[-empyre-] Trans-border Tools by EDT

Ricardo Dominguez rrdominguez at ucsd.edu
Thu Apr 30 13:18:51 EST 2009

(A question of Trans/Kant towards the end) - EDT

The Transborder Immigrant Tool, Violence, Solidarity and Hope

A talk by the Electronic Disturbance Theater

First we would like to thank UCDArNet and gallery at Calit2 for inviting us
to speak today on this very important panel. We are honored to be on this
panel with people whose work we respect so much. And thank you to Carlos
Trilnick for his very important artwork about anti-personnel mines. As he
discussed in his talk, mines are in use at numerous international borders
around the world including Peru, Chile and Colombia, adding to the
senseless violence of imaginary dividing lines. This
multi-layered/multi-voice essay was co-written with the Transborder
Immigrant Tool artist/researchers – poet Amy Sara Carroll, new media
artist Brett Stalbaum, artivist Ricardo Dominguez and mixed reality artist
Micha Cárdenas
(a multitude).

Border Context, Walking, Deaths

     Consider the incommensurability of the following two re/presentations
of walking: The first from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking”
(1862) , while pleasant enough to contemplate, hardwires an ironic
Orientalism into its infrastructural mandates:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who
understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius,
so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived "from idle
people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity,
under pretence of going à la sainte terre"—to the holy land, till the
children exclaimed, "There goes a sainte-terrer", a saunterer—a
holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they
pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there
are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would
derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore,
in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at
home everywhere.

     In contrast or perhaps in subversive conjunction, Luis Alberto
Urrea’s new- journalism-meets-visceral-realism, The Devil’s Highway
(2004), demonstrates the seemingly irreconcilable distance between
walking as art/philosophy and walking as migratory necessity at the
twenty-first century’s violent crossroads of labor, location,
subjectivity, subjugation:

Most walkers die a relatively short distance from salvation. Some walkers
fall in the canals and drown. It seems to be one of the cruel tricks of
the Desolation spirits, but it makes brutal sense. Most walkers are fresh
and strong at the start of the journey. After a day of baking in the sun,
they start to get disoriented. They drink too much water. They’re dizzy
and weak. By the second or third days, when they need their wits and
strength about them, they are near death. And they drop, often reported
with sad irony in the press, a few miles, or yards, or feet, from water, a
home, a road, or a Border Patrol outpost.

     The contrast replicates a divide that Electronic Disturbance Theatre
has been tracking for some time between literal and databodies. It
“re/pings” the question of disposability, anchoring the trans- of any
post-contemporary transcendentalist thinking to crossing as
re/orientation, affixing the dis- as a prefix to the emergent canon
of locative media. The U.S.-Mexico border has rewritten and been
rewritten by the imaginative geographies of the literal continental
corridor. As Gloria Anzaldua writes in Borderlands / La Frontera:
“The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [is an open wound]
where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before
a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds
merging to form a third country - a border culture.” A deep archive
and repertoire of suspect movement choreographs American -isms that
hyperextend/hypertext beyond the United States to cast shadows of
negative value on certain bodies, directional flows, and
cognitive/head maps. To add injury to insult, vertiginous ecologies
and narco-reterritoralizations compound the dangers of contemplating
border landscapes as continuity (versus contingency). Immigrant
bodies moving north are criminalized, scrutinized, hunted,
commodified while immigrant bodies moving south, unless under the
influence of an alleged muse’s tow, barely register on the radar
screen. As Urrea and so many note, countless people have died
navigating the mirage of the U.S./Mexico border in the name of the
“American dream;” their demises, at best, keyed as “sad ironies.”

	For today's symposium, we want to discuss the context of violence in the
US/Mexico borderlands a bit. To understand the violence present in this
landscape, perhaps a simple comparison is useful. When the Berlin Wall
fell, official estimates were that 98 people had died trying to cross
from East to West Berlin, while victims' groups claim that the number is
over 200 deaths. In comparison, the numbers of people dying while
attempting to cross from the US into Mexico are horrifying, and their
darkness defies attempts to solidly conceptualize them. No Mas Muertes /
No More Deaths, a faith based humanitarian group says that as of 2004
“more than 2000 men, women, and children have died trying to cross the
Mexican border into the United States since 1998”   These statistics are
similar to those of the US Border Patrol. The LA Times claims that 460
people died trying to cross in 2004.  PBS claims that 500 died trying to
cross in 2005  and in 2007 the Arizona Department of Health Services
stated that these numbers grossly underestimate the actual number of
deaths.  The Border Patrol reported that the remains of 128 people were
found in the period from Oct. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009.  In interviews
with the Border Angels, a San Diego / Tijuana based humanitarian aid
group, they estimate that the actual number of deaths is double that of
official estimates, roughly 10,000 deaths, because the Border Patrol does
not search for bodies, they merely report bodies found on their usual
patrols, while Border Angels regularly travel through the desert
depositing water in aid caches.

     What sort of language is appropriate for this scale of violence? What
words are used to describe thousands or tens of thousands of deaths
as a result of the actions of governments? Tragedy? War? Massacre?
Part of the motivation of the Transborder Immigrant Tool is to shift
the dialog about migration across the US/Mexico border to focus on
the humanitarian crisis occurring in this region.

The Tool

	The Transborder Immigrant Tool is a project by the Electronic Disturbance
Theater with the aim of reappropriating widely available technology to be
used as a form of humanitarian aid. The tool consists of an inexpensive
cell phone, with a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) chip, and a custom
piece of software. The software will direct the user of the phone toward
the nearest aid site, be that water, first aid or law enforcement, along
with other contextual navigational information. This is accomplished by a
Java based application written by Brett Stalbaum which accesses the
phone's ability to receive GPS information without needing to send out
data which may allow the user to be located and without needing phone

    In the recent book “Emotional Cartography – Techologies of the Self”,
Christian Nold writes about the concept of “performative technology”,
in speaking about his Bio Mapping Tool, in which the technology
“shoulders the burden of having to hold the public's attention”. With
our project, while I would never suggest that we can begin to shoulder
the burdens of transborder travelers, I do find this concept to be
useful in that the attention that the device attracts serves to
deflect the attention paid to the border crosser. The imaginative
possibilities opened up by the tool can serve as a nexus of desire and
an unveiling of the logics with which borders are dealt with. Perhaps
this can serve as a tactical intervention of distraction and
disturbance in the supposed order of transnational cooridors. Brett
Stalbaum has also written on the concept of “Paradigmatic
Performance”, where data and database is central to the performativity
of a piece, which can also be seen as reflected in the Transborder
Immigrant Tool's map of waypoints. These two approaches offer
approaches to broadening the concept of performance art, which can be
seen as far back as Lygia Clark's performative therapeutic objects.

	The Transborder Immigrant Tool can be seen as part of a larger shift from
Tactical Media to Tactical Biopolitics. While media artists of the late
nineties and early two thousands were often concerned with the political
potentials opened up by cheaper access to media technologies, we are
interested in the political potential opened up by technologies which can
serve to improve people's lives directly, including medical technologies
and safety devices such as GPS tools. The upcoming Digital Art and
Culture conference's title “after media” sums up well the contemporary
media artist's desire to take their work off of the screen and back into
the world. Biopolitics can be thought of as resistance to control over
our daily lives, and as such we see the shift embodied in the Transborder
Immigrant Tool away from media and towards public interventions which
seek to change the very conditions of life and death which are created by
biopower. Achille Mbembe has written on the notion of Necropolitics,
shifting the focus from the state's promise of providing life to the
state's promise of insuring death to unwanted groups, conjuring images of
terrorists to justify deadly force. The Transborder Immigrant Tool, as a
humanitarian safety device, can be seen as engaging tactically in the
post-contemporary desert of Necropolitics.

Science of the Oppressed, Working in Solidarity with Social Movements

	The phone uses a custom map that we created, consisting of waypoints, or
coordinate data, of known aid locations. As we are still in the alpha
testing stages of the tool, the map currently points to water caches
which are maintained by the Border Angels. To create this map, we
discussed our project with the Border Angels and our desire to provide
humanitarian aid to people dying while attempting to cross the
treacherous desert terrain. We joined the Border Angels on a number of
trips into the desert in which they refill their water caches.

	The Brazilian artist Augusto Boal developed the Theater of the Oppressed
as a way of using our bodies directly to break out of routine habits of
thinking by finding novel ways of moving. His idea was that political
challenges could be overcome collectively by finding new ways of thinking
about them, thinking through the body and that if we can move in new ways
perhaps we can think in new ways. The Transborder Immigrant Tool can also
be seen as a kind of thinking which has emerged from a practice of
walking art. The Electronic Disturbance Theater has proposed a model of
“Science of the Oppressed”, echoing a term used earlier by Monique Wittig
along with Chela Sandoval's Methodology of the Oppressed.   Sandoval
writes in “Methodology of the Oppressed” a poignant passage about
Frederic Jameson's essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late
Capital” which elucidates questions of mapping:

	“If, as Jameson argues, the formerly centerd and legitimated bourgeois
citizen-subject of the first world (once anchored in a secure haven of
self) is set adrift under the imperatives of late-capitalist conditions,
if such citizen subjects have become anchorless, disoriented, incapable
of mapping their relative positions inside multinational capitalism, lost
in the reverberating endings of colonial expansionism... then the first
world subject enters the kind of psychic terrain formerly inhabited by
the historically decentered citizen-subject: the colonized, the outsider,
the queer, the subaltern, the marginalized. So too, not only are the
“psychpathologies,” but also the survival skills, theories, methods, and
the utopian visions of the marginal made, not just useful but imperative
to all citizen-subjects.”

Here Sandoval underscores a fundamental element of Science of the
Oppressed, that subject positions which have been historically excluded
from institutions of knowledge production can offer unique, relevant,
critically important contributions to our understanding of the
contemporary world thanks in part to their different lived experiences.

	Another major part of the project of Science of the Oppressed is to
reimagine knowledge production and research in the service of oppressed
communities and in concert with social movements. It is necessary to
consider how the institutions of research, such as technological
research, are shaped by the demands of funders, parent institutions and
corporate technology transfer. Part of this project is to reflect upon
the structures of research and how they create the conditions of
possibility which decide what questions are legitimate subjects of study
and therefore shape the domain of possible outcomes. With the Transborder
Immigrant Tool we are beginning from a desire to work in solidarity with
social movements and shape our research methods and outcomes according to
the needs of the communities we are working with. In this case, the
movements are specifically the immigrant rights movement and the movement
of people daily crossing the US/Mexico border. Our model of public
intervention is to work in solidarity with these movements to provide a
humanitarian tool that may prevent deaths that are occurring whether we
choose to intervene or not. We seek to amplify and aid the actions of
already engaged political actors.

Poetic, Temporal

	In addition to the navigational capabilities of the Tool, we have
recently added another module to the software in order shift the dialog
further towards one of hospitality. As the user walks with the tool,
after a given temporal interval, a few lines of poetry will begin to
play. With this gesture we can  provide a bit of poetic sustenance, to
enact a space of hospitality and to welcome the traveler into a new
space. The journey across the US/Mexico border is deadly because of the
vertiginous geography, but also because of the length of the journey.
Reports have been made of people walking for days or weeks due to getting
lost in the desert geography. With these temporally triggered poetic
interventions, we can attempt to reflect on the time of crossing and also
attempt to alleviate some of this difficulty. The durational performance
is a significant part of the history of performance art and with the
shifting roles of performer and audience in post-conceptual art work, one
can see the trip across the border as a durational walking art piece.
Considering the issues of public culture and intervention, the topography
of artist and audience becomes fractalized, folding into a multiplicity
with multiple axes as the roles of political actor, social movement and
technological devices are added into the performative matrix. At this
point, I would like to play a recording of one of these poems...


	In this Science of the Oppressed, part of the strength of the
artist/researcher and the community research initiative is that it can
serve as a form of “rehearsal-lab”, as a way of testing out and
developing new trajectories of thought and of technology. The Transborder
Immigrant Tool is such a space of rehearsal, allowing for the exploration
of models of public intervention as well as technological models for
locative media.

	Brett Stalbaum has recently begun a new website, Walkingtools.net, with
the aim of sharing frameworks and practices among locative media artists.
Here, the Transborder Immigrant Tool is one example of this model that
includes a Base Layer XML Schema, an API, an Authoring Layer and a
Project Layer. At the Authoring Layer are tools such as the Transborder
Deployer, which will allow organizations we collaborate with to install
our software on their own phones. Our hope for the project is that it may
enable groups we are working with to be able to access these inexpensive
phones and install our software themselves. In the case of Border Angels,
this could facilitate the ease of handing a new volunteer a cell phone
with our software on it and they could refill the water caches
themselves, allowing many more volunteers to participate in the
humanitarian effort. Brett's hope for Walkingtools.net is that it will
allow locative media artists to expand their practices in new directions
instead of needing to reinvent the wheel or make the plumbing for every
project they embark on.

Technical Challenges

The Transborder Immigrant Tool, a work-in-progress, is ready to move from
alpha stage software design to beta testing in Fall 2009. These devices
learn from and redeploy the logics of distributed geospatial information
systems (such as the Goggle Earth Project) to develop a virtual immigrant
algorithm (for the mathematicians of yesteryear, recall: an algorithm is a
sequence of finite instructions for completely a task). They are intended
as safety net tools for those landlocked between Mexico and the United
States. But, they also remember a lengthening history of walking and earth
art, of border disturbance, of dislocative media, what we are coming to
call “inter-American transcendental -isms.” Poetic gestures from their
inception (in other worlds, routing around the false binary of the
database versus narration), the cracked Motorola i455 phones are poems for
psychic consultation, spoken words, compasses, and geographia (where the
graphia of geography is outed and rerouted) of encouragement and welcome
(in the mindset of Audre Lorde’s sentiment that “poetry is not a luxury”).
Layered as a wish for a post-neoliberal geopolitics (e.g., they “speak” on
the lower frequencies of the iconic, the sonic, the vibratory, the
concrete, the performative, the poetic), the tool's algorithm will aid
users in tracking sustainable routes, new Nazca
lines-of-flight/arco-irises across literal and imaginative post-NAFTA
borders. All who utilize this technology will in a sense participate in a
larger landscape of the para/literary/aesthetic. In this regard, they will
keystone, build a bridge between Thoreau’s foundational fictions: his
“Walden pondering” and “civil disobedience” to transcend self-/collective

	As the Tool is still a work in progress, there are a number of challenges
we have considered and are still developing solutions for, including the
encryption of map data to prevent malicious parties from finding aid
sites, power usage and battery life issues and translation into English,
Spanish and Indigenous languages. In addition, through our testing the
issue of GPS almanacs has been raised. Without phone service the almanac
doesn't get updated and GPS chips rely on calendars to know where the
satellites are, as the GPS signals themselves are very weak, less than
the background radiation of the sky.
Trans, crossing, hope, solidarity

In the sense of a rehearsal-lab, EDT is staging the future of borders and
resistance to borders as technology advances. While this project may be
seen in the light of avant-garde new media art, one can easily imagine a
future in which GPS technology is ubiquitously available and every border
crosser is equipped with not only a GPS, but other technological
enhancements: night vision, anti-infared clothing, Bio-Nano Hyperhydration
fluids or high jumping prostheses. In such a situation, the obsolescence
of physical border enforcement becomes clear.

While “transcendentalism” as a word conjures schools of thought like fish
(German philosopher Immanuel Kant, punctual as a pocketwatch, maintaining
a relationship between the appearance of a thing and its apprehension by a
beholder, in his conceptualization of “transcendental idealism” , G. W.
Hegel and Karl Marx standing on his shoulders, Buddhist transcendence of
self via meditation practice), in the context of the United States, yet
another “spirituality” burrowed into “the house that race built,” a
“homing device” finding embodiment in the pragmatism of Thoreau and
Emerson. We draw upon the latter’s legacies even as we remember that in
the multiverse of mathematics (indeed of the database), transcendental
numbers have been classified as “uncountably infinite,” as “never
rational” (with the important qualification that not all “irrational
numbers are transcendental”). As of late, many, re/marking on the critical
creative work of Deleuze and Guattari, have registered the “transversal
logic of the World Wide Web”  even as artivists and theorists of gender
and sexuality have utilized the transience of the prefix “trans-” to
signify literal and conceptual practices of crossing “fences and rivers.”
In the context of the Transborder Immigrant Tool, we invite you to imagine
seeking solace in the transience of the transcendental, we insist on
virtual and literal accountability to the uncountable and the anonymous,
we imagine circuitous circuits of an inter-American-becoming-global body
politic, electr(*on*)ic.

On *Trans*gender(micha)

The trans in transborder and transgender can signify a crossing, but also
a hope and a bravery in crossing. As a trans person, I am familiar with
the hope of crossing over to a new place, the place of a new body. I think
that this is something I share with those who hope to find a better life
by moving their bodies into a new place, across an international border. I
also know that many people cross daily in the hopes of becoming something
else, becoming a good parent, able to financially support their children,
becoming a professional, or even finding new freedoms from gender based
oppression. In a way this hope is always a hope for the unknown, for one
can never know what the result of the crossing will be, a better life, a
new body, death or life. It is my desire that this project can be a
gesture of transborder solidarity which can help prevent needless deaths
of people whose only crime is hope.


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