In photographer Richard Misrach’s 13 years of taking pictures along the United States-Mexico border, he has seen all kinds of landscapes and fences and detritus. “The artifacts you see have a lot of different explanations,” he said by phone from his home in California’s Berkeley Hills. “Basically people have walked a long way from Central America and Mexico, and their clothes are filthy, and they often dump them after they’re across the border, because they bring fresh clothes with them. Also the Border Patrol has been known to make people dump whatever they have when they find them. You see backpacks and tennis shoes, religious icons and Bibles, and all kinds of things strewn along the border.”
In the 2016 book Border Cantos (and an accompanying exhibition that opens at Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, on June 28 and hangs through Aug. 18), Misrach’s photos are presented alongside instruments created from border artifacts by California experimental composer Guillermo Galindo. His Teclata “keyboard” has a base made of Border Patrol ammunition boxes and finger-operated keys that activate found objects: empty bottles, cans, and a plastic cup. Ángel exterminador (Exterminating Angel) is a gong made from a twisted section of steel border wall suspended from a wooden frame. Galindo made two instruments from a bicycle that reportedly was run over by the Border Patrol to sabotage its use for transportation.
“Combining Richard’s images with my sounds provides information of a place or a circumstance where everything is possible, even death,” Galindo said. “The absence of the owners of the items that make my instruments complements Richard’s human-less space. The imagination of the viewer or listener then creates the story.”
The story certainly includes death. Some of the artifacts one sees along the nearly 2,000-mile border most likely belonged to individuals who have made good lives for themselves in the U.S., but the owners of other items did not last long walking north through the deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. A May 4 story in The New York Times, “A Path to America, Marked by More and More Bodies,” said the Border Patrol documented 6,023 migrant deaths between 2000 and 2016. The wall and fence sections that currently exist — much of them built as a result of President George W. Bush’s 2006 Secure Fence Act — are dramatic additions to the landscape when seen through Misrach’s lenses, but do little to deter passage. Border Cantos reproduces a still from Roy Germano’s 2009 film The Other Side of Immigration, where two teenage girls are shown climbing to the top of a border wall in less than 18 seconds. “You can go over the wall really fast,” Misrach said. “Let’s just say you can efficiently build a huge wall like the Great Wall in China — but even bigger, from San Diego to Texas — then the drug cartels will fly things in. They will bribe people. I’ve heard stories that I can’t give the source of. On the California border, the wall goes into the ocean. People go visit family three times a year and they take a Jet Ski around and they give the Border Patrol agent $3,000.
“With money, you can find a way to do it. They sling a baseball filled with marijuana over. I found a doll’s head with a rope attached that they obviously had filled with drugs. We’re spending billions of dollars for this security and it doesn’t work. It’s not an efficient way to deal with the problem. Workers are coming over because there are jobs here and as long as our economy needs them, they will find a way to get here. Drugs are the bigger issue and as long as the U.S. is buying, they’ll find a way. If we could figure out a way to control the drug problem here, we’d put the cartel out of business.
“The wall is just a small obstruction. It’s a political spectacle, that’s all it is. What a waste of taxpayer resources that could go to education, toward infrastructure, toward fighting terrorism.”
Border Cantos is quite a document of the border-wall habitat. The scope of the work can be rather overwhelming, and the viewer appreciates Misrach’s division of the work into cantos (photo suites). Among them are Agua, which zeroes in on the barrels of water that are placed in the desert by humanitarian groups; Artifacts, the clothing, backpacks, toothbrushes, and other debris left by migrants; Target Practice, photos of Border Patrol targets and the messes of spent shells on the ground; and one named after the Effigies that Misrach encountered near the California-Mexico border. These are scarecrow-like figures made of migrant clothing on agave stalks that could be warnings or creative sculptures or epitaphs or signs of protest — neither their makers nor their purpose are known.
Like most of Misrach’s photographs, the Effigies works are stunning in their clarity, even when they’re presented as huge prints. Asked about his equipment, the photographer said one photo in the book dates to 2004 and was taken with an 8 x 10 view camera; for many decades this was the instrument of choice when you wanted to render your subject in crisp detail. But every other photo in Border Cantos was taken with digital cameras. “Some of the prints in a museum traveling exhibition are 12 feet long and were shot with a medium-format Hasselblad digital camera. The quality has surpassed the 8 x 10 now. And a lot of the artifacts I shot with my iPhone. I’m able to work with the iPhone in places like the Border Patrol shooting range, where I could get in and work fast and get really adequate imagery. That was fantastic.”
Misrach became aware of Galindo’s project of making musical instruments out of human border detritus in 2012, and after that he would sometimes bring Galindo items that he found on his wall-photography expeditions. In his text for the book, the composer writes about the “intimate connection between an instrument and the material from which it was made” in the pre-Columbian world, along with the idea that “Mesoamerican instruments were talismans between worlds.” Accordingly, his sonic devices are all about the organic: Their materials and sounds are of the same cloth. His Ropófono was designed to amplify the sound of a loop of discarded clothing as it turns on a loomlike device. The Piñata de cartuchos is a large shaker instrument based on a soccer ball found along the border and with shotgun shells harvested from a Border Patrol shooting range fastened by small chains as noisemakers. And Tonk is a trumpet made from a Border Patrol flashlight; it is named for a derogatory border-agent name for migrants, based on the sound of a flashlight hitting a head.
The sounds made with these instruments can seem minimalistic and chaotic, but Galindo emphasized that he is allowing them to have their own voices. “My sonic devices tell me how they want to speak. I allow them to say what they want to say and what they can say. They have lots of possibilities and also lots of limitations, because they are very raw instruments. You have to sit down with them and become their friend. Once you do that, you will find how they talk and what they want to say.”
He can be heard playing some of them at www.bordercantos.com. And what’s going through his head when he’s playing? “I pay so much attention to gesture and sounds that all of a sudden I’m not aware of anything around me,” he said. “Nothing goes through my mind. Any outside thought could be disrupting. It’s like being in a trance. Except for the art of meditation, I cannot think of anything similar to the process of making music with these instruments. It’s about extracting the sound, feeling it, and moving with it. It’s completely giving myself to the expression of the instrument.
“I do know how to write a conventional western orchestral piece for woodwinds and strings, for example, but what got me into what I’m doing here is what we call the extended playing techniques of late 20th-century composers, playing instruments in alternative ways and developing timbre. The basic principle that I use to tune the strings is that tension equals tension. When the strings are tighter, they talk with a strained voice, a brighter voice, and when they are looser, they talk with a softer voice.
“There are also peculiarities: I noticed that, for a millisecond, the strings of [the instrument he titled] Effigy tend to go slightly off tune once you strike them. The slight detuning varies with different tuning tensions. I play with those kind of accidents as well. Also, the best part of making your own instruments,” he said with a laugh, “is that nobody’s going to tell you how to play them.”
After the completion of Border Cantos, Misrach worked on two new series, his Desert Cantos 38 and Desert Cantos 39. “One is called Premonitions. I went back over work I did since Obama was elected, and I’ve culled work that I shot and never printed that suddenly makes sense now, that kind of suggests what’s going on in the dystopic underside of America. The other canto is The Writing on the Wall, which is basically people’s writings on abandoned buildings in the American Southwest that talk about the election. There’s a lot of Nazi and racist stuff, a lot about Trump. That will be opening at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco in July.”
Misrach is raising money for organizations, including the Arizona groups No More Deaths and the Colibri Center for Human Rights. “Colibri finds skeletal remains in the Arizona desert. Through DNA, they try to find out who they were and try to reconnect with their families. No More Death puts out water in remote areas where there have been a lot of deaths. These are humanitarian groups that do such good work but they keep a very low profile and they’ve been a big inspiration for me.”
“Border Cantos” by Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo is published by Aperture.