Dance studies scholar Susan Leigh Foster defines choreography as “the structuring of movement in highly diverse occasions, yet always where some kind of order is desired to regulate that movement.” Working with this definition, the aims of the state-surveilled borderlands around the US-Mexico border are choreographic in nature. Most recently, newly elected US president Donald Trump has conjured hysteria with inaccurate yet vivid descriptions of people “pouring” across the southern border––an image bolstered by immigration regulations that first intensified with Clinton-era Operation Gatekeeper and continued with George W. Bush’s Secure Borders Initiative. All of these policies depict the borderlands as places necessitating the regulation of moving bodies. Trump, for example, condemns the movement of bodies across the border and proposes to respond to it with a physical wall that would seal the US off from its southern neighbor. This wall––part of which already exists––would function as what William Forsythe calls a choreographic object: an object that generates autonomous expressions of choreography without the presence of a body. As such, this wall would halt the movement that Trump imagines around and through borderlands and––with or without the presence of actual bodies––would work to enact patterns of stillness. The choreographic underpinnings of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab’s Transborder Immigrant Tool project allow it to shift the poetics of the borderlands desert from state-imposed stillness to sustainable movements. The desert survival information that is central to the TBT code commits the project to a technologically-administered choreography moored in radical motion through space and time. Considering the deeply political nature of state-regulated borders, the project’s engagement with motion has potentially radical implications in the US-Mexican borderlands.
The Transborder Immigrant Tool project consists of an app––designed to be used on inexpensive Motorola i455 cell phones––that contains both a navigational system and poetry sound files. This app is designed to aid anyone on the US side of the border who is disoriented or dehydrated––two symptoms caused by the grueling conditions of these desert crossings. The project’s focus on hydration and survival skills required that EDT 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab work closely with activist and aid NGOs, such as Water Station Inc. and Border Angels in Southern California––organizations that place barrels of water in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which abuts the US-Mexico border. Because it can be difficult to locate water in this corridor, the TBT app serves to guide border crossers and hikers alike toward water, offering a list of nearby water caches when the user turns on the phone. A user can then select the nearest location and, based on GPS data provided by the aforementioned humanitarian aid organizations, the phone displays a compass icon that guides the user. Moreover, the phone vibrates to tactilely alert the user when their direction matches that of a blue water barrel. Unlike contemporary smartphones, these relatively inexpensive Motorola phones do not rely on cellular services to communicate GPS data. Thus, they cannot be tracked by border patrol.
Following Foster’s definition of choreography, the compass directions that are central to TBT’s code establish their own borderland choreography. This code, which is free and open to the public, initially grew out of EDT 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab member Brett Stalbaum’s https://www.walkingtools.net: an online library of technological tools that support and direct hiking and walking. While Stalbaum’s previous projects were designed to help users find the most spectacular sunsets or most sublime landscapes, the TBT code guides users toward water. This code therefore literally moves people toward the biological sustenance that supports continued movement––the internal movement of blood, organs, and breath, as well as the external kinetics of the body traversing land. Simply put, the body needs water to keep moving. At their most basic level, these movements toward a resource that can sustain more movement initiates a breakdown of US border policy based on stopping the “flow.”
In her essay “Of Ecopoetics and Dislocative Media,” EDT 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab member Amy Sara Carroll explains that the “prevention through deterrence” strategy that began with Operation Gatekeeper explicitly funnels would-be crossers through the desert, such that the geographical region becomes a form of border patrol in and of itself. Writing for the Guardian, Rory Carroll writes that “the US Border Patrol agency has engineered the death and disappearance of tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants by using the desert wilderness as a ‘weapon.’” Because the safer and more developed areas of the borderlands are under heavy US surveillance, crossers try to avoid government capture by approaching the border from the environmentally treacherous, but less surveilled, desert. This influx of movement patterns through the desert is indicative of the severe penalties that those attempting to cross the border face when captured by border control: immediate arrest and deportation or, in choreographic terms, immobility accompanied by its own state-sanctioned choreographic reversal back toward the would-be crosser’s homeland. Those who move through these more heavily surveilled regions of the borderlands risk capture, however a diversion from this path forces them to face the dangerous and possibly deadly conditions of the desert. According to one case from the Missing Migrant Crisis Line in August 2015, a mother received a text from her son whose group scattered to avoid authorities. He was lost in Arizona’s Ajo region and his fate remains unknown. TBT responds to both the government’s strategy of forcing migrants into inhospitable desert conditions and its resultant tragic realities. But unlike government border patrol programs, TBT is geared toward anyone moving through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park or the surrounding Sonoran deserts, and is not specifically for border crossers. The wider scope of this project and the very idea of sustainable movement therefore disrupts the notion of desert-as-weapon, redefining it in terms of both sustenance and movement. If the borderlands desert were defined in these terms, Clinton-era border tactics would become less effective.
Performance studies scholars Ramón Rivera-Servera and Harvey Young anticipate the political ramifications of such movement-based engagements with the border. “If movement defines the logic of the border,” they explain, “then contemporary political strategy conceived relative to the perceived static structures of the state might fall short in its efficacy.” Rivera-Servera and Young go on to discuss the political power of movement in embodied collective action, arguing for a spatiotemporal understanding of the border that makes room for the ephemerality of movement as something that is fleeting, neither decisively here nor there. Typically however, the rhetoric of a static border has produced a place on one side and a place on the other. And as media studies scholar Rita Raley writes, “no articulation of a space in between, of a third term, of any spatial or geometric metaphors of hybridity, can overcome the material fact of the new Iron Curtain.” Moreover, as a choreographic object, the static border defines the body as a surveillable object existing on one side or on the other––but which never sustainably lives or moves through, around, inside of, or beyond borderlands. Thus, to define the choreography of the borderlands in terms of a static object like a border wall (or line) is to enable the imagined choreographic stillness imposed by that border as something that halts the ephemerality of moving bodies. When walking through the desert however, the body navigates the spatiotemporal terrain of the border in terms of the passing present, through an ephemeral act that is slippery, always passing—and therefore more difficult to capture. A focus on movement––like that of TBT––therefore establishes a form of hybridity at the border: movements through, around, and in-between. Thought in this way, the logic of this side and that side of a state border begins to break down.
Insofar as the TBT app relies on GPS data that tracks users’ movement through space, the project is reminiscent of ethnic studies scholar Kent A. Ono’s concept of a figural border, which focuses on the spaces after border crossing––drawing attention to the ways individuals continue to be tracked and discriminated against in their homes, public spaces, and workplaces even after they have successfully crossed. Ono argues that border surveillance and the border itself follow the person who moves toward, through, around, and beyond a border. Similarly, TBT calls attention to the border’s flexibility–– it “meets” all bodies in the desert. Such is the case with both the policies of Operation Gatekeeper and in the technological border surveillance that became the focus of the Secure Borders Initiative, in which motion tracking systems followed bodies until they were captured. Whether through the desert, motion sensors, or a wall, the policing of body movements is carried out by positioning border patrol technology against the body. By instead using a technological device to facilitate movement, the TBT project refigures the body-technology relationship in the borderlands from bodies vs. technology to bodies and or with technology.
Reading the Transborder Immigrant Tool within the context of a history of resistance in dance further clarifies the resistant capacity of movement in this project. For example, during the early twentieth-century machine age, artists used modern dance as a means of resisting Taylorist efficiency. Dance scholar Mark Franko explains that during the 1930s labor movements, “once dance [was] allowed to thrive outside of market structures, it [was] enabled to construct an oppositional ideology of the value and significance of human movement in social patterns.” Similarly, he writes that the physical fatigue and waste characteristic of modern dance technique––with its physical contractions and performance of muscular resistance––were the “inverse of labor efficiency,” which was important to both early twentieth-century machine culture and the economy. Here, the decidedly inefficient muscularity and resistance of modern dance contrast models of efficient movement featured in the assembly line aesthetic––like that of famed chorus line dancers The Tiller Girls––as well as in factory work itself. Modern aesthetics therefore conceptually and muscularly resisted those of, say, The Tiller Girls, who embodied a politics of efficiency. Thus, we might want to think of state-controlled border movements, or the lack thereof, in relation to the economic and political structures of that state. TBT’s conceptual shift toward the qualitative journey of border-crossers––as well as their biologically and aesthetically sustained movements––moves crossers beyond or outside of these political and economic structures, simultaneously refusing Trump’s dehumanizing image of bodies “pouring” across the border. The project does this through the production of movement in the face of (imposed) stillness, yes, but more specifically by facilitating the kind of movement that brings focus to the living, breathing, and feeling desert navigator.
In addition to offering GPS-inspired directions, the TBT app affects the type of borderlands movement—in other words, the way one walks. Rivera-Servera and Young explain that the border “motivates bodies to climb over, burrow under, or float across; and threatens physical harm through the inherent dangers of falling, drowning, or, perhaps worse, being caught and/or killed after arriving safely on the other side.” In stark contrast, the TBT app provides prose poems by Amy Sara Carroll, which play over the cell phone speaker in multiple languages (in this publication, these poems appear in Spanish, English, Nahuatl, and Ayuujk/Mixe). Movement instructions are embedded within the poems, offering desert safety and survival information. One poem reads:
Climb or walk in the morning. Rest midday beneath creosote bush or mesquite, insulating yourself from the superheated ground. Remember—even the sidewinder hovercrafts, the bulk of its body above the scalding sand as it leaves its trademark J-shaped tracks across the desert dunes.
Whereas the constant directional pull of GPS mapping might choreographically produce a continuous path of movement in a specific direction, this poem’s advice to “rest midday” inserts a rhythmic pause into the user’s movement composition. Carroll’s practical safety suggestion––to move in the morning––therefore sets new temporal parameters for desert movement. Moreover, the need to shield oneself from scalding sand brings the materiality of the body to the fore of the project. Thus, while the GPS data determines the general shape of movement paths toward water and across landscapes, the poems add dynamic and complex choreographic information. Rather than movements of under, over, or across the border, a TBT user climbs, walks, rests, and feels the environment.
The poetic choreography of the TBT allows EDT 2.0/ b.a.n.g. lab to (help) generate movement without necessarily imposing it. Moreover, the power dynamics produced by the group’s role as choreographer are tempered by their focus on a kind of hospitality. The collective therefore helps sustain the movement paths of border crossers from afar, however each user’s agency is of critical importance to this work. Border crossers and other desert walkers can use the drop down menu of water caches to choose which water source they wish to go toward, and Carroll’s poems provide situational movement instructions that users can apply when necessary based on their own somatic experience of the desert. Thus, once in the hands of a user, the TBT app is an autonomous choreographic object that supports user agency. Whereas the government determines the choreography of border patrolling, EDT 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab facilitates movement without dictating the exact terms of that movement. By leaving room for autonomous movement and user agency, TBT refuses to comply with the hegemonic choreo-politics of the borderlands.
It is easy to imagine a homogenous stream of bodies being forcibly stopped by a huge static wall. But what about those individual bodies moving within, across, and around borderlands––bodies going for hikes, having different proprioceptive experiences of sand and sun, individuals looking to survive desert conditions in varying ways across divergent paths? This imagery is less aligned with the rhetoric of the wall. The Transborder Immigrant Tool project’s acknowledgement of the individual user humanizes those moving through and seeking to survive in the desert, in stark contrast to both Trump’s sketching of an inhuman mass of people “pouring” across the border and the aspirational borderlands immobility of Operation Gatekeeper, which pre-dates him. For both of these images produce an alienation of those moving in borderlands. In a 2014 talk, EDT 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab member Micha Cárdenas described negative feedback that the project received: that “it’s so insulting that immigrants would want to hear poetry.” This critique, Cárdenas suggests, emerges out of a particular image of border crossers, one that EDT 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab hopes to change. In a companion theater piece, titled Sustenance: A Play for All Trans [ ] Borders, the collective asks, “what constitutes sustenance?” In answering this question, they acknowledge the dehydration, disorientation, and sun exposure that are serious obstacles in the desert––and which they clearly address with the TBT app’s water navigation capabilities––but they also pledge to remember how “the aesthetic, too, sustains.”
Through a focus on forms of aesthetic sustenance that are sutured to the ongoing efforts of humanitarian aid organizations like Border Angels and Water Stations Inc., TBT supports the liveness and dynamics of bodies moving through space. Importantly, this support has political implications in its valuation of the lives of those who move in borderlands. TBT therefore shifts Trump’s water metaphor––his image of disembodied waves of people “pouring” into the US––in order to recast water as a sustaining substance. And while TBT does not enact muscular resistance––as in the case of early twentieth-century modern dance––the choreographic aspects of the relationship between desert and body movement suggest a comparable type of performative danced resistance. TBT’s code and poetry communicate instructions for moving in relation to sand and water, vistas and sounds. These, in turn, disrupt the desert-as-weapon and border-as-static-wall models that shape US border policy. When considering the poems and code collected in this volume, we might want to think of them as part of a choreographic score for non-state-sanctioned movement in the desert. It is also important to recognize however that––as with live performance––scores and documentation cannot provide the entire picture. As a choreographic object, TBT is necessarily activated by embodied desert-land politics, poetics, and experience. In this new digital Gesture however, these integral aspects have been both captured and transmitted in a uniquely rich mediatic form.
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