From a Row of Hammocks to One Million Gravestones: An Art Collective’s Alternative Border Wall Proposals

J.M. Design Studio saw the president’s call as an opportunity to challenge visions of a xenophobic future.

J.M. Design Studio, “Prototype #2: A Wall of Pipe Organs” from Border Wall Proposals (2017) (all images courtesy J.M. Design Studio)

Hundreds of firms are now vying to win the government contract to build a wall along the US–Mexico border at the unwavering demand of President Donald Trump. But among the towering, intimidating designs that range from solar-powered walls to a censor-filled smart wall, one proposal stands out: a portfolio of sparsely sketched prototypes that imagine a border lined with unconventional construction material, from hammocks strung on trees to vibrant painted lighthouses to 10 million pipe organs that would send songs out to the desert.

J.M. Design Studio, “Prototype #1: A Wall of Hammocks” from Border Wall Proposals (2017)

Border Wall Proposals is the submission of the Pittsburgh-based collective J.M. Design Studio, a contractor that artist Jennifer Meridian registered along with designers Tereneh Mosley and Leah Patgorski. While its competitors focused on solid designs to keep migrants out of America, the collective instead saw the president’s call to divide nations as an opportunity to critically engage with the political discourse and challenge visions of a xenophobic future. The project raises questions about what a wall is and could be; it envisions welcome gates rather than a barrier, building bridges rather than walls.

“A Wall of Hammocks,” for instance, which would string up three million of them from western white pines (grown 30 feet tall, to fit the requirements), is a shady refuge, open to all to use as “a place to rest, relax, and dream.” Another proposal, “A Wall of Pipe Organs,” allows for easy passage between the hulking instruments, with one requirement: that all who cross the border spend at least two minutes with its keys. Others are green initiatives, from a line of solar-powered lighthouses to provide guidance to all travelers, to a chute of clean water sourced from the Pacific that represents a vision of a world with fluid borders. Rather than offering something useful to people journeying through the region, one design remembers those who have made the ultimate sacrifice while attempting to do so. It envisions a memorial wall of one million gravestones etched with the names of migrants and refugees who perished while attempting to seek asylum.

J.M. Design Studio, “Prototype #5: A Wall of Lighthouses for the Border” from Border Wall Proposals (2017)

“We are extremely concerned about the xenophobic zeal with which the current Trump administration is running nearly all of its business, and the border wall RFQ appeared as a rare opportunity — because it was made public — to have direct communication with them,” the collective told Hyperallergic. “‘Trump’s Wall’ is a symbol of violence, fear, and madness, and we wanted to propose a version of inclusivity, humanity, and decency that could serve as a counterpoint to the other proposals.”

Their prototypes highlight the surreality the project, which invited public submissions that are inherently preposterous, considering their purpose. A wall of pipe organs is no more absurd an idea than some of the sincere submissions (take, for instance, the proposal that stores nuclear waste); the collective’s joyful designs, which encourage creativity and inclusivity, explore what motivates people to endorse the erection of a border wall in the first place.

“Why do we accept that a rendering that advocates violence and fear is given a heavier weight as ‘realistic’ than one that suggests, and promotes, a humane and progressive approach?” the artists said. “We envision only negative effects from the type of wall that is desired by the administration. This border, like most political borders, is too arbitrary to justify such a barrier wall.”

Although the submission began as a poetic gesture, the artists now want to realize some of their ideas. This summer, multiple contractors selected by US Customs and Border Projection as top contenders will build large-scale prototypes in the San Diego desert. J.M. Design Studio would like to see a combination of its pipe organ and hammock wall designs emerge as a counterpoint to “what seems like an absurdist nonsense sculpture park,” and the group is actively seeking funding to build them — since the government is unlikely to select any of the prototypes.

Ultimately, of course, the artists want governments to draw no lines at all. “In our perfect world, the border between the US and Mexico is irrelevant because nations are no longer relevant,” the collective said. “If there was a border, then only a very small sign would read ‘Mexico’ and ‘USA.’ Or perhaps it would just say, ‘That place is there; this place is there. Welcome!'”

J.M. Design Studio, “Prototype #4: A Wall of Gravestones for Migrants And Refugees (Memorial to Asylum)” from Border Wall Proposals (2017)
J.M. Design Studio, “Prototype #6: A Wall of Clean Water” from Border Wall Proposals (2017)

J.M. Design Studio, “Prototype #3: A Wall of Artists Redrawing Borders” from Border Wall Proposals (2017)
J.M. Design Studio, “Prototype #3: A Wall of Artists Redrawing Borders” from Border Wall Proposals (2017)
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