Border Arts & Literature" Student Response: The Backpacks and the Mirror by Mary Renda

I asked students in my graduate seminar “Border Arts & Literature” to write a brief response to some aspect of State of Exception, ideally focusing on one item from the exhibit, using it as a point of departure for a work of creative nonfiction. Here is one student’s extraordinary response to this simultaneously open-ended and constrained writing prompt. —Amy Sara Carroll, Assistant Professor of American Culture, Latina/o Studies, and English


The Backpacks and the Mirror

An entry in the comment book at the front of the exhibit State of Exception reads:

                        “Thank you for giving the forgotten a voice. They deserve it as much  as anyone else in the world.”

I return to the center of the room and ask: what voices are speaking?

         Backpacks, water jugs, books, baby bottles, hats, toothbrushes, medicine tablets

There is a haunting that exists here, but what kind of haunting?

Who is speaking? How are they speaking? What is being said?

A green backpack with its zipper torn, a black backpack covered in dirt, a smashed water jug, a melted toothbrush, a broken hat, a worn-out shoe

                       Heat, death, thirst.


 “They were just looking to find a better life.”

             “They didn’t have the resources to survive.”

                             “They walked for days without water.”

      “They were forced to walk through the desert because of our       immigration policies.”

                     “They died.”

The suffering migrant. The forgotten traveler. The forsaken.

                             “Those who cannot speak”

“We are learning about their experience.”

     Whose experience?

                        “The immigrants.”


“The immigrants that crossed the border and left their things in the Desert.”

How is this connected with violence?

    “Violence against immigrants? Well, they were subjected to the violent heat and violent actions of border patrol because of our violent immigration and free trade policies.”

The suffering migrant. The victimized and exploited. The voiceless.

    But are they voiceless? Isn’t their voice now in these backpacks, toothbrushes, and water bottles?


          But the comment said “Thank you for giving the forgotten a voice.”

                 The answer is no because the “You” in this “Thank You” has the voice.

The “You” has created the subjects that you are learning about. The backpacks hung in this room depict and fashion - “suffering, victimized, forgotten migrants”. Therein lies violence –

          “Experience the constructed affect of this constructed subject.”

     The subject assembled by the “You” speaks. It relays a story, a HIStory.

                        A partial, fabricated view.  A violence.

“Well then how are they supposed to speak? We can’t ignore the violence happening in the Arizona desert! You want to just disregard this let it keep happening? Do you want immigrants to continue to die in the desert? At least the “You” is doing SOMETHING!


    Overwhelmed by the violent screaming, I exit the exhibition room and sit down on a bench outside in the foyer. After a few moments, I re-enter the space…

After passing through the exhibit entrance hallway, I enter the larger room. Covering the walls where the backpacks hung before is a large mirror. I slowly walk over to the mirror. As I approach the mirror, I begin to distinguish the complexity of what I see before me -

  I see a “You” that constructs a subject and I see a subject that cannot be constructed. I see a being that interprets a subject and I see a subject that cannot be interpreted. I see all the thousands of elements in my constitution that the “observer” cannot observe and all the thousands of elements in my constitution that the “perceiver” cannot perceive. I see the violence.

                        I open my mouth to speak, but I see that another’s words are already starting to be written on the mirror. I search for a way to protest, but the words keep appearing. They examine me and describe what they see. I want to be heard. I want to dispute this exclusionary, examining, descriptive writing - “Listen!”

                        Too late.

The words have stopped appearing. I finally desist my violent protest.  I look up and attempt to decipher the cursive –

              “Thank you for giving the forgotten a voice. They deserve it as much as anyone else in the world.”

—Mary Renda

photo by Sarah Nesbitt

"Border Arts & Literature" Student Response: Processing Death by Orquidea Morales

I asked students in my graduate seminar “Border Arts & Literature” to write a brief response to some aspect of State of Exception, ideally focusing on one item from the exhibit, using it as a point of departure for a work of creative nonfiction. Here is one student’s extraordinary response to this simultaneously open-ended and constrained writing prompt. —Amy Sara Carroll, Assistant Professor of American Culture, Latina/o Studies, and English


Processing Death

I was unsure as to how I could write about an exhibit that made me so uncomfortable. It is hard for me to vocalize why this is the case. So I decided to step back and not process a particular object, but rather talk about the framing of death and the dead in discussions of the border. How are the bodies of the dead border crossers framed in this exhibit? Are these deaths central in our understanding of the border crossing experience? Are these deaths part of life in/on the borderlands?

State of Exception: Richard Barnes, Jason De Leon, Amanda Kruglaik,  an exhibition of the Undocumented Migration Project, documents the artifacts, bodies and memories left behind by people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border specifically in Arizona. This exhibition was created from the Undocumented Migration Project that began in 2009. Jason De Leon describes one of the major goals of this project is “to offer nuanced, yet perpetually fragmented (literally and figuratively), insights into the realities and complexities of undocumented migration.” It is these fragmented parts, or these fragmentations, of stories and bodies, that is legible not only in the exhibit and accompanying booklet and presentations but also in the larger “catalog” of cultural productions about the border and border deaths. Perhaps this is why it is so hard to write, think, talk about the border and the numerous different types of border crossings. These narratives are fragmented, by historical erasures, by their own complexity and by our own discomfort in talking about them, in facing them. Part of that fragmentation is death itself. What happens when we are faced with parts of bodies, so foreign to us, unrecognizable, like the image of Marisol’s hand as we sit in the North Quad reading and preparing for our class? One response is to distance ourselves, ask for that image to be removed, erase this irrational death from our surroundings, from our psyche. Another response, perhaps one we see in the exhibit booklet and panel, is to quantify these deaths, catalog them.

Thus, the border is marked in many instances as a space/place of death. Death is a looming reality for border crossers. In the catalog and the opening panel for the exhibit, De Leon recounts the story of Marisol, a woman found dead in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Accompanying this story is an image of her hand, the same image he presented in the panel and an image that was part of a video installation piece in the North Quad. De Leon begins, “We find her at N31*44’55” W111*12’24”. Her name is Marisol.” Marisol is a pseudonym given to her after death, her real name forgotten. His description of her body is both direct, as if studying a piece of pottery, and moving similar perhaps to Luis Alberto Urrea’s work in Devil’s Highway. Is De Leon’s work also creative nonfiction? By beginning with the coordinates where the body was found, De Leon marks the importance of place.

Here, at this particular coordinate, lost in a suffocating desert, Marisol was found. De Leon’s description of this event is important because the discomfort and uncertainty finding her body produced for him and his team framed how the death was photographed, remembered, and discussed in the context of the exhibit. After finding the body, it was hard for them to decide if the body should be photographed and how it should be photographed. How do you document death? By choosing to highlight her hand,there is a fragmentation of the body. His narrative in the booklet goes on to fragment Marisol’s body itself “While parts of her are starting to transform into unfamiliar shapes and colors, her striking jet black hair and the pony tail holder wrapped around her right wrist hint at the person she once was.” Thus, it is her hair and pony tail holder that mark her as recognizable, as human after the desert destroyed her body. He concludes after turning her body over, “her face is unrecognizable as human.” Here I return to and add to my initial questions what happens (or what does it mean) when the body, or rather the dead body, is constantly repeated, re-inscribed, coopted? in projects and cultural productions like these that imagine the border space? How do we, as academics, add to this fragmentation? How do I, as a border dweller, process the constant reminders of death and border crossings that mark these border stories? —Orquidea Morales

photo by Jason De Leon

A taste of the exhibit, produced by Sharad Patel with video by Richard Barnes with Amanda Krugliak.

From the comment book in the gallery….

From the comment book in the gallery….

More from the comment book in the gallery…

Richard Barnes and Amanda Krugliak. Photo: Sarah Nesbitt

Images from the State of Exception Opening.Photos: Sarah Nesbitt 

Images from the State of Exception Opening. Photos: Sarah Nesbitt  

More visitor comments about State of Exception. 

Images from the State of Exception Opening. Photos: Sarah Nesbitt  

note: loading more posts will reset any filters applied