What does the southern border of the United States look like?
For all the talk of “securing the border” and “building a wall,” there is surprisingly little visual material that conveys just how vast this stretch of space is.
In total, the U.S.-Mexico border spans 1,954 miles. According to Google Maps, it would take 34 hours to drive its entire length. In places, there already is a border fence — more than 650 miles of it. Pushed and pulled by various forces, some 1 million people are estimated to pass through the official ports of entry every day.
But what does the geography of this landscape look like? Is it industrial? Desolate? Populated? All of the above?
Using the geographic coordinates of the international boundary line, in addition to location data for the existing border fence (which has been mapped by journalists at NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting), I wrote a small computer script to download satellite imagery for the entire border.
I ended up with about 200,000 images.
Using a command-line tool called ffmpeg, I programmatically stitched the images together, and then worked with Laura Poitras and her team at Field of Vision to edit them into a short film. Jace Clayton, the artist and author known as DJ /rupture, developed an original score for the piece.
Rivers of Data
Borders begin as fictions. They are performed. They are lines drawn in the sand, spaces that bend and break and make exceptions for certain kinds of bodies.
But borders are made real by the policies built around them. The fact that borders are performed does not make them any less real. The border is quite literally what gives the nation its shape.
One way the border is performed — particularly the southern border of the United States — can be understood through the lens of data collection. In the border region, along the Rio Grande and westward through the desert Southwest, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deploys radar blimps, drones, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, seismic sensors, ground radar, face recognition software, license-plate readers, and high-definition infrared video cameras. Increasingly, they all feed data back into something called “The Big Pipe.”
As my colleague Roger Hodge reported in 2012, the Big Pipe is “a surveillance network developed by Kenneth Knight, the deputy executive director of national air-security operations for the Office of Air and Marine (OAM), a lesser-known division of CBP that operates the largest law-enforcement air force in the world.”
CBP, which encompasses the Border Patrol, has in turn deployed increasingly advanced means not only to scrutinize, search out, and seize an immense stream of drugs and bodies (to use CBP parlance), but also to channel a concomitant river of data — electronic manifests, lists of travelers’ names, dates of entry, and untold terabytes of video footage — all of which must be analyzed, quantified, indexed, and stored.
In thinking about rivers of data, and untold terabytes of video footage, I found myself returning to Rebecca Solnit’s “River of Shadows” — and an idea Trevor Paglen introduced in a series of essays about what he calls “seeing machines.”
In his 2014 essay “Geographies of Photography,” Paglen sketched out the role of seeing machines in creating relational geographies capable of collapsing space and time.
Seeing machines create noncontiguous spatial and temporal geometries. They collapse the near into the distant, and the present into the past and future. To illustrate these “relative” geographies of seeing machines, I’ll use the example of a Reaper drone. What exactly is a Reaper drone? In essence, it’s a camera attached to a remote-controlled airplane. Sometimes it carries missiles. What’s particular about a Reaper drone (and other drones in its larger family, including the Predator and the Sentinel) is that airplane, pilot, navigator, analysts, and commander don’t have to be in the same place. The aircraft might be flying a combat mission in Yemen by a pilot based in Nevada, overseen by a manager in Virginia, and supported by intelligence officers in Tampa (geographer Derek Gregory has written about what he calls “Drone Geographies.”) The drone creates its own “relative” geographies, folding several noncontiguous spaces around the globe into a single, distributed, “battlefield.” The folding of space-time that the Reaper drone system enables is a contemporary version of what Marx famously called the “annihilation of space with time,” i.e. the ability to capitalize on the speed of new transportation and communications technologies to bring disparate spaces “closer” together, relatively speaking. Photography has been a part of this space-time annihilation from the start.
Although seeing machines have played a part in the “annihilation of space with time” since the 19th century origins of the phrase, they are increasingly playing a role in creating new relative temporal geographies, perhaps something akin to an “annihilation of time with space.” … There’s every reason to suspect that if the 19th Century saw the annihilation of space with communication and transport technologies, then the 21st Century may see a similarly dramatic reconfiguration of time through persistent monitoring, storage, and analytic technologies that can “reach into the past” in unprecedented ways.
Most of the technologies used to enforce the border, or perform the border, can be understood as “seeing machines.” This film is an attempt to linger on that idea for a moment, and to explore ways of using those technologies — in this case satellites — to better visualize some of the spaces they are enforcing.
What would it mean to try to “see” the entire southwest border at once? To travel the whole 1,954 miles in, say, six minutes?
Might simply looking at a place that has been so heavily politicized — a place abstracted into a sound bite — give a small amount of texture and meaning to a phrase like “build that wall”?
The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.
By focusing on the physical landscape, I hope viewers might gain a sense of the enormity of it all, and perhaps imagine what it would mean to be a political subject of that terrain.