Photo by Richard Barnes
State of exception Catalog
An Exhibition of the Undocumented Migration Project
Richard Barnes/Jason De León/Amanda Krugliak
January 24 – March 12, 2013
Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan
Curator’s Statement |Amanda Krugliak
Stories and objects serve as traces of human experiences. Both have the capacity to be revelatory while at the same time alluding to that which we can never grasp fully as only observers after the fact.
Working on this exhibition, I couldn’t help but think about the biblical Exodus, and the objects and texts inherent to that story. It would seem there are those invested in these discoveries as proof the Exodus story is literal, and there are also the disbelievers who seek proof that it isn’t at all. Then there are postmodernists, who I’d suspect are less interested in tangible proofs and more interested in what it says about us now as a society.
And I couldn’t help but recall the remarks of paleontologist Philip Gingerich, with whom Richard Barnes and I had worked some years ago, that proof has little to do with discovery, a finding leads us to that which remains unknowable, and to claim absolute certainty hedges towards the imposter. This is where scientific practice and the creative process meet.
The exhibition State of Exception represents a year-long collaboration between U-M anthropologist Jason De León, artist Richard Barnes, and me, the Institute for the Humanities gallery curator, during which we considered how best to curate De León’s Undocumented Migration Project.
In 2012, we joined De León in Arivaca, Arizona, accompanying him into the debris fields of the desert.
For the purpose of reconnaissance, I traveled first, sending back images and notes to Richard Barnes still in New York. “The road to Arivaca at night is epic, surreal, the landscape idyllic and ominous,” I wrote in one text. Hiking into the desert, watching the field students busy collecting samples, I was struck by how everything else fell away. There was the task of collecting and documenting these objects before them, and the demanding work and the hard data offered the relief of some clarity.
The bodily need for water and shade were a constant. Congregating at the cantina in Arivaca after a long, hot day, one couldn’t help but chronicle the disparate cast of characters from the town who had managed to find a way to co-exist.
Barnes visited next, continuing the conversation, shooting video on location along the border at night and interviewing field students about their experiences.
Three days after I returned to Ann Arbor, De León and his students found a woman dead in the desert. They sat with her for hours until the authorities removed the body. Who was she? What brought her to this place, this end? Was she seeking what we all seek, something better, on the other side of things? In this place, this strange stage of limbo, her life is erased without ritual, even in death.
There is no question that the work of Jason De León is charged, thoroughly engaging in its timeliness and relevance to politics and culture. For some it is a zeitgeist, a cleared path for border activism. For others, these objects serve as no more than detritus, trash. Many may see this exhibition as a study of aesthetics, materiality, and practice. However, the exhibition State of Exception attempts to consider the journey of migrants through the deserts of Arizona from all sides, like a puzzle, turning it over, and then again. It emphasizes the ambiguity and complexity of a situation that is as ongoing and endless as the border fence itself. It is determined as much by geography and race as by coyotes, border patrol, and Samaritans. It is rooted in hopefulness and dreams, as well as commerce and enterprise. And although exceptional in terms of its particularities, it is as significant as any other cultural migration.
And what of these objects stored in U-Haul boxes now? What agency? What result? Is a backpack from the desert as affecting as a suitcase from the Holocaust, this exodus as poetic as another? Do the sagging straps and weighty backpacks represent human strife or R.E.I.? Are the barely there remnants of ID cards, bus tickets, and photographs profound or mundane? The overwhelming desire to be sure, to believe in something or someone, has little to do with the Holy Grail, let alone the finding of it. In the end, we have tried to accurately represent Jason De León’s research over these past five years in the hope of engagement and perhaps enlightenment.
State of exception | Jason De León
We find her at N31 ̊44’55” W111 ̊12’24”. Her name is Marisol. She is a 41-year-old woman the summer of 2012. I am hiking with seven students when we encounter her on a migrant trail more than thirty miles north of the Mexican border. Marisol has died face down and in mid-hike while attempting to climb a steep hill. She is wearing running shoes, black stretch pants, and a camouflage shirt. Her pants are stained with excrement and other fluids that her body has expelled upon death. Her hands are locked in a death grip clawing at the dirt beneath her.
She has been dead less than five days and is in what forensic anthropologists term early decomposition “Gray to green discoloration, some flesh relatively fresh …Bloating …Brown to black discoloration of arms and legs” (Galloway 1996: Table 1). Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are circling her corpse. Against the quiet backdrop of the desert you can hear the buzzing of flies busily laying eggs on her, in her. You can also hear the steady hissing of intestinal gases escaping from her bloated and distended stomach. If you stand near her, the wind will occasionally whip across her body sending the smell and taste of rotting flesh directly into your nostrils and mouth. You can literally taste la muerte (death). After several days in the sweltering summer heat her body has begun to change. Her skin has started to blacken and mummify and the bloating is beginning to obscure some of her physical features. 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.
After two graduate students volunteer to hike back to the road to make contact with law enforcement, five students and I huddle in silence a short distance away from the body.
The breeze rustles the branches of nearby mesquite trees and once in a while someone sniffles, cries, or sighs deeply. Vultures continue to circle overhead, oblivious or uninterested in the human drama playing out below. All they know is that we have disrupted their meal.
I want to say something to our group that will give us comfort or make this death somehow peaceful or dignified. Unfortunately, the types of deaths that migrants experience in the Sonoran Deserts are anything but peaceful or dignified. Death here is often a cruel and brutal affair with people dying slowly, painfully, and violently from hyperthermia, dehydration, heatstroke, and a variety of other related ailments. To paint these deaths in any other way would be both a denial of the harsh desert reality and a disservice to those who experienced it. The only thing I can muster after an hour is “at least we got to her before the vultures did.” When the sheriff finally arrives hours later and rolls Marisol’s body over, her face is unrecognizable as human.
About the Project | Jason De León
In 1995, the U.S. federal government began an immigration enforcement strategy known as Prevention through Deterrence (PTD) along the southern border. This strategy increased security in unauthorized crossing areas surrounding urban ports of entry such as El Paso and San Diego in an attempt to shift undocumented border crossers towards remote border regions such as the Sonora Desert of Arizona, where security is less intense but crossing conditions are more difficult. The U.S. Congressional Research Service notes:
rerouting unauthorized aliens away from urban areas and towards more remote areas of the South-west border, making the journey more difficult for aliens and thereby affording the Border Patrol with more time to make the apprehension (Haddal 2010:15).
Arizona has since become the busiest crossing point along the southern border. Those who enter through this region often walk long distances (upwards of 70 miles) over several days, while simultaneously negotiating an inhospitable desert landscape characterized by extreme environmental conditions (summer temperatures often exceeding 100°F and winter temperatures that can reach freezing), rugged terrain, border bandits who rob and assault people, and coyotes, human smugglers who may abandon clients in the desert. Migrants must also evade Border Patrols who employ sophisticated ground and aerial surveillance technology to detect and capture people.
As the PTD strategy shifted undocumented migration towards the deserts of Arizona, the human smuggling industry in the neighboring state of Sonora, Mexico grew to deal with the influx of migrants to the region. Smugglers, vendors, and local manufacturers began to capitalize on migrants who needed guide services, temporary housing, food, and equipment. The goods now associated with border crossing include camouflage and dark-colored clothing, specialized water bottles, first-aid equipment (gauze, muscle cream, pain relievers), high salt content foods, hydration beverages, religious objects (prayer cards, votive candles) and many other items. Some of these items are featured in this exhibit.
Two decades of research has shown that PTD has failed to deter migration, but has succeeded in shaping border crossing into a well-organized, dangerous, and violent social process. Moreover, the correlation between this enforcement strategy and migrant fatalities has been repeatedly acknowledged by academics, activists, and the federal government. A recent congressional assessment of border security notes:
This evidence suggests that border crossings have become more hazardous since the “Prevention through Deterrence” policy went into effect in 1995, resulting in an increase in illegal migrant deaths along the Southwest border (Haddal 2010:25).
Since 2000, approximately five million people have been apprehended trying to cross in southern Arizona and conservative estimates tally the number of migrant deaths at 2500. It is impossible to know how many have actually died during this process given that many bodies go unrecovered because of the remote location where people often expire, the rapid rate at which bodies decompose in the desert, and the lack of any concerted effort on the part of the federal government to recover the corpses of these non-U.S. citizens.
Started in 2009, the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) is a long- term anthropological analysis of clandestine border crossings between Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona. The UMP uses a combination of ethnographic and archaeological approaches to understand various aspects of unauthorized border crossings including the many forms of violence and suffering that characterize the process, the distinct experiences of migrant sub-populations (women, children, LGBT, non-Mexican nationals), and the evolving material culture associated with crossing. The artifacts and anthropological data presented in this exhibit were collected by the dozens of undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and others who form the backbone of this collaborative endeavor.
The title of this exhibit, State of Exception, is a reference to the political theory of the same name. This theory was first outlined by Carl Schmitt and later elaborated by Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (2005). State of exception refers to the process whereby sovereign authorities declare emergencies, often with the stated goal of protecting the state, in order to suspend the legal protections afforded to individuals while simultaneously unleashing the power of the state upon them. This theory has been a particularly salient concept for those working on the margins of nation states where the tensions of sovereignty and state security are both geolocated and visibly acted out on a daily basis as governments seek to keep out “illegal aliens” (i.e., non-citizens) through a variety of extraordinary measures.
We have chosen to call this exhibit State of Exception because we find the vast Sonoran Desert and the many social, political, and economic processes related to migration that occur there to be both exceptional (uncommon, not ordinary, deviating widely from a norm) and representative of the ways in which sovereign powers can justify treating non-citizens in exceptional ways. To be clear, undocumented migration is a complex and global process that cannot be reduced to one narrative, artifact, data set, or political opinion. One of goals of the UMP is to offer nuanced, yet perpetually fragmented (literally and figuratively), insights into the realities and complexities of undocumented migration through ethnography, archaeology, and forensics.
Poem | Amanda Krugliak
There isn’t a line . . . no crossing,
No running fence
Just a place for
A small space,
Photos by Richard Barnes
“We walked for five days…We ran out of food and spent the last two days without anything to eat…I got very sick from walking so far. My blood pressure dropped very low while I was trying to climb out of a wash…We ran out of water but were able to find a cattle tank…The water was very dirty but we drank it anyways….We ended up throwing away our backpacks and our extra clothes on the fourth day. We put all our water into one backpack and took turns carrying it for a few hours at a time…In the end I think we walked more than 60 miles. This was my fifth time trying to cross the desert and I finally made it…I keep this backpack as a memento of that last trip.”
(Victor, 43-years-old Mexican migrant)
Agamben, Giorgio, 2005. State of Exception. University of Chicago Press
De León, J., c. Gokee, and A. forringer-Beal, 2015. “Use Wear, Disruption, and the Materiality of Undocumented Migration in the Southern Arizona Desert”. In Migrations and Disruptions: Unifying Themes in Studies of Ancient and Contemporary Migrations, eds. T. Tsuda and B. Baker, pp. 145-178, University of Florida Press, Gainesville.
De León, J., c. Gokee, and A. Schubert, 2012. Site (De)Formation Processes and Taphonomies of Violence: The Sonoran Desert, Undocumented Migration, and the Hybrid Collectif of “Prevention Through Deterrence” Paper presented at the 111th Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association (San Francisco, CA.).
Galloway, Alison, 1996. The process of decomposition: a model from the Arizona- Sonoran desert. Forensic Taphonomy : The Post-Mortem Fate of Human Remains, eds. W. Haglund and M. Sorg. Boca Raton: CRC Press. Pp. 139-150.
Haddal, chad c., 2010. Border Security: The Role of U.S. Border Patrol. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress.