In the summer of 2012, University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León and a group of his students were doing fieldwork in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona when they came across the body of a 41-year-old woman. Her name was Marisol, and she was dead. She had been for four days.
“The way she was lying on the hill, it was like she had collapsed mid-crawl,” one of the students told artist Richard Barnes. De León explained the scene in an essay:
… [W]e 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 … is in what forensic anthropologists term early decomposition … Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are circling her corpse.
De León, an assistant professor of anthropology at UM, had been working in the Sonoran Desert since 2009, collecting artifacts and remains from illegal border crossings. He and his students had found tens of thousands of objects — backpacks, shoes, rosaries, birth certificates, toothbushes, water jugs, pills, notebooks — but this was the first time they had found a body. Two students returned to the road to get help from the police or border guards; everyone else waited with Marisol for hours, in the sweltering heat, preventing the vultures from feeding on her.
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Why should people be dying in pursuit of this dream?
Illegal immigration is one of the most pressing and controversial issues in US politics. At least 11 millions undocumented migrants currently live in America, with about half a million more people attempting to cross the border into Arizona every year. These people often walk dozens of miles a day for many days through a desert that regularly gets hotter than 100 degrees in the summer, while also dealing with Border Patrol, smugglers, and a host of other factors. According to De León, some five million people have been caught trying to cross into Arizona since 2000, and at least 2,500 people have died. In the aforementioned essay, he calls border crossing “a well-organized, dangerous, and violent social process.”
It’s also a process that not many people pay close attention to. Yes, there’s a lot of political attention — bills that aim for reform and laws that aim to criminalize — but on a human scale, most of us don’t know what’s really going on. We don’t think about the deaths — the way these people quietly disappear into the landscape, without their relatives ever knowing what happened. Nor do we understand the environmental impact of this process, the fact that parts of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona are arid football fields filled with trash. This is where De León comes in.
De León started the Undocumented Migration Project four years ago as a way of studying illegal immigration from an anthropological and an ethnographic perspective. “In a previous academic life, I was a very traditional archeologist,” he told me.
I worked in Mexico for almost a decade, and … one of the things that happened was I’d gotten to know a lot of local workpeople who assisted with excavations, many from low-income rural communities. Many people I met and became very close with were migrants. I had gotten inspired and troubled by hearing a lot of these stories, their experiences crossing the border — it was a fundamentally different story than I had heard previously. Growing up in south Texas in the 1980s, in those days, you could literally see people swimming across the river. Instead of having this one- or two-hour event, it could now have taken them five or six days to get across the desert. I decided I needed to do something else that dealt with living people.
De León and his students began taking trips out into the Sonoran Desert, collecting what other people would deem trash but they see as culturally significant material. They’ve amassed more than 10,000 objects. The teams go out in the same extreme weather conditions as the migrants themselves, and sometimes they conduct experiments such as having someone wear the same knockoff sneakers that have been found out there, in order to see how long the soles will last. They also talk with migrants and with Border Patrol, and now, after finding Marisol last summer, they’ve begun thinking about the process of how bodies decompose in the desert.
“What makes this a worthwhile intellectual endeavor is trying to show how ethnography, talking to living people, how we can connect that type of data to analysis that’s coming from the actual artifacts themselves,” De León said.
He stresses the scientific approach to the project, even though other anthropologists have been resistant to the project. “There has been a group that’s like, you know what, this is not archeology — this is not studying the remains of my Irish ancestors,” he told me. “But it’s the same exact thing; we don’t have the historical distance to be able to romanticize this stuff.”
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Amanda Krugliak is the curator at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, as well as an artist herself. When she first read about De León’s research, she was intrigued by it.
“I was really fascinated with the challenge or the idea that would be so risky: how you’d take these objects that felt so much in the present and consider them in a way that was thoughtful, in terms of presenting or curating them,” Krugliak said. “How would you organize an exhibition about this work that he’s doing?”
Krugliak approached De León, and the two began thinking about an exhibition — the first one that would focus on the Undocumented Migration Project. Krugliak also had the idea to bring on photographer Richard Barnes, whom she he worked with previously and calls “a formalist and incredibly exact.” Barnes had worked briefly as an archeological photographer and is generally interested in “looking into collections and why we collect,” he told me. “I’m interested in material culture and how material culture can be something as ephemeral as debris fields.”
“We were really good collaborators in terms of thinking about the exhibition conceptually, because we come to it from a different place,” Krugliak said of Barnes. “I like to get up close to something, and he is more formal, more restrained. So it seemed like it had great potential, because if we work together, with Jason always as our guide, then each of us would be coming to it from this different place, but hopefully we would land in a place … it would reside in a place of complexity and ambiguity.”
Krugliak and Barnes both made trips out to the desert with De León and his students, experiencing the place and the fieldwork themselves. The team’s research became the “frame within a frame” for the show, in Krugliak’s words, so that the resulting exhibition, State of Exception, currently on view at the UM Institute for the Humanities Gallery, is as much about the Undocumented Migration Project itself as it is about the larger issue of illegal immigration.
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The show is small — a single room that you approach through a brief passageway. On the floor of the entranceway are projections of Barnes’s video of walking through the desert and encountering endless debris; you feel yourself embarking on a journey and beginning to understand some of what lies ahead. The room itself is anchored in one corner by adjoining walls of row upon row of found desert backpacks and in the opposite corner, two adjacent videos by Barnes. One is shot from inside a car and shows rain hitting the windshield at night; the other is a running video of the border fence shot from the window of a moving car. The fence blurs and continues endlessly, becoming a kind of abstract, aesthetic symbol of isolation. Below the video of the rain, three water jugs in various states of disrepair are arranged in a glass case, resonant reminders of the complicated ways we engage with our resources.
The exhibition also contains a grid of overlapping video interviews conducted with six students working on the project. “I look at these bottles and these backpacks, and it still comes to my mind as garbage,” says one of them. “But it’s not.” Below the video stands another glass case with more artifacts, including two shoes that have decayed nearly beyond recognition.
Despite its small size and its lack of much explanatory text (there are no labels, only an introduction outside and a brochure), the exhibition is incredibly powerful. It conjures a feeling, offering a glimpse of the enormity of the issue and leaving you haunted.
“Nobody has the answers,” Barnes said.
Everybody’s at fault. Everybody’s doing their job. It’s just this mess of a situation, which is fascinating to me, that this can exist. …. The good thing about working with Jason is, we come from a position of asking more questions than we can possibly answer. That’s what the exhibition is really about — it’s about posing questions, about trying to say, look at what the American government is doing by to these people by forcing them to walk across the desert … It’s open-ended.
“I think that’s where art resides,” he added later.
Both Krugliak and De León echoed this sentiment, with De León explaining that he appreciates having the show in an art gallery, where the space is not didactic and there’s less need for a straightforward narrative. But this ambiguity undoubtedly makes some people uncomfortable, as evidenced in a few of the notes in the comment book complaining about “white guilt” and “appropriation of other people’s suffering.”
De León readily admits that, as a professor at a large university, his position in all this is even more complicated. “It’s not an easy place to live where you’re like, OK, I’m trying to theorize about death. I’m trying to keep in mind all the people who are emotionally devastated by this person’s death. At the same time, here I am writing about this person’s death as an exercise that’s also going to get me tenure, that’s gonna be published in articles and books.”
But perhaps one of the student researchers summed it up best when he referenced, in his video interview, the “gigantic human rights problem” that illegal immigration represents. As Barnes explained, “There are people who say, ‘No, you’re not giving us anything here, you haven’t taken a side.’ There’s no side to take. Except for, what it comes down to for me, is that people are dying in the desert, and that is the major issue here. Why should people be dying in pursuit of this dream?”
That’s precisely what Jason De León is trying to understand.
State of Exception is on view at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery (Thayer Academic Building, Suite 1111, 202 S Thayer Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan) through March 12.
Update, 2/2/17: State of Exception is on view at the Sheila Johnson Design Center (Parsons School of Design, 2 W 13th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) from February 3 to April 17.