“No matter what you think about illegal migration nobody should be dying and they are…by the hundreds.”
–Richard Barnes Co-Curator of State of Exception/Estado de Excepción
By all reports, the intended border wall between Mexico and the U.S. will cost the United States billions of dollars (at the expense of many important social programs). And while it’s easy to get passionate about either side of the issue depending on your political stance (and/or feelings of nationalism), one critical aspect of the debate can get lost in the shuffle: that there are people involved. We need to remember that a mass of desperate men, women, and children, are migrating across the border through extremely dangerous conditions every day. And in attempting to cross into this country, hundreds are dying.
This human cost of migration is the crux of the exhibit “State of Exception/Estado de Excepción” currently on display at Parsons School of Design in New York. The exhibit seeks to reveal the realities of border crossing by reminding us that every statistic quoted in debates and on news shows represents real people, carrying a few meager possessions across the desert.
First exhibited at the University of Michigan, State of Exception was the brain child of artist Amanda Krugliak and photographer Richard Barnes — based on the work of anthropologist Jason De León. De León’s Undocumented Migration Project studies illegal immigration across the US/Mexican border and, in doing so, collects artifacts left behind. Over time he has amassed a large collection of materials lost or abandoned in the desert.
It’s a collection that Krugliak and Barnes felt needed to be witnessed by the public, so in 2012, they created the first iteration of State of Exception. The exhibit centers around a wall made up of 700 backpacks that were found just over the American border. It’s easy to imagine each backpack being carried by a person — hopeful and scared — as they travel towards a new home.
These days, it’s an exhibit that’s extremely topical. One that has a “terrible relevancy” as curator, Richard Barnes puts it.
“The wall of backpacks has come to represent a direct response to the proposed wall on the border,” Barnes says. “It’s an answer to Trump’s wall.”
The team behind the project is particularly concerned with the number of deaths the backpacks represent — as many people crossing the Sonoran Desert (in Arizona where the backpacks were found) don’t survive the crossing. According to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 322 people died trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States in 2016 alone. And that’s just the number of bodies recovered — some estimate the number is far larger.
“No matter what you think about illegal migration,” Barnes says, “nobody should be dying and they are…by the hundreds.”
Along with the backpack wall, Barnes and Krugliak also display items pulled from corpses found in the desert. These items arrive courtesy of the Colibrí Center For Human Rights in Tucson. The foundation works with the medical examiner in Tucson to collect artifacts off of unidentified remains and then uses them to try to link the items to family members back in Mexico.
“It’s simple objects,” Barnes explains. “Money, a lot of phone cards. People want to know they can call somebody as soon as they get to wherever they’re going. Money, toiletries, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shaving equipment, cell phones, and a rosary occasionally, a little votive, a saint– those are the kind of things you find.”
The exhibit has been well received thus far with people connecting to the specificity of the items found. It has also sparked strong memories and conversation amongst those who have crossed the border themselves.
“Lots of people have come to the show and told us very distinctly what they remember about the journey,” Barnes says. “There is one component of the exhibition where we actually have embedded in the wall of backpacks a sound piece of testimonials — people talking about what it was like to cross. That was really important for us because it’s a narrative wall as well.”
While the sheer mass of backpacks is emotionally affecting when taken together, it’s some of the individual stories that really affect Barnes.
“There is one little Dora, Dora the Explorer (backpack), that was a child who walked with her parents perhaps,” he says. “I think children’s backpacks, for me, are the most poignant.”
After seeing the exhibit, we’re left to wonder what happened to the people carrying the backpacks and why the packs were left behind. How many died? How many were caught by the border patrol? How many are now living in the United States, where they’ll soon learn that their struggles are just beginning? One thing we can say for certain is that they existed, and as such, mattered. And that’s what State of Exception is trying to remind us of.
America is a country made of immigrants, a population descended from people who braved borders and oceans and risked their lives just for a chance at a fresh start, something better. We are a nation filled with migrants and immigrants, legal and illegal, who work alongside American-born citizens to build happy lives. As we debate border walls and immigration bans, it’s important to remember what these conversations say about us. About our short memory of the suffering our ancestors undertook to get here; of compassion for our neighbors who took boats or planes or walked across the desert for a fresh start; of the people who die every day trying to cross the border.
As we study the artifacts left behind in the desert, we have to remind ourselves: This is a human issue, above all things. The wall of 700 backpacks in State of Exception is far smaller than the border wall would be. But perhaps it wields greater power.
State of Exception is on display at the Parsons School of Design until April 17th, 2017.